Most of the time photography is about taking a photo here and a photo there.
In simple terms. Just like life, it’s a series of grabbed moments, made memorable for one reason or another.
It could be a stunning view, the clouds parting just so, a laugh, or exclamation.
These fleeting moments are all part of our life experience. Some will be remembered long after the event, others forgotten, superseded by another interesting intersection.
And it’s just the same in photography. It could be that a landscape is brought to life by the sun breaking fleetingly through the clouds before returning once again to mediocrity, or the juxtaposition of a passing person against a building, tree or other people.
The trick, of course, is to see and be ready. See the possibility, predict what could be, compose and wait and see if it all pans out. If it does, great. Smiles. If it doesn’t, never mind, on to the next. There’ll always be a next. Not everything, though, is momentary and ethereal. A great event or party, an afternoon spent with friends, a visit to a museum, national park or country pile. These last much longer. There’s time to savour them; enjoy every moment. These are times of strings of memories, of flows of experiences and emotions. Where the fleeting moment is barely a haiku these are novels. Or essays at the very least.
We can indulge in photo essays in exactly the same way. Instead of one shot postcards, our photographs can tell a story, creating a more detailed experience. And a more emotional one. A more memorable one.
Where I can, I like to take series of photos that can together communicate a more encompassing story. Of course, every photographer will usually take a number images of a given subject or situation as they search of the ideal result. I know I do. But there are times to go beyond this exercise and immerse yourself much more in the subject being photographed. I try to get a deeper sense of what it actually is. This then guides the photographs I take. And how I take them. They should be stylistically similar so they can comfortably sit side by side. Post processing also has a part to play in this, of course, and I’m always also thinking about how I’d like to process the images – whether they’ll be mono or saturated, high key or subtle and faded.
Photo essays come in many sizes. They can be an exploration of a single object or place, such as a town square or building. They can record a child’s party, an evening’s event, a place of interest through the seasons or the life of an Amazonian tribe over many months. Everything from a magazine article to a hard back book.
As a landscape photographer I tend to create ‘magazine articles’ rather than ‘novels’. My photo essays span hours rather than days, although those which involve return visits eventually add up to weeks.
As an example, take a look at the images of the Santiago Calatrava’s Montjuïc Communications Tower in Barcelona. As I was only visiting Barcelona, this was a one time series of images to ‘write an article’ about this intriguing and fabulous construction. After taking a little time to really look at the tower, to get to know it, I decided that the way to photograph this amazing structure was to become intimate with it, to get close to its swooping organic forms and photograph it close up and personal, using perspective to create drama and lead the eye through the images. I then set about taking the photos.
If I lived in Barcelona I’d undoubtedly return to this tower regularly and photograph it through the seasons. I’d be able to write a more complete story. This brings a new element to the photographic mix – evolution. Return visits allow us to become ever more intimate with the subject. They allow us to discover every little detail and nuance. As our relationship and understanding grow our photography inevitably evolves and expands. This presents the new challenge of how to hold all our images together. It could be time to re-assess early images and maybe re-process them. Or, the evolution itself could be the story we tell.
As a set, the images of an photographic essay can be much more powerful than they would be as stand alone entities. It takes a little more time and a little more thought, but it’s also much more interesting and satisfying as a creator.
Next time you’re somewhere that grabs you, give yourself and your camera half an hour to get to know your subject. Think about how best to represent it in camera, and how to best present it with processing. Experiment a little and analyse your shots, honing your approach. Then, once you feel a sense of intimacy with the object of your attention, set about shooting a cohesive photo essay.
Some simple tips for successful photo essays.
1. Don’t rush in. Give yourself time to get to know your subject. Think about its form, its structure, shape, visual density. Think also about it’s purpose, it’s story. What it’s telling you. What you want to say about it.
2. Consider the end. Think about how your final images will look. Their composition and mood. Pick a processing method and bear this in mind while shooting.
3. Be consistent. Make sure your final images will sit well together by using a consistent approach to composing and exposing your images.
4. Maintain order. Think about the order in which you’ll present your images. This will be more important with some essays than with others, but it’s still worth considering. If you have enough images start with an attention grabber, then set the scene, then tell the story. And try and finish with a bang; with something memorable.
5. Size isn’t everything. Photo essays come in many sizes, from magazine articles to hard back novels. A novel may have 25 images or more while an article may only have five.
6. Enjoy the process. The best photographs are taken when the photographer is having fun. Relax and let the creative juices flow.
7. Keep an open mind. Whether you’ve taken half an hour to get to know your subject or spent weeks researching it, remember the creative process is a fluid thing and don’t be afraid to develop your initial ideas as you shoot.