As a child, my cousin James had a reputation for taking things apart. I recall one Christmas when he dismantled down to the wiring every gift he was given. Remote-control cars? Give him 20 minutes, and there’d be nothing left but a pile of tiny screws, little motors, and the tears of his mother who probably should have known better than to give him such an expensive present.

But the extraordinary thing is, he learned to put them back together again, and it didn’t surprise any of us when he became one of those people who could rebuild or fix anything as an adult.

Taking things apart and figuring out why they work is probably one of the best ways to learn something, and while I don’t recommend it with your cameras since there’s a certain amount of trial and error involved, it’s probably the most powerful way to learn to make photographs.

I was told that the best way to learn to make photographs is to make a lot of them, and that’s impossible to argue with. But I made thousands of photographs for years before they became good photographs. One of the things that turned it around for me was a simple exercise. Now a habit, it’s simple, can be done anywhere, and will change the way you look at—and make—photographs.

Take them apart. Layer by layer, strip them down. And as you do, ask yourself this one big question (smaller questions to follow):

What makes the image work?

It’s simple reverse engineering (though not always easy). Begin by just looking at an image for a bit. Let your eyes wander the frame. Be aware of what you think or feel. Are there hidden surprises the longer you look? Most images can’t be fully enjoyed with the kind of quick glance we give them. Where does your eye go? What’s it about?

Now ask what makes it work. Another way to put it might be this: What decisions did the photographer make that lead to it looking like this? Did the shutter speed contribute anything to the image? What about the chosen aperture or where the focus was placed? Did the overall choice of exposure, either brighter or darker, make the image feel a certain way? Where was the camera when the image was made? Does that contribute something? Can you tell which kind of focal length was used? What does that choice add to the image?

Just a few simple questions, but while so many of us aren’t out making photographs as much as we used to, right now is the perfect time to be asking them. And the more deeply you go with it, the more you’ll learn. Now ask why: Why did the photographer make those choices and not others? Sometimes they won’t matter; sometimes it’s one big decision that makes the image work. Other times it’s a combination of choices without which the photograph would fall apart.

And you can do this with darkroom work too, though there is a bit more guesswork involved. What do you think the photographer might have chosen to do with brightness or contrast? Is it bright or dark? High contrast or low? What about saturation or the way the colours work? If it’s black and white, why do you think that decision was made? Do you think it would be as powerful in colour? Where does your eye go in the frame?

I want to try an interactive exercise with you, and there’s a $400 prize on the line. (Update: Congratulations to Diane Curry, I’ll be enrolling you in ImageWork and ImageStory this Sunday!)

I’m going to show you one of my photographs, and for the darkroom portion, I’ll make it easier by showing you what my RAW file looks like. You can choose to do the exercise on your own, or you can play along with the rest of us in the comments below, where you can leave your answers and look at the answers of others.

I’ll play as well, and on Wednesday, I’ll post a link to a video of me unpacking the image from start to finish. And to give you a little motivation, I’ll put a prize on the line and draw the name of one person who plays along to give it to. I’ll tell you more about that on Wednesday.

Here’s that image, both before and after:

This is the unadjusted RAW file. (BEFORE)

This is the final adjusted image. (AFTER)

So, what makes this image work?

What decisions both in-camera and in the digital darkroom do you think I made? Guesses are fine. But for each of them, because there’s no magic in specific shutter speeds or focal lengths, the big question remains: Why did I choose that?

What effect does it have in the image? How would the image be different if I’d made a different choice about shutter speed or aperture, focal length, or my point of view (where I put the camera)? What if I’d used the light differently? What about the darkroom? Can you tell which overall changes I made? Don’t worry about how for now. Is it brighter? More contrast? Saturation? And if so, did I change the saturation everywhere? What about dodging and burning, can you see how I might have gently nudged your eye away from some elements in order to draw it toward others?

I’m going somewhere with this, and on Wednesday, I’ll send you that video I promised and talk more about how this approach can forever change your photography as it has done for me. For now, take a look at the images, and if you want to play along, leave your own thoughts and answers to these questions in the comments below. The winner will be chosen randomly and it’s just for fun, but the prize is a good one—it’s worth about $350. Just be sure to reply before Wednesday morning because that’s when I’ll announce the winner and the prize.

