Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

December 23rd, 2011
by doinlight

I read a great series of articles by George Barr on taking the next step in photography.  They were passed along to me by a good friend – Brian Graham.  I have some early thoughts on what Barr proposes.

In his articles he defines six or seven steps for both technical and aesthetic growth in photography.  His articles define each step, discuss ways you can determine what step you’re in and gives ideas on how to advance to the next step.

I’m going to simplify this a little and cut out some of the earlier steps.  I’m suggesting that the first goal for us is to take photographs that have the same quality as, well, let’s call it ‘Calendar Art.’

OK you say, that’s cliché stuff.  Yes, it is.  I agree.  The photographs are of standard images.  They may be of the Eifel tower, two kittens playing with a ball of yarn, bull riders or better yet, rodeo queens,  fast cars, Half Dome from tunnel view and what not.  But let’s face it, the technical quality of the photographs is excellent and that becomes a worthy goal for the serious photographer.

Qualities of Calendar Art

The photographers that take these photographs are no slouches.  And hey, they’re making money.  So  let’s not be too critical.  But what exactly is it that goes into a successful calendar photograph?  As it turns out, a lot.  Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, the photographs have snap.  They look good.  They are well done but blend in with their surroundings.  They don’t demand attention but add something nice to the room where they hang.  Why is that?  Well, for starters they are well exposed.  There are no blown highlights or muddy shadows.  They are not too dark or too light.  They’re just right. 

Next, they’re focused correctly.  Things that are supposed to be sharp are sharp and things that are supposed to be soft are soft.  The eyes of the two cats are tack sharp.  Everything in the Half Dome photo is tack sharp.  The focus and depth of field is right on.

Next, the composition is solid.  The Rule of Thirds is frequently employed.  Nothing is in the bulls eye.  There are no creepers along the edges, no bright spots there either.  They may not be the most dramatic or creative compositions but they are solid, well designed compositions.

The light is good.  Many  outdoor calendar photographs are taken during midday.  The photographer doesn’t necessarily wait for golden hour.  The light is not flat but has interesting shadows.  It just goes to show you that good photographs can be taken during the day.

So by the time the photographer presses the shutter there’s already a lot going for the image.  But pressing the shutter is not the end of the process.  There’s more work to be done in the post processing.

When you carefully look at the photograph you’ll notice that it takes advantage of the full dynamic range of the medium, in this case the paper the photograph is printed on. If you examine the image you will most likely find a black point, some meniscal area that is pure black.  You’ll also most likely find a white point, some very small area that has no ink but it the color of the paper. This ensures that you have taken advantage of the full dynamic range of the paper.

The overall brightness (tonality) of the image is just right.  It is neither too bright or too dark.  It is usually sunny and cheery.  And the contrast is snappy, not too much and not too little.

The colors are also rich.  There are no inappropriate color casts and the colors that are there are well saturated without going over the top – with the possible exception of the intense blue sky.  All of these things require post processing adjustments to get the most out of the image.

Comparing Your Photographs to Calendar Art

So calendar art is a pretty decent goal because, aside from the common subjects, it requires a lot of skill both in the capture and the post processing to produce photographs of this quality.

How can you tell if your photographs measure up to the calendar art standard?  Well, first you have to print them.  Getting photographs looking good on the monitor is way too easy, especially if you’re using an LCD monitor (I do all my work on a CRT monitor for that very reason).  So a good looking photograph on a monitor just doesn’t count.  You need to put it on paper.  It doesn’t matter if you send them out to Costco or do them yourself, they need to be printed.  Believe me, it’s not easy to get the printed photographs to look as good as they look on your monitor.  But that’s a different post.

So, print out a dozen or so of your very best photographs.  I’d suggest you print 8x10s so that the next step will be more helpful.

Then run out and invest in a calendar that contains the kind of photographs you are aspiring to.  Select a calendar with photographs of a technical quality that you admire.  But don’t select a calendar of the works of the masters.  We’re not aiming for that just yet.  That will come.  Instead, choose a more everyday calendar. 

