Ten Ideas About Travel Photography and Filmmaking
Much to my dismay, I’ve been largely absent in the Paupers world because of an intensive film course that has been consuming every ounce of free time I want to devote to writing on this site. But surprisingly, the class that has prevented me from blogging actively about travel has taught more about exploration and how to approach understanding the world through a camera than I could have ever imagined.
My incredible professor, a blunt, no-nonsense, experienced Soviet filmmaker who understands the intricacies of the medium with astonishing mastery, constantly reiterates a series of philosophies that will ensure our movies are worth making and watching. And every one of these ideas has in my mind translated to how I can take my travel photography and filmmaking to the next level.
1) Empty trees are cinematic – On the first day of class, we saw black and white slide projections of some early European photography. In the midst of the excited bustle that filled the frames, the single image that stood out as the most haunting and memorable was a photograph of an empty tree, its lonely limbs drooping ever so elegantly over a bed of thick white snow. In travel photography, it is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of crowds and action. There is nothing wrong with that, some of the most dynamic images are the active ones. But there is very special beauty can be found in the simplicity of emptiness.
2) Establish what is overwhelming- Show us what is emotionally or physically too much to handle. It seems to counter to previous idea that beauty lies in simplicity, but overwhelming in this case doesn’t equate to busy. It means shooting what consumes us whole, looking for extremes. Audiences love extreme situations, it’s why we are caught hook, line, and sinker by so many of the dramatic scenarios in cinema. Shoot extreme beauty, extreme ugliness, extreme heights, extreme lows, extreme everything. Burn “everything in moderation” out of your shooting vocabulary.
3) Irregularities are interesting- It seems very obvious, but even the slightest quirks in space can significantly alter the impact of a photograph. You’ve seen lots of fields in pictures. But not a lot of cabbage fields. There’s a huge difference between shooting swimming horses and standing horses, cookies on a bakery shelf and a broken cookie on the side of the road. Hunt for oddities. The eccentric is intriguing.
4) Levels give way to development- When there are levels in a frame, there is instantly room for enrichment. Adding physical dimensions to the camera’s plane of view has already provided you with space for development. Think about the difference between shooting lovers on a bench versus lovers on a flight of curving stairs. The possibilities are limitless.
5) A shot is lighting- First semester of freshman year, one of my assignments was to go out and shoot a single setting at five times during the day. Before sunrise, as the sun rose, afternoon, sunset, and night. That one location took on a completely new life each time I shot it. If you are looking for something specific from a setting that doesn’t seem to click, go at a different point in the day when the light has changed. It can make a world’s worth of difference.
6) Birds and flowers are boring- This isn’t to condemn either subject in any way, but if your goal is to be original with the camera on your travels, look for birds and flowers with a spirit unlike anything you’ve seen before. What makes this specific flower something you can only find in Amsterdam? What makes this goose specific to only New York City? Use your setting to make the uninteresting irresistible.
7) A pan is information in progression- Pans are some of the most misused and abused camera movements in travel documentaries. Why? Because the purpose of the pan is compromised for how easy it is to perform one. A shot is advancement. Every second of a pan should reveal something new or interesting about the scene or setting. Panning across a field with static information for 20 seconds is a waste of a shot. Information, information, information. Think about why you’re using the pan.
8) Walking is walking, not filmmaking- Shooting someone walking is alright. But why capture it when you can see the same thing every, single day anywhere in the world? But dancing, jumping, spinning, twirling, sprinting….these are all dynamic actions worth capturing that you may not be able to replicate the same way ever again.
9) People act in situations- The frame is all about directing and organizing experience, and people are interested in strangers. The best way to show strangers in unique experiences is shooting situations. Festivals, holidays, unusual weather conditions, etc. If you want to shoot raw human reactions to environments, choose those environments thoughtfully.
10) Don’t rush- In class, we saw the wonderful scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious where Ingrid Bergman steals the key to her husband’s wine cellar. There is almost no cutting in the entire sequence. It worked as well as it did because it took its time to unfold on the screen without manic splicing in the editing room. Our professor compared the success of a good, slow scene to the success of great Asian poetry, which finds it beauty in its slowness. In travel filmmaking, a long, single take has the power to reveal so much more about the internal life of a person of place than ten cuts.
Of course, these are merely ideas. But ones that have already helped me grow tremendously in my work as an aspiring travel journalist and filmmaker.