Q&A: "Why Does This Look Bad?"

That's what reader Arjen P van de Merwe asks, from Malawi in southeast Africa.

My first thought: Arjen, you are being too hard on yourself. A lot of people would have been quite happy with that photo. It's easy to forget how far you have come—and how fast—with respect to lighting, etc.

You definitely made some good calls, and there are some additional opportunities you could taken advantage of if you wanted to. Let's talk about both, as many of your fellow readers have something to learn from each.

First off, I hate the idea of critiques. I think they are presumptuous and depend on the notion that there is right and wrong involved in a photo. Which, IMO, there usually isn't. You always have choices, and for the most part they are subjective. It's not like math.

If you drove to the mall, I would not critique how you got there. You got there, okay? You made choices, and they might be different next time. But you got there.

So let's start with a little background info on Arjen, then work through some of the choices he made and explore some he didn't. It's all good.

Malawi By Way of Amsterdam

Some background: Having visited Arjen moved to Malawi from Amsterdam in 2005. His wife found work there and he has since set up as a local photographer.

In addition to some photojournalism work, he now does a mix of commercial, shoots for some NGOs and wedding/portrait work. In the past he used flash on camera as a PJ, and sometimes shot with AC-powered big lights.

But in Malawi, speedlights are more than just a travel convenience. They also still work when AC power is unavailable due to location or an all-too-common blackout.

Arjen balances his desire to photograph grassroots Africa with the need to earn a living, hence the commercial work. This portrait of a chef was from a job for the hotel chain Sunbird, who needed new photos after an upgrade. (A Google map of the hotel is here.)

At His Disposal:

His camera/lighting gear includes a pair of digital Nikons, three Nikon speedlights, a small 200ws monobloc, white/silver umbrellas and a small soft box with grid. That's good to know as it helps to define options for him for this shot.

He said he felt as if his normally successful quick lighting setup—silver umbrella up and near the camera—failed him this time. He suspects it was because the room was kind of large and thus did not offer much natural fill. He felt the wall was dark and that the face was too specular (i.e., shiny).

A Lot of Good Choices

First, let's look at what he did do. One, like many photographers would have, he found the Trompe-l'oeil painting on the wall hard to resist as a background. Almost without seeing the rest of the dining room, I can pretty much guess I would have chosen the same thing.

Two—and this is not a given—he pulled out good exposures on both the chef's dark skin and the near white outfit. This happened because he used a soft light source fairly near the lens axis. It is lighting the white and giving us a specular highlight off of the chef's face.

If he did not do this, the tonal range of the subject white/dark could have given him fits.

Three, he's got a natural, inviting expression. Not always easy with subjects who are normal people (as opposed to models) who can easily go all deer-in-headlights on you. Likely a testament to Arjen's time as a photojournalist.

And here's what you don't see. Chef is actually at a serving table, which is mercifully cropped out by Arjen. Time is tight. People are milling about.

So, from here on out I am going to explore some other choices that were available. Mind you I get to do this with hindsight and unlimited time, neither of which Arjen had.

And I am going to assume you could squeeze a couple of minutes to prep and five mins or so to shoot this photo. Take over for a few minutes. Own the space. You are running the show and your subject is the celebrity. No warnings, just do it.

If your minder gives you blowback, you look him/her in the eye with your most sympathetic expression and play the big money card:

"The owners spent a lot (head down and raise the eyebrow when you say, 'a lot') of money to improve this hotel. Do we want a rush job or do we want it to look good? Because I can do it either way..."

Ultimate blame for the results of rushing the photographer successfully shifted, you may now calmly go about your work.

So here are some thoughts, ranging from the low-hanging fruit fixes to the Nth degree stuff:

Lock in on the Trompe-l'oeil

No-brainer. I don't use tripods very often, but they are great for fine-tuning and locking in a composition. Which is exactly why I would have gone with one here.

The beauty and formality of this background just begs to be meticulously nailed down and precisely framed. It'll take a minute or so, but that time is easily spent gushing about how cool it is as a background. And once locked in you can move the chef around in the frame (left, right, backward, forward) refocus, and all will look great.

