Wesley Verhoeve is a professional photographer, co-founder of The Observers, and currently curates the Process newsletter. The following article is a re-publication of edition 008 of Process. 

One of the things I love most about photography is that there is always more to learn. With curiosity and dedication, opportunities for improvement are endless. One great way to gain some photography tips and level-up your photography practice is with portfolio reviews. Ask photographers you admire to look at your work, and share their insights.

I also recommend seeking feedback from non-photographers. They can offer a valuable perspective unburdened by photography training. In the end, you’re trying to create work that will inspire, speak to, and move people who are not photographers themselves.

Below are three photography tips I hear most often when holding portfolio reviews. Italian photographer and Process reader Lorenzo Martinoia was kind enough to let me share some of his work and the comments from our review session.

Interested in expanding your photography knowledge? Checkout our guides to cityscape, landscape, and indoor photography and our entire photography basics series

1. Everything Is A Portrait

Decide which part of the image is your main subject before pushing your shutter button. The viewer should know right away what they’re supposed to look at. Your composition should lead their eyes to the most important part of the photo.
If it’s a portrait of a person, the viewer will usually be led to the eyes or face. If it’s a cityscape or a still-life, however, you can still think of the image as a portrait.
For example, in Lorenzo’s photo on the left notice the leading lines that take us by the hand and bring our eyes to the door in the back. The colorful laundry is a secondary subject whose lines also lead us to the door. It’s a beautiful clear image that would be lovely in a travel piece. This photo works as a portrait of a charming street scene.

in left photograph laundry hangs on a line in front of stone buildings, in right photograph a person stands in an alleyway

On the right side however, my eyes feel nervous as they search for a subject to land on. Is it a portrait of the woman? Well, she’s in the shade and her face is turned away. Our eyes generally follow the light, which means we land on the top half of the building in the center. So is that our subject? It’s unclear, resulting in a weaker image.

2. Watch Your Lines

Unless you’re intentionally crafting a chaotic feel or incorporating tension, compose for calm and watch your lines.

For our example, let’s look at the image on the left, which has a very simple composition. Some photographers may crop in further, which is a valid choice, but it is a balanced, pleasing, and beautifully metered image, requiring no extra work from our eyes.

left photograph person stands in desert scape smoking a pipe, right photograph person stands against a wooden building staring into the camera

In the image on the right, we can sense some unease in the composition. You may not be aware why that is right away but the edge of the wall competes with our subject’s face because they’re too close together. This causes visual tension. If Lorenzo had taken one step to his left and re-composed this portrait by framing his subject with more of the wall to the subject’s right, it would have created a calmer composition.

3. Consider Figure-Ground Separation

Sticking with the previous image on the right, notice that our subject’s skin and the wall behind him are so similar in color that they blend together. This increases visual tension due to a lack of separation between our subject and the background.
Warning, we’re about to get real nerdy.

In Gestalt psychology there is a concept called principles of grouping and the related idea of figure-ground separation. Wait, suddenly we’re talking psychology? Isn’t this an article about photography? It’s all related!

Separation: An object isolated from everything else in a visual scene is more likely to be seen as a figure versus background.

Now what does that mean exactly? Let me illustrate with an image by master photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson:

black and white photograph person running up adobe stairs

This photograph perfectly illustrates the power of composition and the importance of separating our subject (figure) from their surroundings (ground). Our eyes immediately notice the running child. Her dark silhouette is framed by the light greys of her immediate surroundings, which in turn are surrounded by a ring of bright white structures. So much separation between the different layers in this photo means it’s easy for our brain to process what is happening in a split second. This photo takes my breath away.

Bonus Tips

  • Read more photo books than gear reviews — GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is real and very distracting. We learn much more from looking at photo books. If you’re looking for more photo books to discover, my friend Paul Jun and I have built a website for you: The Observers. (Re-design and season 3 coming shortly!)
  • Shoot for you, not for likes — We’re all on social media hoping that our friends (and strangers) will like our work, but it’s an unsustainable way of creating. Try not posting work right away and sit on it for a bit to form your own opinion first before asking the world.
  • Limit yourself — Don’t get a new lens until you feel confident you’re fully in command of the one you already have. My entire project One of Many was shot on one lens. Over 600 environmental portraits, one 35mm lens.
  • Give yourself a project — Rather than picking up your camera and randomly shooting images, try organizing your thoughts and shooting a specific project. It will force you to hone in on a style, which will be a great way to get better at it. Looking back at a project will also be more meaningful later on, especially if you turn it into an eBook or a printed zine, even if it’s just for yourself.

This is a republication of Wesley Verhoeve’s “Process” newsletter, edition 008. You can find all editions of the newsletter, a weekly send about photography and finding your voice, at his Substack. Follow him on Instagram and check out his website, too! Thanks, Wesley.