Photo Notes A place to talk about making images.

December 9, 2013

More Than Pressing the Button


To start I just want to quickly remind you about the classes: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio and Getting Started in Commercial Photography and the books:


People make pictures as a form of communication. People have been making pictures for tens of thousands of years, maybe for as long as there have been people. The oldest pictures that are still visible are made with pigments and painted in caves. These may not be the first pictures, but they seem to have lasted the longest. I suppose that pictures like the ones in caves might have been common, but time has washed them away. The reason I start with this idea is that the ability of a picture to convey information about the nature of things, or about feelings, is basic to humanity.  Of course this isn’t the only way we communicate, you’re reading this after all, but it is possibly the most basic way we communicate. Perhaps, because it is so basic people don’t receive much instruction in images. I’ve taken more English classes than I can remember, as well as other language classes. I’ve even taken classes in computer languages, learning to communicate with an inanimate object. Now, of course, I’ve also taken photography and art classes, I make photographs for a living after all, but every class I took about making images was an elective, not one was required. As a photo teacher I’m constantly amazed at how little insight my students have about how to communicate with images. Perhaps we should have more basic instruction in communicating with images.

As an example consider what is called the “rule of thirds.” The basic idea is that a line in your frame, particularly the horizon line, should run across the frame at one third of the way from the top or bottom of the frame. There are a few more considerations with this rule, like the idea that the places where the lines a third into the frame intersect are the most effective places to place the subject. If a photographer has any information about composition, this will often be the first thing he/she knows. Some of my students have followed this rule slavishly, even when it made an obviously bad image. Other basic ideas, like leading lines or placing the subject in a place where the eye will find it quickly are rarely known. Too bad, really. So many photographers have the idea that composition is an innate skill, something you do with your gut, rather than your brain. People often refer to this skill as the eye: “he has a really good eye.” We spend so much of our time discussing equipment and technique, but ignore the most critical skill, building better images. I think there is more to it than choosing what to make a picture of; how we present a subject is at least as important as the subject.

Another consideration is how a photograph itself is presented. If somebody shows me photos of a model mixed in with photos of their last vacation and a couple of pictures she/he took at an antique show, it’s going to make all the images more confusing and less effective. Choosing images that support each other builds a portfolio that is stronger than the individual images. Presenting the images in a consistent manner can also help strengthen the individual images. Most people I know are presenting their images in an electronic format, either on line or in a tablet. I do present this way this too, but I think it is a weaker way to show images. In general this presentation means that the images are small, and there is a sameness to reviewing images on a screen that you don’t have in a print portfolio. If you go to a museum or gallery you’ll notice that the size and frame of an image are part of the artwork. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Guernica look depressingly similar on my computer screen, but Seurat’s painting is 10 feet long and Guernica is something like 25 feet long. So what you see on your computer screen is not what these paintings look like, unless you have a 25-foot screen. Maybe you think that these images don’t look very similar; perhaps you should go see them in person.

I’ve been tying to start a group here in Indianapolis that would work on building portfolios and better images. Frankly it’s not going very well. I’m hoping to find a group of around ten people who will commit to building a group of images that work together, or on portfolio groups. I’ll be working on a couple of things myself. I hope the participants will have new images most months. I expect them to discuss their reactions to the other participants’ images. Getting feedback from several people is probably the best way to learn how others react to your images. Also, it’s easier to listen to a critique from someone who is also building a portfolio and presenting images. If there are enough people then we could have separate groups for commercial work and fine art. So this is a group effort, not presentation where you sit back and watch.

I’ve attached images from one of my tablet portfolios. I’m going to present these images at facebook as well. Tablets are clearly a wonderful tool for an informal portfolio presentation. You can have an extensive portfolio with you wherever you go. You can choose different groups of images to show different audiences. Also you have some control over the way your images appear, at least because you can choose which tablet to buy. However if the tablet is the only way you present yourself you’ll limit your print sales, if nothing else.

If you’re interested in the portfolio class please contact me at or 317.473.0406. Also check out the workshop ( page of my blog for more information. I’m not doing a portfolio project on line, at this time, but I am still teaching at I have three classes there, all of which involve critiques of images as well as technical information. I hope you will check them out:
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio
Getting Started in Commercial Photography.


Please keep in mind that the classes and the books help to keep this blog going, so do your holiday shopping here! Happy New Year!

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