This will be a long one, finally! I have tried in the past as much as possible to find great series of images to be able to show you the creative process that goes in a photographer’s mind when approaching a scene. The problem is that very often there are only a few images before the final one, or the composition is not changing, I am just waiting for the right timing, the moment my subjects are all in the right place.
This one is different, this one really is about working a scene until the final image is taken.
In this contact sheet we will be talking about layers, storytelling and sticking around a little longer when you think there is no more photo to take.
It all started last week when I took someone on a private travel photography workshop around Hoi An. Instead of heading into the old town we decided to get deeper into the real Vietnam, and visited a place I hadn’t been for a year. We had a great time, shooting fishermen at sunrise on the river, of course shooting in the water, the way I love it.
On our way back, we decided to take a quick walk around the tiny fishing village as we could see people chilling out in front of their houses. Everyone was extremely friendly and approachable and were just looking at starting a chat with us.
As we walked a little further into the village we spotted a woman fixing a fishing net. The action was interesting, and as you know it is always easier to approach and take photos of people who are busy doing something. Plus the light was really good on her. We sat down next t her and I started chatting about fishing nets while talking to my students about the usual: think about the direction of your light and your background, etc…
The woman was by herself an interesting subject: she was busy working, so there was a dynamic/changing situation that allowed us to try different compositions. Her hands went up, down, left, right, etc… What makes a subject even more interesting in my opinion is its dynamism, its ever-changing movements, shapes, angles, and emotion. This is the reason why I love people photography so much!
The line starting from her foot was an interesting leading line, and the green wall of her house offered a nice simple background. But as you can see, my subject is pretty central here and there is a lot of empty boring space on the right side. It was a start and surely it wasn’t good enough, something was missing.
Luckily for us, her husband showed up! He had been boiling water back in the kitchen and was coming out as he heard the discussion happening. He stood outside the doorway and lit a cigarette. As the background behind him was the dark inside of the house it was perfect to frame him in.
Things were getting a little more interesting. Placing both subjects on each third of the frame helped create a tension and a flow from the left to the right side of the picture. The composition improved, so did the storytelling part. But that green bench in the middle was a distraction and the image wasn’t good enough.
As it is in any type of story telling media, using more than one character will help to build more interesting stories.
Can you imagine a movie with only one character? Things would get pretty boring I guess unless the cinematography is amazing. But generally, it is easier to make a story more interesting with other characters who come and bring more twist into the scenario. This is the same for photography: using only one element (one subject) will restrict the possibilities you have to tell a story. Yes, it can be a beautiful image, but adding more elements to your subject will not only help you tell a more interesting story but will also help your creativity. As a photographer you have to deal with more layers, forcing you to use more dramatic angles, and improving your creativity. And that will make you work harder, and make you improve your photography. So as a photography instructor I am all up for it.
Now there is a time to take photos, and a time to interact with the subjects. I like to find a good balance between both, being able to take photos but also interact as much as I can with the subject, making them feel like we are having a real exchange/conversation so they are actually having an enjoyable time. And sometimes that means doing what they ask: “take my photo!”. The man who was maybe feeling very handsome that day asked me to take his photo. Maybe he didn’t like all the attention brought to his wife after all 🙂
Well, that goes straight into my “boring posed photo” folder. No layers, no story, just a man posing for the camera. But I did it and showed it to him, and he was very happy to see himself being a badass with his tattoo and cigarette. But then, as he maybe felt that he was letting his wife out of the story, he came next to her and gave us a real natural pose…
His wife didn’t feel very comfortable posing next to her husband, I tried not to get into details about the quality of their relationship! But the shot was taken, and we showed them the picture, and they were very happy about it. From then we could continue working on our final image.
Now the main problem for me at the time was the green bench still being in the middle. Its colour was matching the fishing net colour, but it was still taking too much visual weight. So what to do when things are difficult and we do not know what to do? Yes, as usual, we get closer. Coming closer to your subject will help you work on more simple details, and help you as well getting rid of messy backgrounds.
From that point, I was about to give up. After waking up at 4 am I was starting to feel a little tired and felt that this photo opportunity was leading us nowhere. A close up of hands fixing a fishing net has nothing new and original. As I was with a student I decided to stay around a little longer. I put my camera down so I could freely discuss composition with my student and at the same time chat with this lovely couple. I was pretty much done with this situation and the light was also getting stronger. But then, something happened…
The man decided to come closer to me to continue the chat and sat down right in front of me. This is when IT caught my eyes.
What is the most important thing in photography? what is the thing that you must train your eyes to see and focus on when taking photos? Of course, the light! You can’t see it anywhere in this series of images but on the left side of the terrace was a white pillar. As the sun was hitting that white pillar the light bounced back straight onto the man’s face. Finally, there was something interesting to work with!
There was now a very nice soft light on the man’s face, and to me, he instantly became my “main character” in that story. So I focused on him a little bit more, trying to see how the light was playing on his skin tones: on his hand, his leg, his face, and neck. This is a quick series of images I took in the next 30 seconds:
I tried vertical, I tried horizontal. None of these compositions was good enough but I started to get an understanding of what made this man an interesting subject to me: the light reflecting on different parts of his body, his tattoo and his golden chain: great details for the storytelling. I also tried to play with the cigarette he was smoking, so I opened my aperture to try and isolate it.
But then the man offered us tea. He walked back into his kitchen and came out with a few glasses filled with tea. You can’t refuse an invitation when it is done by such friendly people, so I put the camera down and drank the tea. As I took a step back to stretch my legs (we were kneeling down for the most part) I saw the nice frame with the husband and wife. I took the shot.
This is when it happened, that was it. the whole story was right in front of me: the woman as the main character, busy working, while her husband relaxed on the side. A very common sight when travelling in the countryside of Asia 😉 The green bench was still there and by that time I gave up trying to get rid of it.
The frame was a little too wide and I needed to fill my frame meaning getting closer. What I didn’t feel like doing is have a very straightforward “rule of thirds with balanced background“. In order to enhance the man’s golden chain and tattoo, I had to get much closer. I gave it a few trials and this happened:
The green bench in the middle is still an issue in that picture, but the fact that there is a nice leading line going from the man’s face to the woman helps attract the attention away from it.
So what do you think? What would you have done?