Study your photographic genre

Now that you are underway with your own photographic projects it is time to figure out what others have done before you.  This will help you with your compositions and with finding your own style. Firstly identify which genre you are working on. It may be fashion portraits or portraits of trees. It may be ocean scapes or wide open panoramas. It may be blurry sea scapes.  It is a good idea here to limit yourself in some ways, perhaps to a location or a particular lens, or a technique even.

Now you need to scour everywhere possible for outstanding and great photographs in this genre.  In short, photographs you love and want to take. Your goal is to collect twenty such images. Find ones that are historically significant. Find ones from photographers that you admire and consider great. Look through magazines and books. Search the Internet. Personally I love using google image search. You may also have success searching Flickr or one of the many photographic websites.  Put all of these images into a folder on your desktop.  Make a looping slide show, and use manual advance. Look through these images over and over. Contemplate them. Analyse them. Make notes.

Answer the following questions about these images:

  1. What is the dominant compositional device used in these photographs? You may come up with multiple answers for this question.  
  2. What is happening with the tones in these images? Analyse the tones, where the lights and darks are. Describe tones in your main subject. Draw a tone map of the images. 
  3. What is happening with the lines in images? Draw the dominant lines in the image. 
  4. What is the character of the negative space in these photographs and how does this help the images.  Remember these are images you love, so you're working out why they work for you so well. 
  5. Consider what happens with your eyes and attention as it lands on the photograph, where it is drawn and where it lingers. What elements and devices are leading your eyes around the photograph? Tone, line, pattern, negative space or subject?
  6. Describe the colour pallete of the images. Cool or warm colours dominate the image? Is there a dominant colour. 
  7. What equipment and lenses have the photographers used? Wide angles, tripods, portrait lenses? Film or digital.  Try searching for the photographer and their equipment in google. They might tell you on their website or you may find a discussion about them in a forum. 
  8. What post processing has been done on these images? Large amounts of manipulation or hardly any at all? What software or techniques did the photographers use? You may have to search this out, otherwise you may have to make an educated guess. There is more information out there about what people are doing than you may initially expect. 
  9. What camera angles were used. Looking down, head on (eye level) or looking up? Is the camera close to the ground, elevated, waist height, eye height?
  10. What is the lighting in each photograph? For landscapes consider time of day, angle of the sunlight, full sun, overcast, soft light and the weather conditions. For portraits look at natural light or artificial and consider the quality of the light. Strongly directional or diffused. 

Now you have looked, really looked and now seen what is going on in these images, it is time to come up with some guidelines for your own photographs.

Finally you need to go and try using these guidelines.. Once you become competent with them, consider trying the opposites. Try breaking these guidelines.

Repeat this exercise for each photographic genre that you are working in.  For example I may do this exercise for my nudes, portraits, trees and landscapes. 

Make it a habit to analyse work you love. By doing this you are working on your visual literacy.

Lady Medusa poses in an Underground Lens shoot © Len Metcalf 2014

Lady Medusa poses in an Underground Lens shoot © Len Metcalf 2014