So, what makes the image work? Leave your comments here on my blog. The best thing about this is there are no secrets. Every image in the world is there to be unpacked and learned from, and I want to teach you how to do that because if you can learn to do it with the photographs of others, you can learn to make those decisions and understand the effect of them when you’re holding your camera and making your own photographs.

Update: The video I promised you is now posted here on this page.

See you on Wednesday!

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. I just found your blog and am impressed with the content!
    What a wonderful exercise, and what a concept… to help stimulate thinking through the process.
    The other comments made here are fantastic… leaving little for me to add.
    I am also reading a reading recommendation you made: Think Again by Adam Grant which I believe encourages us to examine our world, both internally and externally more thoughtfully.

  2. The composition directs your sight to the barista, the framing elements relate to the subject. The arm keeps you eye in the photo and adds a sense of action. Edits include increase of saturation, contrast , clarity , with some added dodging and burning.

  3. At first, I’m drawn to the man making the coffee. The framing within the image, the fact that the bottles in the foreground are out of focus, and the way he’s been brightened all help draw my eye to the man. The longer I look, though, his gaze (emphasized by the position of the camera), as well as the way the machine’s metallic coloring has been boosted, eventually draw my eye to the hand lifting the coffee cup. Incorporating that hand and cup tells a story. Removing that element would remove a sense of action, as well as the relationship between the coffee being made and those outside the frame waiting to receive it. I also think the framing and camera location emphasize a sense of clutter—there’s a lot going on, a lot of items and things to look at. And yet, it’s contrasted with the focus and calm in the man’s face, his almost single-minded focus on this one cup of coffee in and amidst all these other items and activity. It really centers the image and conveys the sense of calm that can come from enjoying a cup of coffee.

  4. First, choosing to include the bottles in left foreground gives additional depth to the image. Being out of the field of focus and apparently burned a bit, they do not draw the eye from the subject, however. Your position between the hand holding the coffee cup and the barista’s face gives fairly equal weight to both. However, the barista is in better focus, which draws my eye in that direction. Counterbalancing that is the dodging on the hand and cup, which brings the eye back there. Also, the weight of the bottles on the left is balanced by the espresso machine on the right. The composition tells the story of a barista brewing and serving at a busy time, with one cup being taken, one waiting, and one underway, framed by the tools of his trade. There is no need for a slow shutter speed to show the action.

    My eye starts at the barista’s face and moves down and slightly diagonally to the right, to the copper pitcher, and to the hand and coffee cups. Increasing the saturation and contrast give it a somewhat graphical style, which was obviously the artist’s choice. Color is important in this image, in terms of giving it depth and in the separation of the elements. Boosting the yellows and reds brought the bottle tops, copper pitcher, coffee in the cups, and the espresso machine into harmony. The two small areas of red – the jar lids on the shelf and the decorations on the plates – are a little icing on the cake as one continues to explore the image.

    I might have made the personal choice to decrease the saturation and/or burn the vent panel on the espresso machine (in the center of the picture) as its brightness and saturation draw my eye to it, and I would not choose to make that a focal point of the image.

  5. Great exercise! Great image!

    In my opinion, you used an aperture that provided the focus to be in the barista and the hand reaching out to the counter. The left part of your image is out of focus, and this make my eyes go directly to the barista’s hands – the image conveys a lot of movement and action from both the barista and the customer which hand is reaching out with a cup.

    The angle and the light made me perceive the action immediately, no distractions, even though the image is rich in details.

    Post processing probably involved upping the brightness, saturation a bit, clarity and contrast.

    I would love to see the video, I am a nubby and learning from you, the professionals. Thank you for the opportunity.

  6. I am a beginner, so forgive me if the vocabulary I use is not technical and specific.Photography is only a hobby for me.

    My eyes go to the hand of the basista, where the action is. In my opinion, you used as aperture that provided the focus to be in the barista and the hand reaching out to the counter. The left part of the image is out of focus, which directed my eye to the scene itself, without distraction. The light or the angle you chose to use makes it more interesting. In post-processing you probably increased contrast, brightness, clarity, and saturation, making the image more appealing.

