Let me start by saying you will not like this post! In fact, I can almost guarantee it! It will make you angry and most likely self-indignant, you will be tempted to navigate away from the page or even launch a tirade of abuse. And, believe it or not, I fully understand why. You will most likely be wrong, but still, I understand…and if you read all the way to the end and are willing to be open-minded and fair, I believe you will be the better for it.
Because you need to know something and, for everyone’s sake, you need to know it now: all those shots you took during your last holiday in India or Africa or wherever are not – and I mean that in every sense of the word – photography! They really are not. All those “amazing”, “stunning” shots everyone from your Facebook or Instagram friends have “liked” or “loved”, the ones where you cranked the Clarity slider all the way to heaven, jacked up the saturation to the top and cropped the hell out of it to make its composition meaningful or pleasing… well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but they are neither “travel”, “street”, “reportage” or any other type of photography! They are wonderful – some even unique – mementos of your life, and ones you can be proud of, but slapping a “[your name] Photography” watermark on them does not make them photography.
Please notice I am not bringing the fact that adding that watermark pretty much disrespects all those other professional photographers who make their living out of this – this is NOT that kind of an article. I think what you’re doing is admirable and, to be honest, some of you are fantastically talented. This article is about helping people understand what they’re really doing and, through that, maybe help them improve!
Let me explain the basic premise of this article. Photography – any photography, whether classified as “travel”, “street”, “reportage” or anything really – implies purpose. It implies thought, planning, intent and, above it all, it implies there is a story you are trying to tell, a thought or a feeling you want to convey or express. If you think about it, you’ll realise I’m right. Fashion, art or even portrait photography are different by their very nature – they imply a whole different set of rules and technical requirements and are, by definition, intended to stand on their own. It is not the same for any of the other types discussed here.
The experienced/ professional/ intentional street or travel photographer (or reporter) go out the door, whether it’s their own neighbourhood or a tiny village 5000 miles away, with a purpose – to get a picture (or a set of pictures) which tell a story or convey the feeling of a place. They are artful executions of a number of really difficult to master arts – lighting, composition, framing and, above everything, the creation of an instinctive connection between the subject(s) and the viewer – done on purpose, in camera, with careful pre-thought! It is this unique combination of elements, all happening in that 1/60th of a second, which make each click “photography”!
True photography is not an afterthought – snapping something randomly because you happened, completely accidentally, to be passing by and then, when you get back home, process the heck out of it in an attempt to turn it into a “street” image is not, and never has been, photography. It is an amazing way for you to remember something which impressed you or something you liked, but it is not “street”, “travel” or “reportage” photography.
I know you probably hate me by now, but if you’ve read this far, maybe you read a little further – I’ll try to make it worth your while.
I don’t want to disparage you from taking pictures – quite the contrary! I want you to continue, to take more and more, to expand your interest and improve your images. Whether you believe it or not, I am one of the hugest proponents of the expansion and democratisation of photography the digital revolution has brought – if it were up to me, I’d buy you all a brand new Nikon D5 or whatever and send you out shooting! But if you are to continue doing so – shooting I mean – you need to understand not only the how but even more importantly, the why!
Whether you visit the wonder that is Bagan in Myanmar, Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the villages of the Himba in Namibia, IF your purpose is to create photography, you need to have to say something. In Bagan for example you may choose to try and show how monks live or simply convey the atmosphere of the place at different times of the day. You may even take it further and explore deeper, more advanced concepts but whatever you do, you have to do it with a purpose! Walking by a temple at midday when the sun is shining, catching a poor old woman sweeping the floor and simply lifting your camera and grabbing 2-3 quick frames is – and always will be – absolutely nothing.
Travelling to the tribes of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia and capturing one of the Hamer people with a backdrop of the SUV that took you there, with one of the guides standing right behind your subject and with no consideration of your surroundings is not photography…and artificially trying to darken or blur those tragic mistakes through Lightroom or Photoshop in order to turn a bad snapshot into photography well, it will not make it so! And just in case you think people either don’t notice – let me tell you: they do notice! It is always obvious and it always looks fake.
Your camera – and trust me when I say this – is damn good at metering and evaluating your scene. It captures 99.9% of the colours which are really there and, assuming you know how to use it, 99% of the time it will also light your scene correctly. Or, should I say, the way you set it up to light it. If you made the wrong choices and the image came out too dark or too light or the colours were washed out then the solution is not to blast the shadows to the point of completely eliminating them. Or turn saturation up to 200 to make it really vibrant. Or jacking up the contrast or clarity to 100 to make the image more “punchy”. This only serves to make the image more fake, more unrealistic and further showcase the failure of the initial capture. And you need to understand this above everything else.
A couple more examples to sort of drive the message home: street images of daily life are a staple of any type of photography because they show things as they are, but rather than excusing sloppy and bad photography, it makes it ten times more difficult. Because now you need, on top of ALL the other qualitative considerations, add a layer of technical minutiae to ensure the shot is not only part of the story but also ensure adequate separation between subject(s) and background, perspective, leading lines (or not), aspect etc. – and all that, usually, within moments. It is these aspects which make real street photography that much more challenging and one of the hardest types of photography to get right! Grabbing a quick street shot where every single thing is in sharp focus, where perspective is completely wrong because you didn’t have the forethought to compose properly well…I think you know where I’m heading with this: this is not photography.
And last, but not least, the worst crime of them all: the black & white conversion. No image – and I do mean that – which is blurry, badly lit or otherwise uninteresting can be saved by turning it into black & white. So please, stop doing it. More than 90% of the black & white images out there are pointless conversions of images which lack any other artistic merit in their colour versions and the author/photographer attempts to turn them into “art” by converting them. And it almost never works.
All the examples above serve to drive one fundamental point across: your images have to work BEFORE you even click the shutter. They have to work in your head before you even venture out the door. They need to be part of your vision, of your story. Otherwise they are nothing more than snapshots of doubtful value – apart, of course, from the personal one – and they will never help you grow as a photographer. Regardless of how many people “like” them in social media or heap praise upon them. Your images must be the result of technical artistry, vision and story-telling prowess, not random, happy-go-lucky shots you hope to somehow salvage later – believe me when I say, you don’t! No matter what you think, you never do and I will tell you why: if you had the vision or the skill to make the image half-way work in the first place, you would have been able to lightly touch it afterwards and turn it into something amazing. Much as this may sting, it is an undeniable truth no amount of Photoshop will ever dress…L
You are all blessed, more than any other generation of photographers in history, with a mind-blowing array of information sources where you can look at amazing images and draw inspiration. Where you can learn every aspect of photography, from the highly technical to the abstract qualitative and from lighting to post-processing. So please, take advantage and learn. Please, spend time before you click and even more time before you share. Take true pride in your work and not in social media acceptance and become better. It’s not easy but hey, it was never meant to be and if it was, would you still love it so much?
Oh, and by the way....back when I started, three ice ages ago, I was guilty of every single one of the above "crimes"...every.single.one. But I worked insanely hard, I was willing to listen (and let me tell you, I was at the end of some pretty brutal criticism!) and fix what was wrong...!