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Globe critique: An 'eye' for beautiful light

Posted by Eric Bauer, Staff  December 30, 2008 02:38 PM

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This month, Globe staff photographer Michele McDonald critiqued the work of Bernadette Markey of Hopkinton. Bernadette told us she takes pictures for fun, but also "to completely torture myself when they just come out wrong, whether it be because they are out of focus or the lighting stinks, or I God forbid chop off a foot/feet, arm or leg."

Michele thinks Bernadette is being a little hard on herself. When she looks at Bernadette's work, she sees someone with a photographer's eye and an interest in creating pictures that are more than ordinary.

Michele McDonald began working as a staff photographer for the Globe in 1989. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 1988, and a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., in 1995.

In 1995, McDonald left the Globe for seven years, returning in 2002. In 1997, she was a Pulitzer finalist for her photo essay on a young woman preparing for her death from breast cancer in hospice care at home. She has covered stories ranging from the high black infant mortality rate in Boston to the effects of the war in Yugoslavia on the ordinary people of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo.

You can check out a gallery of her work on her portfolio page as well as elsewhere on the Globe photography site.

Bernadette Markey, whose work Michele reviewed, shoots with a Nikon D40.

By Michele McDonald
Globe Staff

First, Bernadette, thanks for volunteering for this critique. You may be an amateur, but you have talent, and most importantly, you have an “eye” for photographs. Your photos show that you look for moments, for mood, and for beautiful light. That’s not something easily taught. You either have it naturally, or you develop it over time by looking at good work. You have it.

On to your photos.

Markey Girl In Pink

The first thing I like about this picture is the way you took advantage of beautiful sidelight. It’s something you do well; I saw it in most of your work. Professional photographers know that bright overhead sunlight is often the worst light for photos, especially of people. It's harsh and contrasty, not flattering, and if used without reflectors or a fill light, eye sockets go black.

It’s well composed, but what I really like is that it’s candid. It’s not a “look at me and smile” photo. It’s authentic, not cheesy. It’s a picture with mood -- you’ve captured a quiet, real moment in this girl’s childhood.

I have one suggestion for improvement: Crop in on the right side so the white bedclothes don’t show. White naturally attracts your eye. Sometimes that’s helpful, but here it just distracts viewers from the main subject. Cropping would make the picture more vertical and you’d lose a corner of the book, but that’s OK. It won’t hurt the image’s overall visual impact, and it will ensure the girl is the focal point.

That’s a minor criticism, though. You’ve captured a beautiful, candid moment.

girl from behind

I appreciate that you were trying to something different here, Bernadette, but this picture doesn’t do much for me.

There’s not enough visual interest to make a shot from behind work. When you take a photo of people’s backs, you must have a reason. Often the reason is compositional, but the composition here is not strong enough to keep me from wanting to see her face.

I suspect you were trying to highlight the patterns in this photo – the grass, the hat, the stripes in the shirt – but it doesn’t work.

What could you have done? Maybe you could have pulled back so the girl was in the bottom third of the frame. That might have worked as a nice summer shot.

There are positives about this picture, too. I love black and white, and I think it works here. Color would have made the image much more generic. Black and white gives it more of a pattern.

All in all, this was good attempt that failed. That’s OK. Not every shot succeeds, but it’s good you’re taking risks.

stripped shirt

I like this composition. As a portrait of a kid, this is really well done. The boy is on the left side, not centered. Immediately that makes the picture more interesting.

The out-of-focus figures were a good idea compositionally, but I wish they were doing something more than just looking at the camera. If they were engaged in something like hugging or jumping it would have added another layer and made the photo more visually interesting. You want the background to be a thoughtful part of the composition, and not just “there”. That’s what would take this picture to the next level.

This is another example of how you use light to good advantage. It’s overcast and bright. That’s beautiful light – easier to work with than strong sunlight, and very flattering for portraits.

Also, there’s a lot of detail in the sky, which helps overall because so much of the photo is sky.

girl baby

This photo is by far my favorite for content and composition. It’s a picture that makes me care. It sets a beautiful mood and has real feeling in it. That’s so hard to get. You can always improve your technique with study and practice, but if you can’t "see" this kind of moment and recognize it as something special, you’re never going to be a great photographer.

Having said that, technically this picture is just too dark. It’s too underexposed. I tried lightening it in Photoshop, but the upper left background became too distracting. If that painting on the wall wasn’t there, this photo would be a real winner. As it is, the heavy lines growing out of the baby’s face are a distraction.

I’d also say the color isn’t helping here. I like the monotone, but wonder if black and white wouldn’t have been more effective.

two girls

This photo is a nice snapshot, but I think you’re better than this. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a nice family photo. It’s well exposed, the kids are cute, and the background is clean. It’s great to have as a keepsake. But photographically, it doesn’t go beyond that. It doesn’t push boundaries like some of your other photos. You have the talent to do more.

Overall, Bernadette, you have a good eye. You look for a moment -- for pictures with feeling -- and you have the technical skills to capture them. You’re already past the point of having kids look at the camera and smile. You know how to use natural light, and you know how to fill your frame.

Now it’s time to do more experimenting. You’re at the point where you should be shooting a lot. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. That’s how you learn.

What should you try? How about experimenting with reflectors, to bring your subjects out of the shadows? You could start with a single, simple reflector – cardboard with tin foil on one side, for example. Or a white newspaper held under your subject’s face. Play around with fill flash, too.

I realize I’ve seen only a small sample of your work, but every picture you submitted has a child in it. Children are great subjects. They’re not self-conscious. But if you want to challenge yourself, try taking shots of teens and adults. Adults are harder to work with, especially if they’re strangers, but I think you’re up to the challenge.

Finally, if you’re shooting people, try thinking more broadly than a simple portrait. Try using the person as an element in a more complex composition.

Don't be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. Look at lots of photographs and then look at more. Keep shooting, every day -- and send us more photos next year!


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

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