  7. I am a beginner, so forgive me if the vocabulary I use is not technical and specific.Photography is only a hobby for me.

    In my opinion, you used as aperture that provided the focus to be in the barista and the hand reaching out to the counter. The left part of the image is out of focus, which directed my eye to the scene itself, without distraction. The light or the angle you chose to use makes it more interesting. In post-processing you probably increased contrast, brightness, clarity, and saturation, making the image more appealing.

  8. I am thinking, by the form you introduced the conversation, most of this photo was intentional and not a point and shoot and capture whatever is in front of the camera. So, trying to “dismantle” by layers as you suggested:
    1) I can see your big frame tried to show the whole environment of a traditional café in an old city (I would bet it is somewhere in Turkey). It shows the equipment, bottles and coffee cups. As a secondary frame, you left them out of in focus depth of field, so you had the in the frame, but not to call too much attention, directing the eyes to the guy preparing the café.
    2) Your main subject is clearly the guy preparing the café behind the machine, mostly by his expression, something between serious and cautious of his job. It is the man and his machine doing his work in the environment (of the big frame), something that in some way makes think of his history doing it for years. It reminds something done carefully, like a ritual. The focus in this part directs the look to it. This is the main part of the picture.
    3) The arm taking the coffee cup gives an idea of movement, of a different part of the café that is more dynamic, less traditional or ritualistic as it is the preparation of that same coffee being served. For sure, it is not incidental, it is there to create a separation of the main part of the image, where the elder man prepares the coffee.
    I guess it is all you tried to show in this photo.

  9. Sorry, duplicated as a reply to Susan Aune

    The key elements in the image are the barista, the Turkish coffee pot and the hand holding the coffee cup. There is a strong connection between making the coffee and serving it which provides the background story. By lifting both the shadows and the highlights the RAW image is given some life. I don’t see much differential processing to add drama.

    Personally I feel a tighter crop on both the left and right to 8 x10 to eliminate some of the coffee machine and the out of focus area in the left foreground would strengthen a fine image.

  10. The composition of the photograph is such that the “window” draws the viewer to and connects the coffee cup and barista. Looks to me that in post processing the following were increased: contrast, saturation, and sharpening.

  11. Recently read your book Within the Frame and your methodology and philosophy have resonated and intrigued me to learn & hear more from you.

    Nice to read and contemplate the thoughts of others interpreting your image.

    To me the image works because it conveys a story familiar to most of us yet so specific to a location that is probably unfamiliar to most of us.

    The image achieves this with simplicity of composition, foreground directing the eye to mid ground and onto back ground detailing the plot of a morning cup of coffee. At the same time leaving out cluttering detail such as the person taking the coffee provides a sense of mystery allowing the viewer to make up their story line to the image.

    This is why the image is so familiar to us even though it may have taken in an exotic location (for me anyway).

    Post processing accentuating the light, colour & contrast compliments the photographers vision of guiding the viewer through the image or story.

  12. I think this is an excellent challenge. A great way to learn and a skill that is difficult to practice. But, to be honest, the real reason I am taking the challenge is because of episode 62. Sometimes I am so fearful of making a fool of myself, I do nothing. Which is no way to learn and often lonely. So here goes.

    My impression is that the camera is further back and low. Starting at the level of the counter allows us to travel in and up through the shop. The aperture is small for a long depth of field which allows both the barista (is that what a Turkish coffee maker is called?) and the hand taking the espresso to be in focus. Having the hand and cup there makes the scene more dynamic, giving context and action that would be missing if the eye went straight for the man from eye height. The espresso cup, hand, and pot line up magically leading us in and up ultimately to rest on the man’s face. His concentrated downward gaze returns to the same pot (maybe creating a circle of attention between his face and the pot?). The focus is in the middle distance so the foreground remains slightly blurred, which allows the elements of the shop to give context but not detract or prevent the eye from travelling into the scene. The brightness, contrast and vibrance have been brought up in the center around the man and the machine while the brightness and saturation in the background (especially the light on the jars and shelves) has been brought down to focus the attention again on the central character. The facial shadows may have been lightened(?) to enhance the character of his face and confirm the focus on him. These changes also bring the steam into greater detail which adds to the action, making the scene pop and become more alive.

