Here’s a location most visitors to Provence will want to add to their must-see list.
Vaison la Romaine has it all: some of the best ruins in the old Roman empire, a medieval village on a hill, a river, stunning views over the Mont Ventoux and surrounding vineyards (it’s only a few miles away from Chateauneuf du Pape), cafés, exotic cars, you name it. And yet, during my very brief visit last week-end, it was quite challenging to photograph well.
Since my quick walk-about in between appointments closely mirrors the experience of tourists on a schedule, it’s worth talking about how I approach travel-photography in such conditions.
First, let’s repeat my personal definition of travel photography: available light, available sight, available time. Your definition may be a lot more purist. Some lucky people travel specifically for photography. That doesn’t count. What I’m referring to is making the most of what is available when you happen to be around.
To me, there are two keys to success in such conditions:
(1) Striking a correct balance between visually pleasing images and memory shots that capture the essence of a place you might never return to
(2) Dealing with the lighting conditions
The following two photographs were made within meters of one another in the Maison du Dauphin site. Both are valid travel photographs: one a postcard, one a free interpretation on the idea of a plant struggling to survive in the cracks of a stone wall under a fierce sun.
The first is less likely to help recollect the moment. The second will, but may not satisfy your creative drive. A combination of both on your memory card is the best approach, and lets you place the keeper-slider where you want it between the Tourist and Artist extremes, after the shoot, once you have returned home.
Ditto here, in a single picture. Should I frame the whole church or only an interesting detail ?
I’d get bored with identity photographs of churches of Provence, since I live there. So I will focus on what makes each different from the other. But someone traveling to Southern France for the first time might feel differently and might be more interested in the general architecture.
It’s best to give this some thought before you visit. Returning with too many photographs does very little to help you find the best. Know what you are looking for before you arrive and be open to unplanned surprises.
Let’s deal with the thorny issue of including family members or friends in the frame. While the desire to picture your loved ones in your travels is understandable, it’s hard to think something more unbearably boring that having to wade through 300 photographs of a place you don’t know with someone else’s family / friends occupying center place. If you make photographs like these, don’t plan on sharing them. And even you will eventually tire of them. So, nothing wrong with family snapping, but the operative word, here, is “include”. Not “dominate”.
Human beings bring life to a picture. Photograph your friends and family in the context of the location rather than overlay them in a rigid smily pose. Best of both worlds, right ?
Museums, attractions and other cultural locations can also provide opportunities for interesting photographs as well as many traps for needless card-filling. Try to look beyond the subject. This statuette seemed pretty at first glance, but would have had little lasting value if the lighting hadn’t drawn wings around it. Unless something is a particular importance to you for what it is, always try to focus only on objects set in visually interesting contexts, beyond their appearance. Look for meaning outside the object itself.
There’s no such thing as bad light. Authors selling pre-packaged recipe books and forum-stars will do their best to inflict upon you their rules of conduct for good photography. Laughing is your best option. Laughing and a high dynamic-range camera.
Today, there are very few bad cameras on the market (except compacts, of which 99% are terrible and can safely be replaced with modern smartphones). Forget tests from biased reviewers and publications living on advertising. Today, there is ONE thing you want in a travel camera: dynamic range. HDR isn’t a substitute. A good native dynamic range lets you decide how to process your images in the quiet of your home and offers you multiple interpretation opportunities in the future.
Given this brief, I chose the Sony A7r in spite of its maddening shortcomings. The sensor in this camera can deal with almost anything you can throw at it, and that is immensely precious when traveling fast. Since it can use Canon, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Olympus, Jupiter, Zeiss, Minolta, Voigtlander (…) glass, it also has the best lens range on the planet. And its ergonomics are, … err, well let’s just move on. Any camera with good DR will do.
N°1 take-away: There’s no such thing as bad light. But not because of N°2. Not because modern technology enables us to tame any light and bend it any which way.
There’s no such thing as bad light because light is an essential part of the location’s atmosphère. The light of Northern Italy is nothing like the light of nearby Provence, of Scotland, of Southern Texas or of Bali. Capturing light as it is is the essence of travel photography. The sun-drenched balconies above are nothing but old facades if you capture them in warm morning light.
Of course, some taming of the light is essential. The ability to capture every detail and post process later, as your memory of the place guides you to, rather than as your predetermined photographic rules dictate is what will make your photographs your own. Working from memory is even better than working on the spot. Memory exaggerates, filters, layers your psyche onto the original photon shower. It’s called creativity. If misty mornings are your thing, go capture and enhance misty mornings. Harsh midday sun emphasizing shape and texture ? Ditto.
How you process the photographs depends on your goals.
None of the photographs on this page will ever trickle up to the top of Digg or receive accolades on Flickr. But my hair’s too grey for me to worry about such social fame, and 20 very acceptable photographs in a fun day with my family is a very satisfying result, given the initial brief (available everything).
More importantly, one of two of these I really like. The fountain in the shadow is one I would print and hang, were I not too lazy for words. The spontaneous portrait of my wife would please me in a family album, had I the moral decency to maintain one. The green parasols below really please my eye as well. That photo screams “Provence village” more than any pre-dawn tripod shot of nearby Mont-Ventoux. Not that I’m claiming superiority to that more deliberate approach, only equal rights 😉
Lenses also play a big role. Bright lenses such as the FE 55/1.8 are marvelous to breathe life into dull lighting but will make life that much more difficult in harsh sunlight. Softer lenses, such as the Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4 used on this page and Mandler-era Leicas, on the contrary, prove to be a great help, holding back highlights and retaining colour in areas that others would turn to white.
Oh, and use manual lenses. With little time on your hands you don’t want to waste any on an incoherent AF system (ahem)
Colour or B&w ?
Both are appropriate. If you just bought a Leica Monochrom, you’re wrong. Please send it to me immediately.
I can’t think of hard rules that can guide your choice. Some subjects just look good in colour, others seems better in black & white (see here and here for an illustration in the streets of Marseilles). If you have stronger vision than mine, your choice will be made already.
Photographs that work well in colour often take colour as the subject itself. Or, at least, use colour as a strong support for emotion or WOW effect. While black and white is better suited to conveying light, contrasts, textures and shapes.
Black and white also gives you much more processing leeway. Over-processed colour photographs lose their subtlety and can look ghastly (think excessive tone mapping in HDR). Whereas B&W encourages you to play with tone a lot more.
If colour is your preferred avenue, it’s probably wise to take your time at the restaurant and wait for the sun to start projecting more oblique rays than at noon. In spite of my There is no such thing as bad light mantra, leaves at midday reflect too many highlights for a peaceful rendition, even with significant massaging in C1 or LightRoom. Some subjects will work and B&W loves contrasts, but trees, roofs and any other reflective surface will compete for attention with the true subject, and particularly so in colour.
At the end of the day, how you deal with rushed conditions and the concept of availability vs planning really reflects how you deal with life itself.
My very wise co-authors Paul and Philippe both focus a lot more on the good pictures they made rather than the opportunities they missed. This makes shooting with them a glorious and relaxed experience. But that doesn’t stop them traveling the world for the sole purpose of photographing a pre-determined place in pre-hoped-for conditions. And we all should from time to time. I think regular commentators / contributors (Keith, Luca, Leonard, Philip, Stephen, …) probably feel the same.
There’s a time for both approaches, but I hope the concept of grabbing what comes up finds some little credit with you, after reading this. What say you? Please share (your thoughs, and this article in those social spaces where discussions spread faster)
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.