WATCH: Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner Essdras M. Suarez Shares What Makes a Great Photo

WATCH: Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner Essdras M. Suarez Shares What Makes a Great Photo

In the photo industry, portfolio reviews are a great opportunity to receive objective feedback about your work. Oftentimes a mentor will offer to look through your photos and provide actionable advice about editing your images.

For two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Essdras M. Suarez, sharing tips and photo lessons is a way to give back to the photo community and help fellow photographers get ahead.

We sat down with Essdras to walk through your anonymous photo submissions. In this virtual portfolio review, Essdras discusses the key elements of composition, what needs adjustment and why it’s important to give yourself the assignment you want somebody else to give you. 

Watch the entire on-demand recording here and be sure to tweet any lingering questions to @photoshelter.

Watch to learn about: 

  • Key differences between successful vs unsuccessful photos
  • Choosing and properly editing the right frame 
  • An explanation of concepts like visual anchors and points of escape

Cover image by Caitlyn Edwards

On-Demand Webinar – What Makes a Great Photo: Real-Time Reviews and Insights from Essdras M. Suarez

Our Q&A with Essdras

Thank you to everyone for submitting questions for photojournalist and Nikon Z7 influencer Essdras M. Suarez. Have any additional questions? Tweet us @photoshelter and let us know!

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

What aspect ratios should be used when making photos? More and more, social media has been taken over with the aspect ratio 4×5.

EMS: I don’t even know what that means. I know that when you set your camera, you can tell it the ratio you want. It doesn’t really matter because to me, it’s all about the content. If your content is not good enough, it doesn’t matter what ratio you have. If your content merits a certain crop, you crop for content. The only time I don’t want you to crop for content is if you’re working with a graphic designer who tells you they need the space or if you’re about to frame your photo and you’re going to sell it or put it in a gallery and you need to leave space so that the frame can cover part of it. Other than that, I could care less about the ratio. Forget about the ratio. That’s a rule. You’re a creative person. That comes from your soul, the creativity. Do not let anybody overrule your creativity, for God’s sake. What makes you extraordinary is the fact that you think differently from anybody else. So don’t let them do it.

What advice would you give to develop your own photographic style?

EMS: I’ll give you the advice that was given a long time ago to me: you look at photographic books or great photographic work. And then you look at more photography books. And then when you get tired of looking at photo books, you know what you do? You look at more photo books. Because a lot of the learning that we do as photographers, it’s a process of growing, being born into the craft, becoming a little bit more mature about it, assimilating a ton of information, and it gets to a point when then you get to add your own into the mix. But there’s a lot to learn in between. 

A lot of times when I was young, I used to look at photos that had won awards and I would scratch my head. I didn’t get it. Why did this photo win awards? And then many years down the line, I would find myself photographing a scene and think, “Aha. That’s why the photo won.” So your learning curve is full of epiphanies. And so you need to keep doing and doing and ruining and ruining. The only way you’re going to get better is by ruining photos. So you have to experiment until you find your own.

Is it still important to print?

EMS: You know, I think there’s something about printed work sitting on a wall. I have photos that I’ve never shown anyone because I know that one day when somebody prints it wall size, that’s when it’s worthy of showing. So, yeah, there’s a lot to be said for the tactile and the sensory perception that you get with an image when it’s in front of you, printed. We live in the digital world and we have kind of cheapened the visuals a lot because we have so much of it. The print now becomes those few moments, those few instances that are extraordinary, because they live in a different medium. So, yeah, I still like prints. Having said that, I really don’t print that much. But if you want to buy my stuff, I’m going to have to print it to send it to you, so. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary photographers on how to get started?

EMS: This is advice that was passed on to me, and I pass it on as much as I can. Give yourself the assignment you want somebody else to give you. So if you sit there dreaming, “Oh I wish someone nice would pay me so I could document the homeless problem in my backyard, in my own town,” and nobody does that. Guess what? You’ve got to get started and then you show a bit of work. And if it’s good enough, you might actually get people behind it, to back it up and give you the funding. So give yourself the assignment you want somebody else to give you. Start little, start small. Do at first what you can, do what is possible. Next thing you know, you’re going to be doing the impossible. That is not my quote. That’s a beautiful quote, but it belongs to someone else. I don’t know who.

How did you get your start as a photographer?

EMS: I went to school to study Journalism. I had a plan of specializing in magazine writing while getting a minor in Zoology. I liked to write, I liked animals and I wanted to see the world. I thought this was the way to do it. 

