A random thought struck me while driving today (it seems to happen often, but then again with Malaysian traffic, I do spend a lot of time in the car): what are my conscious and unconscious photographic influences, and how do they affect my images look?
I think this is a topic worth exploring because it’s useful to analyze how you think as a photographer, because it will both consciously help you to identify potential shots sooner, as well as tap into other sources of influence you might not have previously considered. As sacrificial guinea pig, I’ll go first.
I love dramatic lighting, shots with huge expanses and a small bit of human context, tight crops, 16:9 and wider aspect ratios, creamy smooth foreground (contextual?) and background bokeh, spectacular lens flare, and facial emotion. And let’s not forget the influence of color tone, too. It’s all about setting a mood or feeling for the image, rather than conveying a specific story. But it’s easy to get too carried away; a close shot of a facial expression might work in cinema because you’ve got the establishing shots before and after to give context; there’s a flow of events that requires that one detail element to be complete. If you don’t have enough background context, a standalone still is rather weak and hard to place. Where I find the cinematic style does work very well is when you’ve got a series or sequence of images.
2. Classical photojournalism.
There’s power in emotion here; criticality of timing; and frequently, only monochromatic, moody images because technology of the time couldn’t do better. You exposed for the subject and let the rest of the tonal range fall wherever it might. I’m avoiding the look because I prefer the cinematic feeling, but not the critical principles.
3. Sebastiao Salgado.
Salgado’s work is characterized by emotion, location, and wonderful tonal processing; in some ways he showed the world what HDR was by dodging and burning away in the darkroom long before digital. And not to mention, he didn’t overdo it or make it unnatural. If only he’d used color once or twice.
4. Ansel Adams.
If you’re looking for technical perfection in an image, Ansel comes pretty darn close. Large formats. Tripods. Super fine grained films, and optimal developers; platinum and selenium toning. It’s the equivalent of shooting raw with a medium format digital camera at optimal apertures and individually adjusting each image in the RAW converter before printing it off a RIP-optimized 16 bit TIFF from a printer with, oh, I don’t know, say 16 different ink tanks. But it looks spectacular.
The modernist abstract painter isn’t somebody I’ve consciously followed; I’ve seen his paintings here and there, but it’s the simple geometry of color and strength of line that makes his compositions compelling. Lately I’ve been shooting quite a lot of architectural abstracts where this dominates; it’s not a style that works all the time though, because it’s heavily subject-driven.
6. Rene Magritte.
It’s the low-angled evening light and the clouds. They get me every time. There’s nothing more to say, really.
7. Alex Majoli.
Early on, Majoli was noted for using only a brace of compact cameras to document and nothing else – his style is dark and moody; perhaps a reflection of his personality, or more likely a way of overcoming the limitations of the equipment by exposing only for the highlights (first ensuring the subject is in the highlight zone, of course) then disregarding the rest. He taught me two things: firstly, there are workarounds to every equipment limitation that might actually yield very interesting results; secondly, if the composition is strong enough, you don’t need to rely on extreme perspective or bokeh as a crutch.
He makes me see things in layers – and not in the photoshop kind of way.
9. Dr. House.
A character from a TV series? Yes. My wife often tells me I’m very much like him: morose, intense, slightly damaged, and very, very focused on getting it right – usually at the expense of other things. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When I’m shooting, I go into the zone and everything else becomes peripheral; you notice a lot of small details that normally pass you by. I think pushing yourself, pushing your creativity, trying new things, and seeking tangential inspiration are precisely what keeps things moving. The problem, unfortunately, is convincing your clients.
10. My subject.
As obvious as this seems, I think it’s either second nature or ignored. If you’re conscious of your subject, you’re probably going to try and present it in a natural looking way. Or maybe an unnatural contextual juxtaposition, if discordant photography is your style. I think either is fine – and I do both. The former when I’m trying to encapsulate a story in a moment; I try to look for all of the elements to put into the same frame. The latter when I’m trying to be ironic, or when the story itself is in the juxtaposition.
11. My equipment.
I’m not afraid to admit that different gear makes me shoot differently: there are some things you can do with certain cameras that you can’t with others. I’ll never attempt all-in-focus compressed perspectives with an SLR, because I know you just can’t do it without running out of DOF (or shutter speed as a consequence of stopping down for more DOF). But you can very easily do it with a compact superzoom, because 300mm equivalent is really something like 50mm and at f5.6 and nearly infinity, it’s all going to be in focus anyway. Or, the opposite – shallow DOF cinematic wide-angle work with a compact. Different tools for different things – and I’ll pick my tool depending on both what I anticipate shooting, and the style I want to try out on the day. I’ve shot an entire job for a shipyard client on the compact Panasonic TZ3; they thought I was using the D2H and 70-200/2.8 slung over my shoulder. In reality, I managed to produce work that I never could have done with the SLR – and they were very happy with the result.
Have you figured out what influences the way you shoot? MT