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A good eye and an open mind

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  June 29, 2009 06:00 AM

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Derek Brown became hooked on photography after getting a Nikon D80 DSLR a bit more than a year ago. Reaction to his work from friends and family has been positive, but Derek's not so sure. He looks at the same pictures and sees problems. "I feel sometimes my photos are dull and they don't 'pop' like they should," he wrote us. "Sometimes they turn out to be too gray and they appear cartoonish."

Derek wondered if a pro would agree, so we asked one: Globe Assistant Chief Photographer Ted Gartland.

Ted has been taking photos in Boston since 1971, and has been with the Globe since 1995. While working for the Herald-American, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Blizzard of '78. These days, he's a dayside photo editor, but he still gets out of the office from time to time for special events -- he's shot every appearance by the Rolling Stones in Boston since 1975. He's also the author of the weekday "Teddy's Take" entries in Boston.com's Local News Updates blog.

By Ted Gartland
Globe Staff

What I like about your work right off the bat, Derek, is that you’re open to trying things. The five pictures you submitted are admittedly a small sample, but they featured a wide variety of subjects and formats.

You shot horizontals and verticals, landscapes and portraits, close ups and wide angles. The only thing all your photos have in common is they’re black and white, and anyone who shoots black and white these days isn’t a convention follower. Good for you.

I also sense that you're open to shooting what’s in front of you. You can recognize and react to a photographic moment. That’s good, because, as the cliché goes, “wherever you are, that’s where the pictures are.”

On to your shots:



bridge_derekbrown.jpg

What I like best about this is the light, and the texture of the stones on the bridge. I don’t know whether the light was like this when you came across the scene, or whether you waited for the sun to hit the water at just right angle to cause a reflection. Either way the reflection really adds to the overall feel of the picture.

Technically, from the point of view of exposure, lighting, and contrast, this is good work. Compositionally, however, I think it could be improved. For one thing, the photo feels cut off on the right side. I’d like to see all of that third arch. In fact, I wonder if this wouldn’t have worked better as a horizontal.

The composition might also have been improved if the picture had a person inhabiting it – walking across the bridge, for example.



couch_time_derekbrown.jpg

The best part of this picture is the expression on the child’s face. It’s what makes the photo. Unfortunately, it gets a bit lost because of the distracting elements in the background, especially the door handle. I can suggest three ways to lessen the problem.

First, you could “burn in”, or darken, the background above and to the left of the pillow. In the pre-digital age photographers did this in their darkrooms while making prints. In the digital age, most image-processing software, including Photoshop and Lightroom, has special tools for dodging (lightening) or burning in portions of images. They take a little practice, but you can always “undo” any mistakes.

Second, you could have used a wider aperture, a higher shutter speed, or a combination of both to lessen the depth of field and blur the background.

But I think the best solution is the simplest: Crop. Take some from the top, and crop in on the left side by a fifth, say to about the door jam. That would make the face even more of a focus for the photo.

There’s one other element of this photo I really like: the light. It appears to be lit by sunshine through a window, and even though some parts are a little “blown out” (overexposed), the face is perfectly exposed. That’s what you want.



flags1_derekbrown.jpg

I really like this photo. It’s simple and inelegant, but it’s a storyteller. The frayed, tattered end of the flag speaks of the POW-MIA experience. I get that right away. This is a good example of a photo with immediacy and impact. It feels personal.

Like the photo of the bridge, however, I wonder why you cut off the right side. It’s the ragged edge of the flag that is key to what I think the photo is trying to say.

It’s not cropped for a lack of space. You could have sacrificed some of the space on the left without hurting the overall composition, though I do think the branches at the top and bottom left add something to the image.

Finally, I think a little more contrast would improve the shot overall.



north_end_cookies_derekbrown.jpg

This photo doesn’t do much for me. It’s just a snapshot. It doesn’t show the same level of artistry found in your other photos.

Having said that, however, like your other photos it’s technically competent – well lit, well exposed, and in focus. One thing, though. If you’re going to take a picture like this, make sure you do the little things right. The slanted background is distracting. Clean it up by straightening the plane.



one_derekbrown.jpg

This is a much more successful portrait. It’s full of life and spontaneity. The boy has light in his eyes, and the photo captures that.

I like the fact that it’s not “on plane”, that is, you were looking up at your subject instead of being at eye level. It’s a different angle than you normally see, and sometimes different is a goal all its own.

This picture makes me wonder – and that’s always a good thing in a photograph. I wonder if this kid had his hair combed and his best shirt on specifically to have his picture taken. If so, congratulations on getting a moment that doesn’t look posed, the way formal portraits often are. His reaction looks spontaneous, as if it was taken in the moments before or after the serious, official portrait.

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One last thing, Derek. In the email you sent us you worried that your pictures too-often lack contrast. I didn’t find that a major problem with the works you submitted. However, in general, contrast is something a photographer can control both pre-shutter and post-shutter.

Whether you are using Photoshop or wet chemistry there are techniques for strengthening images. Learn to take full advantage of your software. Spend as much time post-shutter as you do in composing and shooting in the first place. I’ve seen mediocre photos and composition saved by good post-shutter work. I’ve also seen images that were perfectly exposed and composed on disk turned into mediocre photos by bad post-shutter work.

So where would I suggest you go from here? If I was giving you assignments I’d have you shoot some action scenes. Action photography will allow you to hone a different set of technical skills, and it will help you continue to develop your talent for recognizing and reacting to that one photographic moment.

Good luck!

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