Viewer Photo: Guys and Gulls

Guys and Gulls

This is an interesting photo, and a good subject for a critique as there is much to say and to be learned. 

Let me start by saying what I see here: you saw something, boys observing (and feeding?) seagulls at water's edge. What makes it compelling is the random scattering of birds (with a touch of Alfred Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds", always lingering when we see lots of birds surrounding people).

My eye is most strongly drawn to the two gulls at top center, who seem to be fighting over some food. This is dramatic, so all the other birds become supporting actors to these two. The birds below and to the left are also nice, one with wings up, one down; good supporting actors. Notice that the birds against the light sky show well, as dark shapes. Notices that the birds against the dark woods show well, as lighter shapes. But notice that the many birds against the water don't show very well, as their off-white matches the water surface, so those birds don't add as much strength to the story.

And the biggest problem for me in the photo is the gull that is partly behind the head of the fellow in the red jacket. We know that the bird is not hitting him in the face, but in a purely visual sense, it IS hitting him in the face, and that is awkward. A good experiment: try retouching that bird out, and comparing to the same image with. (This is tricky, since the bird is half behind the boy's head, which makes removing it tougher.)

The red jacket and backpack are great, and work in front of both dark woods and light water, as does the blue jacket. But the dark or black jacket is blending too much into the dark woods, so that part of the photo loses power. Quick test: crop out the boy on the right and notice that you lose that dark-on-dark problem, and also lose a part of the sky that is empty. So one rule: always crop out everything you can, leaving on the be strongest parts.

Next issue for me: the critical part of the three boys is their heads, which fall at a difficult place against the tree line. I suspect that if you knelt down and shot from a lower place, the three heads would silhouette against the sky, which would be stronger. Moving yourself for a better point of view can be critical, even if just a feet or inches.

Depth of field. You got the boys in focus and the background out of focus, which is what you need. But the background is not dramatically out of focus, which would make the boys stand out even more. How? Either wider aperture, down to f5.6 or f4, if possible. Also, standing farther away with a longer focal length throws the backgrounds out of focus more, even at same fStop. Now, we know that narrower depth of field might have thrown the birds out of focus, so you would need to "work" the depth of field for max depth where you want, max blur where you don't. Depth of field is endlessly challenging, but absolutely critical.

Shutter speed: you chose a pretty effective shutters speed, as the gulls are reasonably sharp, even while moving, and the stationary boys are not blurred at all. Here is something worth thinking about: if the shutter speed were very fast, 1/500 or higher, the birds would have little or no motion blur, and that would produce a different result. Not necessarily better, but different. On the other hand, if you shot a slow shutter speed, perhaps somewhere from 1/4 to 1/30 of a second, the birds might have all been motion-blurred. That would also be a very different photo: in that photo the birds would be more abstract and the photo would be symbolic, one reality for fast birds, and another for static boys.

As to lighting: you don't get to choose the lighting for outdoor "grab" shots. I like soft, moody lighting like this, but realize some people will say that a sunny day "looks happier". What they don't realize is that sunny day photos all tend to look like family snapshots, easily dismissed.

Summary: what this photo shows me is that you have the ability to see interesting scenes and capture them. When I come back from a 10 day trip to Italy, I usually am pretty unhappy with 997 photos and like about 3of them. But each photo that could be improved is a critical learning experience, so DO NOT be discouraged if a photo does not win the Pulitzer Prize. Look at the photo, see what it does well, what could be better, and store that away for next time.

You can spend a solid half hour photographing this kind scene, if the boys and gulls cooperate. During that time you try fast and slow shutter speeds, and also different fStops and focal lengths for different amounts of focus isolation. I often take a wide variety of exposures with different settings because you can never really tell how things will work till you see them large on the computer. And, yes, with birds flying around at random, it might well be that the shot with the best arrangement of birds does not have the best shutter speed and aperture and focal length. But if you miss the great shot, you learn something and perhaps next time you know from the start what focal length and shutter speed you want; then you just experiment with aperture.