What influences your photography?

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.

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Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4G

1. Cinema.
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.

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Surprise at goodbye, London. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

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Loiterers, London. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 21/2.8

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.

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You’ve probably seen this shot before – it’s one of my all time favorites, and my interpretation of a Salgado.
The scavenger, Canacona Beach, Goa, India. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

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.

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Perhaps what Ansel might have shot today, if he were still alive. City Hall, London. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 21/2.8

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.

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In Rothko we Rust (complete with signature). Jaya Shipyard, Singapore. Panasonic TZ3

5. Rothko.
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.

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I have a huge white soft spot for clouds. Leica V-Lux 3

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.

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Inspection tour, Jaya Shipyard, Singapore. Ricoh GR-Digital I

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.

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Mount Yotei wears a hat, Hokkaido, Japan. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/100 Makro-Planar

8. Hiroshige.
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.

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I believe it’s called a chocolate dial. Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin 1833. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro.

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.

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I can’t figure out why, but shots like this seem to be acceptable with an iPhone – maybe it’s a property of the medium. Also, I smell a little Magritte on the wind here.

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


  1. BitOfLight says:

    For me the way I shoot is the result of seeing a single particular photograph. It was in an issue of National Geographic Magazine I was flipping through when I was a kid. I was just flipping through it for the pictures as my English was rudimentary at best and so was not really interested in the articles. It is not a picture of some exotic far away place, nor of a special event taking place somewhere in the world, nor is it of conflict. Instead it is a simple photograph of a farmer plowing his field. In the picture the farmer stops his plowing, rests his elbow on the plow handle and he is looking back at what he has plowed and his face shows so much grief and so much sadness that I could not forget it. When I started taking pictures I’ve thought of that farmer and not long ago I started looking for that picture but no avail. And then one day I just happened to be browsing the website of a veteran photographer for the magazine when that familiar image suddenly appeared. That particular photograph is the reason why I shoot the way I do. I like to capture pictures of people as they go about their daily lives, I like seeing their faces and if I am fortunate I may be rewarded with a single photograph that will speak volumes. Now if only I can find the article that accompanies that picture ( http://stevemccurry.com/sites/default/files/gallery/PHILIPPINES-10024ns.jpg ).

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