[LEARNING CURVE]Ambassador of photography to the world

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[LEARNING CURVE]Ambassador of photography to the world

One of the joys of living in a foreign country can be feigning to be a National Geographic photographer ― at least in one's dreams.
With its temples and markets, Korea can be a shutterbug’s paradise. Having photographed Korea since 1975, I’m writing this column to pass on some thoughts and suggestions that may help you take even better photos.
I still have most of the slides and negatives of Korea from the 1970s with me today. As one would expect some 30 years later, my photos have improved, but technically back then, they were not bad for an amateur.
What strikes me is that the best photos ― almost regardless of the genre ― included people. Yes, I have some splendid photos of temples and courtyards taken a quarter of century ago without people. But I could take nearly identical photos today if I returned to the same locations.
In places other than urban areas, people change in appearance much more than famous places.
Perhaps it was because of the expense of shooting slides ― or even black and white negatives ― on a Peace Corps volunteer’s salary (rather than blissfully snapping away with a digital camera) that made me more conservative in what I allowed in my camera’s viewfinder.
In some ways, that was good as it helped me discipline myself. At the same time it was often more a negative than a positive, as a photojournalist friend would constantly remind me, “Film is the cheapest part!” Well, for him it was.
With today’s digital cameras, film costs have disappeared. That fact has allowed me to be more generous in allowing people to “clutter” my viewfinder ― and the results have been at times impressive. The inclusion of people in a picture offers a sense of scale as well as actually enhancing a snapshot to be more than a sterile postcard representation.
Generally, people photographs are better shot with medium- to wide-angle focal lengths since the perspective of these lenses or zoom lens settings give a more intimate perspective.
Telephoto lenses tend to make flat images. While telephotos ensure the background is out of focus, the use of telephotos tends to be the exception rather than the rule for superior people photos.
With strangers, it is possible to get great shots with even wide angle shots by shooting close in via a candid camera approach. However, most amateurs don't have the skill or gall for that. Also, one can argue there is an invasion of the subject's privacy if one snaps a shot in the subject’s face without prior permission. There are other ways to achieve great shots of people from a short distance.
Digital cameras can often serve as a means to develop a rapport with strangers who are still curious at times to see how they look in the liquid crystal display of your camera. They may be eager to share with you their e-mail addresses and get a copy of your photograph of them. The important objective is to somehow break the ice and get cooperation for the photograph.
Especially when traveling in unfamiliar territory, it should be a no brainer to take a photo of someone who solicits you to do so. First, by doing so you may diffuse a potentially antagonistic interaction by going along with the request.
Second, some of these mugging photos can come out better than you might imagine if you have the presence of mind to take advantage of the opportunity.
One of my favorite shots was from last summer when I was touring a large cemetery in Belfast when three boys about 10 years old accosted me. With the graves in the background and Northern Ireland’s youth in the foreground, I walked away with a great shot.
So even if you are still shooting film, my advice is don’t consider people as clutter in your viewfinder. Yes, the person with the bright colored clothes may at times distract from the overall composition ― and should be cropped out or the scene shot from another angle, but over the years I have learned to adopt an attitude of being less annoyed than pleased to share the moment with others as I take my photos.


by Tom Coyner
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