In this section I intend to share random thoughts about my personal approach to photography and some suggestions pertaining technical aspects that I deem important when shooting. I see this as a “work in progress” page, subject to evolve over time in step with my photographic experience.
Most images in this website reveal my passion for travel photography and the human subject. More specifically, environmental portraits are my chief source of inspiration. I consider the human side as important as the technical one. I feel that technical mastery alone (although I am still far from attaining it) is not enough without a sense of empathy and connection with the person standing before me. Sometimes it’s difficult to create that connection with strangers belonging to different cultures, especially when holding a camera in my hands. One of the many skills I do lack is the ability to direct a subject. I am slowly attempting to improve on that front, but I feel that I still have a long way to go, as I have a natural distaste for giving instructions to people and telling them what to do. Knowing this weakness of mine, I am trying a different approach. Since I am rarely interacting with trained models, attempts to direct my subjects sometimes generate awkwardness and remove any hope for spontaneity. Hence, whenever I have the opportunity, I spend as much time as I can with the person I want to photograph and I keep direction to a minimum. I hang around observing what happens around me. After a while, people do not seem to mind me any more and I sort of merge with the environment. With a bit of patience, I can witness spontaneous emotions happening. I just have to be set to capture those moments. In my limited experience, the best emotional connections seem to unfold when people are left free to be what they want.
Context is very important, as it can add meaning and emotion to an image. I try to compose in the viewfinder to eliminate any clutter I do not want in the final image. Funnily enough, a lot of what I initially considered “clutter” has been morphing into “context” over the years. Most of my early portraits were close-up shots devoid of context through a heavily-pushed bokeh: I was waging war to most surroundings as undesirable noise. As soon as I decided to step out from my close-up portrait comfort zone to venture into the environmental portraiture domain, things became much more challenging, but also rewarding. From basic portraits I was trying to evolve into photographic story-telling. Initially, when I started to zoom out I had to cope with the great challenge of clutter, especially in overcrowded places. The wider the context the more difficult to manage and control it, notably in a dynamic environment. In street photography, for example, anything can get in between you and the subject (or even behind the subject) at any time, spoiling the result you had in mind.
The boundary between clutter and context is hardly a sharp one and could often be a matter of taste. My present definition of clutter is “a context over which I have little to no control through composition”. For instance, a busy street in an overcrowded Eastern city, with thousands of people, vehicles and animals passing by. A static context is easier to control and I can attempt to remove any clutter appearing in the viewfinder either physically (a small object that can be moved elsewhere), or through careful composition.
I try to apply the rule of thirds as a general composition guideline, but sometimes it can be broken for originality or with the view of cropping the image later to achieve a certain aspect ratio (square, landscape, etc.).
Low light environments coupled with the human subject often pose a technical challenge that requires fast lenses and a steady hand. I do not use a tripod because I can manage to shoot hand-held at shutter speeds as slow as 1/8s with a wide lens equipped with Image Stabilisation. Nonetheless, even with the best intentions to remain perfectly still, a living subject will tend to move (the poor creature has to breathe and blink, doesn’t she?). In such case, it is my experience that any shutter speed slower than 1/20s is prone to produce soft images, no matter how steady-handed the photographer. Of course, this empirical lower boundary for shutter speed could increase sensibly if I switched to a zoom and/or non stabilised lens (which I never do anyway in low-light situations when shooting people in their surroundings).
In order to shoot at the lowest possible ISO (to reduce noise), I do use a tripod when I shoot inanimate subjects (landscapes, buildings, etc.) at dawn or dusk. It’s a plastic travel tripod. It’s flimsy (unsuitable to a windy environment) but it is light and cheap. Weight minimisation is paramount to me, as I carry all my gear on my shoulders all day long. For the same reason, I never take any external flash with me. Instead I try to use the available light sources, natural or otherwise. I use the in-camera flash only as a last resort, if the subject is backlit and far from any background object over which the subject might cast a harsh shadow.
I prefer not to rely on software cropping to correct something that I can amend through composition. It saves me a lot of time in the image processing phase back home. Noise and softness (and any other defect) tend to be enhanced by the resolution loss caused by cropping. Sometimes I do use the clone stamp tool to eliminate minor blemishes or clutter that I could not remove through careful composition. By careful composition I mean changing my position in relation to the subject (closer or further, higher or lower, etc.) and/or moving the subject around (while keeping an eye on the light).
My post-processing workflow relies on three very good pieces of free software run on a GNU/Linux operating system: Dark Table and RawTherapee for RAW image processing and the GIMP for all the rest. I do not see any reason to waste money on Adobe proprietary software when open-source alternatives exist and are as good for most purposes.
Although it rarely happens to me, it would be ideal to know the image I want to shoot before even aiming at the subject with my camera. All the settings should already be in place so that I can concentrate on the composition and press the shutter release button as quickly as I can, once I am happy with what I see. Looking through the viewfinder is not enough, one has to learn to see. In practice, my quest for the best result takes me across many (often too many) shots, in a learning-by-shooting experimentation journey. I am convinced that the great masters would just take that one shot they want to capture. I think it was Frank Horvat who said: “Photography is the art of not pushing the button”. I tend to agree.
I have managed to salvage a few decent shots incorrectly exposed or taken under a harsh light, by turning them into black and white, where I feel I have more room to correct the dark/light imbalance without worrying about the impact on colours. I can also apply harsher chromatic filtering, removing some colour components with no noticeable impact on the resulting image.
Some final thoughts and suggestions:
- Do not be afraid to experiment. Analyse your errors and use them as opportunities to improve. I have made a lot of mistakes when taking photos and they have helped me to progress. I try to always question what I do and how I do it. When I look at my shots I am rarely fully satisfied with them. I often see things that I could have done better.
- Make it a point of always shooting in manual mode. Only resort to the semi-automatic modes (Av or Tv) in fast-changing light conditions.
- Get acquainted with your lenses. Learn their strengths, weaknesses and requirements, to extract the best images they can give.
- Try to prepare your camera settings before aiming at your subject. Look at the background to see what is behind the subject before shooting. Are you happy with what you see?
- In close up shots or where the subject fills the whole frame, you can try and tilt your camera to achieve a better composition and eliminate unwanted elements.
- Image Stabilisation only mitigates the consequences of an unsteady hand, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a fast moving subject.
- Unless you do love grainy images, remember to always shoot at the lowest ISO that the environment allows you. Available light and subject motion dynamics determine the lowest ISO you can use.
- Do not hesitate to underexpose to gain shutter speed in low light environments involving living subjects. Even at high ISO, an underexposed, noisy but sharp image is preferable to a soft but correctly exposed one.
- Burst shoot when there is a moving subject and fast action going on. This will add to your triage work back home, but it may increase your chances to capture that precious moment or expression.
- Be mindful of the deformations that a wide lens produces when used at its shortest focal length. If you want to minimise them, try to place the subject as close as possible to the centre of the frame with the idea of cropping or correcting the image later. Another alternative is to step back from the subject and increase the focal length, if you have room behind you, or ask the subject to move further from you. Notice how this will also slightly alter the perspective.
- The best outdoors photo opportunities with natural light usually arise in the early morning and in the late afternoon – the golden hour. Mind your own shadow though! One exception that springs to mind is when shooting downwards from a vantage point: midday light can be useful in such a case.
- The most enlightening book I have read about photography is “Understanding Exposure”, by Bryan Peterson. If you have the time to read one book only, make it this one. I highly recommend it.