Lesson from the Shot: What a Difference a Millimeter Can Make

by Stanley Leary



Some rights reserved by nicholasf - Nick Feder


When shooting, it's important to take enough photos of your subjects. Once you've begun doing that, it's easy to see how even a millimeter's change in angle can make the difference between a good and a great photograph - or a good shot and a crummy one.

If we print all the digital images from a shoot as large thumbnails, we'll have several pages of images we can study side by side.

Here are eight factors to consider when determining whether you have any choice photos in your next shoot.

1. Exposure. Not just the technically correct one, but the proper exposure for the effect we wish to convey. We can under-expose a little to emphasize graphics or overexpose (e.g., in fashion photography, to diminish skin tones or to emphasize eyes and lips).

2. Focus. I love selective focus where the depth of field is very shallow. This lets me direct the viewer's attention to where I want it to go. It makes the subject pop out. We see this used in fashion and sports photography. The opposite (a deep depth of field) may be what’s needed for landscape photos.

3. Composition. Medical students are told, “First, do no harm.” Photographers should take the same advice and leave out all unnecessary elements. Good composition is the selection of what should be in and what should be out of the frame when the shutter is released. Shoot under the branch of a tree or through a door or window. A frame is only one of many visual elements that can draw a viewer into our photo. Elements, like leading lines, will give it a three-dimensional feel. Anytime we can make someone feel as if they can see into our photography we have truly accomplished something. After all, it is only a two-dimensional object.

4. Lighting. Light can draw one into the photo. Light is probably, next to expression and body language, the most dramatic, mood-setting tool we have as photographers. The color temperature can be powerful. The warm late evening light, the cool early morning colors, or the green cast of fluorescent office light each carries a mood of its own.

5. Expression. Portrait photographers KNOW that the composition may be beautiful, the lighting creative, the clothing and background perfect, but if the EXPRESSION isn't…no sale! Is a smile what is needed? (By the way, never tell anyone to smile. Most adults can't turn it on and off, and kids will come up with some rather unusual expression, but generally not a real smile. If, as a photographer we need them to smile, then it is up to us to elicit one from them.) Usually pictures of people should show their faces. Sounds obvious, but if our subjects are watching something happening, like a ball game or a birthday party, we must not be so distracted, that we forget what is important…the faces of our subjects.

6. Body Language.
We can communicate a great deal about our subjects if we watch their body language. Watch their arms; it's amazing what is said just by the position of our arms. Are they open or closed? Is the person in our photo leaning forward or backward? Does their position engage or pull back? Do they appear to be sensitive or cold? Are they reaching out to others or pushing them away?

7. The Eyes. An eye doctor may tell us that the eyes really don't change. Be that as it may, watch the eyes. They tell it all! The eyes are the essence of a portrait.

8. The Head.
A millimeter's turn of the head, a slight tilt is all it takes to make the difference between a zero and a five-star photograph.

By moving the camera merely a millimeter, you can include someone's feet rather than chopping them off, leave out or include another person, and change the mood. Just a millimeter or so can keep the tree from growing out of a spouse's head. Moving an inch to the left may let the camera see a person's face a little better or distinguish the main subject from their surroundings.

When we shoot enough photos, we become aware of the difference just a millimeter's change can make. It is then we begin to see why one photo is bad and another is good.