Mind the 99%

No less than Arnold Newman once said that good photography is 1% inspiration and 99% moving furniture. I'd do whatever I could to address the items on the table visible in the bottom corners.

You do this either by camera position (dictated by the need for your background framing) or just move them if at all possible. Six inches. No worries.

Maybe Imitate that Background Light

And speaking of that cool background, there is a direction to the light in the painting. The sun seems to be coming from hard back left. So it would be very cool to key the guy from that direction, too. But you'd need to profile him to do it.

There are lots of ways you could pose him. And you could do several quick-change versions with your tripod nailed down. But I'd include a camera-left-facing profile among them, if just to marry the guy to the painting.

You could even cheat it toward camera juuust a little bit.

You'll need two light sources, which Arjen has. Fill is most important, as it will carry that background.

Big room? Good. Use the power of that mono and move the fill back (or better yet, bounce it off of a ceiling or back wall) to get it far away from the subject. This will set up a tight lighting ratio (light-to-subject vs light-to-background) that will keep your wall from going too dark.

And really, it is not that dark here. Just looks that way because the white outfit is in front of it.

Fill set, let's look at a key light. I'd go with his small soft box, back camera left just outside of the frame against the wall. Grid it (he has that, too) to keep it off the wall and angle in back at camera to hit chef's profile.

Once you have these lights set up, you can walk that key anywhere you want ad get a lot of different looks very easily. Exposure is still built upon your soft frontal fill as a base, which you could just leave in place.

Mind Your Shadow

Let's say you are just doing it one-light, tho. I normally do not key right above the camera, but I would consider it here.

Why? The shadow on the wall. The shadow tells us Arjen's light was close to the camera, but to camera right. The shadow kinda disrupts the Trompe-l'oeil fantasy, so let's kill it.

We'll do that by lighting from directly over and behind the camera. Chef will hide the shadow. If we raise and back that light up, the ratio will tighten and the wall will get brighter as we adjust the aperture for the new light position. (If that does not make sense, see here.)

Mind Your Specular

Love that Arjen got the big light source close enough to the camera to get that large specular highlight. That large (and, technically false) tone gives chef's face some great tone and depth.

He could go one better by switching to a white umbrella, which is not as shiny/specular. The nice, broad highlights would still define the subject's face, but without the shiny. (Which is not very bad to begin with, IMO.)

Vary, and Simplify

Okay, so you are locked down to the nice-background composition. Use that to your advantage and vary the subject position. I wouldn't even include the food until the end. Maybe go with something that connotes breakfast and is simpler, like a glass of orange juice. Or OJ in a champagne glass, which is visually a mimosa.

I'd bring him in closer for some photos, too. And when the food comes, that plate of food almost looks like a smile. Even better if you tweaked it on the plate just a tad. That could be a nice little (subtle) second layer, but you have to get the rotation and tilt just right. Play.

Also, you could avoid the hand amputation by having him place his right (camera left) hand behind his back. That'd clean it up nicely—and it is a classic waiter pose, so it fits.

Go For Moments

Whatever you do, after you lock down the variables (framing, background, camera, light, etc.) remember to concentrate 100% on the human stuff when shooting.

And I say this knowing full well that I often get mired in the technical to the expense of the human. Lock down what you can and switch completely to interpersonal mode.

Once you have the buttoned-down photos, you have nothing to lose. The safe smiles are already in the can. Whether he is holding the OJ or the full breakfast, whatever you can do to coax a moment out of him is fair game.

(When holding the OJ) "Forget it's orange juice. You're James Bond and that is your martini. Turn towards me in the bar."

(When holding the plate of food) "Don't just hold the food. Present it to me. Show it off. (click) Like I'm your girlfriend (click) and you just made me breakfast in bed. (click) And I am totally naked. (clickclickclick)"

If he is not married, that will get you a moment. If he is married, it will get you a better moment.

Whatever it takes. Everything else is nailed down at this point. Anything fun you can get is pure gravy.

So, many thanks for Arjen for being a good sport and letting us Monday Morning Quarterback his image. And like I said above, there is no right or wrong here. Just subjective choices, tweaks, tricks and outright suggestions of marital infidelity.


