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One way to become a better photographer is to learn to analyze photos, both other people’s and your own.
What are the factors behind the success of their images? The answer isn’t always easy to express in words. Good photography is subjective and often moves beyond conventional rules of composition like the rule of thirds).
But there are certain aspects that you can look for in nearly any photo. Try and see it from the point of view of the photographer who created the image. Why do you think they made the decisions they did?
Here are some things for you to think about next time you analyze someone’s work. They’re based on my idea of the creative triangle that I wrote about in my ebook Mastering Photography – that a great photo shows inspired composition, beautiful lighting and a mastery of the technical aspects of photography.
Why did the photographer use the focal length he did? How would the photo be different if he used a wide-angle lens instead of a telephoto, or vice-versa? (If you don’t know what focal length was used, guess – it’s good practice at analyzing images).
What aperture did the photographer use? How did this affect depth of field? Why do you think the photographer selected this aperture? How would the photo look if there was more, or less, depth of field?
What shutter speed did the photographer use? How does this affect the way motion is captured in the image? Why do you think the photographer chose this shutter speed? How would the photo be different if the photographer had used a faster (or slower) shutter speed?
Here’s an example. Take a look at the photo below. Can you guess what focal length, aperture and shutter speed I used?
The shutter speed is probably easiest to guess. The movement in the gondolas and the water tells you that I used a slow shutter speed (actual shutter speed: 2.5 seconds).
The depth of field tells you I used a small aperture (actual aperture: f8).
The focal length is probably the hardest to guess, an experienced photographer might guess I used a wide-angle or normal focal length. The clue is in the buildings in the distance – a shorter focal length would push them further away and add a greater sense of space into the scene (actual focal length: 28mm APS-C).
Analyze the composition
What is the focal point of the photo? Where is it placed in the frame? Did the photographer use the rule of thirds? Why do you think the photographer did (or did not) do so?
Color photos: How did the photographer use color in the composition? Is the use of color bold or subtle? Is there a wide range of hues in the image, or just a few shades? Is the image dominated by a particular color? What is the overall color temperature of the image – warm, cool or neutral?
Black and white photos: Why do you think the photographer chose to convert the image to black and white (or use black and white film)? Can you picture what it would look like in color? How strong are the lines, shapes and textures? How much contrast is there?
Here’s another photo for you to analyze. What strikes you about the composition?
When I look at this photo I can see that the elderly lady is the focal point. She’s off-center in the composition, but not on a third.
The colors are a mix of terracotta, blue and green. The woman’s blue dress echoes the blue of the house on the right. The repeating shapes of the windows and doors add an element of rhythm and repetition to the composition.
It’s a simple photo, but there’s a lot you can learn from the composition.
Analyze the light
Where is the light coming from? Is the source daylight, artificial light (including flash) or a mixture of both? From what direction does the light hit the subject?
What is the quality of the light? Is it hard or soft? Has the photographer taken any action to change the quality of the light? How would the photo look if the quality of the light was different?
What is the color of the light? This is another color temperature question. Is it warm, cool or neutral?
Here are two more photos to analyze. What are the qualities of the light in both?
The answer is that the light is hard, direct sunlight coming from overhead (I made both photos at just after 1.30pm on a sunny summer’s day in Italy). You may not think this is an ideal time for photography, but in both cases the overhead light has picked out the texture of the paintwork and help me make photos with a bold, graphic, colorful composition.
Analyze other photographer’s photos
I’ve used some of my own photos for this article. Now it’s time for you to go and look at the photo of some of your favorite photographers with fresh, critical eyes. What can you learn from them?
Analyze your own photos
It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of analyzing your own photos using the same questions. Writing books about photographic composition, for example, has taught me a lot about composition through analyzing my own photos and writing about them. You don’t have to write a book, but you might find it helpful to make notes, perhaps in a journal, about why your photos work, and how you can improve them.