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Globe critique: A fresh approach

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  May 5, 2009 01:47 PM

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Michael Palmer says the Canon Rebel XSi he received recently as a birthday present has allowed him to become "more adventurous" in his photography.

With every shot he's growing more confident using the camera's manual settings, and wondered "if there is some talent in my untrained eye." RAW asked Globe photographer Yoon Byun to take a look at Michael's portfolio, and tell us what he thinks.

Yoon joined the Globe in September 2007. He loves to use photographs to tell a good story, and is fascinated by subculture and idiosyncrasies. He loves imagery that evokes emotion, and thinks focus is overrated. You can view a portfolio of his work in the section of Boston.com dedicated to Globe photography.

Michael lives in Hadley, next door to Amherst in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. Before receiving his DSLR, he shot with Canon's classic PowerShot S2 IS megazoom.

By Yoon S. Byun
Globe Staff

It’s clear from Michael's portfolio that he has an advanced understanding of composition. Almost all of his pictures feel like they were purposefully composed. He had an image in mind, and went about executing that vision in quite a competent manner.

As we'll see, he's adept at picking rather ordinary subjects, like cats and highways, and making interesting images through his own creativity. That takes talent.

Let's look at his pictures.

Michael Palmer photo

This picture is a really nice use of light in a less conventional way. It's quite abstract. What I like about it is the strong composition. The way the lines divide the frame makes it visually engaging. The white line of headlights at the top is a nice balance to the red taillights at the bottom. Michael obviously put some thought into finding an interesting location to take this shot. He could have chosen a straight road; he could have chosen something a little more boring. But he didn't compromise.

This was a risky picture to take from a photographic standpoint. It's lit entirely by car lights. There are no street lamps. He was probably sitting in the dark. Yet, at 12 seconds, it's just about perfectly exposed. The slight blur doesn't bother me in the least. I like this just the way it is. It's Michael's vision, and I wouldn't change anything.



Michael Palmer photo

OK, let's start by acknowledging that this picture is a bit of a visual cliché. That's not really a criticism -– I like the fact that Michael recognized a photographic moment when he saw one.

The shot is solid both technically and compositionally, and it fits really well with his other pictures. When you put together a portfolio you usually want to make a statement about who you are as a photographer. This work nicely illustrates Michael's style and vision.

The picture shows once again his good understanding of what should be in a frame. I suspect it also shows his patience. He waited until the people were positioned in a way that keeps the frame balanced -- the blue-shirts on the left and the lone person walking at the bottom balance out the crowd on the right. But since this is such a commonly shot angle, I'd like to see a little more of a surprise. Show us something we haven't seen. What takes a photo like this from good to great is depth and complexity. A hand grasping the rail in the foreground might have brought us more into the picture.



Michael Palmer photo

This is another picture that highlights and reinforces Michael's understanding of composition. What I like about this one is that he changed his perspective. It's a close-up; all the other shots he submitted were taken from a distance. Each of the first three photos shows his understanding of graphic elements. They all use lines to draw people into them -- the car lights in the road, the repetitive circles of the staircase, and here the lines on the screen.

I also like that there's a lot of intrigue in this picture. It's an unconventional way to look at a pet. He has taken something common, interpreted it in is own way, and produced a work that's interesting to look at. It's a fairly simple photo, but I had to stare at it a while to understand what was going on. It's always a good thing to get people to stop and look at your picture a good long while.

While it's hard to fault Michael's composition, there are a couple of technique issues. First, there isn't really a "sharp point" in the picture. Everything is at best slightly out of focus. That's a missed opportunity because a point of sharp focus is one of the ways you can draw a viewer's eye into a photo. It would have helped here, but I suspect that's more a matter of equipment than intent. He'd need a macro lens to get as close as this and have something be in focus.

The second issue is the uneven lighting, which is a bit distracting. The top of the frame is really "hot" -- that is, overexposed. The bottom, on the other hand, is really dark. Also, I'll bet he was on the outside here, with the light behind him, because I think I can just make out the shadow of his head.



Michael Palmer photo

This picture really stands out, but unfortunately not in a good way. It seems like he has all the elements for a good photo: a cute kid, a pretty scene, a rippling pond. But something went wrong.

First of all, the light is really terrible. Judging from the way the sun hits the top of the girl's head, it looks like high-noon light. The midday sun is really harsh. As a result she's the darkest part of the picture. She could be the last thing you see, which is, I'm sure, not Michael's intention.

Also, the composition doesn't really fit with all the other pictures in Michael's portfolio. His usual thoughtful composition seems missing, and the resulting photo has a snapshot quality to it. He's already proven he can do better.

One thing this picture lacks is an entry point to draw in viewers. Almost everything is equally in focus, and there is no strong compositional element or variation in lighting to guide your eye.



Michael Palmer photo

I see this genre of picture a lot, but I always seem to like it. This one is no exception. The fog and the light really create a mood that draws you in. It's a photo open to many different interpretations.

It looks like he used Photoshop or similar software to make the picture more sepia toned. That doesn't bother me much. I like the old-time look.

My only suggestion is to experiment a bit with the perspective. He took it with the tracks dead center, at the height of a person. Try getting lower. Try a wider angle lens. Try more selective focus. There's a lot you could do with this light to create variations in mood.

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Overall, Michael's greatest strength is his graphic eye. He has a really good understanding of composition, and a pretty solid grasp of how to shoot in natural light.

Also, he's a photographer who has good technical knowledge of his camera. That definitely helps. I didn't see many exposure or focus problems.

From this admittedly limited portfolio I'd say shooting people is not his strongest point. That's not a bad thing. It's true of lots of photographers, including some of the most famous. But it's something I'd encourage him to work on and experiment with.

If Michael is interested in photographing people, he should take what he already knows about composition and work on interacting with people. Getting close to people, especially if you don't know them, is difficult for a lot of photographers.

If Michael is not interested in shooting people, I urge him to push himself and continue to develop his graphic eye, because even without formal training he demonstrates that he has personal vision, and a statement to make.

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