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Here is one of my most valuable tips. The one I will offer to someone who comes to me, complaining that after 20 years of taking photos they can’t get out of their usual compositions, and want to get into a new level of creativity.
It may sound like something you have heard before. Yes, photography is all about light, and if there is a good light then there is a good photo.
But no, I am talking about something more specific.
Please note that I have always focused my photography, and my articles on travel photography, on people. So when reading this article, please think people photography (which also includes street photography).
In travel photography, most people tend to look for a good subject to photograph. Of course that means that this subject should be “sitting” in an appropriate light, with a good catchy background, something not too distracting. The problem with this approach, is that you might end up taking the same kind of compositions again and again. Framing your subject on the side, rule of thirds, looking into the photo, etc. As much as these are nice photos, you may feel the need to develop your creativity and come up with something different.
What I am telling you, is to completely not focus your attention on your subject. After all, your subject does not matter (unless you happen to meet the new “Afghan girl” of Steve McCurry, or the girl with green eyes of David Lazaar). No, believe me, as someone living in Vietnam: one old lady with a pointy hat looks the same as another old lady with a pointy hat.
Instead of that, try and focus your entire attention on the light around you. Not the beautiful sunset light in the whole sky, but the little spots of golden light right there, on the floor next to you. Yes, can you see them? Well, there is your next photo my friend.
Yes, I hear you already, “What do you mean shooting light?! And what is my subject, what am I telling a story about?”. Well – now your job is to patiently wait for the right subject to walk into that light. But remember? Shoot the light.
In the same way as we say “fill your frame” in photography. Keep things simple, only include elements which are relevant to the story you are telling. You can fill your frame with that sumptuous golden light you found on the floor. And that is what is going to lead you to a completely new level in composition and creativity. Because you are only shooting that piece of light, you are going to crop your subjects in way you would never have dared before. You are going to break all the rules you have carefully been following until now, and create something new.
It will surely be beautiful, as your light will be stunning. You may miss a lot of photos, as you have to get used to getting that close to things and people in a light that can be quite full of contrasts and colors. But with time and a bit of practice, things will start to take shape. You will get used to such new ways of composing your image, and your results will become sharper over time. Until you are getting comfortable with this new idea, and start re-creating your templates that will allow you to be fast and efficient and not miss your images.
“Heresy!!!” I can already hear. Sorry? Which book are you talking about? Look at the results you are going to achieve with this technique, and tell me if does not make you think in a complete new way, bringing completely new styles of images. If you don’t like it, well go and try something different. But surely you would have learned something out of it.
Last year, while running a photo workshop in Myanmar, I managed to capture this image using this exact technique. I could see the light on the floor, and the beautiful blue color next to it. I also knew that this monastery was quite busy, and if I waited long enough someone would walk into my frame.
One of my students and I laid down on the floor. I switched from Aperture mode to Manual (making sure I would have the right exposure, as the situation had very strong contrasts). I did compose the photo, exactly the way I wanted to have it, and I waited. Surely, after half a minute, some novices went down the stairs. They did spot us, and feeling a little shy to be photographed, they ran through the corridor, laughing out loud.
Click – Click – Click
I did not expect them to run in the first place so my shutter speed was right enough to freeze my hand shakes, or someone walking. But it gave some blur to the novice’s robe, and I liked the shot even more like that. After all, most new things that were created on our planet are the result of accidents!
Go ahead, give it a try!
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