Lessons On People Photos From The Class

Written by stuestler on April 5th, 2010

We’ve just completed the first six-week session of e-mail classes. The students enjoy the flexibility of doing the work on their own schedule, and the results have been quite dramatic.

We had two classes going during the winter session. “Master Your SLR” is a beginner class for people who are just starting to learn about photography beyond pointing, pressing the button and letting the camera do the rest. We cover the basics of taking control of your pictures and getting the kind of results you want, consistently and predictably.

“Develop Your Creativity” moves beyond the basics, and takes a more in-depth look at the fundamentals of light, composition and design. The concepts we cover in this class are applicable to shooting with any type of camera, as long as you understand how to use it. Most of the students at this level tend to have moved up to an SLR to take maximum advantage of being in complete control of their photos.

One of the early lessons looked at how the direction of light falling on your subject – front lighting, side lighting or back lighting – affects your image.

While shot as an example of front lighting, one photo stood out because of its apparent simplicity revealing quite a few layers of complexity in our response to it. The photo was taken by Kathy Ma, and she’s allowed me to use it here to share with you.

There’s great use of negative space and color contrast. By framing so that there’s more room behind him than in front, the feel is that he’s moving out of the image rather than into it. With his face turned away from the camera, there is a sense of aloofness, of disassociation from the photographer or viewer. It actually creates quite a few possible responses, layered on each other and each revealed as you look at it more.

Probably more than any other subject, when we photograph people the subject itself becomes the dominant element in the image. With most other subject – landscapes, architecture, “things” – the viewer is more aware, either consciously or subconsciously, of how light and design elements affect the image.

When we – people – see photos of other people, we tend to focus on the person, because this is a subject we instinctively feel we understand and want to know more about. All of the other aspects of the photograph – light, design – are just as meaningful and important in creating and directing the viewer’s response, but they tend to become secondary to the subject, at least at a conscious level.

Yet when given appropriate attention, the design and light elements create that “a-ah” response that sets a people image above the rest. The really great portrait/people shooters like Annie Leibowitz and Arnold Newman know this and use it.

A classic is Newman’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky at his piano. The shape of the piano dominates the area of the image, augmented by the contrast of the white background, yet Stravinsky, just in the corner of the image, is clearly what the photo is all about. If you’re not familiar with Arnold Newman’s work you definitely owe it to yourself to look some up.

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