These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my photography.
As many of you probably know, during the last year I’ve been cooperating with my friend, make-up artist Stefania Di Gregorio, on portraits of models in my home studio. The studio is actually a work in progress itself, as I build it piece by piece as I go.
Taking photos of people is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I never managed to convince anyone to pose for me before. My origins as a photographer, in any case, are in the field of landscapes and macrophotography.
There is something about macrophotography that always fascinated and attracted me. I don’t have specific high-end equipment for that kind of images: I use basic extension tubes that allow my Sigma 18-200 zoom to focus much closer than normal. This way, I can be as a close as I want to my subject, at the expense of doing everything manually, including forcing the lens to be stopped down; the only help I can count on is assisted metering, which needs to be manually biased anyway.
The whole process is tedious, frustrating, annoying; and yet, it is also exceedingly pleasant at the same time. I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but for the longest time I felt that something eluded me. Then I realized what it was.
Some photographers find comfort into setting everything up; they can create exactly the scene that they want to shoot. In a way they work like abstract painters: they create something that’s not there. It’s their way of telling a story: they are fable tellers, they conjure up a tale and make it real in front of the lens, then play with it in post-process until it’s exactly what they had in mind. There is nothing wrong with it, and it’s an approach that eventually all photographers tinker with. There is indeed a fine line between a setting up staged picture and giving an existing scene a little help.
But staging an image is time-consuming, requires perfection that can only be achieved through long attempts at trial and error, and can be expensive: good equipment certainly is, as I was recently reminded by cheaper alternatives that broke down on me on day one.
Some people build their careers on staging shots. Fashion photographers, for instance, literally do that for a living. Many amateurs also enjoy fiddling with props until they get the shot just right, just for the sheer pleasure of creation.
I am a little different. While I have my own share of fun helping scenes “pop” in my pictures — for instance through the use of off-camera flashes or the like — I am more of an observer.
When I first started playing with digital cameras, over a decade ago, I was strongly against post-processing. You must forgive me here: I was young and, let’s say it, quite stupid. Being against something on the pretense that “straight out of camera” pictures are inherently better is, to say the least, preposterous. When I switched to reflex cameras, and especially to shooting RAW, I realized that post-processing is as important as exposing the scene in the first place. Still, I’m one of those people who would rather spend more time with a camera firing the shutter than with a mouse applying layer masks.
That is it: I am an observer.
When I set out to do macro work, for instance, I spend what to others must seem like an eternity on the same flower, taking countless images of the bugs hovering around it. I don’t even take my eye off the camera’s viewfinder. Everything around me is blackened out, and I am concentrated exclusively on the scene I watch through the lens, forgetful of any awkward position I may be in (I am usually reminded of that by muscle pain that arises a few hours later.)
I take hundreds of pictures. Many will be out of focus or blurry; that’s the price to pay for using cheap equipment: no autofocus, limited depth of field that can’t be easily changed, and so on. Some of the photos will be good to publish, with some little help in post-process, mostly to tweak colors and exposure. I like the challenge.
But that is not the reason I go through all of this. I could get a €400 dedicated macro lens and make it all easier, and eventually I will.
I do it this way because it lets me observe. After a few minutes of looking through the lens and seeing bees dancing over petals, bugs crawling on leaves, caterpillars embracing stems, spiders meticulously knitting webs; after a few minutes of this, I am part of that small, huge universe. I start seeing things that I wouldn’t see otherwise. I’ll notice the patterns, the rhythms, the details, and sometimes even the creatures, that are so small that upon first glance they appeared invisible.
Sometimes I don’t even immediately take the pictures off the memory card. The experience alone is worth it, regardless of whether any image is usable or not.
I recently realized that I do the same thing with landscape photography. In truth, I tend to do this with any kind of photography I am working on. Instead of setting up the scene, I observe it and document it without changing it. My strongest urge is to retain the purity of what’s before my eyes, so that I can capture it as fully as possible. I don’t try to make up a story to tell; rather, I record the story that’s already there. It is not always easy, and indeed at times I think it would be easier to just go ahead and set things up.
This is not to say that I will not try to optimize the results of my work: I often add light as I need, though the ultimate goal of that, for instance, is using the extra light to enhance what’s already there. You need specific light to make whirling puffs of smoke or falling droplets of water show on an image, but that’s where I’ll stop most of the time. Even my post-processing is fairly conservative: I will enhance the imageto match the feelings I was having when I shot it, but I never go too far with changes. Even with people, I’d rather have my models use props at the time of shooting than waste hours in Photoshop. More simply, I’d rather tinker with lenses and equipment to capture the scene than to change it beyond recognition.
I think that my approach to photography matches my personality. I was never the one who wanted to be in the spotlight; I’ve always rather enjoyed being on the sides, looking towards the stage instead of being on it. I feel that my role, as a photographer — and why not, as an all-around reporter — is to describe what’s there instead of making it up. It is just who I am, and what I like to do. I like to provide my viewers with the reality I see, enhanced in a way that I see fit, and have them derive their own version of the story that I wanted to tell. I am not as presumptuous as to think that I will always be able to convey my own emotions into an image, nor that the feelings I have about a scene are the same as those of any of my viewers.
This is, I believe, the beauty of photography. There is no good or wrong way of doing any single thing. Everything is open to choices across all the steps that go from the original emotion to the final image. No two photographers will take the same picture, and that’s what makes this art truly magic.
All I know is that I will keep observing reality and occasionally fiddling with it, to achieve what my ultimate goal is: to bring you stories to enjoy.