I have received a lot of really great feedback over the past few weeks on my presentation at the Exposure Imaging Expo in Toronto. One section that I called, “Before and After,” was especially popular and I was asked if I could turn it into an article to be posted on this site.
So as requested, here is the requested article straight from my presentation.
“Before and After” is an idea I got from wedding photographer extraordinaire, Jerry Ghionis. Jerry is an exceptionally talented Australian photographer and one of my former mentors. I have learned a lot from Jerry and during his classes, he often shows two photos at a time – one of what the scene actually looked like (the “before” shot), then the image he captured (the “after” shot). Needless to say, the two images couldn’t be more different – the “after” photo Jerry captured was often a stunning image and required Jerry to “think out of the box.” He is, IMHO, the master of this.
In keeping with this approach, I will present a few images that I recently shot in China – both before and after.
First up is an image taken in the city of Fengdu, China (on the way to Chongching) along the Yangtze River. I was on my way towards a Buddhist temple there and as I was walking, I saw the following scene:
There were tourists all over the place trying to take a photograph of these 5 people. What really intrigued me were the 3 older women in the front row. They struck me as very wise women who had experienced a lot during their lifetimes and had many stories to tell. Given that, I wanted a more interesting image of just the 3 of them.
There were people everywhere, so my options were limited. Also, there was no way I could get the couple in the second row to move out of the way. When I am confronted with a situation like this, the first thing I usually do is change my perspective – that is, change my camera’s position relative to the subject. I decided to move to my left (subject’s right) and this is what I saw:
Fortunately, the gentleman in the second row stepped back a bit and the woman closest (to the camera) in this photograph was able to hide any other distractions behind her. All of this by simply changing my camera’s position relative to the subject. Of course, I added a sepia treatment (plus lightened the edges) in post processing, but I believe this image in much more interesting than the first one and captures the womens’ characters better.
The next image was taken at a market in the city of Suzhou. I often like to show my subject (the woman on the left with her son) in context. When I kept looking at the woman and her son, I couldn’t help but notice the strong connection between the two of them and I kept being drawn to this part of the image. For me, the image wasn’t about a woman and child in the market, it was about the close connection between mother and son.
After I realized this, I shot the image again to highlight this parent-child connection:
To this day, I am still moved by the sense of connectedness highlighted in this image.
One day when we were staying in Shanghai, we went to visit a silk factory. China is famous for its silk and it was fascinating to see how the women working there could unravel the silk cocoons into long threads. It was as if they were performing magic as it was a skill that took many, many years to master. I walked around the factory floor and this was typical of what I saw:
This woman, like many others, was taking silk cocoons and performing her “magic” on it. The shot above shows that, but it was too “literal” for my liking. It is a shot anyone could have taken and there is nothing particularly special about it. But as I wandered around the floor and saw women, both young and old, unraveling the cocoons, I noticed that I was not looking at the women, but rather, the magic they were performing with their hands.
With that in mind, I decided to focus (pardon the pun) on this “magic”:
This image now better highlights what was really most important to me during my visit to this factory.
We spent a few hours in a lovely garden near Shanghai one day, but I was having a terrible time taking an interesting shot as there were hundreds of people everywhere. And to add to my frustration, the mid-day sun provided harsh, boring lighting. I actually ended up putting my camera away and just taking in the nice flowers and trees as I thought I would not be able capture something I would be happy with.
Everywhere I looked, there were people standing (or sitting) in the harsh light.
As we went from one part of the gardens to another, we walked through buildings and covered bridges which had windows. The light coming through the window was beautiful as it backlit the foliage – plus the patterns in the window provided an lovely silhouette. I then realized that my shot of the gardens wouldn’t be taken outside – it was was waiting for me on the inside of these buildings.
After a couple attempts at getting my exposure correct (I had to shoot in manual exposure mode due to the strong backlighting), here is final image:
A fundamental rule in photography (for me) is to first look for the light you want. Then, once you find it, your image will then start to fall into place.
As I was walking through another market in China, the evening light was really lovely. There was a nice rustic feel to the space and there were alleys and corners that could be explored.
I came across this interesting looking bicycle in the evening light – it caught my eye, so I decided to take a photograph of it.
Something I learned a long time ago when learning photography is to not be “literal” in your images if you want them to be interesting. The above bicycle is interesting in appearance, but this image is only a photograph of … well … a bicycle. It is nothing special and not what I was after.
If you can place your subject in context (with respect to its environment), you will often improve the image. I decided to step back about 3-4 metres and this is what I saw:
Placing the bicycle in the lower left and balancing it with other the other elements that you see makes for a more interesting image. When you are taking a shot of your subject and the image does not inspire you, step back (or use a wider focal length) to highlight the subject in its environment.
I was staying on an upper floor at a lovely hotel in Hong Kong where they had a panoramic window. If you looked out of this window, there was a lovely view of the harbour. I walked up to the window and took my shot – it is nice, but nothing particularly special:
I knew that this was not going to be my final image so I started to wander a bit. I looked down and saw reflections in the granite floor which I wanted to incorporate in my image. I decided to back up and use a shorter focal length.
This is the final shot:
While the first shot is “nice”, I believe the second shot is more memorable as the window, walls and floor frame the subject (the harbour) in a flattering manner. It is amazing how framing your subject can make a good image more powerful.
On a drive from Yangshou to Guilin, we saw a farmer in a rice paddy plowing his field the way Chinese farmers have done for at least a hundred years. The longest focal length I had with me was 90mm and the farmer was a good distance away.
If you look at the following image, you will see a few other obstacles I had to contend with:
First of all, this shot was taken at mid-day when the light simply, well, sucks. Nothing like direct overhead sun to make an uniteresting shot. Also, notice the telephone pole in the right side of the frame.
When I saw this image in my view finder, I kept thinking about the fact that rice farming in China (at least to this farmer) hadn’t changed much in the past century. If I got rid of the telephone pole and pretended to be a photographer of the day, I could actually tell a story of a hardworking farmer and his animal plowing the rice fields.
I couldn’t get any closer to the farmer, so I decided to complete my story in post processing:
All I did was a simple crop to isolate what was most important to me in this image, treated the image with sepia toning and then added a little noise for good measure.
Travel photography can be really challenging at times as you often have no control over the light or your environment. You will sometimes find a really great location but cannot return when the light is better as you need to move on. There are even times when everything is perfect, except there are dozens of people around you and in your way. Or there may be other obstacles. It is easy to get frustrated.
Try to make the best of what you have been given – and use the tips above as a starting point. With a little imagination and trying something different, you can turn an ordinary image into something more memorable.
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