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OpenID Joe said...

Great post David. I like how you offer an alternate game plan rather than a critique. By doing this, your giving the photographer a road map, that show's him where he might have gone right instead of left, at the fork in the road. Learning from experience is sometimes the best teacher and making decisions, right and wrong is part of the process. We all have had those "Shoulda Woulda Coulda" moments. What's great about your post's is that you break it all down into segments, from technical to creative. This enable's one to pull something out from your bag of tricks, that help's elevate their work. I can't tell you how many times I have remembered what might seem to be a minor detail, from one of your posts, that has made a significant difference in the success of my work. Thank you David for sharing your insight.

November 29, 2012 10:03 AM  
Blogger Tom Legrady said...

I disagree about the limited value of critiques.

A number of years ago I regularly watched Craig Tanner's "Daily Critique". Some of the (viewer submitted ) images he discussed were excellent, some needed improving.

Craig was polite, it as always "in an ideal world", never "you messed up big-time". Some of the suggestions I could see for myself. But others I hadn't considered. Viewing suggestions on a regular and frequent basis for about a year gave me a library of faults to avoid, improvements to seek.

After that time, I stopped viewing Craig because I needed alternate voices, not to become a clone of a single adviser. But the critique process was valuable.

November 29, 2012 10:09 AM  
Blogger Frank Grygier said...

The shadow of the subject's hat on the background is the only thing I would address. Hindsight is 2020 in a crowded restaurant.

November 29, 2012 10:30 AM  
Blogger Nick Fancher said...

First off, I love this post. It's thorough and thoughtful and helpful. That said, I do disagree with your intro. You are right in that critiques are subjective. But I disagree with your metaphor of it being like taking different routes to arrive at the same place. That is assuming that all photos end up looking the same or being equally successful and that the method didn't matter. There are formal elements that make a photo or a painting or a piece of art more successful than others. That is why there is art education and art history.

I hope that didn't come across as trollish.

November 29, 2012 10:41 AM  
Blogger Ed from Ohio said...

I personally think he did a great job. The one thing that immediately hit me was that the image looks tilted.

Two things I might experiment with would be 1> Simply crop the image down a bit to make it more personal and/or 2> Try the shot cropped in more but with the chef at a bit more of an angle so it's not so much of the "mug shot" feel.

Just a couple suggestions. Not meant to detract from your nice work in any way.

November 29, 2012 10:51 AM  
Blogger Kelly Doering said...

Dave, thanks for the thoughtful "critique" of Arjen's image. I appreciate that you spent much time on what was "right" given the tools he had at his disposal at the time he made it. Back in the day as a student, I always dreaded the classroom critique because it always felt like it was used to tear down and deflate instead of a tool for learning and growing. Of course it's easy to pick out the bad right off, but your approach reminds me that it's also important to see what's good in an image along with what could be improved the next time out.

November 29, 2012 11:07 AM  
Blogger Mr. Peterson said...

Great Post. Great wording and advice on how to improve. These kinds of post make me want to present my horrible pics for such expert advice/critique!

November 29, 2012 1:55 PM  
Blogger J Bailey said...

Great post. This is risky and I'm not sure I have the cajones to hear what people have to say.

November 29, 2012 2:22 PM  
Blogger billz said...

I love the Newman quote, especially after doing a laboratory shoot on Sunday and spending 15 minutes cleaning stuff up and moving desks and chairs out into the hall.

November 29, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger Wing Tang Wong said...

This is one of the reasons I make Strobist my morning stop. :) Always great information.

Re: Image, nothing that hasn't already been gone into detail in David's detailed post...

- apparent tilt of background
- bits of furniture in lower corners of frame
- darkness in background made more apparent by bright foreground
- hint of shadow on the wall behind from subject and from roof tiles overhead

+1 on tripod
+1 on framing to get the background
+1 on hindsight being 20/20

November 29, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger Pete Sutton Fine Art said...

