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Globe critique: A promising start

Posted by Eric Bauer, Staff  February 5, 2009 02:05 AM

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This month's Critique by a Globe Photographer is a little different. We received a batch of submissions from students in a photography class taught by Chloe Hill at Waltham High School, and the Globe's Essdras Suarez, who has a soft spot in his heart for beginners, jumped at the chance to work with them.

One of the students, Anna O'Brien, is the subject of this month's full critique. But Essdras also agreed to critique a photograph from each of the seven other students who sent in their photos at the same time as Anna. You can find those critiques in the next entry.

Meanwhile, back to Anna. She wrote in her critique request that she is "hoping to learn how to improve my photo-taking abilities." Good news, Anna: Essdras thinks you've already come a long way.

Essdras Suarez has won numerous awards in his journalistic career, including a share of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography while on the staff of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. He joined the Boston Globe in 2002 and has covered the Iraq war, conflict in Haiti, the aftermath of the Asian tsumani, and many other foreign assignments in two dozen countries. He is a native of Panama, and has taught photojournalism to the Salvadoran press corps under the auspices of the US State Department and more recently at the Universidad Veritas in San Jose, Costa Rica. He speaks frequently to students at area colleges, including Boston University, Northeastern, and Wellesley.

His critique:

By Essdras M. Suarez
Globe Staff

A couple of things stood out when I looked at Anna’s portfolio. First, it’s clear she likes to experiment. She tried something new in every photo. It’s wonderful to see that in a beginner. That’s how you learn.

Second, she has a gift for creating intimacy with her human subjects. It’s a talent that usually takes time to develop. She’s well ahead of the curve. The famous photographer Robert Capa put it this way: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” As you’ll see, Anna gets close.

Anna O'Brien photo

This is quite a striking image. What’s interesting about it is the balance of color and geometric patterns. I like the bold colors, but beyond that, the red of the dart and the red of the bull's eye work well as complementary elements that tie the picture together.

The composition is also interesting. The picture is not centered – you’ve broken out of that box – but somehow, even with all the lines and patterns, it’s still visually balanced.

My chief concern is that the image is not as sharp as it could be. I’m not sure what camera you used, so I don’t know what limitations you faced, but if you had focused on, say, the dart’s textured grip, you would have improved the picture by bringing the viewer’s eye to a specific compositional element. Instead, the attention here is on the entire background.

Anna O'Brien photo

Here’s an image that breaks the comfort zone for beginning photographers. Most beginners try to maintain a respectable distance from their subjects, especially people. It’s important to learn to break into that zone, as you have done here.

This photo is different, and that’s what I like about it. I believe that when you encounter a subject it’s your duty as a photographer to find a new and different way to photograph it. We seldom see an eye this close, which makes this a photograph you can’t ignore. It’s intrinsically interesting, especially the focus on the eyelash instead of the iris. The singularity of each eyelash is striking.

The composition is effective. Again, you avoided the beginner’s urge to center your subject in the frame. The result is a nice, balanced image.

Anna O'Brien photo

You’ve broken out of the comfort zone again, and the intimacy created by being so close is the best thing about this photo. It’s a picture that has both a degree of engagement with the subject and a degree of disconnection at the same time. It’s so close that as a human being you really relate to it. It might have been posed, but if so, it looks like the subject has forgotten you were there.

You did a couple of good things from a technical standpoint. First, you’ve filled the frame very well. A lot of amateurs fail to do that, and their pictures suffer. I’m not a fan of cropping out body parts like tips of thumbs and elbows, but here it works. It makes the photo balanced. (You know the saying: “Know the rules so you can break them.”) If you had cropped the thumb but not the elbow, or vice versa, it would have created a speed bump in the enjoyment of the photo.

My only real criticism is that the focus here is on the leaf, not on the eyes. In a portrait like this, it’s the eyes that count.

Anna O'Brien

Of all your shots, this is my favorite. It’s a lovely photo that would have been perfect if it had been properly focused.

The focus is on the plane of the bobby pin, which doesn’t help to draw the viewer’s eye where you want it to go. As I mentioned previously, in most cases you want to focus on the eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul. This problem may have more to do with your equipment than your technique, but if your camera allows it, try manually focusing in tricky situations like this.

It’s very well composed – further evidence of your rapidly developing photographer’s eye. I love the way there’s so much information layered into a fairly simple composition. I know it’s a cold day from the steam on the glass. The ring tells me something about her cultural background. The vinyl of the seat adds texture and tells me the photo was likely taken on a school bus.

Again, it’s hard to know if you posed this, but even if you did, it’s an endearing moment.

As I said, it’s almost perfect. But in addition to the minor focus problem, it’s overexposed by about three quarters of a stop, which blows out some of the highlights in her face and hands.

Anna O'Brien photo

This is your least interesting photo. I’m not quite sure what you were trying to accomplish, but it’s great that you experimented. Even professionals don’t succeed with every shot. The key thing, especially if you’re new to photography, is to keep trying.

What would make this better? It might have been enhanced if a human being was in it – or even part of a human being. Cropping might also help. The top quarter of the photo doesn’t add much to the composition. I would have cropped to the bottom of the window. Depth of field is also an issue. Shallower depth of field might have allowed you to isolate a feature or two in a way that would have given the picture more visual interest.

I see talent in your work, Anna. You have potential. Even though you’re a beginner, you already have an “eye” and you’ve already broken free of some of the compositional shackles that keep “picture takers” from becoming real photographers.

Two bits of advice: Watch your focus, and watch your exposure. It’s easy to overlook these details when you’re concentrating on composition, but they matter. As the saying goes, God is in the details.


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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