Photo Critique: Out of Business

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This photo was submitted by Dan Gerth.

I have to say up front that I really like this photograph. And the title really brings it all together.

What I like: clean, simple composition with strong graphics and a very well established center of interest. Really nice color harmony, with warm and cool tones interacting in a very dynamic way. The juxtaposition of the kids’ lemonade stand against the “big brother” of the higher-end store is very appealing. This photo has a great story, and loads of character.

What doesn’t work for me: although the shadows are deep and dark and should be, they are actually quite plugged up, with some posterization around their boundaries. In these transition areas, color noise is very evident. I’d like to see some smoother transitions here. Also, there appears to be some chromatic aberration visible in the lines of the shingles on the front of the building.

This is a wonderfully expressive image, made under difficult shooting conditions. With a little technical refinement this can be an excellent image.

Thanks, Dan, for submitting your photo… really nicely done!

Photo Critique: Jemez Mists

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This photo was submitted by Dan Gerth. At first glance, the atmospheric effects are sublime, and definitely pique my interest. I love the balance and interaction between the sun-streaked clouds in the middle and the clouds at the top left. These are two very different design elements interacting in a way that imparts a lot of energy.

The tones in the black and white conversion were handled very nicely. There’s a wide range of brightness levels, from near pure white to deep black. I love how the layers of mountains are rendered in different tones.

My one real nit about the image is the composition. I get that it’s a picture of the sky, of light, and of ethereal atmospheric effects. However, I find that my eye tends to wander somewhat randomly around the bright part in the center of the photo, without finding a place to rest.

For most photos, having a strong, well-defined focal point or center of interest is crucial. In this photo, I’m not sure exactly where to look, which becomes a little unnerving after a few moments of viewing the photo.

An eagle soaring in the bright part of the sky would have solved this 😉

Overall I think it’s a well seen and well executed photo; I’d just have preferred to see a bit more strength in the design. Thanks, Dan, for submitting your photo!

Photo critique: Yosemite

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This photo was submitted by Christy Tebsherani. This photo is bold and dramatic, with a lot of immediate impact. Overall I like the way you handled the composition. There’s a lot of depth conveyed by the perspective of the receding mountains, and I like how the focal point resolves at Half Dome.

Usually, grand scenic landscape photos like this look their best when photographed at sunrise or sunset, or with dramatic weather conditions. Notice how the trees in the forest in the middle of the picture appear as an almost solid field of green. This is because the light is coming from behind the camera position, resulting in front lighting on the scene. Front light is the least attractive kind of light for most landscapes, because you can’t see any shadows. (The shadowed sides of the trees and mountains are on the hidden side of the objects, facing away from the camera.)

In most all types of photography, the quality of light is the most important factor in creating a superior image vs. one that’s just ho-hum. There’s no such thing as “bad light”, but you always need to match the light with the subject matter to produce the best results. For wide landscape images, side lighting reveals a lot more depth in the scene. For this reason, most nature and landscape photographers don’t make photographs of landscapes during the middle of the day, because the light is harsh and unflattering on the land. In nature photography, you’re working with natural light, and the time of day makes all the difference in producing a winning photograph.

Photo critique: Statue of Liberty

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This photo was submitted by Christy Tebsherani. I like the simplicity of the composition. The Statue is portrayed cleanly and strongly. I like that it’s centered, but I wonder if it might be a bit more dynamic if the Statue was placed more to the right, so the flame of the torch is perfectly centered. Might be worth trying some different cropping.

Overall the image is pretty flat and lacking “pop”. This is due to the lighting conditions and atmospheric haze, neither of which renders the Statue in its most flattering light. You might try adjusting the contrast to help overcome this. Generally speaking, though, a subject like this will look its best with strong sidelight, which would add depth and drama. Shooting at the end of the day just before sunset would be a good approach.

I couldn’t adequately evaluate the sharpness of the image; it’s pretty low resolution and there are significant artifacts from the JPG compression. However, there does appear to be some color noise that could be reduced with noise reduction controls like those found in Adobe Lightroom.

Overall this is a clean, strong composition. It could have been improved with better weather and lighting conditions. Thanks for submitting your photo, Christy!

