Michael Freeman explores why a little perseverance can make a good shot great
Photography seems perfect for people with a short attention span. See, aim, click and it’s done. Move on. And indeed, probably most photography outside of a studio happens this way. It’s also an undeniably good feeling to have trusted your instinct and captured the shot just like that – perfect moment, exactly the right camera position and framing. Or did you? On second thoughts, could it have been better if you’d waited a little longer, or if you’d been a fraction to one side, or…?
One way of approaching any shooting situation is to think, right from the start, whether it can be improved. In fact, you could divide situations into those that can’t and those that can. Often, even if you can anticipate, and have time to get closer and into the right position, you know there won’t be time for messing around; there’ll only be the opportunity to fire off a couple of frames. Yet many other situations allow time to work around the subject or wait for a better gesture or expression – if you have a mind to take the opportunity.
In a planned assignment, when you can arrange times and circumstances, this is the default. You already know that you have to work with your imagination. Less obvious is what to do when you simply come across opportunities unannounced, as in much reportage photography. I’d like to show you three opportunistic situations that worked only through sticking it out. They all worked differently in principle, and the first here relied ultimately on nothing more subtle than doggedness and being optimistic – a sort of brute force approach.
The location was the old town of Lijiang, an attractive, distinctive and historical town in southwest China that has been marketed so well to tourists that it is visited by more than 10 million a year. Despite this, the local Naxi culture is resilient, and many locals dress traditionally by choice. Shooting is still a challenge, and the first step is to know the locations, and be there early, as I did with this typical steep lane on Lion Hill. I also chose to use a long lens to stand a better chance of cutting out what I didn’t want, namely tourists with selfie sticks and tourist shop signage. As you can see from the first four frames, even this wasn’t easy: the downside of this kind of long view is that it takes a long time for the people you don’t want to include to move out of frame, and even my carefully chosen viewpoint couldn’t avoid an obvious shop selling junk. This is when you start to wonder if it’s going to be worth it, and it took 15 minutes of waiting until I finally
It’s a good feeling to have trusted your instinct and captured the shot – perfect moment, the right camera position and framing. Or did you?
had a single Naxi woman in the frame. That quarter of an hour was frustrating (with no guarantee that there would be a shot at the end of it), but it did give me time to think more.
I figured out I could solve the shopfront problem by making that area a bit darker in processing, and then realized it would get no attention at all if it were in black and white. But the real breakthrough, as I saw it, was to appreciate that the very distinctive rooftops were pristine. I still wanted the close crop on the street, but decided that a quick upward pan-and-stitch would give me a vertical image that would actually convey much of what this old town’s fabric is about – narrow lanes between crowded buildings.
I was very happy with the result, and used it successfully on my client’s website and in a book, but be warned that if you go for this shape of image, no magazine editor is ever going to buy it!
Four frames of the wrong kind of people, until an elderly Naxi woman walks into view in the fifth. The sixth is the moment. Adding some vignetting to the lower part of the image helped to lessen the impact of the shop
The old Naxi town of Lijiang, shot to emphasize tradition and minimize signs of tourism
Quickly panning upwards gave me three shots, which I then stitched together to create a very strong vertical composition