Light and Play: Portrait Study in Travel Photography
An exercise for the emerging photographer
Eye to Eye
The opportunity to travel is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pleasures on the planet. And the opportunity to document it – to preserve that moment in time – is unparalleled. Please note that this article is dedicated to the emerging photographer and is written to encourage shooting through the intimidation. With advanced cameras and sophisticated accessories; including those exhaustive manuals, the shooting experience can be quite daunting. To start, this is about travel portraiture and the ability to intellectually, physically and emotionally connect with individuals and be granted permission through a smile or a nod. As there are many ways to approach portraiture, first you must see it as more than a studied or orchestrated image. It features the posture of the individual, willing or perhaps caught off guard and the challenge of the photographer to capture the essence of that person close-up or engaged in activity. Don’t be afraid to partner with your camera to explore contemporary culture by shooting in new ways. Celebrate the spontaneity and embrace these challenges in finding that you have only seconds to define that moment. And note the light; this is key. There is no set-up, no complex lighting design and details, just the raw nature of light and the dance it does to define and tell a story. Your studio is a wide open-space and your subjects are inconsistent and many.
“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”
” The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson, father of modern photojournalism.
You are about to journey to an exotic location – a place that screams out “take my picture”. For the proposed exercise it’s just you and your camera. Or is it? This is the time to forego your tripod, additional lenses and the camera bag of “must haves”. You have enough to contend with as the chaos of crowded streets and markets compete with “see this, see that”, the countless ooh’s and aah’s of travelling companions–so cause for photographic methodology changes. It is when less becomes more. Now, every second counts. Not to panic, just make a few adjustments and you will be all set to immerse yourself in that landscape and find your subjects. This is “Photo on the Fly” and for entry-level photographers, there is no greater opportunity than to shoot on the fly as it allows for you to take charge and go for the contest.
Recently I spent 5 weeks wandering throughout India where I was drawn to meditate. While quietly reaching for higher consciousness I realized “Photo on the Fly”. Although Indian settings are spectacular with awe-inspiring locations and filled with an assembly of diverse ethnicities, my set up time was not. A critical part of travel photography is to use all the resources at hand – to make do and improvise. Your exercise requires both mental and physical trials. Forget the idea of snapshots; we are moving toward pro-mode. Position your camera in odd directions, while you linger in odd positions. Use your body. Stand on higher ground, or reach for lower angles. Squat. Think of the gym and move those limbs. And for the close-up, where you are dead on – face-to-face, just go for it. It may feel awkward, strange and even embarrassing, but this is the dance and you need to learn the steps. Then from your vantage point, think composition. Frame the subject so that it tells a story. Your subject should be the highlight, and all the other elements surrounding it, enhance and support it. Contours and colors as well as blurred backgrounds define it. Study the light and note the shadows. Learn what time of the day suits you best. For me, the morning brings freshness to my imagery. For others late afternoon and dusk presents opportunity. Portraiture by design is limitless, if you are willing to set out of your comfort zone.
Whether you are using a professional level SLR or pocket-sized camera with a built-in zoom, the choice here is for flexibility. A medium telephoto can offer that flexibility and if someone catches your eye, and close up and personal isn’t an option, you have the best shot for digital capture. For me, a 70-300mm works to my advantage. Continuing with this exercise set your camera on automatic or program mode as it about eliminating distraction and concentration on capture, and keep in mind, the result you are after is a portrait study that captures the moment – unique in its composition, and relies only on available light.
Before you take that trip, start your practice now and spend your travels with limited gear – its freeing and so rewarding. As a student of photography, your understanding of the technical aspects is an ongoing learning process that varies from camera to camera; so find a quiet place for study.
All Images: © Renay Elle Morris