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Globe Critique: An impressive use of light

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 4, 2009 12:07 PM

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Mark Laverty of Plymouth was a photographer for his high school newspaper, but put his camera aside for about 30 years before the digital revolution rekindled his interest.

"I've experimented with lighting with, I think, some reasonable success," he wrote in his application for a Globe critique. "However, I'm now trying to develop a better sense of composition to produce more compelling photos. Can you tell me what I might have done better in my example photos?"

We asked Barry Chin, a Globe staff photographer for 22 years, to review Mark's photos. Barry graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1982 and worked at the Boston Herald and Hartford Courant before joining the Globe.

During his Globe career, he has received numerous awards and honors. He won the National Headliners Award for Spot News in 1989 for his coverage of Hurricane Hugo. In 1996, he captured first place in the International Olympic Committee's Best of Sport Photographic Contest, Golden Lens Award, and also received the National Headliners Award for Sports Action. That year he also won second place for Sports Picture Story in The World Press Photo Contest.

Barry covered the 1992, 2002, and 2004 Olympic games; won Best of Show and 1st place in the Feature category of the 2003 National Baseball Hall of Fame Photo Contest, and 1st place in the Action category in 2004. He has received numerous awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Boston Press Photographers Association, and the Associated Press.

Barry admired Mark's lighting techniques: "I’m impressed with the varying uses of light," he said. "He has examples of different, dramatic uses of artificial light and is pretty skilled at it, I would say." And he also had some thoughts on Mark's compositions. Here's his photo-by-photo critique:


Barry thought that both the composition and lighting of this photo were very good.

"Generally, when you have a low angle and are shooting upwards into the sky, often your meter is fooled because the sky is brighter than your subject, so you tend to underexpose your subject," he said. "But it looks like he has enough light to fill the face of the boy – he might have used a reflector or flash-filled it. The boy's face is well-exposed. That lighting also allows the sky to go darker because you’re exposing for the sky but won't underexpose for the face."

Barry's right; according to Mark's Flickr account, he used an SB-24 light bounced off a silver umbrella set up to the right, and also lightened the boy's face during post-processing. He used a polarizing filter to make the sky bluer, "and to slow down the speed so you could see the wheels spinning."

Since the boy still used training wheels, Mark suspended the bicycle from ropes, then removed them in Photoshop. That's perfectly acceptable for non-journalists, Barry pointed out, but a cardinal sin for photojournalists. "We never manipulate reality with Photoshop," he said.

Barry also liked Mark's use of a wide-angle lens. "The angle is very nice," he said. "It accentuates the wheel and draws your eye because of the unusual composition. It adds interest to the photo."


Crazy Car

Barry thought the lighting of this subject was successful, but the composition less so.

"I don’t like cutting off appendages," he said in reference to the woman's missing right foot. "Be very careful, especially when you’re shooting someone in a fashion-type situation. Also, using a wide-angle lens (in this case, 18mm) distorts the human anatomy. The closer you get, the larger the closest element becomes.

"If this were a fashion shoot for shoes it might work, but if that were the case, you wouldn’t want her face that well-lit. That wide an angle makes the legs appear a bit grotesque or unnatural. I would not have used an 18mm; I would have used a medium telephoto or a less wide angle: 35mm or 24mm. You have to be very careful with 18mm -- it’s a super wide-angle, so you have to be very careful not to put the lens too close.

"I also think I would have put the subject in a more relaxed, natural pose."



A dramatic photo that succeeds on both the lighting and composition fronts, according to Barry.

"This is successful because there is very dramatic lighting coming from both sides of the subject," he said. "This is called 'hatchet' lighting; notice the dark area down the middle of the face and body. He did fill in the front, perhaps with his camera's popup flash. Still, it was good lighting to accentuate the body and muscular physique and make it more dramatic. A tighter crop may have helped you focus more on the relationship between the clasped hands, his face, and his physique, but that's just another variation. This photo is very successful."

But what about amateur photographers who don't have access to lights?

"God’s light, natural light, north light is the best light ever created," Barry said. "For those of you who don’t own a lighting kit, put your subjects near a window and use natural light to side-light your subject. Often when we’re on location and shooting portraits, we’ll just move the person near a window."



The harsh theatrical lighting here lends an air of mystery to this photo, Barry said.

"Both the background and lighting are theatrical," he said. "The background suggests a sense of the unknown: Where is she? What is she doing? Is she hiding from someone? Generally you don’t want harsh shadows in your image, but here it works. The light falls off the edges, illuminating her face, but less so her clothes. This appears to be one light, slightly high, over her left shoulder, gelled to give it a nice warm tone.

"The composition is good. Even though her left hand is cut off, in this case it doesn’t bother me too much because that area is going dark anyway and the focus is on her face. If it were in the frame originally, I would have included it. If it was cut off because of the size of the lens, next time I'd try to move to include it."



Barry liked the lighting effect here as well, although the light was a bit harsher than it had to be. And the issue of body distortion from a wide-angle lens arises here again.

"Because Mark didn’t use an umbrella, the light is a little harsher," Barry said. "He could have turned down the power of his strobe or moved the strobe further back. He still got a nice lighting effect, but there is a strong shadow from the ball and the detail in the face is a little washed out. Post-processing could have darkened the face a bit.

"I would have to say that this image is the least successful use of lighting of his five examples. The use of artificial light here doesn't supplement the natural light, it overwhelms it, and is too noticeable. In other words, the use of strobe outdoors for the boy with the soccer ball is a good idea, but when the strobe light is so noticeable (as in the case of the heavy shadow and slightly overexposed face in this image), then it is not as successful.

"The 18mm lens gave a little bit of distortion again, with the lower body larger than the head. It was successful with the photo above of the boy on the bicycle because in that image, you’re not distorting the body; rather, you’re distorting the wheel, making it more of an object of interest. While the distortion in this photo is not as prominent as in the photo of the woman on the car, it's still noticeable. There's a large torso and a smaller head. It's a perfectly acceptable angle – I like the way the boy is coming into the frame at a slight diagonal -- it's dramatic and fine. But the wide-angle lens and distortion is borderline. I would have gone with a 24mm or 35mm lens, or moved back just a little bit so I wasn't that close."

Overall, Barry was quite impressed with Mark's work.

"He is even trying multiple lighting, which can be tricky, as well as distracting if you don’t use it well. But he does. He is pretty sophisticated with his lighting and is still experimenting.

"His compositions are good, but he has to be careful with that extreme wide-angle lens, especially with people. When using it to shoot objects or landscapes, it's okay to get close, but with people, it tends to distort.

"Overall, I would say Mark is pretty skilled."

Globe Bonus Critique: Erin Hart of Boston

Interested in a Globe critique? Read past critiques here, then get your photos together and apply for one yourself.

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