IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work…

Timeless portraits that evoke feelings frequently aren’t always planned, but may happen almost spontaneously. In this image, there was a moment when the subject and photographer “collided” with really wonderful results. But as delightful as those moments of serendipity are, they don’t tell the whole story. Being an alert photographer who knows their camera and has a good feeling for composition can see and grab a shot at the “drop of a hat.” Nathan did that and did it very, very well.

Let’s take a look at the elements that make this portrait work so well.

Innocence in Later Years
by Nathan Crowder

We would like to let you know that Nathan is 19 years old and has completed his first year in a two year photography program. We are quite pleased to be sharing his image with all of you. He is a young photographer with a wonderful future in his chosen form of art.

© 2012 Nathan Crowder. All rights reserved.

Subject: Photo of a classmate and friend

Conditions: Nathan took the image on a class location shoot – taking images of other classmates. The day was really cloudy, so for additional lighting additional studio strobe lights were being used in the area, although for this image Nathan was not using his strobe lights.

“I was about to put up my camera when I turned around and saw one of my classmates resting on his cane in what looked like an “Oldie’s” fashion pose. I shouted at him to hold the pose and I made the picture. I converted the image to B&W, adjusted the levels, and sharpened his facial features. When I had it printed, I was blown away by his smile!”


1. Circular composition keeps our eye on the subject
2. There is balance in frame as our eye is restricted to the subject area.
3. The focal point in the image is the “twinkle” in his left eye. The strong “catch light” was created when a
nearby strobe flashed.
4. The cloudy day created soft shadows and highlights.
5. The hands resting on the subject’s cane and the glasses add interest.
6. Conversion to black & white removed the distraction of color and enhanced a variety of textures.

Noella’s comments:

Nathan’s image is a wonderful example of a circular composition where the subject is so centered that you can’t tear your eye out of the circle. And, by using limited depth of field, the background confines us but doesn’t detract from the subject

There is a balance not only within the frame, but within the subject in the frame. It is a series of circles within the larger circles of the head and body. The smaller partial circle created by the brim of the hat pushes our eye directly down to the focal point, that sparkling left eye, which of course is another circle, while the half circle created by the forearms and hands leads the eye directly up toward the face. In taking a close look at the hands and the glasses, note how everything is restricted within that circle. Keep looking and you’ll find even more circles. Again, Nathan has commanded our vision and demanded we look at the face.

The catch light in the eyes of a portrait subject is what draws one’s attention to their eyes, and thus, to the essence and character of the subject. This strongly holds you within the image. If there is no catch light, a subject looks dull and lifeless. Here, the subject is looking directly into the camera and a nearby strobe light created the catch light in his eyes. It is one of the occasional “unintended consequences” that can work so well to the photographer’s advantage.

The soft, even light of a cloudy day diminishes hard, contrasting shadows and highlights and contributes to the sense of comfort and relaxation when you look at this portrait.

It may not have been a planned pose, but the subjects hands on top of his cane and the eyeglasses add a satisfying and interesting appeal.

Nathan’s choice of converting to black/white in the post-processing stage removed the potential subjective distraction of color, enhanced the textural sense of touch, and added to the impact of the image.

As we look at him, we can only speculate about the story of his life and who he is. The viewer may not know the man in the image, but one can’t take their eyes away from his face. That is a testament to the photographer and to the relationship between the photographer and their subject – really nice work Nathan.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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