Love the tone of an alternate route. Photography is subjective. Lighting is subjective. What appeals to me in a photograph may not appeal to you. The process you just described is one I go through after every shoot. Only I am usually much harder on myself. It is only by analyzing what we don't like about our work that we grow and improve. I am my toughest critic, and that is the way it should be. Nothing hurts more than looking at a photo and realizing that if I had just taken another 30 seconds and moved slightly to the right, it would of been a perfect photo.

November 29, 2012 2:43 PM  
Blogger The Duck said...

Good for the shooter and good for the commenters. Always try not to make the shot my own when I comment. I just wonder if two elements tying the chef to his art were needed? Would the image have made it if were just about the chef in his hat?

November 29, 2012 3:28 PM  
Blogger Em said...

I agree with Ed from Ohio... Cropping this to bring the chef in closer and also off centre would create a lot more interest (at least in my eyes). I think the picture of the chef himself is not a bad one.

November 29, 2012 4:05 PM  
Blogger Fettaugraphy said...

That was a very insightful, respectfull and methodical reverse engineering exercise. Thanks Dave. It is so easy from this armchair but a little twist of the shoulders might have added a little more invite and added dimension to the picture. I find this works really well when doing waist up portraits.

November 29, 2012 8:36 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I agree with Kelly 100%. When I was a student photographer there was nothing worse than going into class with the "published" professor. It wasn't until I attended some refresher classes later that I learned critiques aren't the worst thing ever. I really like the constructive tone of Dave's write up.

For me, the specular highlight doesn't really distract at all, but I know some image makers would really frown on it. The gnawing detail is the tilt of the painting. I still catch myself sometimes aligning my view finder with the axis of the subject instead of the background or horizon too. I would level out the painting or obscure it completely although a Dutch angle probably isn't really appropriate for this kind of work.

I think there's an opportunity to use the archways within the painting to frame the subject in a playful way. Good job Arjen and David. This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to Strobist.

November 29, 2012 9:23 PM  
Blogger Brian Bray said...

>Like I'm your girlfriend (click) and you just made me breakfast in bed. (click) And I am totally naked. (clickclickclick)". If he is not married, that will get you a moment. If he is married, it will get you a better moment.

And if he's gay you'll get a look like he just drank the orange juice after brushing his teeth.

November 30, 2012 1:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What is the photograph for?

Presumably as promo for the restaurant or some kind of news story.

I would probably have taken a completely different picture.

Technically it ain't bad, but the photographer's right, it's not v appealing.

Ditch the background, doesn't add to the portrait at all for me and hard to incorporate.

Then maybe bring the plate of food towards the camera, wide angle, get the chef to add a sprig of parsley or something to it.

Light it and crop it so his face and the food are the focus.

More dynamic pose and expression.

Jobs a goodun.

November 30, 2012 10:15 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Aaaaaand cue the black and white critique from "Unknown"....

November 30, 2012 10:49 AM  
Blogger Matthew Cooper said...

Love it David.
The only thing to help me here would be a lighting diagram, just to help as you explain all the options that are coming up - just so its one less thing to picture in my brain as I read it all and try and absorb.

December 01, 2012 4:57 AM  
Blogger Duane Dale said...

Thanks to Arden and David.

A while back, when I photographed a wedding with a dark-skinned groom and best man, I found I had a strong preference against the sort of specular facial highlights found in Arjen's sample photo. I much preferred the facial modeling from either ambient light or bounced flash.

Specular highlights contrast more with the skin of dark-skinned people than fairer-skinned people, so it's more of an issue. An interesting set of samples can be found at http://www.flickr.com/groups/affriccann/

Smaller specular highlights may be OK. I think the questions to ask are whether the specular highlights bring out, obscure, or distract from facial contours, and whether they contribute favorably or unfavorably to whatever symmetry or assymetry there is in the photo.

December 01, 2012 6:01 PM  
Blogger Kevin Li said...

I am sure it's tempting to include the whole back ground, I might have shot this in portrait instead to crop tighter and straighter. Other than that under the circumstance I wouldn't have done any better I think. lol

December 02, 2012 1:43 AM  
Blogger Lars Clausen said...

Very happy to see a constructive lighting critique. I learned a lot from the landscape critiques on Luminous Landscape back then, and consider thoughtful critiques quite valuable. Especially the ones that take the situation into consideration and give a number of possible tweaks.