Photo Critique: Child Portrait

© Becky Bourget. Click for larger image

This photo was submitted by Becky Bourget for critique. This is an engaging photo that conveys the spirit of the child. Overall the image looks very sharp and properly exposed. I like that you used a wide aperture to produce a shallow depth of field that keeps the child’s face sharp but blurs the background.

The first place my eyes go when looking at the image is the child’s nose/mouth area, then the eyes. Then the hand on the cap. All these graphic elements are near the center of the frame, which is OK in this case… when you want to show symmetry (such as with a human face), placing elements in the center of the frame emphasises this. The photo would be more appealing if the child was smiling.

My eye then goes to the graphic on the shirt, which has lots of color contrast and interesting shapes and lines. To some degree, the graphic on the shirt fights against the kid’s face for attention. I think the image would have been stronger with either a different shirt or a composition that minimized the shirt’s effect.

The shadows on the top part of kid’s face are a bit problematic. The light is quite harsh and contrasty. You can handle this by using fill flash to add light into the dark areas. When shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, using flash can make a big difference on the overall quality of light in in a photo. It looks like there may be a small amount of fill flash used; using a stronger amount of flash would balance the highlights and shadows, and would also create more prominent catchlights in the eyes.

One trick you can use when shooting outdoors in harsh light is to use a large diffuser to create softer, shadowed light for the subject. Placing a diffuser to the upper right of the subject would create much more flattering light. You can also use a reflector to bounce into shadow areas.

Lastly, the dark elements in the background are somewhat distracting, especially because they are at or near the edges of the frame. Always keep an eye out for distracting elements along the edges and corners of the frame. In this case, the strong contrast between the light tan background and the dark blobs draws the eye away from the main subject. The photo would be stronger if these are eliminated; you can do this with software, but in the future you can improve your compositions by watching for these distracting elements and reframing the shot to remove them.

I think you’re on the right track; the image could be improved with just a little refinement of the composition and the manipulation of light to reduce contrast on the face and brighten the eyes.

Thanks for submitting your photo!

Photo critique – Barn by Kevin Travis

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This photo was submitted by Kevin Travis. It was taken with a Nikon D90, ISO 200, f/22, 1/4 sec. Processed with Adobe Photoshop 7 and Lightroom 3.2.

At first glance this photo has great impact; the WOW factor is huge. It has a simple, clean composition and the color is nice. The image looks sharply focused and shows a wide range of tones. Overall, it’s a very well captured and minimally processed image.

The first thing my eye goes to is the cloud streak; my eye sweeps down and to the left. The eye movement stops at the cluster of dark trees. And looking closer at the composition, all the lines seem to point to the dark bunch of trees. This creates a strong focal point for the image. But what’s the subject? It this a picture of an old barn, is it a picture of clouds, is it a picture of trees?

Looking at the photo longer, things start to come apart, quite literally. There’s a lack of cohesion between the graphic elements in the frame. First and most important is the bright streak of clouds. It attracts a lot of attention and subdivides the frame. The line created by the bright clouds creates a directional pointer to the dark circle of trees. Your eye travels down the line of clouds, ends up at the trees, and there’s no visual reward to be found there. The old barn becomes irrelevant.

The left side of the picture is distinctly separate from the right side; it’s two separate pictures mashed together in one frame. The left side of the image doesn’t add much to the composition; I’d suggest cropping in from the left.

Bringing the graphic elements of the composition together would have helped the picture a lot. On location, I would have recommended moving to the right so that the roof of the building overlapped the clouds a bit.

The trees on the right edge of the frame are distracting, too, because they’re in a bright area of high contrast. Your eye gets sucked into that bright spot and again, there’s no payoff.

Overall, the composition looks “crooked”. There’s a horizontal line that goes all the way across the frame and it looks slightly tilted counter-clockwise.

In all photographs you need to pay attention to how the graphic elements in the frame interact with one another. Although you need to maintain visual separation between elements and avoid mergers, in this case the picture would have been stronger if some of the parts weren’t so separated.

Finally, I’d recommend burning the bottom of the picture to add visual weight, help ground the composition and hold the eye in the frame. You can do this in Lightroom with the graduated filter tool.

