20 Mar 2008

Travel photography rating method

I have been extremely fortunate to have spent a great deal of my working life gathering photographs in some of the most interesting places on earth. Not always beautiful, but nearly always interesting.

You will notice that I use the word ‘gathering’. That seems the most appropriate way to explain the way I work. I really do go out there to gather pictures that capture something of the essence of a place. When I leave my hotel room and walk into the street I am in ‘gathering’ mode.

Quite apart from the fact that I have only ever been able to throw 100% effort into the things I undertake, there is another very good reason for this approach to photography. Getting to, and staying in, a place (travelling) is almost always the most expensive aspect of any photographic assignment. So my attitude is very simple: once I am on location, I work flat out to gather as many sellable pictures as possible. That doesn’t mean that I don’t thoroughly enjoy what I do, but the job has to pay and I have a job to do.

I rarely, if ever, worked ‘on spec’. I was always commissioned by a newspaper of magazine to photograph a particular country or assignment. When I was working for The Sunday Times, for instance, this meant they paid all the travelling expenses. Great, but that put the responsibility squarely on my shoulders to provide them with what they were paying for; to give them what they wanted – and more.

Over the years I adopted a very simple ‘rating’ system in order to cut down time wasted on trying to capture pictures that were never going to ‘happen’.

When I see a subject that I think has good visual possibilities, I will, in the back of my mind, give it an instant time rating. I might, for instance rate a subject as just ‘two-minutes’ and will expend just two minutes exploring it and trying to realise its potential. If it fails to produce a worthwhile photograph that pleases me in that time, I simple drop it down a hole and move on. I’m afraid I apply the same rating system to some people too while I am working – time is just too valuable to waste. This may appear calculating and cold-blooded to photographers who take pictures purely for pleasure.

If I believe a subject has tremendous picture potential it will, of course, get a far higher time rating, and I will be prepared to wait many hours for that special shot. The picture of the gondolier above was a ‘three day’ rating. I saw the potential of the shot as soon as I saw this particular canal corner and the way the sidelight was striking the buildings facing me. But think of all the ingredients that were vital for the success of a picture:

I needed a gondola in the right place.
The gondolier had to be positioned precisely between those two window.
He had to be wearing the proper straw hat.
He had to be pushing the gondola along
There had to be the hint of a passenger in the boat
The lighting had to be coming down the alley from the left.

I went back each afternoon when the light was perfect and waited for about one hour. I photographed many gondolas passing down that canal, but only on the third day did a get exactly what I wanted and what I had envisaged on that first day.


Anonymous said...

Philip - this method of yours for giving subjects a time rating is all very well but how do I decide whether the subject is going to prove worthwhile? at what stage do i say - in your words 'drop it down a hole?

Anonymous said...

forgot to say in my last comment - love the photo of Venice
keep up the blog, its great thanks