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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is your travel photography subject or technique driven?


Have you ever pondered this question? When you try a new technique - a new post-processing move, some fancy flash work, a new view of the world with a new lens - are you doing it because you can or because it tells a story?

The reason I ask is this. I grew up on a diet of photojournalistic style travel photography in the vein of National Geographic. For the most part natural light, fly on the wall type stuff mixed with beautiful portraits where the engagement between the photographer and subject was clear.

Landscapes where the photographer obviously made the effort to be there at the right time of day and the right time of year to capture their vision. And yet in later years when I've seen interviews with the various photographers I've always found it interesting to discover the techniques they used to create the picture - which often times involved flash, graduated neutral density filters and other fancy post-processing footwork.

But when I look at the pictures my first reaction isn't 'wow what a great shot I wonder how they did that?'. It's always' wow what an amazing subject I'd love to go there'. And that's something I'm always conscious of in my own work.

I don't want to be limited to just natural light, or not being able to use HDR or infrared or any of the tools at my disposal. After all we love this art form for the creative freedom it allows us. But I don't want them to overpower the subject itself. I want the techniques I use to support the story and enhance it. Get to the stage where the technique is only relevant in terms of what I wanted to say about the subject.

And I see a lot of photography around where the photographer doesn't really seem to have anything to say about their subjects apart from the fact that they know how to use multiple flashes off-camera, process HDR or convert to black and white.

So I want to suggest that before you decide to experiment with newly-learnt techniques, either at the time of capture or post, ask yourself if what you're doing supports the story you're trying to tell about your subject. Does it more accurately reflect your feelings?

I used this image to illustrate this post because it uses a couple of techniques and yet illustrates what I wanted to say. Firstly the technical side. It's off-camera flash fired with an infrared trigger. The flash had an orange gel over it to match the sodium vapour lights lighting up the parade. I used a slow-synch flash with rear curtain and a reasonably high ISO to let the ambient light burn in in the background.

Now did that increase your appreciation for the subject? Probably not one iota but here's why I used those techniques and what I was trying to achieve.

Firstly I used the flash off camera so that I could zoom it in on the female dancer right in the middle - she is the subject of my photo. I used an orange gel over it because I wanted to retain the atmosphere of the natural light that was all around me during the parade. I used a slow-synch on the flash because I wanted to show the frenetic, excited movement of the dancers almost to the point where they were so blurry you couldn't tell what they were. I used second-synch flash so that after the blurring there would be a sharp blast of flash to highlight the central dancer and make her pretty sharp. I used the high ISO so the background wouldn't go black and you could tell that there were lots of other dancers around her - giving a sense of a large group of happy paraders.

And that was how I took a vision of what I wanted to say about the subject and used the techniques to highlight that. Which is a different concept to just using slow-synch, second-synch, orange gelled off-camera flash just for the sake of it. The essence of good travel photography is showing your subject to your viewers. Be careful to make sure that your photography isn't more 'wow what a great shot' than 'wow what a great subject'.

2 comments:

Sunil said...

I'm a regular reader of your blog & appreciate your views a lot.
I think "So I want to suggest that before you decide to experiment with newly-learnt techniques, either at the time of capture or post, ask yourself if what you're doing supports the story you're trying to tell about your subject. Does it more accurately reflect your feelings?" - this summerizes all and is one of the best piece of advice i've ever read about photography.

Paul Dymond said...

Wow, thank you so much for the lovely comment Sunil. Seriously, to have someone in a place so far away from my own home read and appreciate this blog is incredibly humbling and makes me realise how universal photography really is. I haven't been back to Himachal Pradesh in quite a while but one of these days...