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Globe critique: Color and energy from Caitlin Robbins

Posted by Eric Bauer, Staff  October 10, 2008 04:30 PM

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This month it's RAW contributor Caitlin Robbins' turn to have her portfolio critiqued by a Boston Globe staff photographer. Caitlin lives in West Newton, and although she's always loved photography, she says she's been serious about it for just a year and a half.

She particularly likes photographing people. "I love to shoot candid portraits of people just being themselves," she says. She uses only natural light because "I think it's more challenging and more creative that way -- you never really know what you're going to get and you have to roll with the punches."

She recently replaced the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT she used to shoot these photos with a Nikon D300.

This month's critique was done by Dina Rudick, who in six years with the Globe has been around the world several times over, shooting stories ranging from the tsunami in Southeast Asia to the women's health crisis in Haiti and Bolivia. She was part of the press corps covering John Kerry during the 2004 election, and also covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here is a portfolio of her work.

By Dina Rudick
Globe Staff

Hi, Caitlin, and thank you for submitting your images to RAW. I don't know anything about you, but I can tell from your work that you take great pleasure in looking beyond the obvious and finding a beautiful point to complex visual scenes.

That may sound amorphous, but each of these five images juggles several competing elements, such as color, line, and layering, that often overwhelm less skillfully seen images.

Let's take a look at each picture in turn.Caitlin Robbins photo

This image has a lot going for it: the moment you captured of the woman’s stride, as well as the contrasting and vibrant colors, carry with them great energy. I do think, though, that a compositional choice detracts from the image's overall strength.

You did not take this image during an earthquake, and I doubt it was snapped as you fell off the curb. So why did you choose to tilt the horizon line to nearly 45 degrees? I see this artistic device quite a lot, and it is rarely, if ever, warranted. Perhaps you wanted to emphasize the leading lines of the architecture, but the degree of tilt is overdone and draws emphasis to the far left of the frame, which is filled with jumbled visual elements. The heartbeat of this image is the woman walking with her child, balanced by the two women sitting in the doorway. Also, there is the beautiful element of the garlic on the far right. Why not “re-imagine” this image as a triangle between those three elements without the distracting extreme tilt?

Caitlin Robbins photo

I like this image for its contemplative mood. You achieved this by exposing more for the highlights than the shadows (that is, the room appears to be dark, and the outside appears to be only a little brighter than normal). The quiet elements of the rumpled bedding and the graceful drapes give a feeling of composure, and the turned-away gaze and propped foot maintain a feeling of dramatic tension. Nice work.

You could make this image even stronger by using two techniques: selective focus and correcting your horizon tilt.

I estimate the aperture you chose is about F5.6. By choosing a larger aperture, such as F2.8 or (better yet) F1.4, and maintaining your focus on your subject’s face, you could throw the very distracting exterior into softer focus.

As for the horizon tilt, you shot this with a wide-angle lens, which makes things tricky because wide-angle lenses distort images. That means that if the bottom of the windowsill is parallel to the bottom of the frame (as is yours), the top of the windowsill could still be askew (again, as is the case here).

There are two fixes: One is to change to a 50mm lens, which will not distort parallel lines because it “sees” the way your eye does. I’m guessing that was not an option for you because the bedroom appears to be too small and a 50mm lens would give you too narrow a field of view.

The second fix, and the one I would recommend here, is to keep your focal plane parallel to your subject. In case this sounds like Greek to you, allow me to explain. When you take a picture, light travels through the lens and hits the film plane (in a film camera) or the digital sensor (in a digital camera). In either case, it’s a rectangle that forms a “wall” on the inside of the camera, and this is what you want to keep parallel to your subject.

For instance, if you are trying to photograph a building, one way is to stand near the base of the building with a wide-angle lens and tilt your camera up until you can see the whole thing. Keep in mind though, that your focal plane is not at all parallel to the building, so the image will appear distorted. To avoid this, photograph the building from as far away as possible with a lens of 50mm or greater, and keep the film plane as parallel as possible to the building. (There are also special lenses that can correct for this type of distortion, but that’s another story.)

Back to your pictures. Let’s look at the picture of the boy holding the lantern.

Caitlin Robbins

First, I love the colors in this photo – they draw me in immediately. The contrast of the cool and warm colors works well, and is offset by the stark silhouette of the boy and the trees. I credit you with knowing how to expose properly for this effect – that is, you purposely underexposed the boy to bring out the beauty in the sky and water.

My one suggestion for how to improve this photo is to clean up the distracting elements in the background by stepping one foot to the right. In your image, do you see how the trees behind the boy appear to be sticking into his chin? These elements distract from a clean read of the boy’s profile. The quickest fix for this would have been to take the picture from a slightly different vantage point (which may have pushed you straight into the water!).

Caitlin Robbins photo

This image grabbed my attention for two reasons. The first is that seeing eyes on a boat is funny and startling. The second is the brilliant coloring of the water and sky. You could have strengthened this image compositionally by moving the center of interest (the eyes) out of the center of the frame. Right now, there is almost as much emphasis on the sky as there is on the far more interesting reflections in the water. I suggest you move the eyes further up in the frame (keeping them centered right to left), and drawing emphasis to the water. All you’d have to do is tilt your camera slightly downward.

Caitlin Robbins photo

I saved my favorite for last, and I should say upfront that there is not much I can suggest to improve this photo. Instead, I’ll just tell you why it works so well for me.

The colors (here I go again) are fabulous. The entire scene is a spectrum of gentle pastels except for the boats that look like glittering fish. If the inside of the central boat were a different color such as purple, this would have been a different, weaker image. But the slash of orange lit by a sliver of light pops out as the heartbeat of the image.

The layering is great and gives a sense of context as well as energy to the composition. There are four distinct layers here – the beached boats, the six near boats in the water, the many boats in the distance, and lastly, the mountains and clouds.

And finally, the composition is such that you’ve encouraged great eye movement from the lower left part of the frame clear through the far right top corner. Had you chosen to center the mountains in the background, the flow would have stagnated around the center. Instead, the tips of the beached boats literally point you through the frame, and the reward is mountain peaks at the compositional conclusion.

In all, great job. I would put this picture on my wall, and I hope you have already.

You’re a solid shooter, Caitlin, with an eye for color and energy. Going forward, I advise you to be as purposeful in your composition as you were in that last image, and I predict for you great success. Thank you for submitting your images to RAW!


Interested in having your photographs critiqued by one of The Boston Globe's award-winning photographers? Just e-mail us up to 5 photos and a paragraph about why you'd like a critique. Here's more information.

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