Like many amateur photographers, Mike Cialowicz, a 25-year-old software engineer from Boston, became a serious photo hobbyist when he bought his first digital SLR last year. Although he has mastered exposure, he finds himself struggling with composition and editing. He wrote to us in February asking for a Globe Critique.
"I've been interested in photography since the beginning of high school," Mike wrote. "In college, I did a little bit of black-and-white photography and darkroom work, but had to shelve the hobby for a few years due to finances and time restrictions. Last year, I got myself a digital SLR, and began shooting much more aggressively. I also started taking this hobby much more seriously, and really tried to improve my understanding of exposure and composition.
"I feel I understand proper exposure fairly well, but the two areas where I struggle the most are creative composition and post-processing. I typically find that I compose my long-exposure night shots the best, since I allow myself extra time to consider the scene when setting up my tripod. I struggle with impromptu street-type photography. I don't seem to have that magical ability to find the most creative composition in a scene as naturally and quickly as some others seem to have. I also often struggle with how to post-process my photos. I would love to some day take a digital post-processing course to improve this skill."
The Globe's Jonathan Wiggs chose Mike's portfolio of five photos to critique out of the dozens of requests that have been submitted. In summary, he thinks Mike has good skills to build on, and that he shouldn't worry too much about post-processing.
Jonathan offers these thoughts on Mike's photos:
First of all, Mike, how the heck did you get this photo? Did you have a connection with the T? Despite the intrigue, I'd have to say that of the five photos you submitted, this is your least interesting. Think of a photo as a meal that has an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert -- my metaphor for having something interesting in the foreground of a photo, the middle ground, and the background. You need something more here to give the reader something to latch onto.
Railroad tracks can be interesting when photographed from the right perspective or with some elements of interest in the frame. For example, when it snows, and there's beautiful white snow and a shimmer from the tracks and someone happens to be walking near or along the tracks.
Perhaps you thought the curve of the track was interesting, but not everything you point your camera at is interesting. I just don't think there's enough here.
This photo's not bad. I like that you threw the background out of focus so that the viewer's attention goes to the subject. It's well composed, with the subject to the left and the context of a park in the background. And anyone who can get birds to eat out of his hand is interesting.
You could have made it even more interesting by moving -- getting down low and shooting up into Steve's face, for example. You might have captured something special on his face that would tell the viewer more about him; maybe you could have captured the joy he gets out of doing this.
Choosing a different perspective is very important. Always try to get higher or lower, always work the scene from different angles. Move and dance with the scene.
Okay, Mike, what's with you and birds? (Just kidding.) I like that you go back and forth between color and black and white. This is a nice moment you've captured. The guy has a great face. This is a scene we've all come across of someone feeding birds, and I think you did a nice job capturing this. Again, you made good use of depth of field. This photo really works in black and white.
I would have cropped it just a little tighter from the top and left edge (Here's an example); it may have made this image sing just a little more. But it's a nice moment. I think if Robert Frank had taken a bird photo, it might look like this. I recommend his book, The Americans.
You did a nice job following the rule of thirds here, Mike. This photo really works. Could anyone ask for a better color scene, where the light is just exquisite? The reflection really helps this photo because it gives you what I referred to earlier: Something of interest in the foreground, the trees in the middle, and then the sky.
This is a well-composed, good exposure – spot on.
I saved the best for last. I just love night scenes. Photographers who step out of their comfort zone of photographing during the day can be rewarded by finding a scene at night that's quite compelling, like this one. I would love to see this in color for a side-by-side comparison.
The lighting is very nice, both from the light pole and the shafts of light inside the bus shelter. It has a luminescent quality, almost like a church. It has an Edward Hopper feel. You clearly understand lighting, which is one of the key elements of good photography. You should pursue lighting as an element that adds interest to your photos.
I also like the people in this photo. I clearly get the sense that they are waiting for the bus to arrive, it’s cold, I feel sense of anticipation. The composition is very good: You got the entire light pole with the wreaths in the frame.
I always look for something to help me as a photographer, whether it's lighting, or the subject, a nice moment, even texture -- something that’s like a gift, something you can use to build your photo. Always think about building the photograph. It’s your canvas, and what you bring to that makes the photo. As famed photographer Sam Abell said, you control the things you put into a photograph.
My advice to you, Mike, is to build on what's already working for you. Shoot more night scenes, more people. Experiment more with lighting. And look at work that's similar to yours.
You say that you can't work quickly, but the old man and the gull photo worked. Besides, why do you have to hurry? You're not a photojournalist covering breaking news or working on deadline. Working with a tripod is definitely a plus; it slows you down and helps you get a better photo.
You can take a Photoshop class to learn more about editing your photos, but when it comes to post-processing, less is more. You don’t have to be a wizard. Learn how to sharpen and crop your photos, perhaps improve the contrast or white balance, lighten or darken a bit here and there if needed. You don't want to over-saturate or manipulate the image too much unless you're interested in pursuing that type of photography.
Your images are sharp and well-focused, and you know how to use the background and find good lighting. You have a lot to build on, Mike -- good luck!
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