The most difficult thing about making a good photograph

I recently finished a great class on the “Photographic Tools for Travel Photography” at the International Center of Photography in New York City. I teach all my classes as a building process, where I pile ever growing amounts of information, responsibility and autonomy on the students as the workshop goes on. The end of that process, which is also the end of the class, is when I circle back through all the lessons of the class, to explore exactly what is the most difficult thing about making a good photograph.

The irony is that this particular class was so comfortable with each other and with me that they asked LOTS of questions each and every day. I encourage questions in my classes! I love questions! The ONE thing about questions is that sometimes too many questions can throw me off my schedule. This is important because I have my classes fairly tightly scheduled, and not just because I am a bit compulsive. In almost every class, I have a lot to teach and not nearly enough time to do that. In this class, because the questions were so good (and so many) I am embarrassed to say I never actually taught my final lesson on the most difficult thing about making a good photograph. That is one reason I am sitting down to write this blog now.

So, exactly what is the most difficult thing about making a good photograph?

Most photographers know how hard it is to let go of the emotional experience that each of us has has while making the image. We need to do that in order to actually make the very best image. That challenge continues when we later review the image(s) and we need to step back to look at the image from the perspective of an average person who did not have the same emotional experience making that image.

That is the challenge in making any photograph. One time when this same challenge is ratcheted up exponentially is when we make portraits. That is because when we make portraits, all of our photographic skills are brought to bear AND we often also have an emotional, human experience in the form of an intense interaction with the subject.

You know what I mean here. You meet someone who tells you a story or takes you an a small adventure or in some other ways provokes an emotional reaction in you. As far as you are concerned, the subject you are photographing is the most amazing person you have ever met and the photograph you make of them will convey that amazement to everyone else who sees that photo.

The reality, often discovered later in the image review is that the same “fantastic” subject was in fact standing in harsh mid-day light, with nasty shadows where their eyes should be, dressed in the ugliest clothes imaginable, with spots of sun and shadow simultaneously burning out the highlights of their white shirt and creating caves of solid, impenetrable black in the vest they are wearing.

Yes, making a great portrait involves a kind of collaboration between subject and photographer. Making your subject feel comfortable can indeed improve a portrait. Careful posing can add to a portrait, making that much stronger a photographic character study. Finally, having an important person as the subject can help as well, but far too many portraits are declared “great” based on who is in the image and not how they are photographically portrayed.

A great portrait is first and foremost a great photograph. Think about the truly great photographic portraits you know. Study how these same images work as photographs, ignoring the subjects. Pay attention to the light, the composition, the framing, the focus. Again, in all cases, a great photographic portrait is also simply a great photograph, whether showing a face, a fly, a fire hydrant or a plate of french fries.

The lesson I would have imparted to my recent class goes something like this; I saved the portrait assignment for last because a good portrait takes all your skills and all your concentration. In a workshop, your skills and concentration peak at the end of the workshop.

Yes, the best portraits do have an emotional component, revealing something about the person (people) shown. The trick is that the emotional component of any portrait needs to be in the image, to be experienced by the viewer. The viewer was not there when the photo was made but they want the photographer to take the viewer on an emotional journey into the eyes, soul, heart or mind of the subject. For any photographer, a great portrait involves harnessing the emotional experience of making the photograph, so the viewer has similar experience and the key is not to lose your photographer’s concentration as you make that same portrait.

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