Thank you for submitting your photo, Kevin! I hope you find this critique helpful when making future photos.

Photo Critique: Apache at Sunset

This photo was submitted for critique by Edward Garner.

This is a beautiful image taken near sunset in Afghanistan. I love the simplicity of the compositon and the strong graphics. There is a lot of drama in a shot like this.

Looking at the composition, the first thing I notice is the helicopter, which is a good thing. It’s the main focal point of the photograph and there is little question as to what this photo is about.

After the helicopter, I notice the sun, which makes a nice counterpoint to the helicopter. It’s also very interesting how the helicopter and sun are tonally reversed – the heli is black, the sun is white. A nice contrast.

One thing to look out for in a composition like this is that when you have two very strong elements the viewer’s eye can tend to “ping pong” back and forth between the two. In this case, I don’t think it’s a problem because the helicopter is strong enough to retain its dominance in the composition. (more…)

Photo Critique: Swinging with the Music

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This photo was submitted by Diana Birdwell.

I really like the black and white treatment; I think this is a perfect example of a shot that looks great in BW due to the graphic shapes and strong contrast.

I also like the title. Good titles are important for photos, especially in critique or competition environments where everything contributes to the overall impression created on the viewer.

This photo is chock full of lines and geometric shapes. What’s really cool is how the smooth, curving shape of the violin contrasts the harder, angular shapes of the swing. This kind of “contrast” is different that what we typically think of: tonal contrast. Consider that many strong images contain contrasts between various elements of the conposition: bold vs. subtle, large vs. small, soft vs. hard, smooth vs. textured, etc. As you’re making photographs may special attention to the juxtapositions you can create between elements, as these variations are what creates dramatic appeal.

The rhythm created by the repeating pattern of the chain links mimics the rhythm of the slats on the back of the swing. This is a very effective technique: use a lesser dominant element to subtly mimic a stronger element. This creates a sense of cohesiveness in the picture, even when the viewer may not perceive exactly why this is. The lines of the strings mimics the lines of the swing, etc.

A couple of suggestions that I think would improve the photo:

  1. Burning (darkening) the grass in the background will reduce the potential distraction from that part of the frame.
  2. Burning the lower left side, bottom and right corner will help hold the viewer’s eye within the frame and will draw more emphasis to the violin.
  3. Cropping the left side and a bit off the bottom to remove the angled, vertical support on the back of the swing would reduce distraction there, too, and further emphasize the violin.
  4. Finally, I would have recommended using a polarizing filter to reduce the glare on the front of the violin. This would have revealed more detail in the wood grain and also would have provided more contrast and variation in tone throughout the frame.

Nice image; thanks for submitting!

Photo critique: Diver

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This photo was submitted by Becky Kagan of Pennsylvania.

Let me start by saying I love this shot. The combination of a nearly featureless silhouette against an amazing background is simply stunning.

What makes this image strong is its simplicity. The subject is clearly identifiable and the photographer’s intention is clear. There’s no question of “what’s this a photo of?”.

That said, I do wish I could tell what’s in the left hand of the diver. Since the shape of the object is unidentifiable (I’m guessing it’s a conch shell?)  it might have been better to use an empty hand.

The only other suggestion I have is that the composition might be even stronger cropped to a square, or at least cropped in tighter on the sides. The dark areas don’t add much to the composition and might compete with the “darkness” of the diver.

On the whole, the strong subject, the incredible lighting and the simple composition make this a great image. Nice work!

Photo critique: Manatee

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This photo was submitted by Becky Kagan of Pennsylvania. Becky runs a photo/video production company called Liquid Productions that specializes in underwater imaging. (Check out her site; there’s some nice work there!)

In Becky’s photo submission she expressed some frustration with the shooting conditions and the processing of this photo. Below are my comments.

First, about the sky. Most outdoor photographers cringe at the very thought of photographing a solid white or gray sky, often with good reason. A featureless sky is seldom an ideal element in a strong photograph. The brightness can distract the viewer’s eye (we’re naturally drawn to bright objects in a photo) and since there is no detail present, it’s not very interesting. Of course, like every other “rule” of photography, there are exceptions.

