A couple of months ago, I spent some time in a theme park – not because I particularly wanted to go on any of the rides or because I felt like I needed a little escapism, but because I was teaching a workshop as part of the Maybank Photo Awards 2013, and Universal Studios Singapore was a sponsor. Being there made me realize a number of things.
1. It’s a good environment for a beginner workshop.
2. It’s not a good environment for a more advanced workshop.
3. There’s a lot of visual engineering involved, and this is the reason for both 1 and 2.
There’s no question the entire environment is artificial; the park is divided up into theme zones that follow hit movies or pop culture – New York, Hollywood, Shrek, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Madagascar, Sesame Street etc. This means that all prop placement, lighting, sight lines etc must have been consciously designed at some point – much like a movie set. Nothing is left to chance or coincidence. But unlike a movie set, the viewing angles are not fixed, so if you pay the scene anything more than superficial attention, then you’ll start to notice what I like to think of as ‘discontinuities in reality’ – places where utilities/ ancillaries are hidden, finishing that isn’t quite up to par, obviously fake bits etc.
For beginners, this is an ideal environment because it largely removes the thinking process; one doesn’t really have to hunt for subject matter. If anything, there’s almost too much to shoot; it’s a visual overload – because it was designed to be that way to keep non-photographic visitors entertained. Practically, it’s ‘just add light’ – the biggest challenge is an overcast day, or the school holidays due to crowding and not being able to get a clear frame; actually, the former isn’t even a problem if you stay til sunset – the controlled lighting is very convincing and photographable indeed. Fortunately, the sun did come out at times and we were able to at least demonstrate the importance of shadows.
For a more advanced photographer, the artificiality of the environment becomes constraining: you almost have to view (and photograph) certain areas from one fixed angle because if you try any other angle, you’ll soon find that there are visual inconsistencies that ruin the authenticity of the shot to a large degree; things missing, things out of place, things that shouldn’t be there. Not surprising given that a) it’s a fake environment and b) in a movie, there’s only one camera angle, so the sets are never properly finished anyway – if anything, I suspect the theme park is actually more complete than a movie set simply because the public can pretty much go anywhere and everywhere.
Of course, it’s possible to set yourself various little exercises in which you either try to make the whole thing believable, or you try to reveal the fakeness of it all. This gets boring fast, however, since there’s only so much realistic subject matter to work with in the first place – transformers and dinosaurs are never going to look real simply because of the subject. Personally, I found the New York area fairly authentic, though only one or two street corners; the rest of it was spoiled by out of period/ situation props in the center of the good sight lines. Unlike ‘real’ travel photography, there are no surprises, no spontaneity, nothing to really discover and figure out how to capture the essence of – in essence, everything is fixed rather than being just slightly ephemeral – and that ephemerality is what keeps things challenging and fresh for the skilled photographer.
It occurs to me that although these places are designed with the obvious intention of making them both visually attractive, at some point soon, tourist attraction operators are going to have to pay increasingly more attention to also making them photograph well for the average visitor. I’m not saying this because of personal interest or merely even to make the experience better for the visitor to encourage returns; it’s a bit more strategic than that. There’s no better form of marketing and promotion than word of mouth and social media; if your friends say something is good and come back posting great photos of the place, you’re more likely to want to go than if you just see the same commercial/ commissioned promo images all the time.
The “photographability” of a constructed environment is going to matter, especially for the average punter – think cameraphone, compact. What does this mean? A few things: solid and obvious vantage points picked out; preferably with some obvious cues that people should take a photo there. Interesting lighting design, both for controlling ambient and constructing artificial. Where there is artificial lighting, make it brighter than a ‘natural’ situation: I’m not saying that it should be uniform, but maintain the atmosphere and turn it up by a few stops – more light always helps smaller sensors. Places/ objects/ sets/ facades that photograph well with wide angles – cameraphones don’t zoom; most compact users don’t use the zoom even if they have it. Somebody actually has to go try it – better yet, get a bunch of average visitors to do so and see what falls out, then adjust as required.*
*A good photographer should be able to find an image anywhere, with any camera. It’s as much about having the ability to see as the technical chops to execute.
The upshot of this would be an increase in quality of the images coming out of your theme park or tourist location – not only would they be of better technical quality, but you would also gain some measure of control over what specific aspects or locations would be shown; preferably those you want to feature, of course. Not only do you get more coverage and reach, but you also make your attraction look…well, more attractive. No doubt there are a lot of images already being shared online; but how many of these are good enough to provide motivation to visit (and spend money)? Very few, I think. Think of those extra light bulbs as part of the marketing budget.
None of this is anything new, of course – the better something or somewhere looks, the better it sells. Think travel photography: an ugly destination doesn’t usually get a lot of tourism dollars. The difference here is that it should be the buyer doing the selling, instead of the seller – all the seller does is make the conditions a little more conducive. Perhaps I should go be a visual consultant for tourist destinations…
The next post will be a photoessay from the theme park – I admit I was more interested in the set design and still life aspects of the thing than the tourists or the attractions…MT
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