Bryan Peterson Photography School
What makes a great photograph? Without a doubt, this is the question I am asked the most, whether in my photography workshops around the world, at the slide-talk lectures I present to groups from six to five thousand people, or in the countless photography classes at my online school (BPSOP.com). Is it the technical aspects of an image—lens choice, exposure, point of view, composition? Yes, those things are important. But ultimately what makes a great photograph is the intention behind the image. What did the photographer intend to capture? And was that intention made obvious and
compelling for the viewer? A great photograph is one that brings joy or sadness to not only the photographer but others as well. In effect, a great photograph is one that makes us feel deeply.
Over the past forty-five years, I have taught thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic and passionate amateur photographers, and the methodology of my workshops generally follows the same format. After a meet-and-greet, we spend the next two, five, or more days together photographing various scenes. As we do this, it is common for me, following a student’s attempt to photograph a given scene, to take their camera and photograph what we affectionately call the “Bryan Peterson version” of the same scene, showing small changes that produce the kind of photograph they had hoped to achieve. (I use their camera so that they can keep my images as teaching tools.) Sometimes I adjust exposure fundamentals, such as aperture choice or shutter speed. At other times, it’s about shifting the point of view or waiting just a few more moments (or, in some cases, hours) for the “right” light. By showing them my version of the same scene or guiding them to an improved version of their own, we bridge that little bit of distance in their ongoing journey toward making compelling photographs. It’s often only a simple adjustment that is needed to make an ordinary image extraordinary, one that will stop the viewer in their tracks, inspiring shock, laughter, or tears—in other words, moving the emotional meter.
This book brings you inside that workshop process, sharing more than eighty student photographs that missed the mark (sometimes by mere inches), each paired with a more successful version and an explanation of what changed, along with solutions for avoiding the same mistakes in your own images. You’ll read repeatedly about my belief that successful photographs must have a combination of balance and tension, and hear my mantra that while great light rarely salvages a poor composition, a compelling composition almost always salvages poor light. You’ll be, in effect, sitting next to the students, hearing the stories behind their photographs, and learning along with them how to bring that photograph across the finish line.
As far as subjects go, this book covers most, if not all, of them. Whether you’re interested in photographing landscapes, flowers, abstracts, wildlife, people, sunsets, trees, oceans, mountains, sports, or inclement weather, they’re all here. These are the photographs most people want to take and can clearly see before them, yet often fall short of making compelling or creating what I call the “creatively correct” exposure.
Don’t be surprised if much of what you read and see in this book resonates with your personal photographic journey, shortcomings and all.
Although you will find a number of exercises throughout this book to help you better understand both exposure and composition, you might find it beneficial to refer to my previous books, such as Understanding Exposure
, Understanding Shutter Speed
, Learning to See Creatively
, and Understanding Composition
, for more in-depth explanations. Understanding Exposure
, now in its fourth edition, helps readers understand the difference between a correct exposure and a “creatively correct” exposure, offering comprehensive explanations of, for example, a “Who cares?” aperture versus a “storytelling” aperture. The students in this book have made a number of technical exposure mistakes and Understanding Exposure
is a useful companion to understanding my critiques of those images.
Now, needless to say, you may be wondering what gives me the authority to speak about another’s work. And it’s true that any photograph—or critique of that photograph—is very subjective. Some might respond to a photograph of a nude with disdain, just as others might yawn at a photograph of a flower or sunset. I’m fully aware that I am just one person and my comments are subjective, even based as they are on many years of joy and heartache behind the camera. That said, the critiques in this book generally represent not only my opinions but also the collective voice of my students, as we generally discuss the images together at the end of each workshop. Only rarely do I disagree with the overall sense of whether or not a photograph is successful. The fact is, almost everything I’ve learned about the art of image-making I’ve learned directly and indirectly from my students. So while the critiques are written by me, they are in many respects a collective writing from the group.
One more point to keep in mind is that unlike a “blind” critique, in most cases I had the benefit of participating in workshops with these students, getting to know them over the course of two, five, or more days, particularly with repeat students. This has given me insight into their intentions, techniques, and feelings about their photographs that I would not normally be afforded and that has been included in these critiques.
Every comment made about a student’s work in Bryan Peterson Photography School
is intended to help the student—and thus you—become a better photographer. Whether your intention is to win awards at your local camera club, pursue photography full-time, or simply generate more likes on Instagram or Facebook, the material in this book will help you accelerate your skills, shed habits that have been keeping you from consistently producing compelling images, and feel more confident as you pursue photographic excellence.
If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, or if you have read any of my other books, you will recognize my voice, my passion, and, most of all, my desire to help you learn the art of image-making. I am who I am today in many respects because of readers like you. I am eternally grateful for your countless emails, comments, and stories of how much you have been helped by my books, but I also want you to know that you have helped me more as a photographer and pushed me more as a creative artist than you can possibly realize. I will be forever grateful for the tremendous support and love you have shown me over my own forty-five-year journey of pursuing photographic excellence. Until next time, this is Bryan Peterson reminding you to keep shooting!