Category Archives: Classes & Workshops

What Makes Great Photography? (Part 1)

As a photographer and all-around nice guy, I enjoy giving back to my community when I can. Nothing pleases me more than having the opportunity to merge my passion for photography and teaching.

The Boys Club

The Boys Club (2009)

I was recently asked to give a presentation on photography for Lakeview Library, one of the local branches of the Peoria Public Library System. If you recall, I taught a nine week course on Photoshop Elements 9 at the Main Branch in downtown Peoria last year.

This time, I was contacted by the events coordinators at Lakeview, one of whom was the mother of a former model I’ve worked with. Insert “small world” observation here.

They didn’t give me any specifications other than the hour-long time constraint. Only an hour to talk about something I love dearly? I guess it would have to do. I decided that I wanted to approach the presentation from more of a discussion standpoint, à la David duChemin, and less of a “here’s how to do well at photography.” I offered my subject to them and they loved it.

So, on a Tuesday evening, I engaged a small group of interested people in some discussion and analysis of images, under the umbrella: “What Makes Great Photography?” It’s an interesting subject so I decided to share what I discussed in the class with a small series here on the blog. This week’s subject: story.

Every Picture Tells a Story

This Ain't Kansas (2011)

This Ain’t Kansas (2011)

At the heart of all the techniques, tips, and tricks that anyone can teach you about photography is the ability to capture a moment in time and, ultimately, tell a story.

There are a multitude of tools in the photographer’s arsenal that help us tell a better story or one with a more definitive plot, but at the root, all of these compositional elements are just stepping-stones to the bigger picture, if you will.

Great stories need some basic pieces: interesting characters, a conflict and resolution, and a plot that allows the reader to easily follow and connect with the characters as they meet the conflict, and hopefully, the resolution.

You are probably scratching your head and wondering where this is all going? Well, great photographs also need these three things. But, how do you take what most authors spend pages on telling and cram it into one click of a shutter?


Well, start at the beginning… interesting characters. Does this mean you have to always have people in your images? Certainly not. Character is any main subject of an image; in the image above, the characters are the barn and the two windmills. To drive the focus of the viewer to the character and force them to connect, we can use some of the tools we will be talking about in coming posts. But, it’s always good to find what you feel the character of any image is before you start to frame it up in the viewfinder.

Conflict & Resolution

Once you have identified what your main subject, or “character,” is, you have to figure out how it will conflict, and ultimately, resolve within a single frame. Huh? Stay with me here.

Flying Solo (2008)

Flying Solo (2008)

Conflict in an image comes down to intentional imbalance. You know the Rule of Thirds? Why do you think we prefer not to put a face right in the smack middle of an image?

Our brains tell us that images shouldn’t be perfectly balanced, but rather we prefer some small conflict in how elements are laid out. This forces us to not only engage with the subject of the photograph, but to also seek out the other part to conflict: resolution.

In the example shown here, the “character” is the single red leaf. The conflict and resolution are two-fold: the composition with the single leaf in the lower right corner and the use of a negative space around to the left and top to help balance it out as well as the use of color on the single leaf and black and white on everything else. With these tools, the viewer is drawn into the leaf and forced to engage mentally.


If the subject of the photograph is the “character” and contrast and balance the “conflict and resolution,” then what is the plot? Everything else? Not quite.

Another House of God (2010)

Another House of God (2010)

In our story, the plot is what leads the reader, or viewer, in our case, from the first introduction of the character through to the final conflict and resolution. In an image, this is all the other smaller compositional elements that draw the viewer “in.”

In “Another House of God,” the subject, or “character,” might not be too clear, but for me, it was the altar at the front of the church. The “conflict and resolution” is based on the size of the character (altar) vs. the size of the entire church.

With the plot being all the minor compositional elements that drive your eye into the subject, I would have to say leading, or receding, lines is one of the easiest to name. You can see how the aisle, the columns, the hanging lamps, the pews… they all seem to “point” at the altar from the vantage point I’ve decided to show.

Another piece to the “plot” would have to be the use of repetition or pattern; you can see this in the floor pattern, the pews, the hanging lamps, the columns, and even the windows. We will take in more detail about pattern later, but just know that when a viewer sees a pattern and then the pattern is interrupted as they follow it, it forces them to interact and engage. When a viewer mentally engages with an image, that’s how you know the story gets told.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday Viewsday: Hanna City HDR

Uh oh… triple X… guess we’re going to be a little naughty for today’s post! No, don’t worry; nothing like that, I promise. Instead of looking at an image from the past few years, let’s take a look at one I shot this past weekend during the Hanna City Work Camp HDR workshop.

For those wondering, the workshop was a total blast and those who attended really learned a lot, even if there were some computer difficulties there near the end. In the days since our excursion to Hanna City, I’ve seen a whole load of new HDR images in the Flickr streams of attendees and have received some really great questions about the process, which always means good things; I believe that curiosity truly is the mother of creation.

As for the site, Hanna City Work Camp is an abandoned detention facility located just west of Peoria. For an HDR shooter, this place is truly heaven; even the students were begging to stay for a few more minutes when we left. I hope to return there in the spring and our faithful guide, Rick, was more than kind enough to let us come shoot and said we can come back anytime.

HCWC is now maintained by Peoria County (a special thanks to Jenny at Peoria County for all her amazing work arranging the site for me), but it has a long history; starting off as a radar station for the Air Force, it eventually became a detention center for juveniles, then for adult prison trustees with less than six months left on their sentences.

In the years since, the radar was purchased by the FAA and is still used to this day, but the funds to keep the facility open were diverted elsewhere and now the County maintains the property until such time they can look at a proper use for it in the near future.

Until then, it’s a photographer’s paradise loaded down with abandoned buildings, broken windows, peeling paint, rusty metal, and loads of litter scattered throughout; when I imagine the Rapture, this is what it looks like as if everyone just left in a hurry and didn’t care what happened when they left. Simply put… it’s awesome.

So what do you think of the shot? What do you like or not like about it? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

HDR Workshop – September 12

Better Days

Better Days

A few months ago, I was approached by a local photography group to present a workshop on my high dynamic range (HDR) techniques and I jumped at the chance.

I love shooting and processing HDR images and I love sharing my knowledge with those around me so why not combine those two things together and help others experience the joy of photography that I do?

Well, after some initial planning, the group decided that a HDR workshop wouldn’t bring out the crowd they were really hoping for and they dropped the idea. I, however, felt like I was being challenged and became even more passionate about the idea of holding a workshop here in Peoria. I knew I wanted to do something unique especially when it came to the location so that attendees had something to remember and images they couldn’t get anywhere else.

I called in a favor with one of the many contacts I’ve made in the marketing industry and after some back-and-forth, I was able to get special access for us to shoot at the Hanna City Work Camp, a former minimum security prison and juvenile detention facility located west of Peoria that was recently sold to the county by the State of Illinois. Let’s just say that with all the rundown buildings, tall grasses, barbed wire fences, and guard towers, this is surely to make for an awesome HDR class.

Want to know how you can get in on the fun? Check out the details…


Date: September 15, 2012
Time: 4 to 8 p.m. (meet at 3:30 p.m. at Campustown in Peoria)
Location: Hanna City Work Camp & classroom TBD
Fee: $25.00 (only 8 slots open as of this writing)

Full details are available on Flickr.

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