Do Something Different
Most, if not all, places you travel will have been photographed before. Professionals and amateurs alike have been scouring the earth for photographs since the inception of the medium. When you visit the Taj Mahal, you are following millions of footsteps before you, and are most probably surrounded by hundreds of other people. You will be coralled into certain positions that allow for certain compositions and exposures. Make those exposures, by all means, and then try to create something of your own.
I was recently standing on the banks of Anapji, a man-made lake in Gyeongju, with a score of other photographers. I had arrived to shoot the sunset, and although it’s a cliché shot, it was one I’d always wanted to take. I will generally avoid the big crowds of photographers at a given location like the plague, but there aren’t really too many viewpoints at this lake, as it is rather small and everyone crowds around a 20 metre long stretch of open bank.
I nodded my regards as I stepped into place, and gazed around at the various setups of the photographers there. There were 4 Nikon full frame bodies, all with the same 17-35mm f/2.8 lens mounted, one Canon body with the 16-35, and a few others. Only one photographer did not have a tripod, and everyone else was set up with their tripod legs fully extended and their cable releases attached. Everyone here was shooting the same thing, and had the same gear that I did.
I did exactly what everyone else had done; I mounted my camera on the tripod and attached my 17-35mm. After a couple of exposure tests, I had my basic exposure for the sky, but just like everyone else my shadows were getting lost and the reflection in the pond was a good 2-3 stops or so under the sky. It was bog standard, click and be done photography. I knew I wanted something a little more epic than what everyone else was getting.
I dropped the centre-column out of the tripod and got myself as low and close to the water of the pond as I could without taking a dip, and then I started to piece together my shot. First, the rippled reflection wasn’t floating my boat, so neutral density filter was added. This had the added benefit of capturing the movement of the clouds streaking across the sky, something else nobody on the pond that day was capturing. I had only one more thing that I wanted to do, and that was to even out the exposure disparity between the sky and the surface of the water. This time a graduated neutral density filter.
The gear used here is not the point, the workflow is. I know I could copycat anyone’s picture that evening. I did that, and it took all of 30 seconds and no creativity at all. If I had stopped there, I would have gone home with exactly what everyone else went home with. But, I didn’t. Whether it was better or worse is a subjective question, but it was certainly different.
It doesn’t need to be a technical choice that separates your photos. As I watched the blessings at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it came to me that my photograph was missing something. It had beautiful light, a wonderful gesture from the monk, and told a fantastic story. But everyone else in the room was getting a different story. As one group of visitors was leaving and the next group to be blessed arriving, I asked the monk if I could be a part of the blessing, and make a few photos during it. He agreed. This got me in the thick of things, being blessed by a buddhist monk.
From the back of the room, I had a great shot of the blessings, but from my new place on the floor, I was able to get a photo of the anticipation of the blessings before putting down my camera and taking in the moment.
During the Loi Krathong festival in Chiang Mai, the city creates large displays of lanterns around the Tha Pae gate. These range from traditional style lanterns to those sponsored by Air Asia and shaped like smiling aeroplanes. While people were making photos of the lanterns, I decided to swing that around and use the lanterns to make my photograph. They became the lightsource for a portrait of my co-instructor for the workshop, Andy.
The lesson here is: If you’re shooting vertical, go horizontal. If you’re shooting 24mm, try 200mm. If the sun is behind you, turn 180 degrees. Try a long exposure of moving objects, you don’t need to stop them in their tracks. Try the opposite of what you are doing and see where it takes you.