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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.


We're glad to note that NYI Student Advisor Richard Martin has graciously provided us with his analysis of a provocative student photograph. Students who have the good fortune to work with Richard know that he has a keen eye and knows how to get to the bottom of what works in a photograph, and how subtle changes can affect the image's meaning.

At NYI we teach our students a simple Three-Step Method for setting up every photograph they shoot:

Step 1. Know your subject.
Step 2. Focus attention on your subject.
Step 3. Simplify.

This simple Three-Step Method is the secret of every successful photograph ever taken. We teach our students to consider these three steps every time they look into the viewfinder. To consider them before they press the shutter button.

When our students mail in their photographs for analysis by their instructor, the instructor starts by commenting on what we call the three Guidelines. Of course, the instructor analyzes other elements of the picture too – focus, exposure, filters, etc. But the key to every good photo – and the essential element of every great photo – is adherence to these three Guidelines.

How do they work? How can you apply them? It's beyond the scope of this Web site to teach you every nuance, but you will get an inkling from the Photo of the Month Analysis that follows.

"Paint a Sunset"
by NYI Student Erin Paul Donovan

The first word that popped into my head upon viewing this image from NYI Student Erin Paul Donovan was "wow". The second word was "Photoshop". It would be easy enough to layer the silhouette of the artist and "canvas frame" into the photo. But was it done that way? Viewing the image in Photoshop 7 and adjusting the levels, I detected what appeared to be indentations in the sand where the frame's legs stood. Also, the perspective distortion evident in the "canvas frame" suggests that this was not just a rectangle inserted into the image via Photoshop. The side of the frame closest to the camera is slightly longer than the opposite one, a common result when photographing structures from such a vantage point with most cameras. Of course, that effect could be created in Photoshop in order to present a geometry we are accustomed to seeing in photos. But perhaps the photographer, Erin Paul Donovan, constructed a simple plywood frame and positioned it in front of the sunset scene along with the artist and his brushes. Viewed normally, however, these elements appear as a stark silhouette, making it difficult to determine how the photo was actually put together. Photoshop or plywood? What do you think?

Apart from that, does this image work? Some photographic "purists" object to ANY manipulation of an image via Photoshop though I'm not sure what their position on plywood would be. Others might see a mixed message here. What is the message? That Nature is the best artist? That photography is just as legitimate an art form as painting? Museums and galleries settled this second question long ago as photography has taken its place alongside older media. As for Photoshop manipulation, that's an open to debate. Each individual has to decide for themselves whether changing the image, post-capture, fits in with their view of what photography is and should be. For commercial photographers it's not an issue. Whatever the client wants is the basic rule. On the other hand, such alterations are definitely a no-no in photojournalism and the same is true for scientific and legal photography.

But enough "philosophy". Let's examine this photo in the context of NYI's Three Guidelines.

1) What is the Subject? Well, that seems to be pretty straightforward – the artist and his "canvas". No confusion there, though we might argue over what the photographer's intention really was.

2) How do we draw attention to the Subject? In this instance, placement and large size work very well. The subject is front-and-center and represents the largest element in the composition. Even with a quick glance at the image, we are immediately drawn to the artist and his "canvas". By the way, we introduce these two compositional elements (and others) to students in our Complete Course in Professional Photography.

3) How can we simplify the composition? To put it another way, are there any elements that are distracting and don't contribute to the photographer's purpose? What should we remove? In my opinion, nothing at all. The foreground might be distracting if details were more visible but silhouetting pretty much masks those details.

Speaking of words popping into one's head, some viewers might suggest another one for this image – kitsch. The American Heritage Dictionary defines kitsch as "art or artwork marked by sentimental, often pretentious bad taste" and I must confess that I can see it that way too. But I like this photo. I think it is a work by someone who thinks about their images. Thought and creativity are very important to making (as distinguished from simply "taking") photos. Also, it manifests a kind of "minimalist" vision that appeals to me personally. Nothing "busy" about this composition. It's stark and simple and that contributes to its impact.

–Richard Martin

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