Now sit down at a table with the calendar and your dozen or so photographs.  Make sure it’s well lighted.  Then set the two side by side.  Flip to a page in the calendar and then set one of your photographs right next to it.  How does it stack up?  What’s your’ first impression.  Try to be objective (that may be a little tough).

What can you learn from the calendar photograph?  Is your photograph as snappy as the calendar photo?  Is your exposure as good or are you over or under exposed?  How’s your focus (an 8X10 photograph will be better for assessing focus than a smaller one)?  Are your colors as rich?  Is your composition as strong as theirs?  Do you have distractions along the edges of your photo?

What can you learn from this comparison?  What can you do differently?  What are you already doing as well or better?  We all tend to be proud of our work and that’s natural.  So you might want to get a second opinion.  Ask someone you trust and who will be honest with you to do the same comparison.  This feedback can be extremely valuable.

Moving to the Next Level

If you find that you have some room for growth, how can you go about reaching the next step?  Well, there are several definite skills you can work on.

Exposure

You can’t make a great photograph from a poorly exposed capture.  It is critical to learn to get good exposures.  I don’t mean you need to shoot in Manual mode.  I mean you need to know how to evaluate the histogram and make adjustments when it indicates you have an exposure problem.  If you don’t use the histogram it’s time you become familiar with this powerful tool.

Your image has to be in focus. That means more than setting your lens on auto-focus and letting it do its thing.  The camera doesn’t always make the right decision.  There are three things you need to know about focus – depth of field, hyperfocal distance and diffraction.  And you need to know how to control them.

Light is critical, whether you’re in a studio or outdoors.  In a studio you need to know how to set up your lights to get the effect you want.  When you’re outdoors you need to know how to read the light and how to adjust to it.  The study of light for is a fascinating life-long pursuit.

Composition forms the emotional foundation of the image and is one of the most critical parts of a photograph.  Start with some of the foundational principles like rule of thirds, off center, leading  lines and clean edges and build from there. 

The place to start in the post processing is adjusting the tonality of your image.  The things you need to do are set black and white points, adjust the overall brightness and make sure the contrast is just right.  And you need to be able to do this for the entire image or just parts of it (global and local adjustments).

If there’s a color cast to the original it will need to be corrected.  If there’s a cyan cast you need to add red.  If there’s a magenta cast you need to add green.  It’s really helpful to understand the color wheel and to think in terms of a color palette for your photographs.

And finally you want to adjust the color saturation.  Some colors may be too saturated and you’ll want to decrease it.  Other colors may not be saturated enough and you’ll want to increase it.  These decisions need to be made color by color and they may need to be applied globally or locally.

So, I think it’s very clear that there is a lot of skill that goes into making a successful calendar photograph.  It’s not as easy as it looks (which is the mark of a good photograph – it doesn’t look like it was hard to do).  That’s why I feel that calendar art is an excellent first goal to set for people how are serious about their photography (and a challenging goal too).

What Comes Next?

What comes after calendar art?  Fine art.  Moving beyond the solid quality of calendar art brings you into the realm of fine art.  How is that different?  I’ll go into that in more detail in a future post.  But to start you thinking let me make this observation.

Calendar art is about the subject of the photograph.  The photographer is transparent.  In fine art the influence of the artist becomes more apparent.  Stay tuned.

Join me on an upcoming workshop.  Click here for more details.

To see more of my photographs click here.

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Posted in Composition, Expoure, Histogram, How To Articles | Comments (2)

  • Franz Amador says:

    I’ve read and liked George Barr’s articles, too (and the corresponding book). I really like your take on them here. Comparing one’s work with a calendar is an excellent idea.

    • doinlight says:

      Thank Franz. I appreciate your feedback. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts or experiences you’ve had along these lines.

      This is an interesting topic to think about. I’m also giving some thought to where you can go when ready to move beyond calendar art. My approach to those levels will be different from Barr’s and instead of levels, will be more along the lines of dimensions.

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