Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Do you know why your pictures are good (or bad!) ?

One of the biggest challenges of any art form is to work out whether your own creations are any good or not. And when I say good I'm not talking about that subjective 'good' where you absolutely love what you do.

You may like it, and your Mum might tell you you're the greatest, but is that an accurate appraisal of your abilities? Do you know the difference between a good photo and a great photo?

A veteran photographer friend (I won't call him old 'cause he'll shoot me!) and I were talking about this the other day. The fact that some people can photograph for years and years and never quite get it and yet others can pick up a camera and shoot amazing stuff from the word go.

Those who struggle for years may be satisfied with their work but at the end of the day they have a niggling feeling that they've kind of plateaued without reaching a level they want to. That their pictures are OK but they could be better. And my advice when I meet those people is to really understand what a good photograph is.

I don't mean to look at pictures and say 'wow that's great, I like that' and leave it at that. Examine every minute detail of the image. What was the light like? Has the photographer caught a great moment? What focal length lens have they used? Is it a shallow or big depth-of-field? Have they used flash or natural light? Have they frozen the moment with a fast shutter speed or let the shutter drag for some blur? Have they used (or deliberately ignored) traditional rules of composition?

It's very difficult, if not impossible, to consistently create wonderful photographs if you don't understand the necessary ingredients for a great photograph. We all have individual styles and ways of seeing the world, but at the same time the makings of a good photograph have one thing in common - they make people stop and look harder.

So my advice to those who feel they've plateaued and are happy with their pictures but want to be ecstatic is to look at as much great photography as possible. For travel photography study the masters like Steve McCurry, Bob Krist, Kazuyoshi Nomachi. If wildlife is your thing check out the greats like Frans Lanting, Art Wolfe, Art Morris and the late, great Michio Hoshino. And of course for flash stuff don't forget the wonderful Joe McNally.

But don't just look at their images - see them. Really explore them in-depth and look at how they're constructed. Write down a list of things you note about individual pictures and why they appeal to you - or don't. Once you know what works (and doesn't) then take that knowledge and apply it to your own pictures.

Take that list you wrote about your favourite pictures and see if it applies to your own photographs. If not ask yourself why not? What is missing? What do you need to do differently? Once you clearly understand what makes a great picture you'll be in a better position to truly understand whether your images are as good as your Mum thinks they are.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A good reason to carry a tripod

One of the coolest things about being a photographer, no probably THE coolest thing, is that it gives you access to places you'd never get a chance to see otherwise.

I've been going to Japan on and off since 1989 and in all those years I had never been inside a capsule hotel. Don't ask me why, I'd just never got to it. In fact I didn't even know where one was in Sapporo, which is like my second home.

Anyway last year I thought that this is the year I should definitely go and try one out. Staying in a hotel is easy, getting permission to photograph inside it not always so. It helps if you're on assignment (whether self or for a magazine) and can present a letter.

I spoke to the Japan National Tourist Organisation and they organised a night in a lovely capsule hotel called Avinel in downtown Sapporo for me. When I checked in the PR lady told me I had the run of the place to photograph whatever I wanted. The only condition was that I wasn't to photograph any people unless they gave me permission.

As it turned out that wasn't much of a problem. Seeing as it was the middle of the week the place was pretty much deserted. This is a problem that travel photographers often face. Travel photography often calls for people in a shot but there's nobody around! Enter your trustiest model - yourself!

The only problem is that you need someone to hold the camera. And that's why I always carry a tripod. I can't count the number of times I've had to put the self-timer on and photograph myself pretending to be doing something. So here I am stretched out on my trusty bed ready for a good night's sleep (after I hit the town first!).

I have a strap for my tripod and I sling it over my back ala Robin Hood. It doesn't get in the way, is easy to carry and pretty much goes with me everywhere. I know there are some photographers who swear they never use one but I would never be without one. Hell if it's good enough for Steve McCurry it's good enough for me. :) 

Later that night after I'd wandered around the entertainment district I came back to my little cubby hole and went for a bath. I spent hours in the bath talking to a Zen monk (no he didn't speak any English but I speak, read and write Japanese fluently). What an amazing experience and one of countless that my camera has led me to. Really could there be a greater entree into a foreign culture?

Monday, March 8, 2010

It's not all about the main show

This beautiful place is Ubirr in Kakadu National Park. Right at the very top of Australia in the Northern Territory, this is probably one of the country's most famous sites.

And this is the view that everybody comes for. The glorious sunset over the golden red rocks and extensive wetlands.

As a photographer on assignment you'd be pretty remiss not to capture this view. Although on this particular assignment it wasn't on my list of things to do originally. It wasn't part of the story and I was at the end of a long day on tour but headed out there on my own because I knew that it needed to be captured.

Anyway it turned out to be a good choice because it also led to me photographing what turned out to be the front cover as well. Which leads me to my point. A lot of people tend to show up at the main show (in this case the view out over the wetlands) and then put the blinkers on. They plonk themselves down and enjoy the show. If your aim is to capture a series of images that shows the full experience then you actually need to walk around a bit and look for photographic opportunities. Of course you don't want to miss the sunset but if you get there in plenty of time you'll have the chance to do both.

Ubirr is a big, flat rock. Well it's more of a stone viewing platform by the time you get a few hundred people up there. And it provides commanding views not over the main show wetlands but also on the other sides as well. So I decided to go walking around the edges of the outcrop to see what I could see. It was a long way down so I put my long telephoto (70-200mm) to see what I could see.
As I looked down on the opposite side from the wetlands I noticed this beautiful sunlit path leading back to the car park. So I decided to sit down and wait for a little while to see if anybody walked along it. I didn't like my chances because, or so I thought, surely nobody would go home without missing the show. Well I was wrong. Quite a few people walked along the path and I had my pick of nice contrasting colours and groups of people.

I tried a few compositions with couples but in the end decided that I liked the image above with four people, the two women on the left coincedentally having the same coloured t-shirt.

Could I have gone home with only this picture and not waited around for sunset? No way Jose. But by taking more than just what everybody else points their camera at you can be sure to come home with a more complete and accurate portrayal of your experience.