It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Matthew Jordan Smith!

For the last two weeks I had the distinct honor of being one of four photographers involved in judging the graduating class at a high-end photography school.  The students pay 60K to learn and master the art of photography and come from all over the world.  Before graduating each student must produce a twenty seven-image portfolio of his or her finest work.   The student portfolios are judged by an outside panel of working photographers who judge each photographer on the merits of their work.  During the judging process the students have their work critiques and receive helpful advice to guide them in the transition from student to working photographer.

In this image of a beautiful model, you almost don’t see her. She becomes the canvas and the hero of the image is the Butterfly.

By the end the judges worked with 160 students and viewed 4,320 images.   Hopefully the lessons learned will last a lifetime for all involved.  The two lessons that stand out the most to me are the importance of starting a portfolio, or website, with your most powerful image and finding the hero in your image.  Starting your portfolio with the most powerful image is critical if you want to make a great impression with your work.  You can never assume any potential client will look at all of your work.

This is from a recent ad I shot for Wells Fargo.  In this image shot on location, the focus and hero of the shot is the father and baby son.

Equally as important is finding the hero in your image.   The hero element is the focus of your image and helps the viewer understand your reason for creating the photo. The hero element can be as simple as a great smile in a portrait or an intense stare in the portrait of the Mona Lisa.  The image of the model show has the hero element focused on the hair but the hero can be complex, subliminal or screaming from the image.

This is a group of three celebrity subjects. But the focus is all about the guy, actor Shemar Moore from “Criminal Minds,” who has two beautiful woman kissing him on the cheek.

Take the photo of Hillary Clinton taken during the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden. There are many people in this image, including President Obama but the hero in this image is actually Hillary.  Take a good look at the focus of this image and her expression.  Everything else in this image works to create this powerful moment but the photographer focused directly on Hillary and she is the hero or focus of this powerful image.

This is a group of horses in Iceland, but the hero of this shot is the horse in the center of the image that looks directly into the camera.

Who’s the hero of your images?

Today, start thinking about how you can make your images stronger by finding your hero.  There are many ways to do this from using depth of field, to lighting to direction of your subjects when possible.  For the landscape photographer the hero might be color, or shape but every image has a hero and from this day forward I hope you find your photo hero.

You can see more of Matthew’s work at, and get photography lessons at

  1. Great guest blog! Thanks, Matthew, for your thoughts. “”Finding a hero” is great advice to anyone composing a picture.

    Brad, a couple of the pictures aren’t loading for me in IE9 and Firefox (the one of Shemar Moore being kissed and the one of Mrs. Clinton). The kiss photo loads when I click on it, but there is no Clinton picture!).


  2. So glad to know I didn’t spend 60K to hear I need to find a ‘hero’ in my photos and start a portfolio with a strong image. Best advice I ever got was to learn business so that my photography skills would meet a real world test.

    Students should figure out if the training they are about to partake will pay off in the real world after school. With the commoditization of imagery that digital has brought about, too many are shooting for little or nothing, and spending enormous amounts of money on a ‘prestige’ photo school is only making the school, not the students, a success. Better to spend the money (much less I might add) on Kelby Training and learn from real world pros!

    1. You’re welcome, Brad! We’re here for you…. 8)

      Re: the Clinton image. I know that the government has said otherwise, but I always get the impression that the group is seeing a live video feed of the raid, and not just getting audio updates. Mainly because of Mrs. Clinton’s expression in the photo! Regardless, it is quite the photo of a key moment in our nation’s history.


  3. Almost all photographers struggle from time to time when it comes to ascertaining the real emotional and/or artistic impact of their images. That our portfolios should begin with our best shot is the prevailing assumption, but many of us struggle to determine exactly which image constitutes our *best*. So the hero analogy provides some direction in that regard, but at the end of the day, art is, and will always be, highly subjective. My advice to new photographers is to begin with the one image that they are most proud of, because it will often be a fairly good barometer of their overall artistic vision.


  4. Matthew,
    Thank you very much for providing such excellent language! Looking for the hero is so much more important than looking for the subject. A subject is easily found (if not, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board) but a hero implies so much more: if the subject isn’t powerful and heroic, it isn’t going to save the picture!

    I also appreciate that you have distinguished that the hero may be an element other than the subject–like the butterfly is a picture of a woman with big hair and butterfly on her face, but it really is the butterfly that saves the image and makes an indelible impression in my mind.

    Of course, now I have to review my portfolio…why can’t these bloggers just give us something nice without requiring effort, too…

    Looking forward to meeting you at Skip’s Summer School!

  5. Mathew, great blog post! I have an 11 year old grandson who is in a film class for summer school. I got him started shooting a couple years ago and he shoots with a D300 now and understands how it works, hope to send him to a photog school. I learned by following this blog, NAPP and Scotts stuff (that sounds weird). Thanks for tips!

  6. Just my two cents, but over the years I’ve found that people who pay $60K for their training, often then spend a lot of time trying to get regulations into place to prevent those who didn’t from operating as “Professionals.”

  7. Thanks to everyone who has responded to post. Looking for the hero element in my images has definitely helped me think more about the images I make and the message behind them. Thank you all!

    Have a great 4th of July holiday weekend and find your hero! Thanks Scott for letting me be a part of your blog as well!

    All the best,
    Matthew Jordan Smith

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