Creative paths

Michael Free­man ex­plores why a lit­tle per­se­ver­ance can make a good shot great

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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.

Wait­ing game

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

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