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Globe Critique: Stephen Merken of Melrose

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  April 14, 2010 11:02 AM

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Stephen Merken of Melrose is a world traveler who has been to a lot of interesting and beautiful places. But his pictures of those places sometimes disappoint him.

“I’ve seen and photographed some terrific scenes but I often get back to my hotel room, start looking through what I shot and am less happy with my results than I thought I’d be,” he told us.

What, he wondered, would a Globe photographer suggest he do to improve? Staff member Yoon Byun took up the challenge, and has some tips for Stephen and all the travel photographers out there.

Yoon joined the Globe in September 2007. He is fascinated by subcultures and idiosyncrasies, and is an advocate of visual literacy and non-literal thinking. His assignments for the Globe have included the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and the Democratic National Convention that nominated President Barack Obama. You can view a portfolio of his work in the Boston.com section devoted to Globe photography.

By Yoon S. Byun
Globe Staff

I’ll say right up front, Stephen, that I think your biggest problem is inconsistency. Some of your pictures are terrific, and show a good understanding of light and composition. Others, well, not so much. The consistency will come with experience and practice, but clearly you do have some key skills to build on.

Let’s look at the portfolio you submitted.

Marina-du-Albufeira---Portugal.jpg

This picture, taken in Portugal, doesn’t have as strong a composition as some of the others. My eye didn’t really know where to begin -- there’s no natural point of entry, and no focal point to which it’s drawn.

The composition is a bit clunky. The elements around the edge of the frame, like the hook at the bottom left, make it a bit cluttered and disorganized. Also, the water at the left edge is pretty much dead space.

But more fundamentally, the harbor is not the uniqueness of this picture. The boats are a distraction from what I’ll bet caught your eye in the first place: the colorful buildings. You should have concentrated on them to the exclusion of the surrounding distractions. For example, you could have used a longer lens to isolate them from the background, maybe shooting parallel to them rather than directly at them. That would have made a more interesting composition.

This feels like a snapshot. One question to constantly be asking yourself as you compose a picture: could anyone have taken this? I think the answer here is yes. You didn’t seem to put as much thought into this shot as the pictures coming up next.


Niagara-Falls-2006-019.jpg

I really like this picture because it succeeds in all the ways the first one didn’t. This is Niagara Falls, one of the most photographed places on earth, yet you managed to get an angle you don’t often see. You didn’t try to get the entire falls in your picture. Rather, you shot a detail that perfectly illustrates their power and majesty. You seem to have put some thought into this composition.

There are a couple of technical reasons why it succeeds. First, I like the fact that you included people in the frame. They give us a sense of scale, which is important when you’re trying to convey the massiveness of something like Niagara Falls. Second, I like that you used the rule of thirds in deciding how to frame things. The people are in the bottom third, which lets the waterfall, the part of the image with the most impact, take up the top two thirds of the frame.

Technically, the picture is pretty perfect. I don’t see any blown-out highlights and the midtones look good.

My one complaint: What’s that out-of-focus vertical black bar on the left edge? Were you shooting through a gate? Though it’s not terribly noticeable, it’s unfortunate.

Pemaquid-Point-Light.jpg

This picture of Pemaquid Lighthouse Park has a lot going for it, and I really like it. It follows a number of classic photo rules: it has great light, great lines, and it makes great use of the rule of thirds.

Judging from the light, you picked the right time to take the shot. If you’d taken it at noon you would have gotten an entirely different photo. What I like about the lines is they lead your eye right the lighthouse. And the sky, the ocean, and the rocks all follow the rule of thirds. This is a nice, nice composition. Bravo!

My only nitpick is there isn’t much detail in the shadows. In part, I suspect that’s the fault of your camera, which doesn’t capture the full range of tonal values that the eye sees. No camera does. You can help matters, however, by shooting in the RAW format rather than jpegs, if your camera allows. RAW is your camera’s native format, and it will always contain the widest range of colors and brightnesses.


Portugal-.jpg

I really like this picture, too, but it feels too cramped. I’m left wanting more. It didn’t capture the scene I suspect you saw.

In this case, I would have shot a wider view. Were you on a boat? Or were you standing across a lake? Maybe this is all your equipment allowed you to capture. But even so you could have composed it better. You didn’t take very good advantage of the reflection. I would have tilted the frame down to get the full reflection. It would have made a nice symmetrical picture.

On the plus side, though, you took advantage of good, warm light. You got a beautiful warm red tone to the earth, which is nice. The colors wouldn’t have been as good had you shot this at any other time of the day. That’s a critical thing to keep in mind as we look at the last photo.


Waikiki-from-Diamond-Head.jpg

This picture has the least amount of visual impact for me of any of your shots. I’m reminded of 1970s postcards. It’s hard to take a memorable picture from this angle because it’s hard to make this scene visually interesting. The picture looks really static because of the flat quality of the mid-day light. That’s why National Geographic editors, who are big on light, worry so much about the time of day their pictures are taken. The light might have been more interesting if you had shot it either earlier or later.

And once again I would have tilted the frame down so I captured less of the uninteresting sky and more of the somewhat more interesting and colorful vegetation in the foreground. Either that or I would have cropped it tighter on top.

Now that we’ve seen your portfolio, Stephen, I can suggest a couple of things. First, I’d like to see you experiment by trying to see more of the details in your scenes. Your pictures tend to be broad, sweeping panoramas. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to balance those shots with pictures that explore the details of a scene. Choose a piece of a scene to concentrate on. Sometimes those pictures are more memorable and tell a more interesting story.

Secondly, if you are interested in developing your photography further perhaps you can upgrade your equipment. You used an Olympus point-and-shoot camera for most of these pictures. Consider upgrading to a DSLR. That will allow you to use a much wider range of lenses, and let you play more with depth of field.

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


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