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I am currently enrolled as a senior in high school, and like all parents, my mother decided to fork over ridiculous amounts of cash to have senior portraits taken of me in addition to the ones that end up in the yearbook. In the time between when I got my pictures taken and we got them back, I went out and purchased my own Canon Digital Rebel Xti and started a little hobby of photography myself. I borrowed a few books from the library about portrait composure. To make a long story short, I was less than satisfied with the pictures I got back.
My purpose in writing this article is to inform the public about what makes a good photograph. Some people (like my mother) will look at the picture below and think it's great and happily fork over about $400 for it. They say ignorance is bliss, which it is, but in this case, it's just costly. As you read this, you might be thinking that this photograph is spectacular, but I'm here to tell you that there are several egregious problems with it that a decent photographer would know to fix, resulting in a much better photograph.
This particular photographer preyed on the ignorant. For example, when showing proofs to customers, he used an LCD projector in a dark room. This resulted in a huge picture on the wall that customers could "Oooh" and "Ahhh" at, but it was really pointless. LCD projectors are used to show things to large groups. The biggest group he was dealing with was maybe five or six people, so a large image was pointless.
LCD projectors have very bad color accuracy, even in dark rooms, and they sport much lower resolutions than conventional LCD monitors.
A better photographer would have sat down with the customer in front of a large, high quality and color accurate display and shown the selection to his clients. This guy was just trying to get customers excited by exposing them to an extravagant environment that is foreign to them. This was made obvious when he claimed that he was using a $12,000 lens. At the time, knowing almost nothing about cameras, I believed him. I now know that $12,000 is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a lens. Even Canon's best line of lenses, the "L" series, still tops out at about $8000, and that's for their telephoto zoom lenses.
So, for the rest of the article, I will critique this picture of myself and give you, the reader, a little insight on what makes a good photo. I know that some of you will argue that you like your photos a certain way and you don't care what I have to say. If you are one of those people, please save both of us time and stop reading right here. I know that photographers are free to express themselves however they like, but from a professional business-client standpoint, there are a few general rules of thumb.
(click to enlarge)
The purpose of a portrait is not just to make people look good. A photographer also wants to capture that person's personality in the picture. In ten or fifteen years, the client wants to look at that picture of himself and recall exactly what he felt like at that time in his life. Bringing natural expressions out of people is difficult for photographers. Often, people have to hold their bodies in unnatural positions to have a natural looking photograph. This is where an excellent rapport between the photographer and subject comes into play. The photographer really has to get to know the subject and find out what kind of person they are.
Looking at this picture, you would probably wouldn't assume that I am an Eagle scout who enjoys camping in the outdoors. I look like a twelve year old boy. This is a picture of me in body, but not in spirit. This is because during my shoot, the rapport between myself and my photographer was virtually non-existent. He was continuously snobby, and seemed very rushed. He obviously couldn't waste the time to get to know me and rather simply applied his normal composition formula for all of his clients to produce this picture.
In this picture, My head is cocked at a ridiculous angle. When I look at this picture, I feel like I was trying to hold an egg under my chin. This is made obvious by the rather unpleasant wrinkle in the skin around my neck. He made me do this so that I could look up at the camera. I suppose he was trying to give me the look of childhood innocence. Unfortunately, I am eighteen years old; a borderline adult. Perhaps he could have lowered the camera some, or cocked my chin up higher to make myself more at the same level as the viewer of the picture. Also, when coupled with the lighting, the lines of my face are indistinguishable
I have no head in this picture, I am simply a thumb with eyes and a mouth. Proper lighting should create depth in the image and make it easier to see a three dimensional object or person on a two dimensional surface. What this photographer should have done was place some light to my side to cast a shadow across my face. Some photographers even develop ratios of the difference in lighting from one side of the face to the other. In this picture, most of the light is cast from behind the camera and softened to extremes, this generates a very flat image where it's hard to easily discern where my nose or chin stops.