    Okay, now maybe I will go learn from the other comments. Thank you for the opportunity.

  13. The hands line up and lead to the barista’s face. Yellows look highlighted and overall image looks lighter and brighter. Barista face is in focus.

    1. The key elements in the image are the barista, the Turkish coffee pot and the hand holding the coffee cup. There is a strong connection between making the coffee and serving it which provides the background story. By lifting both the shadows and the highlights the RAW image is given some life. I don’t see much differential processing to add drama.

      Personally I feel a tighter crop on both the left and right to 8 x10 to eliminate some of the coffee machine and the out of focus area in the left foreground would strengthen a fine image.

  14. In both pictures my eye is attracted to the barista and the coffe ready to be served but the way you highlighted those two key points, with clarity and saturation, making the sunlight much more present on the face, the hand and the equipment now makes me want to drink this coffee! I almost can smell it! It’s hot and i just know I’m heading to a great day!

  15. This image shows very vivacious moment of daily coffee business: the coffee machine, the served man, cups and plates, one ready coffee just hold from somebody. The colors are brighter and stronger to underline the details of coffee’s life.
    I think it’s shutter speed 1(160 and focal length 35mm. The picture is full of details and stronger saturation of some brown elements underline them and matching the subject of coffee. It’s very good storytelling of making coffee: the right moment, the right colors.

  16. I’m sitting waiting for my coffee at a busy counter. I hear the steam, smell the coffee in the cup passing by me.

    Every part of the image slowly draws my eye through the story to the man making the coffee.

    I start on the left side, hit the hand with the coffee and on to the barista. This is accomplished through brightening the important elements of the image. I also see overall sharpening and saturation boosts. The camera angle puts me in the scene as a participant.

  17. I think you used a moderately small aperture to capture the near hand and far barista both reasonably sharp, and a moderately fast shutter speed to freeze the (slowish) motion in both subjects. Depending on the light intensity, this might have required an ISO greater than 200.
    In Camera Raw, I suspect you’ve upped the ‘Clarity’ to boost contrast and sharpness, and also the ‘Vibrance’ to boost saturation on all but skin-tones.
    It’s possible you also dodged to highlight the hand taking the coffee, which to me is the wrong decision because I think the barista is the primary subject – the hand taking the coffee just helps ‘set the scene’.
    Just my amateur 2¢ worth!

  18. Interesting Photo!
    The photo is brighter, and the viewer’s eye is drawn to the cup of coffee by the placement of the lens- it is angled a bit downward or perhaps it is by the framing of the hand and the lighting from the side- it hits the cup, the top of the side of the hand, the side of the man’s face, and his hair, it also hits the side of the jars at the foreground of the photo to the left side.

    The arm on the right brings you into the photo as a directional line as does the electrical box, with it lines. Those lines also “line” up with the stacks of dishes and the lines on the caps of the jars in the forefront. These are extremely pleasing to the eye.—at least to mine.

    Perhaps you have bumped up the contrast up a bit, to add to the contrast of the copper texture of the coffee machine and the copper espresso cup he is filling. And the table upon which everything lies. Actually, all the metal in the photo.

    There is not a lot of color in the photo, but the pops of red and yellow add just a bit of interest. It would have been too plain for me in black and white.

    The way the photo is lit makes me think end of the day, after a long day out with the camera, time for a cup of coffee. Make it strong, so I can take more photos.

  19. I am a debutant in this kind of exercise. First the initial RAW file: I see a fairly “flat” and uniform scene, soft light, little relief. We lose the subject. The second after retouching is more aggressive, incisive. The light is more gross and the strong point of the image, the man who prepares the beverage, is tailored to the knife. His physiognomy is much better defined and attracts the eye. It is better illuminated and highlighted. The contrast is strong in this image which seems to me give it more depth and life. And more interesting.

  20. This image is a feast for the eyes— So much to see over and over.

    I asked myself (to take the image apart) if I was going to make images in a Turkish coffee house; how could I convey what hot Turkish coffee smells like? What does this place feel like? How can I show the viewer “Hot?” How can I show “Motion” in order to convey a busy business where all the staff are moving as fast as they can to serve the customer? How do I do all the above in a two-dimensional photo?

