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Globe critique: This student is eager to learn

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  September 17, 2009 09:49 PM

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Colleen McQuaid of Pembroke first became interested in photography after sneaking a few shots with a camera her mother received as a birthday present. She told us she "instantly fell in love with taking pictures” and “learned to really appreciate photography."

She was planning to take a digital photography course at her high school this fall when it was abruptly canceled. So instead, she's hoping to get some advice and tips for improvement in a critique by a Boston Globe photographer.

Essdras Suarez, who is making his second appearance as a critiquer, was happy to oblige. He’s 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 Globe in 2002 and has covered the Iraq war, conflict in Haiti, the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, and many other foreign assignments in two dozen countries. He is a native of Panama, has taught photojournalism, and speaks frequently to students at local colleges.

Colleen shoots using a Nikon Coolpix E7900 point-and-shoot, or a Nikon Coolpix P80 superzoom.

By Essdras M. Suarez
Globe Staff

As a photographer, Colleen, you seem to be a natural. You have an innate eye, a good sense for light, and a willingness to learn.

You wrote us that your high school decided to drop its digital photography course. That’s a shame, but here’s what you can do instead: practice, practice, practice. Concentrate on taking full advantage of every photographic opportunity and controlling all the details in your compositions. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.

trees_mcquaid.jpg

There are two small things about this photo that tell me you don’t follow the photographic herd, and that’s a promising sign. First, it’s a vertical. Only two or three percent of all photos are verticals. Second, you took the time to look up. You’d be amazed at how many photographers don’t think to do that.

Let’s take a look at the way you composed this picture. I suspect your eye was caught, in part, by the shafts of filtered light in the upper center. It would be a better photo if those were the dominant part of the image. Unfortunately, they’re overpowered by the large bright area at the top right, which is where my eye naturally went first. I don’t think that’s what you intended.

Remember, the viewer’s eye will always be drawn to the brightest spot in the photo. That’s something you often can make work for you if you move around a little and change your perspective.

cells_mcquaid.jpg

I like this photo, which I think was taken at Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. I like the overexposure technique and the perception of infinity it creates in combination with the railings and the lines of cells.

But, again, let’s look at the details of the composition. What would make it better? I might have gotten lower and tried to silhouette the two main subjects against the white in the ceiling. That would have created a more impactful image. Also, the head of the man on the left spoils the receding line of the balcony, which is one of the most important visual elements in the photo. If you’d moved a smidgen to the left you would have centered his head in the gap between the balconies and solved the problem.

One last thing: You’ve partially cut off the feet of the man on the right. Try not to do that. It’s needlessly distracting.

birdfeeder_mcquaid.jpg

This picture was a nice try, Colleen, but I believe you were a victim of the limits of your camera. A higher shutter speed would have served you better. The EXIF data didn’t record your shutter speed, but it did record the aperture, f2.8, which is wide open for your camera. You were pushing its limits. A more advanced camera, or a faster lens, would have allowed you to use a faster shutter speed and give the two blurry birds more definition. As it is, they look very impressionistic. There’s a place for that, but you didn’t quite pull it off here.

On the plus side, however, the wide aperture nicely blurred the background, which adds a certain dreaminess to the image.

The composition is good, but there are a few details you could improve. I find the fact that the roof is cut off at the top distracting. Creating separation between the top of the feeder and the edge of the frame would have been better. Or, you could crop the snow off entirely.

leaf_mcquaid.jpg

This is another good scenic. I love the alignment of the sun. It draws the eye into the heart of the picture in a way that wasn’t true in the forest picture above.

Kudos for the way you handled a tricky lighting situation. And, again, you had the curiosity to look up! Love that.

I would have left the tip of the leaf in the frame. Also, I might have cropped the image in such a way that the sun is not quite in the center. Remember the rule of thirds.

rollercoaster_mcquaid.jpg

Some of my earlier comments apply to this photo as well. It’s another case where you had a good idea, but ran into the technical limitations of your camera. Here, the lens was a bit overwhelmed by the setting sun.

I think this photo really wants to be a horizontal. There’s a lot of visual dead space at the top and the bottom. It could easily be cropped. And, remember the rule of thirds when planning your composition and avoid placing the sun smack in the middle.

This is another case where moving around might have given you a better shot. If you had framed the sun in the loop of the roller coaster it would have been a stronger composition. That’s one of my lessons for you: move around. There’s nothing wrong with shooting something as soon as you see it, but work on the permutations. Explore every possible angle. The best advice I got as a young photographer was this: "You think you have a good shot? Turn around and look behind you."

Keep up the good work, Colleen. Keep cultivating your photographic eye, and keep working on your composition. There’s one other thing you may want to consider: a new camera. You’re already pushing the limits of your equipment. A new camera would give you more creative control, and your images would be crisper, sharper, and more impactful.

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