Not too long ago, I wrote an article lambasting those amongst you that worship at the temple of camera settings. In other less confusing words, I politely suggested that the question, “What camera settings did you use,” is pretty pointless. More than that, the belief that it’s camera settings that “make” a photo, displays a fundamental lack of photographic knowledge. Which, by the way, is totally fine if that’s the level you’re at. Nobody starts anything as an expert.


In this article, I’d like to show you a few simple methods/techniques to assist you in doing something immeasurably more valuable than asking that pointless question. I’d like to teach you a little bit about analyzing a photo.


Photography Tips For Analyzing Photos – Catchlights

Catchlights, catchlights, catchlights. What are catchlights? A catchlight is a bright highlight which you can see in a person’s eye. It is a reflection of either a bright surface or light source. For instance, a catchlight may be a reflection from a reflector held close to someone’s face, a window, a modifier placed in front of a light source and so on. In the photo above, you can see two catchlights from two different modifiers.

The shape of these reflections and position in the eye can help us to reverse engineer the lighting used. We can clearly see from the first photo that two light sources were used: one being an Octabox and the other a square softbox. So as long as you have an understanding of the angle of reflection (imagine how a ball moves around a pool table), you can also estimate the position of the lights.


In this photo, we can see three distinct shapes. From this, we can assume that there are three separate areas of brightness, they may be three lights with modifiers attached or three bright areas in a scene. In this case, those three reflections are from some bay windows. As you become more experienced at reading catchlights, they will become a very useful method for ascertaining what lighting was used in a photo.


Photography Tips For AnalyZing Photos – Shadows

Shadows can tell you so much about lighting. If you’re trying to figure out what time of day an image was taken, look at the direction of the shadows to help you guess the position of the sun in the sky. Similarly, keep a close eye on the direction of the shadow cast from the nose to help you picture where a key light may be placed. Shadows under a person’s chin can again help you predict the position of the light and the distance it was from the subject. As you may already know, the larger a light source (relative to subject distance), the softer that light becomes, equaling a softer shadow.

The video above is a short excerpt from Lighting 101, one of the amazing tutorials that Pye and the team have put together. It takes you through a few common Key Light patterns and will hopefully help you to understand this concept. From now on, whenever you look at a photo, I want you to analyze the shadows. It’s an easy one but look at the shadow in the following photo and try to guess where the light is.


Photography Tips For ANALYZING Photos – Depth Of Field

When we talk about depth of field, we’re referring to how much of the photo is in focus. A very narrow depth of field means that very little is in focus and vice versa. Depth of field is controlled by our aperture. A low aperture number will result in a narrow depth of field. Whereas a high number will give us a wide depth of field. It’s an extremely easy concept and one that can be very handy when attempting to analyze a photo.


As we can see in this photo, there is very little in focus. Pay attention to the arm of the bench. We can clearly see that there is only an inch or two in focus. Now we may not be able to predict precisely what the aperture is but we can certainly say it is narrow, very narrow. Do we even need to know the exact settings? Not really. So long as you can correctly identify the photographic technique, in this case a narrow depth of field (meaning a low aperture number), we can understand how to replicate this ourselves.


There are other factors which will affect your depth of field; distance to subject and focal length. Hence, it is a little more complex but all of this will become easier with education and experience. Once you understand all of these concepts, you’ll be able to have a very good idea of how a photo was shot without knowing a single setting.


Photography Tips For Analyzing Photos – Compression + Distortion

Focal length doesn’t only affect our depth of field. It will also have a big impact on compression and distortion, allowing you to predict the focal length of the lens used. It’s another topic covered in Photography 101, and in the video below, Pye talks a bit about compression.

Hopefully, that has given you a basic understanding of the effects of lens compression. Another useful way to comprehend this is by understanding extreme examples. Sadly, I do not have one of my own, but I am sure many of you have seen photos where the moon looks gigantic compared to the landscape. From what we now know, that must have been accomplished using a very long lens (or Photoshop) to compress the scene and make the moon appear larger.

On the opposite end of the scale, take the photo above. It’s a wide angle photo from a wedding. How do I know it was shot using a wide angle lens and not simply by walking very, very, very far back with a longer lens? Two reasons. Firstly, if using a longer lens, you would need to walk pretty far away, which would not be practical for many reasons. Secondly, look at the columns at the edges of the frame, they are slanted inwards. This type of distortion is a very clear indication that a wide angle lens was used.


Photography Tips For Analyzing  Photos – Common Sense

My last tip is to use your photographic common sense. By this, I mean analyzing the obvious parts of a photo based upon your experience. This may include: understanding the limitations of a location and thus the distance the photographer was to his subjects. Or knowing that when photographing animals, one will most likely need to be quite far away, therefore a longer lens needs to be used. There are lots and lots of obvious things that will allow us to draw from our experience and dissect a photo.

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t need to know the exact settings used in a photo anyway. The most important things to analyze from a photo are the techniques. What technique was used to accomplish the look? In the engagement photo above, we can see from the water that a longer exposure than usual was employed. Now, I know from experience that it wasn’t that long as the water is only slightly blurred. But knowing the exact length of the shutter is not too important. We’ve identified the technique used, a slow shutter speed, and hence would be able to replicate this ourselves.

A lot of this will come with experience. From now on, look at all of the characteristics of a photo and try to predict the techniques used. As you learn more, you will become more adept at this and your skills as a photographer will advance.

The recent lighting and photography courses which Pye and the SLR Lounge crew have made are some of the best resources I have ever seen, for both beginners and professionals alike. Be sure to check out all of the education in the SLR Lounge Store to help you on your way.