It turns out writing for Journalism requires total mastery of the language, which I simply did not have at the time. I struggled to pass the most basic of classes: Introduction to Journalism Writing. My JOU 101 professor also happened to have been my academic advisor.  She knew all about my goals and aspirations and she knew first-hand how hard it was for me. During her tests, she used to take away 50 points for every mistake you made. Sometimes, I’d go into a test and she’d say, “You owe me from the last exam.”

One day she called me into her office to tell me the then director of photography for the National Geographic Tom Kennedy, who was an alumnus of the college,  would be visiting in the coming weeks and meeting with students. She suggested I should go out to dinner with him and some of the photo students. I told her I had no interest in photography. Her reply was, “You are going.”

There were about eight photo students and I during that dinner with Kennedy. Even though I knew nothing of photography I knew a lot about the magazine since I had grown up reading it.  

Back home in Panama, one of my uncles owned a drugstore with quite the selection of periodicals. Sometimes after school, while waiting for my dad who was one of the store’s pharmacists, to be done with work. I would spend hours behind the counter reading. At first, I’d read the comic books, then other magazines like National Geographic. 

During that dinner, I hit it off with Kennedy pretty well. After a while, I mustered the courage to ask him, “So studying what I’m studying- Journalism with a specialty in magazine writing and a minor in Biology, do I stand any chance of working for the magazine?” 

He looked at me and said, “The magazine only hires experts in their fields or scientists.” Then he added, “You’d have a better chance if you were a photographer.” I thought briefly about it and said to him, “Then I’ll become a photographer.” He proceeded to give me an incredulous look while saying something along the lines of “Right…”

I then asked him, how would one go about becoming a photographer for the magazine? He said, “Well it’s kind of hard. Most of our photographers are in their 40’s. But I guess you could start by applying for an internship… But we are in August and the deadline for applying is in December.”

I let him get back to talking to the other students while I thought about it. I finally excused myself from the table and I went to the restaurant manager to ask if he had a pen and paper I could borrow. 

I went back to the table and proceeded to do a caricature of director Kennedy sitting atop of a globe a-la- Rodin’s Thinker style. Below, the caption read, “National Geographic, the world is our backyard.” 

I went back to the manager’s office and I asked him if could make a copy of the drawing. I went back to the table and proceeded to give Kennedy the original drawing and  I told him, “The next time you see a copy of this, my portfolio will be attached to it.” 

He looked at the drawing and then looked back at me as he once more gave me an incredulous look as he said once more, “Right…”

I spent the following months learning as much as I could about photography. Every Journalism student was required to take an intro to photojournalism class. At least I had that going for me since I’d never picked up a camera before that semester as a junior in college. I befriended a local nature photographer. He taught me a lot about photography and about the wildlife in the northern Florida region, the area where UF was located. 

As the deadline for the internship approached, the same advisor called me to her office and said, “I’ve heard you’ve been working really hard on your portfolio. Is it done?” I told her it was done. But the more I learned about photography, the more I realized how ludicrous of me truly was to have talked to Kennedy the way I did. And how ridiculous it was for me to try to compete with so many talented young photographers vying for those few highly coveted National Geographic scholarships. 

She asked me to get it anyway and to leave it with her so she could take a look at it later. I did and I didn’t give it much thought afterwards. By that time, I had already made up my mind,  I wasn’t going to send it in. 

After the Christmas break, I got pulled out of one of my classes to go to her office. When I got there, she held the phone for me as she told me someone wanted to talk to me. I hesitantly picked up the phone. On the other end was none other than Tom Kennedy. 

“Essdras, you have a long way to go but you have a lot of potential. It just so happens I  need someone who speaks Spanish, knows a bit about photography, a bit about animals and about the tropics…” He basically had just described me. Then he added, “I’d like you to assist a couple of my photographers on assignment in Central America.”

I was astonished, at a loss for words, and frozen in place. I looked at my advisor and said to her, “You sent him my portfolio??” She quickly chastised me as she gestured to get back to my call. Kennedy then said, “By the way, I am sorry, but I can only pay you $50 per day.” 

I said, “You are going to pay me on top of that???” 

So, the next summer I proceeded to spend a bit over two months in the jungles of Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia assisting on a story about poison arrow frogs and another one on Heliconia butterflies. After that, I just knew this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

If you’d like to see Essdras critique the anonymous photo submissions and discuss the questions asked here, watch the on-demand webinar.

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This article was written by

Caitlyn Edwards is the Senior Customer Marketing Manager at PhotoShelter. Passionate about visual storytelling and ethics, she covers photo news, events and offers educational tips.

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