    By showing texture and detail (depth of field & sharpening) in the copper coffee machine, the counter-top, and all the details from the hanging cups in the background, to the plates and saucers next to the coffee machine, you give the viewer a sense of tight, small working space where the waiter and the coffee maker are working non-stop. This is enhanced by the waiter’s arm slightly blurred while he grabs the cup of coffee showing motion (working fast) that also reinforces “hot” “fresh” coffee. This is also enhanced by the steam rising up from the coffee maker pouring what looks like hot water into a copper Turkish coffee pot. Even the coffee maker’s hair is sharp…detail. If you had used a shallow depth of field, all the details and textures back to front would be lost. That might work if you had done shallow depth of field and made the image of just the coffee maker’s hands and the steam, but then you would have a very different image.

    The light, and direction of the light give the viewer a sense that it is morning, there are no harsh shadows (contrast). The color also adds to the warmth and feeling of comfort. I suspect this image would also look great in black and white, but it would really loose a lot for me. The warm brown on the foam of the cup that the waiter is picking up and the warm copper colors along with the light really bring this image a feeling of warm, comforting kind of place. It could be a hectic place, but still warm and comforting.

    My Guesses:
    You wanted to show place/environment. You used enough depth of field, and details of plates, saucers, cups, machine, counter to get the viewer to see.
    You wanted to show what Jay Maisel calls “Gesture.” You used the steam, the waiter’s motion picking up the hot cup of coffee, the color of the coffee, the copper machine, the warm light, the expression of the coffee man’s face.
    To do 1 & 2 above, you would use an f/stop with enough DOF so the viewer can see all the details, or at least make them out and let the mind fill in the blanks, and a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the expression of the man’s face, but still show the waiter’s arm movement picking up the cup. If it was dark inside, you used an ISO high enough to get the shutter speed and f/stop you wanted to use

  21. Thank you for this excercise! I like this photo a lot, so many elements which are linked together.

    When I look at your raw file, which I like a lot, I see as the first thing a man holding something and pouring water, I then see a hand holding a cup of freshly poured coffee. Then i see the machine and understand it’s a way of making coffee in Turkey or so. I then see the dishes, and some bottles which are out of focus.
    When I look at the adjusted image, at first I look at the yellow “glowing” machine, then I look at the man pouring the water and then I look at the hand which is in the centre.
    So maybe my sequence is not the usual one, but this is what happened.

    I see the difference between the two pictures, you lit up the man who is the central figure, and he is sharper and has more contrast, the hand and the machine are lighter as well, and the machine is more in focus because of the beautiful powerful copper colour it has.

    However (sorry to say this!!) I like the soft tone of your original photo better than the high contrast in the second one. It’s great that you put more light on the man and the hand, but the machine takes a lot more my attention in the second photo, my eyes go straight to the bright yellow surface, I am not sure you wanted this.

    I am curious about your answer and those of the others (which I did not read yet, on purpose).

  22. The most amazing thing to me is that this is a moment in time and not staged and yet the viewers who have commented can see so much that works. In taking such a photo a photographer often has only moments to consider what choices to make in composition and exposure. One may take much more time in making decisions in post processing. For me the lure of photography is in capturing the moment, the story, and editing is an enhancement of what has been captured.

  23. What makes this image work is that it naturally conveys the making and delivery of a nice cup of coffee… Possibly prepared by the same man all day long, with focus, precision and hard labor, and instantly picked up… by anyone of us.
    You chose a zoom lens, a relatively large aperture enabling to isolate the subject – the man preparing the coffee, and a fast shutter speed to freeze the action – you managed to chose the perfect moment that displays both preparation and pick up. It seems you managed a nice compromise on the ISO as we cant identify any apparent noise in the RAW file.
    You then sharpened, increased light, pump up shadows etc in the darkroom on pretty much the entire image except the arm picking the cup of coffee. All together this enables to emphasize the hard work, feel the atmosphere of the place, with a balanced light across both the main subject and the hand/cup of coffee picked up – all becomes part of the same story.