When we go out for shoot, especially an elaborate event that has been shceduled, planned and coordinated to the nth degree, we’re forced to deal with what we find on location. For documentary photography and photogjournalism, this is seldom a problem. In fine art nature and landscape photography, the lighting and the condition of the sky becomes paramount.

This photo represents one of those situations in which the sky didn’t cooperate. This presentes the photographer with very few options:

  1. Don’t make the photographs at all; chalk it up to bad luck and pack it in for the day.
  2. Make the photos but avoid including the sky in the frame.
  3. “Fix it in post”, referring to the common practice of correcting flaws during computer processing.

To me, the first option is rarely an option. After all, I’ve made it to the location and have my gear ready… I’m gonna shoot, dammit! 😉 However, there are situations where it’s impossible to produce a strong image because of poor lighting. After all, photography is all about light.

The second option, excluding the sky altogether, sometimes is the best choice. If the sky is featureless, it probalby isn’t going to contribute anything meaningful to the photo, so leave it out.

Finally, the third option for faking it in the computer. Evern notice films where the sky has been made blue in post? All too often, it’s done poorly and looks obviously fake. So they key to pulling this off is having the technical chops to make it convincing.

So let’s see how all this applies to the photo here.

For starters, I have to say that this is an incredibly strong, compelling photo, purely for the subject matter and the way it’s portrayed. This kind of shot is difficult to get under any circumstances, so kudos to the photographer for getting a great image in spite of less than ideal conditions.

Interestingly, my critique has far less to do with the sky than it does the “models”, or the people in the frame. A couple of things I think would have improved the photo:

  1. Having the people on the boat pose or at least be sitting/standing in more appealing positions would have helped a lot. I find it quite distracting that the person at the front of the boat is facing away from the camera, almost as if the appearance of the manatees is a non-event.
  2. Similarly, the jacket and folded arms make it appear cold outside. Even if it was chilly, I’d have asked everyone to go short sleeve for the shot. The appearance of cold weather is incongruous with the subject and I find it to be a bit distracting from the overall theme.
  3. Now, about that sky. One option would have been to include less of it at the time of capture. At this point, a tigher crop might lessen the potential distraction caused by the bright sky. Alternatively, this is the kind of shot in which replacing the sky (called “compositing” for the act of making a composite image) would be very easy. The fact that the sky is so devoid of detail, solid and “smooth” would make masking and layering a new sky quick and easy. Obviously the trick would be using a sky that is believable; a blue sky with puffy white clouds might work, but a golden sunset would not. You could also use a simple blue gradient that fades out to white at the bottom.

Overall I think this is a strong image and I don’t find the sky to be a killer. That said, the lighting is flat and diffuse, which works great for under the water but is less than ideal for the scenery above. This is a case where conditions weren’t perfect and I think the photographer did a fine job of making the most of a unique opportunity.

Photo Critique: Butterfly

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This image was submitted by Diana Birdwell.

The subject filling the frame is good; it creates drama and leaves no question about the message and intent of the photo.

The backlighting of the wings is beautiful. This is a photo about light, as much as it is about a butterfly.

I’d recommend burning the bright spot at the top left of the frame; it’s very distracting.

Also, the proximity of the insect’s legs to the bottom of the frame seems a bit tight; more space there would be nice.

Photo Critique: Kaanapali Maui

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This photo was submitted by Dave Ruybal of Denver, CO. It was made with a Nikon D300.

I love how the color and the effect of the light conveys the feeling of being on the ocean at sunset. I can almost smell the breeze! The photographer did a great job of keeping everything in sharp focus, which can be difficult in low light and with moving subjects such as a boat rocking on the water.

One thing to always watch out for is the horizon line. In a shot like this, where the horizon is very prominent, it’s usually best to make sure the horizon line is perfectly straight. This looks just a wee bit tilted; rotating the photo clockwise a little would straighten it out.

Another thing to consider in shots with a strong horizon is the vertical position of the horizon within the frame. Placing the horizon smack in the middle of the frame can create a very “static” composition. In this case, the photographer did a good job of balancing the frame and adding some dynamism by including more sky than water.