Even just a small shadow wrapped around the left side of my face (left from the viewer's standpoint) would have separated my chin from my neck. Also, some kind of light crossing my face would have many my nose more easily visible and the curves of my face better defined. A little lighting on the hair would have brought out its color too. Most photographers use a light that sits behind the subject to hi-light the hair. The light is reflected off the hair and towards the camera, creating a bright fringe around the top which brings out the color and texture in the hair.
Every photographer uses Photoshop. It has become a necessity for professionals that want their pictures to be virtually flawless. Unfortunately, this photographer found some flaws in me that I didn't even know were flaws. For instance, eye color:
My eyes are not blue!
When I first saw this, I almost cried. The one consistent compliment that I get from members of the opposite sex is not that I have good looking hair, or a fine body, but it's that I have pretty eyes. This photographer didn't seem to agree. He turned my beautiful green eyes to the most absurdly unnatural blue. Other changes include removing a rather charismatic mole on my forehead and softening my face to insane levels. I guess I had a little bit of a stubble when I was being photographed, and rather than trying to remove this stubble, or leave it in, this photographer applied the standard treatment: intense softening. The result is a strange grey smear that goes all the way around my chin, from ear to ear.
Photoshop should only be used to fix problems, not to alter people's faces entirely. I feel like, after going to this extreme, this photographer would have been better off starting from scratch and just drawing a picture of me, or rather, a picture of what he thinks I should look like. I'm still rather surprised that he didn't use his magical photoshop abilities to remove the horrible wrinkle I have in my shoulder.
(click to enlarge)
This is a picture that I took of myself recently. Before you even think it, I'm not claiming that this is a professional quality picture. I took this picture with my new camera using a pretty decent 85mm prime lens. I had no studio lighting, I can't afford photoshop, and I took this picture of myself. I had to set the shot, focus on where I thought I would be standing, hit the timer, run in front of the camera, guess where I should place my face to be entirely in the frame and in focus, and smile before the ten second timer ran out. There are a few things I like about this picture though.
Firstly, I was much more comfortable when taking this picture, so I don't look so awkward. My face describes my personality. I have a sort of half-assed semi-amused smile which describes my cynical nature. My head's angle is a little weird, but I'm going to write this off to the fact that I didn't have a mirror at the time.
Despite the fact that I didn't have any studio lighting, this picture actually turned out alright. The window behind me provided a soft hi-light to my hair as well as some light to wrap around my neck. Also, the lighting is directed from the right side to the left, so there is a definite shadow to the left of my nose and to the left of my chin.
I didn't touch this photograph at all after I took it. Had I, I probably just would have fixed the blemish to the top right of the eye on the right (my left eye). That's about all I think is necessary.
After all of this, my mom still paid this guy over $700 for all the portraits we got. She loves them, so I guess that's ok; they are worth $700 to her. This still doesn't change the fact that this photographer is getting a ridiculous amount of money for a minimalist effort and little artistic insight. With enough practice and set up, I am confident that I could match and surpass the quality of his photos, and I am only an amateur.
I just hope that after reading this, you know to expect more from a professional photographer and not settle for anything less than the best for the price that you are paying.
Wow, I posted this article to Reddit at 4am this morning and it's exploded over the web. It even became the topic of a thread over at dpchallenge.com.
Some people even offered their own photoshopped versions of my picture:
This one was edited by Andres over at dpchallenge.
This one was sent to me via e-mail by Tom Scott.
This one was posted by Strikeslip on the dpchallenge thread. He really managed to bring out the green in my eyes.
Ast3r3x sent me this one. He says that "Ideally, you won't be able to notice a difference unless you actually look at both, the real point of retouching is so that you just think that it is a fabulous picture of yourself." I agree
Jeff just got photoshop for Christmas (lucky) and he gave my portrait a go.
Les Gainous over at DPChallenge tried a "grunge" look. Looks great!
Here's Hans' rendition!
Here's another one from Arif. Man, you guys are still sending them in.
Patrick K. sent in two. I have to say I look pretty badass in the second one.
Baconn from reddit made this one.