Recently when I've been traveling, I realized that I've made mistakes in some of the countries that I've visited. I used to tell people that I was primarily a travel photographer but maybe what I meant was that I was a landscape photographer. I look back at my trip to Iceland and while it was amazing, I feel like I missed so much. Maybe that was because it was the dead of winter, and people weren't hanging around outside like they would during the summer. But maybe not. I was there during the New Year and the entire population of Reykjavik jammed the streets on the 31st, swigging champagne straight from the bottle and launching off more fireworks than I have ever seen before, exploding in the sky all at once.
In addition to not making images of the Icelandic people, I didn't make any images of the food, the places where I stayed, or any animals other than the horses. And even there, I didn't have the right sort of lens with me for making good horse images. The telephoto I used was a bit wonky, and the 70-300 focal length was too long. The ultra-wide Tokina 11-16 f2.8 lens that I then ended up using - perfect for landscapes and aurora borealis - distorted all of my equine images. They have big heads and short, stubby legs. While the magic of photographing those friendly, furry ponies won't soon dissipate, and I'll love those images always, I itch to go back to Iceland and try again, with a different goal (and better gear).
I was discussing this with friends of mine who have been to Iceland several times and they gently reminded me that Iceland really is all about the landscapes. I shouldn't be disappointed with making the images that almost feel now like the easy, obvious beginner sort. That was the candy that was offered and I gobbled it up. I was bemoaning to them that my glorious Jökulsárlón lagoon and black sand ice beach images, which originally knocked my wool compression socks right off my happy feet, were exactly the same as everyone else's. Somehow, that makes them feel less in my eyes...like a song that's been played so many times it plummets from Ooh, I love this one! to eye-rolling disdain.
My friends reminded me that Iceland was not a technically easy trip. We had 70mph winds the night we photographed the aurora borealis on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We were cloaked in layers of wool, down, polar fleece and Gore-Tex plus 3 pairs of socks, waterproof boots and micro-spikes. There were times when I wasn't able to get warm for hours after we had returned to our guest house. It really wasn't an easy trip and maybe I should give myself a break for making the easy, obvious images.
This revisionist thinking has gradually changed what images I choose to make when I travel. I've decided I don't want to be the sort of travel photographer who only makes landscapes. I want to be a travel and lifestyle photographer. Landscapes, for all their beauty, don't tell the whole story as I want to share it. For other photographers - perhaps those who are more skilled at the craft than I am - landscapes might evoke exactly the right story or sentiment. For me, for now, they do not.
And thus, I have a problem. I need to throw away the idea that the "best" photographers specialize in a niche, and become known for superlative images within that narrow band. I need to learn to make compelling images of food, architecture, animals and people, which brings us to the black and white images scattered throughout this post.
I've traveled to Italy many times - a dozen trips, I think, since the first one in 2007. I often say that if the day comes where I decide to become an ex-pat, I'll live in Italy. In my most recent travels there, I've been shooting more broadly, in an effort to create story-telling images. Part of that effort has been street photography, mostly black and white. Some of these images actually date as far back as 2013. I never shared many of these because I didn't really know what I was making, what they meant, or if they were "good." Now I'm more confident about all that, and I'm not really worried if no one but me thinks they're "good." Looking at them flies me straight back to Tuscany without any sort of trans-Atlantic flight.
Thinking about trying street photography? Here are a few tips and resources:
- The masters. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Robert Frank.
- Contemporary street photographers. Valerie Jardin, Marie Laigneau, Eric Kim, Zack Arias and Chuck Jines.
- Key decisions to make before you set out:
- Camera. I use an Olympus mirrorless or 5DIII.
- Lens. Prime or Zoom? I use a zoom in the 24-70 range.
- Shooting mode. I use aperture priority and autofocus but manage my white balance and ISO, both of which I set when I start to shoot, and don't change again until I take a break, or until my location/light changes drastically.
- Other choices. Do you capture the decisive moment with one click? Or use burst mode to ensure you don't miss it? Do you shoot quickly and barely break stride? Or do you find the location and wait for the moment?
- Monochrome or color? You can change this in post but I visualize most of my street images in black and white. (If color moves you, check out William Eggelston's dye-transfer color images.)
- Learn to see key elements in street photography. Emotion, layers, frames, reflections, shadows, silhouettes, contrast, juxtaposition, pattern, repetition, symmetry.
What's up next? More stories and images about Tuscany including Florence, the Chianti region, Lucca and Gallicano.