In this photo, there are two primary subjects: the sun and the boat. Neither is notably stronger (or more “dominant”) than the other. With the boat at the far left of the frame, and the sun at the far right, the viewer’s eye travels back and forth between the two in a kind of ping-pong effect. This draws attention to the space in between the two objects. In this way, the elements of the frame compete for attention. The composition would have been a bit stronger with one main subject being dominant and letting the other subject play a supporting role. Zooming in/out or moving back or forward to make the boat larger than the sun — or vice versa — would have accomplished this.

To make the strongest possible composition, it’s usually important to allow one subject to dominate the frame. Also observe how the position of subjects relative to one another will either emphasize or de-emphasize the negative spaces in between.

This image does a great job of communicating a mood and the difficult exposure was handled very well. Thanks for submitting your photo!

Photo Critique: Pier 39

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This photo was submitted by Nate Pinckney of California and was made with a Canon S90 camera.

This composition is very well-balanced. The repeating pattern created by the floating docks in the foreground create a very strong, graphical foundation on the bottom portion of the frame, which naturally leads the viewer’s eye to the background, which reveals subtle, interesting detail with a bit of mystery due to the fog.

The balance in the composition is enhanced by the triangle created by the points of the dock in the lower left corner, the Pier 39 sign, and the building in the background. Triangles with their base at the bottom appear very “solid” and lend a sense of stability to a composition.

The visual weight of the composition is increased by the fact that the bottom of the frame is darker, and the top lighter. This conveys a feeling of surdiness and stability at the bottom and of light, airyness toward the top.

The relatively monochromatic color adds a sense of artistry and also increases the drama and mystery of the subject.

I think this photo is very well seen, and well captured. The only suggestions I have for improvement might be a slight clockwise rotation, and if possible, a bit more space around the bottom left corner. Really nicely done!

Photo Critique: Winter in Berlin

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This photograph was submitted by Nate Pinckney of California. It was made with an iPhone and processed in Lightroom.

I really like the high-key effect of this. (High key images are those that are overall very bright, or light in tone.) It really evokes the feeling of a cold winter day. I like that the sky is nearly white, with no detail. In some pictures this would be something to avoid, but here, it really works.

The picture displays a strong sense of depth and dimension, which is conveyed by the proportions of the people and buildings within the frame. Through the application of perspective effect, we can gauge distance and scale. For example, since we know roughly what the size of a person is, that a person appearing smaller in the frame is much farther away from the camera. This is a device used to show distance and adds a lot of depth to the photo.

A couple of suggestions that might make the photo stronger:

  1. At first glance the photo seems a little “crooked”, or tilted. I might suggest rotating it clockwise a bit, to straighten out the tall structure and the light posts. With all these vertical lines, this may be tricky – sometimes things that really are straight don’t look straight because of optical illusions.
  2. The photo would have been a little more dynamic with the feet of one or both of the people shown lifted. As it is, with both feet on the ground, there isn’t much sense of movement. Timing is everything in a shot like this, and if the photographer was to have captured the walkers in mid stride the photo would have more impact.
  3. I’d suggest cropping the right edge of the frame a bit. I find the angled lamp post a bit distracting, and more importantly, the car that is cut off by the edge of the frame draws my eye to the edge of the frame and out of the picture. Always look carefully for distracting elements around the edges of the frame (and especially in the corners).
  4. The position of the foreground person’s head and the street sign in the distance creates a merger point that is less than ideal. A little more space above the head would have lessened the potentially distracting effect of the sign appearing to “grow out of the top of the head”. This is something to always watch out for, especially in photos containing people.

Overall, I think this scene is well captured and processed for good effect, and really conveys the feeling of the moment. Attention to the little details would make it even stronger.

Photo Critique: Macro shot of a frog

Today’s photo for critique was sent in by Joe Saladino of Sarasota, Florida:

Here are my thoughts:

This image has great impact. On first glance it is very striking. Though tiny frogs are a popular subject, and I’ve seen lots of photos of them, this one is unique and visually interesting to me.

The exposure looks spot on; you did a good job processing this photo for both tone and color. And it’s very sharp, at least at the resolution I received it.

I’m torn about the depth of field you chose. On one hand, I like that the sharpness falling off towards the back of the frog helps really emphasize the face and eyes, which to me is clearly the center of interest.

