Let me tell you about my photography

Let me tell you about my photography

Let’s have a break from posts about workshops, projects and photo shoots.

I would like to tell you about my photography.

EQUIPMENT AND SETTINGS

Let’s start with equipment and settings. They seems to be the most popular questions I get asked about my photography: What do you use? What settings do you shoot with?

I’m a digital photographer, and I use a Nikon D700. I could claim that I love shooting film, and I do, but I’m far too impatient as I grow older and happily sacrifice the “tactility” of shooting film for the instant gratification and flexibility in post-production processes that I derive from shooting digital. Plus, I can’t get over the immense feeling of guilt at the amount of water used in developing film negatives (believe you me, it’s a lot of water!).

LENSES

I use different lenses, depending on what I’m shooting. If I’m shooting events or reportage (including weddings), the 24-70mm f2.8 sits on the camera, with the 80-200mm f2.8 on the second body for those moments when you need a bit more telephoto. I use an 85mm f1.4 for natural light portraiture (love the sweet bokeh that lens gives). For studio work, I mainly use the 85mm or 80-200mm f2.8.

All three lenses are heavy; so, when I travel, I pack light and use four primes: 24mm f2.8, 35mm f2.0, 50mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4. It’s surprising how adept you can get at swapping prime lenses on your camera body!

I also use an SB800 speedlight, and use an SB600 and SB26 when shooting with multiple strobes (in which case, I trigger them with an SU800, usually TTL for the 800 and 600, and manual on the 26, used in slave mode and usually as a kicker).

EXPOSURE MODES

As for settings: I used to shoot purely in Manual mode, but over the last year, have come to use Aperture Priority more and more when I’m photographing situations where I need to shoot instinctively and rapidly. I obsess about depth of field, so shooting Aperture Priority gives me control over this. If exposure is a bit tricky, I use exposure lock (usually in conjunction with spot or centre-weighted metering) to make sure that I get the right exposure for what I’m shooting.

If the light is fairly constant, I will choose the ISO. If it’s not — for example, if I’m moving from sun to shade to indoors rapidly —  I’ll put it on Auto ISO and let the camera choose for me. I can’t risk missing the moment because I’m fiddling with the dials.

All this is moot in the studio, obviously, where you need to shoot purely in Manual exposure mode.

I mainly shoot with auto focus, using a single focus point (in the centre), unless I’m shooting action, in which case Continuous Servo comes on.

SHOOTING TECHNIQUES

When I’m shooting, my eye is glued to the viewfinder. It forms the parameters of my world: I see reality unfolding within the four edges of the frame and nothing else. I focus only on what’s within the four edges and track action with my eye. I’ve become quite good at anticipating when something is going to happen and firing the shutter just before. It comes, I think, from my shooting surf life saving events over the years: you begin to develop a sense of timing.

If you wish to develop your sense of timing, shoot action: sports, dance, anything with a lot of seemingly random movement (eg. your kids at play).

WHAT I SHOOT

The more I photograph, the more I realise that I can’t get excited about shooting anything that does not have people in it. Humanity is the lifeblood of my photography – a frame without humans feels empty and meaningless to me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t shoot landscapes and such, but doing it just doesn’t give me the same “rush” as shooting a frame with people.

I got over my fear of photographing people by taking on a project which forced me to engage with random strangers and take their photographs. This was back in 2005 and I would go about Perth and Fremantle on weekends and after work, asking people to hold a small sign saying “I have not forgotten” and taking their portraits. It scared the ca-ca out of me to start with, but it was a great baptism of fire. I went from that to doing street portraiture, this time without the crutch of the sign, asking random strangers if I could take their photo because I was interested in them.

Some portraits from the 2005 'I have not forgotten' project

PORTRAITURE TIPS

Here’s a tip if you want to take street portraits: show an interest in the person before you ask. Make eye contact; strike up a conversation; obtain their permission. They will pose and the first frame will look posed. Then take a second and third frame, and they will appear more natural, more relaxed. Keep talking as you’re shooting, keep engaging them in conversation.

The same tip applies when you’re taking more formal portraits. Talk your mouth off. Get your people interested and interacting; make them laugh with corny jokes. Show your humanity.

An early street portrait of an ex-wharfie, Peter Swan, taken at South Mole, Fremantle.

TELL A STORY

I need my photographs to tell a story – whether it’s formal studio work or documentary photography. I’m a frustrated novelist (I’ve actually completed a Creative Writing course as part of my English degree), so I turn to photography as a quick way of creating characters, setting, plot, conflict, tension, climax and resolution – all within one frame.

I discover stories in human engagement, or signs of human engagement: a group of exhausted but triumphant boaties congratulating each other for winning a surf rowing race, an abandoned armchair next to a public phone booth, an old fella sitting hunched on a street bench, a pair of threadbare  underpants left on the dunes at Leighton Beach…

I don’t take my camera everywhere with me. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like taking photos — and it should be okay not to take photos and to miss moments where you thought, “Damn, I wish I had my camera on me!” In most of these cases, it’s usually just a sunset, or the light on the water, or a funny looking dog.

TAKE RISKS

I have one belief in photography that has influenced what and how I photograph, and it is: if there is no risk involved in your photography, then the photograph is worth nothing.

Risky photography - I was swamped by that wave a split second later. The camera was fine, but my mobile phone died.

In order to make a picture worth something, you must invest in it, and in investing, risk loss. It doesn’t have to be a physical loss (eg. of your gear or, worse, your life). It can be an emotional risk – having the guts to strike up conversation with a stranger and then taking their portrait photograph. It can be an investment of your time and effort – setting up, planning, scripting and then doing a shoot with your models — because it may not work and would be all for naught.

If you asked me for a one sentence statement about my photography, it would be this: “Shoot because you mean it, not because you want to.”

1 Comment
  • Charlene

    29/04/2010 at 6:41 am

    That was a great post, and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Now you make me want to write one like it too, except I’m experiencing a bit of a turning point with regards to where my head is and what photography really means to me. Which means I am unable to resolve the 47 directions in which my thoughts are streaming, and cogently articulate them.

    More and more I’m beginning to really understand, in fits and starts, what’s behind “shoot what you love”, which ties into your last statement “shoot because you mean it.” Ironically at this point, with everything going on in my head, I’m barely shooting at all. But I think this too is part of the process, putting the camera down and letting what you would shoot, breathe around you.

    Thanks for writing this.

    P.S. Very brave of you for taking on the “I have not forgotten” project. That would have scared more than the ca-ca out of me!

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