Tag Archives: storytelling

Develop a Creative Vision

This is the second in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

Reading this article on the journey from snapshot to expressive imagery got me thinking about how to make creative vision concrete for people learning photography. I want to share some insights here and hopefully make this abstract and wonderful idea into something you can practice after reading this post.

One of the most challenging parts of being creative is to look at things from a different perspective. We may find that subjects we shoot don’t vary in a topical way. We can shoot faces for the rest of our lives, or land and water. Others of us just hunt for light, and make images from that. But a viewfinder is a viewfinder is a viewfinder. To really make a new image, we have to practice seeing in ways that make our efforts more expressive, and less of snapshots.

The best way to learn something complex such as creative vision is to break it up into discrete, bite-size skills. That way, someone can practice a skill and hone it until it becomes a part of the natural repertoire before moving on to the next.

The reflections of colors on the water, rather than the content, make this photo more interesting. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the colors

Spotting pleasing or unique colors to create an image is a great skill to have. Although it seems that luck has a big part to play in finding pleasing color palettes in our found images, it is also a matter of being a skillful observer. Ask questions like, is an explosion of color a great background for someone in silhouette? Will walking to another vantage point give the shot a better background? We don’t have control of what colors present themselves to us from day to day, but we do have control of where we stand and what we include in the frame. Training ourselves to think about color will produce images that use the color in expressive ways.

The values in this image made it a good choice for monochrome. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the values

The world is in Technicolor and we can’t see in monochrome. But imagining the values—the intensity of black, white and shades of gray in between— rendered by the light reflected by the color spectrum, gives us a creative way of seeing. Seeing a scene from darkest values to brightest is like putting a gray filter over your eyes. Seeing in values helps us to compose using them, instead of using shapes or positions of things. Seeing this way can help us break out of basic composition into the next level.

A few lines and a simple color palette are sometimes enough. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Seeing simplicity

Every beginning photog has heard the phrase “fill the frame.” This is great advice; when we compose, we don’t want nor need clutter. What we want is to use the shapes, color and content in a photo to speak to the person looking at it. Learning how to notice and photograph detail can help us zoom in on a story, and make our images more expressive.

Focus on a story

Stories have power.

Stories appeal to us because they are like shared reality. Something in a story, even something small, will be a thing we connect to ourselves. It could be an emotion, or a situation. It could be a metaphor for how we feel, or a sliver of a moment we remember.

"Dawn" Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

We consume stories because they are mirrors of our humanity. Inspiration comes to us in the form of survival stories; we cheer for strangers who beat the odds; we celebrate those who bravely move on after catastrophe strikes.

Some of us write. Others of us talk. Many of us take pictures.

But the stories all have something in common. They can illuminate the best of who we are, and lend us hope.


"Persistence" Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

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You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo

Durbar Square rickshaw driver, Kathmandu

Rock the Travel Portrait

Rickshaw driver looks through awning, Kathmandu Nepal. (c) Aloha Lavina.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal, bustles early in the morning. The market nearby causes almost all of the foot and rickshaw traffic passing through the Square. This morning, everyone it seems brought either their bicycle or opted to walk. The rickshaw drivers are lounging in their rickshaw, waiting for fares. Except for one young man, who seems nervous, his head turning to one side then another, in darting motions; his fingers tap on his knees, the rickshaw seat. His eyes are wide. When he stares at me through the slats of the rickshaw awning, I lift my camera and capture his portrait.

Taking travel portraits is a genre all its own. Portraiture, or making photos of people, can be posed studies, but travel portraiture is what Henri Cartier-Bresson began—that of the snap shot portrait. It meant that photographers no longer posed and set the stage for their portraits, but that portraits became more of a found art; you capture a moment when time and action come to a beautiful conclusion. Now thanks to digital technology and easier travel, you can take compelling travel portraits that help you tell the story.

1. Don’t be a sniper—interact!

Taking photos of people up close might be a daunting idea; we do not want to bother them as they go about their daily tasks. Some travelers might think it more polite and easier to use a long zoom lens, maybe one that zooms up to 200-300mm, to capture portraits. However, as a traveler, you want to get to know your subjects.  The richness of travel is enhanced in the details, which you may only get through interacting with others.

2. Learn some words in the local language

Vietnamese woman laughs at the photographer's strange Vietnamese accent. (c) Aloha Lavina.

To interact with the subjects of our travel portraits, we need to set them at ease. Learning a few words in the local language can go a long way in establishing a relationship to our new acquaintances. Even if accent is wrong and grammar might be a little off, learning some words like the local greeting and the words for “thank you” pay off.

3. Use the camera modes that quicken your ability to take a shot

Today’s DSLRs, or cameras with interchangeable lenses, are much more affordable than they were a decade ago. If you bring one on your trip, set it to Aperture mode when you intend to take travel portraits. Aperture is the size of the lens opening that allows light into the camera’s sensor, where the image is recorded. They come in numbers like 1.4, 3.5, 5.6, and so on. The Aperture mode allow you to change the size of the opening of the shutter when you take the shot—that means you can change fast (and change shutter speed automatically), when the light changes or when your subjects move around a lot.

4. Wait for an expressive moment

A lot of travel portraiture is about patience. Waiting for the right moment is what separates the travel snapshot from the winning shot. Travel photographers know that sooner or later, human beings will interact with each other and their environment, and they will show emotion in their faces. Wait for the moment when your subject is expressing an emotion before you take the shot. The result will be a winning photograph, expressive and able to evoke emotion in your audience.

5. Use the environment to tell the story

The general rule of thumb for portraits is “fill the frame,” which means to include in your shot only the necessary elements. When you make travel portraits,

Hmong children look longingly at balloons for sale in Sapa, Vietnam. (c) Aloha Lavina.

the people you are photographing are not posing for you; they are busy doing their own thing: making a living, mostly. In addition, the story you are telling is about their lives. Because of this, you need to include their environment. What are they doing? How are they doing it? The surroundings include this information. When you include the environment, there will be enough elements in it to help you tell a story that will stimulate the imagination of whoever looks at your shot.

Travel portraits can help you tell the story. With some simple techniques, you can transform your travel portraits from snapshots to timeless images worth a thousand words.