Unlike other lighting discussions I've been reading, this one made me imagine how various lighting setup would work, and that's what I need to learn. By explaining rather than just showing the result, you force me to play it out in my mind, which is what I would need to do when shooting.

Thank you, please keep them coming. Next time, I'll write my own ideas before reading yours, and compare afterwards.

December 02, 2012 3:33 AM  
Blogger Gil Aegerter said...

Really nice post -- a lot to learn from. Maybe even just centering the chef, tilting to try to center the trompe l'oeil, having him hold the food out to create more depth. Arjen is indeed a good sport!

December 02, 2012 12:37 PM  
Blogger Mike Holtby said...

Primarily I would go with the subject closer to the camera, and work with him to get a more natural expression. Here is a similar subject that illustrates what I mean: http://www.flickr.com/photos/holtby/3333555755/in/photostream

December 03, 2012 4:16 PM  
Blogger Oscar said...

Absolutely a fantastic post!! Loved the Q&A and it really helps to see how a pro, as yourself, thinks through a photo. If you get more, it would make a great series to learn from.

December 03, 2012 5:15 PM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

One of the posts that have become rae lately - very well written and to the point. BUT! How do I get rid of the previsualized image of a buck naked David Hobby waiting for breakfast in my bed?

December 04, 2012 8:14 AM  
Blogger Solarfly said...

When I started shooting with DSLR and passing attention to my photos I was surprised how crooked my shots were. I immediately enabled the viewfinder grid-lines and learned about my Canon's built-in leveling/tilt feature. If your heart doesn't have these features there are traditional bubble level devices that can attach to your hotshoe or tripod head, but nothing beats in-viewfinder grid for looking things up. Then I practiced repeatedly until muscle memory set in to shoot straight shots.

Maybe that won't work for everyone but I hope it helps.

December 12, 2012 8:07 PM  
Blogger Nick Fancher said...

I love the way you moderate, David.

December 13, 2012 10:19 AM  
Blogger Duane Dale said...

Arjen's starting question was "Why Does This Look Bad?" David's reply started with "... not so bad, really" and many of the comments admired the tone of the interchange or offered polite comments of their own.
Having followed David's link (the blue words "set up") I've discovered what a skilled photographer Arjen is, so I'm pushing past a sense of "...far be it from me..." as I offer some additional comments:
I agree with Arjen that it does look bad. I think it's the result of a perfect storm of factors that could easily be seen as beyond the photographer's control. (Some of David's and others' comments point to ways to take back that control.)
(1) The photo has a cartoon-ish quality about it. Or kind of like Sketching 101 where you rough out some basic shapes and then fill in detail that masks them. The shapes in this case include the white upward triangle of the brightly lit part of the chef's hat, the similar-sized upward triangle of the specular reflection on cheeks and up across the eyes to the forehead, the dark downward triangle of jaw and neck, the trapezoid of his shirt, the oval of the plate...
(2) It's all too symmetrical.
(3) The chef's outfit manages to create a "snowman" look -- maybe the more so because of the symmetrical, square-on view.
(4) The two things I would want to see in a photo of a chef are a warm smile (which I'd treat as an indication of hospitality) and skilled hands. The warm smile is there, but it needs more of a close-up in order to be a dominant feature of the photo, and instead it gets lost in the wider view that was chosen for the sake of the trompe l'oeil backdrop. The hands, which I'd like to see doing something typical of the chef's trade, are of course missing from view.
(5) Maybe because of all this, and despite his chef's outfit, he comes across more as waiter (or buffet-line server) than chef.

What would I like to see? Maybe a portrait (a close-up) + anenvironmental portrait (showing hands at work, but not as wide a view as this one). Of course, that sort of two-photo approach might not match with client's specifications.

December 13, 2012 7:07 PM  
Blogger Felipe Jaramillo said...

I may be the hungriest of posters so I actually looked at the plate more than anything else.

The fried egg with tomato and bacon looks like a tasty breakfast but there may be other more fancy plates (visually) that he could create. Some time spent on preparing the plate may support other photo angles where the food is more prominent.

December 23, 2012 10:03 AM  

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