5 Lessons You Can Learn from One Portrait

If you spend the time to analyze your photography and see what makes one picture stand out from the others as you rate them in Lightroom, you can improve your photography more quickly than doing pretty much anything else.

The idea behind this post is that we sit down together and learn how to analyze a photo.  The photo is from a shoot I did earlier this week for an engaged couple who live in a tiny rural town.

I met with the couple to talk about the details of the shoot and choose a location.  I looked on their refrigerator and saw a few wedding announcements from their friends.  Yup, you guessed it.  Hay bales and matching denim, sitting on the edge of an old rusty tractor, and kissing in the barn.  All the photos were total small town clichés.

I needed to find somewhere unique to shoot that their friends wouldn't recognize.  So, I asked the couple where they'd like to shoot.  As they told me their answers, I crossed off each of their locations in my mind.  I knew I didn't want to go anywhere typical.  So, I looked around the town and found a killer old building.  Perfect!  No matching denim and hay bales.  That's all I asked for.

Here's the photo that we ended up with…

Engagement photo of a couple in a city setting.
City Life - by Jim Harmer

It's a fun engagement shot.  It's certainly not the kind of photo that makes people weak in the knees and faint from excessive exposure to awesomeness.  But, it turned out nice.  Like I said, this post is about analyzing the photos we take, and this is what I took this week.  So what 5 lessons can we learn from this portrait?  Let's go…

Lesson #1: Use a long lens to give the impression that the background is closer than it really is.  I know, I know, the lens isn't really compressing the distance.  I get the technical part of it, but there is no way that anyone can deny that using a long lens makes it seem like the background is closer than it really is.  For this photo, I used a 200mm lens.  The building in the background was actually about 150 yards (137 meters) away, but the long lens makes it feel like the building is only 30 feet (9.1 meters) away.  By using this technique the background becomes part of the photo.

Lesson #2: It really is time to get away from people staring down the lens.  I know I've harped on this point several times in the last couple weeks, but I keep seeing portraits that would look so much nicer if the models weren't looking at the camera.  I'm not saying never, I'm just saying that a little variety is nice.

Lesson #3: Depth-of-field is more than just aperture.  If I would have shot this photo at 200mm with a long distance between the couple and the building and an aperture under f/5.6 (as would be typical for a portrait), then the building would have just been a blur.  Sometimes portrait photographers get so fanatical about low apertures that they use shallow depth-of-field where deeper depth-0f-field is needed.  In this photo, I wanted a little blur on the background to make the couple pop, but I wanted to see what the building looks like.  It was the building that made me want to take this shot in the first place.

Lesson #4: Your horizon doesn't have to be straight.  This would have been a much more dull photo if the horizon were perfect.  I wanted a slightly tilted horizon to bring some interest into the composition.

Lesson #5: If it ain't broke…  don't fix it.  It's a fact of nature: When a photographer discovers off-camera flash, he will shoot every portrait with flash for the next 3 years.  The ambient light for this photo was perfectly fine.  There was nothing to fix and dramatic lighting probably would have distracted more than it would add.

20 thoughts on “5 Lessons You Can Learn from One Portrait”

  1. blog traffic fodder. Not much in this article except a stupid story with a mediocre photo result. They look like theyre in a catalog

  2. Back to the basics. Many get so involved in copying others that they forget about new ideas or remembering the old. Find a magazine that doesn’t redo the same techniques, places and themes from year to year. I’ll pass this around for our photo club to read. Good Job

  3. Good points; but I really disagree with #4; I’m tired of seeing tilted images. It seems new wedding photographer thinks they are being fresh and original by tilting the camera; I don’t think it adds anything to shot (most of the time).

    Just my 2 cents…

  4. I’m guilty of overusing my strobes, but I do think that a ~little~ bit of off camera flash would have helped separate this couple from their background just a bit.

  5. I think I would agree with your points. To me, variety is key. When everyone else copies everyone’s style and the whole world ends up taking the same photos, it gets boring fast.

    My one critique might be your mention of the flash. To me, this photo’s color is visually flat. I think the flash would have helped this a lot.

  6. One other point, I’m not sure how on board I am with you ‘mentally crossing out’ all the locations they suggested. I hope you actually discussed it with the client and they were sold on the idea. This came across prideful and the first goal is to please the client, not make the best photo that might get published somewhere.

  7. @Zulusafari could not agree more with your comments. Little bit of flash will make it nicer and yes the client must be happy instead of your own wants.

    Mostly clients choose on your type of work. But not always. Keep that in mind.

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