On the other hand, the bumps (warts?) on the back do represent some potentially interesting detail that helps tell more of the “story”.

So I would have liked to see a version with more depth of field.

Now for the composition. I think the comp would be stronger with more room on the right side of the frame, for a couple of reasons. First, The Eyeball. Clearly, the frog’s right eye, in the center of the frame, is the main focal point of the shot. However, notice how the fact that it is nearly dead-center creates a “bullseye” effect that attracts the viewer’s eye and makes it somewhat difficult to scan the rest of the frame.

Second, notice the (invisible) directional lines created by the way the frog is looking to one side. When you have a subject that appears to be “pointing” one direction, you generally should leave room to balance the composition and allow the viewer’s eye to move around. In this comp, the directional lines may take the viewers eye toward the right side of the frame too quickly, which becomes a distraction. You’ll find that careful inclusion of negative or empty space can really balance a composition and give it a more “solid” feel.

One thing I really like about the comp is how the curve of the leaf mimics the much smaller curves inside the frogs eye. Incorporating graphic elements of similar characteristics like this can really strengthen a composition, as it does here. The downward curve, and the space at the bottom, adds some very nice visual weight that anchors the comp at the bottom.

Toward the top, a little more space between the hind end of the frog and the frame edge would also be nice. See how the large, bright triangular shape of the frog’s back looks like an arrow, pointing up to the frame edge? This is another example of directional cues that the viewer’s eye will follow, and in this case it draws too much attention to the top edge ofe the frame. The combination of the frog’s back and legs create a “pinching” effect that also draw the eye upward.

Overall, I think the shot works. The lighting is really nice and the color is fantastic. Your careful approach to getting the shot and processing it well shows.

Thank you for submitting your photo. Keep up the good work!

Photo Critique: Poppies

This is a good example of choosing the appropriate orientation (horizontal, “landscape” or vertical, “portrait”) and aspect ratio (the ratio of length of the two dimensions of the photo).

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Photo critique: Photo of a ghost?

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A question from a client: “I took this photo, obviously poor quality, in a building in KY my brother is renovating. So a camera fluke I don’t know about, or a ghost?” (more…)

More about Creative Photography

I believe that taking control over the creative process as well as the technology is very helpful when learning to create better photographs. It’s ironic… once you’ve got everything under control, you can really let loose creatively. The results can be profound.

If you think about the work as its own entity and evaluate it as objectively as possible you will learn from your previous work and your future work will be better for it. Learn to separate yourself from the photograph. Learn more from mistakes than successes.

One way to do this: Do a critique of your image. Take a couple of minutes and write about a photograph. Describe it, as if you were telling someone on the phone about it. Include as much technical information as possible. Describe the photographics. Describe the feelings the photograph conveys to you. Describe what you like and what you don’t like about the image.

For example, here’s a sample description of a photograph:
5 windows with white frames on the side of a blue wooden-sided building
In the closest widow is a reflection of a distant shore with buildings and palm trees

Photographics:
Overall well-balanced, center of interest is well-positioned
Strong converging lines
Picture space divided equally into 3 large triangles
Smaller triangles and trapezoids/distorted squares throughout
Low key image, overall low contrast
One small bright area of high contrast
Soothing blue tones

Nice, calm mood… but geometric boxes like this can create sense of being closed-in, claustrophobia etc.
The long vertical rectangles at frame right and left create a stable, almost “locked in” kind of feeling
The scene in the reflection creates an oasis, a glimmer of hope… the “light at the end of the tunnel”. This comes across as the main subject and theme of the photograph.

Suggestions for improvement:
– Desaturate blues just a bit
– Warm up and add saturation to the reflection scene
– Burn corners of frame slightly
– In the second window, top left, the shape that’s now tan, change to blue and darken that corner overall
– Remove contrails from reflected sky
– Consider retouching to add clouds into the sky (if you don’t consider that “cheating” 😉

While learning if you come away from a shooting session with several photographs that you are pleased with, it was a job well done (unless you’re working for a client!). Having more is, of course, more satisfying but don’t expect every capture to be a winner. Making pictures is an evolving process of learning.

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