  24. Framing, leading lines, saturation of certain elements, lighting, vignette, and depth of field all lead the eye through the center of the photo to the man preparing the coffee. Excellent story telling photograph!

  25. Your image captures the activity and sensory experience of a busy coffee shop. The focus is on the man and the cup with an implicit diagonal line between his face and the cup, mirrored by the bottle tops on the left and the rag on the right. There is a really nice balance between lights and darks.

    In post-process I noticed you made several changes, raising the photograph from interesting to beautiful.
    – sharpened and enhanced color on man and waiter’s arm
    – enhanced color on foreground bottles
    – changed the overall tint from bluish to yellow-orange

  26. The focal point of the photo is the cup, then your eyes continue into the depth of the photo taking you to the man preparing another cup. To give more emphasis to the cup and the hand holding it, it appears you increased contrast and saturation as the hand holding the cup appears with more contrast (is less soft) and his skin has more color and the shadow on the right side of the cup is stronger (but this could have resulted from increasing the overall saturation and contrast in the photo as discussed later). To give more emphasis to the man making another cup, it appears you brightened up his right collar and the right side of his face and removed some of the shadow in his face. You also added more clarity/sharpness to his hair and face as the final image shows more wrinkles on his forehead, bags under his eyes, and more greased strips of hair giving the impression that he’s been tirelessly at this job for a long time. It appears you also increased the saturation of the overall image as the speckled marble counter, the clothing of both men, and the bronze/copper coffee maker are richer in color, which adds more pop. I think this was a good choice since coffee is known for giving people a jolt (that is, the original photo seemed too soft for this scene). It appears you also increased the contrast and sharpness/clarity of the overall photo. This helped bring out more texture in the coffee maker and clarity in its lettering. You can also see more contrast in the pile of plates, the towel, etc. I think this really helped especially for the towel which was more of a distraction in the RAW file because it was soft and in need of a burn down. The increased clarity/sharpness also gives the viewer’s eyes more to look at — to wander around the photo.

  27. In my point of view you wanted, by your strong composition, to directly and efficiently lead the eye of the viewer of your photo onto your main subject, the coffee maker/seller. To achieve this goal and to also give your image more depth and more strength, you used a wide angle lens that made the framing of your subject even stronger. So the main leading line, the arm of the buyer getting his coffee, gets relatively bigger, as well as the coffee equipment, and the green recipient on the left that all contribute to funnel the vision of the viewer, by also setting strong limits that prevent him from gazing elsewhere. Then in post you gave more light to the coffee seller so him to stand out more in the picture as the main subject. And added some, but less, of it, to his equipment on the right and to the green pot on the left to make them more powerful to funnel even more efficiently the vision of the viewer of your strong and beautiful reportage photo, as well as made right at “the decisive moment”.

  28. What works is the framing, layers, depth, light crystallizing, action, story, and drawing the viewer to a place, time, and action. The story of making and then the progression and anticipation of the delivery of a great cup of coffee. The picture is static in sharpness but leads the mind on an imaginative journey and as if the coffee were coming our way. I can smell it.

  29. In shooting the photo you decided to focus in such a way as to get the hand holding the cup and the man pouring the coffee as the focal point of your photo and in fact tunneling the viewer to this “picture” or focal point. Not knowing the amount of light you were working with i am assuming that you selected an f stop that would give you maximum depth of field for your point of focus and shutter speed that would both freeze any motion (as the water even looks good) and give you the depth. If I were taking this photo there is not a thing I would have changed in composition as it tells the story one wants. If you had moved a bit to the right you might have cut out the second bottle a bit more as it is a bit distracting or maybe you could have removed both wine bottles by adjusting position just a bit, I would not have however. In the digital darkroom you dehazed the photo a bit, sharpened it to bring out detail perhaps using a mask to bring out detail on the face, as there is software that allows one to use focal point masks for such purposes and you darkened the photo a bit. What I might have done different is to use a vignette or edge darkening on the left or cropped in a bit on the left to get that second bottle. The whole goal of this scene is to use the hand holding the cup to draw the viewer to the man making the coffee so all of the post processing focused on this “tunneling of the image” . My guess is using focal point masking to nudge the image.

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