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Environmental Portraits

Lesson 6 from: Travel Photography: Creative Storytelling

Ian Shive

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Lesson Info

6. Environmental Portraits

Next Lesson: Scene Details

Lesson Info

Environmental Portraits

Talking to people is really important. The first people you should talk to, especially when going into a restaurant or any kind of building that you wanna photograph is the owner or the manager. Get permission, but not only are you asking permission, but they might have something that would be a really unique story or unique angle that you otherwise would never know. As travel photographers, when we go into a scene, we're going in without, usually, without a lot of knowledge. We're the traveler, and so being able to actually capture the shot and capture the stories means we have to know that they are there in the first place. So whether you're talking to people on the street, talking to the owner of a restaurant or wherever you may be, talking to people is going to reveal a lot of new subject matter and opportunities that you may have otherwise have never considered. Here at the Salmon Bay Cafe, we talked to owner Ken Lam and he told us about a table for the last 30 or 40 years that a ...

group of guys have gotten together every morning, Monday through Friday, and had coffee or breakfast and talked. And it's interesting because now as they approach their upper 70s and 80s, they have great stories and a lot of great humor, of course, as well to share and they're an important part of what makes this place unique and, of course, they're an important part of what makes Seattle unique. And so capturing that means beginning with a conversation, but then of course, there's a lot of other technical pieces that come with it. And so the first thing is working with and understanding the lighting and the challenges that come with the lighting. So this place is perfect in a lighting sense because you basically have windows all the way around that act as giant soft boxes, giving you a very natural, almost studio quality light to the portrait jury of environment portraiture that you're able to capture. But how do you capture images that don't feel overly posed, but feel natural and authentic? And the key really to that, sitting down at first with anybody who's a stranger means they have to get comfortable with the camera. There's a good chance that the first time you pick it up, especially a big camera like this, that they're gonna get nervous, maybe they'll make a funny face, maybe they'll look away, maybe they'll look straight into the lens, but either way you're losing that authenticity and authenticity is what really makes travel photography work. And so having a lot of pictures to take, even if they are making funny faces or looking at it, just start taking pictures. That's the first true step when you're having a conversation with somebody and trying to get authentic environmental portraiture. The second you start taking the pictures, they get use to it. The longer you do it, the more they don't realize the camera's even there and eventually they start to have conversations with themselves, they laugh, and you're able to capture those kinds of shots that are gonna make that story and that essay really come to life. So focusing on the process is very, very important. I'm already assuming that you've got the technical pretty nailed down. And the technical still can be really challenging even sitting at a table where your subject matter doesn't seem to be moving around a lot, they are still moving. They're laughing, they're using their hands, they're turning their heads, they're conversing and so you wanna make sure that your settings are absolutely optimized to the situation. So I realize when going on the fly and talking with these guys that even though there was a lot of light, there wasn't nearly as much as I originally thought there was gonna be. When I was standing outside and we had all the ambient light under the cloudy skies, I thought okay ISO 400, ISO 800, but about half way through the conversation I realized I was having a few blurry images in there and I needed to immediately bump my ISO and really pay attention to my aperture. I needed to make sure that my shutter speeds, that's a curtain opening and closing, were as fast as I possibly could get them given the circumstances and situation to make sure that my shots weren't out of focus and that they were sharp and clean throughout. I didn't want any kind of blur in hands or heads or other movements. So adjusting your settings as you go is an important step. You don't wanna be married to a setting and then forget about it. It's easy to get into a conversation with somebody because you also want to be engaged in it. You don't wanna just be the passive observer. I mean, if you're shooting a true journalistic story, the goal is to be a passive observer, but if you're doing a feature story on a location, a place or people, sometimes talking to them and learning about them and getting them comfortable with you and your camera, is very, very, very important. So you don't wanna get so comfortable that you're also too comfortable and forget to adjust your settings as you go. So I ended up at ISO 1600 in this shoot. I ended up getting my aperture pretty far down, about 4.5, which meant it was really shallow, so I had to be very creative. The other thing that is very important when shooting indoors and shooting travel essays and stories is to have a zoom lens. A lot of people might say, oh we can get some really great work. If you're gonna have details and a lot of time and your subject matter is more or less not changing, you might want to shoot with a single prime lens or similar focal length lens like a 24 millimeter or 16 millimeter. But in my case, I went with a really wide lens that helps me capture the entire room, help me get those establishing shots, as well as the zoom, going to 16 to 35 millimeters, so that I can do quick, sort of on the fly portraits and detail shots as well. I've got an extra lens with me. I brought the 24 to 70, but given the close proximity, the fact that I'm actually sitting in a booth with my subject matter, means I'm probably gonna be working on the wider side. So tell me how long have you guys been coming here? 30 years, not here. As long as I can remember. We came here occasionally back actually from the probably 70s but before that, we had all met and we all went to a place called the Triple X. We've been, I'd say, it started in the mid 50s. Mid 50s. How did that start? High school. Why? Everybody knew each other from high school. You guys have known each other since high school? Oh yeah , sure. And how often are you meeting? How often do we meet? Well pretty well everyday. Everyday. Everyday? Everyday. What do you have to say everyday? Not very much I'll tell ya. (laughing) What would you have to say? Not a whole lot. (laughing) So how did that get started? Hey, how do guys get together? Yeah. You know each other, you're buddies. Everybody was in the military, all of us. So we had a lot in common. Some of us just got out of jail. Oh really? He believed me. Well why would I not? (laughing) Have you seen a lot of changes here? In here? Well yeah (mumbles). Here and the whole area really, right? Well, yeah things change slowly, but a lot of the same. A lot of no change at all really. We've been coming here for a long time, boy. Well we went from the Triple X, which they tore down to Mannings, which they tore down, to the bowling alley, which they tore down, to here. And the key thing was, can we get a second cup of coffee? (laughing) And can we park? That was it. But everybody's dying off. Yeah, one of the guys right here. That guy right there died on July 22nd. How many were you when you first started coming here? Well not here, but when we were at the Triple X, 20 easy, remember? 20 easy. 20? Oh yeah, or more and at Mannings, more than that. You remember? Oh yeah. You don't see groups of 20 people getting together for breakfast all that often these days. We did for a long time. Mostly coffee, breakfast, you'd eat something. Just sitting around catching up? No, just sitting around goofing off. Goofing off? Sure. That's the only thing to do. And really neat characters in the past. Really neat characters, nice guys, crazy guys. Tell me any good advice you could pass along to a younger guy? Are you kidding? Come on. What could you mean? Inherit money. Inherit money, yeah. Very good. (laughing) That works every time. (laughing) Yeah, I'll have to work on that one I think a little bit. I'm not sure I have much control over that situation. Marry right. Marry right, yeah. That'll do it, right? It'll help. Some days. So is this a Monday through Friday gig or do you come on the weekends? Monday through Friday. We don't come on the weekends anymore. We use to come on Saturday, remember, but no more. Yeah. Well, the reason we had another brother who passed away about two years ago, but it was a chance for us three brothers to get together too. So from doctors, dentists, lawyers, pharmacists, you know, whatever trades there are out there. And all kinds of guys that did all kinds of really, really good craftsman, not just sort of, but really good. Like Alvin and Bill Henderson. You know those guys? Yeah. Those guys could make anything, do anything. Do you feel like craftsmanship has changed or been a little lost over the years? Totally. Yeah. Guys can do anything with metal or with wood, anything. And now not so much. Yeah, try making a pyramid on a standard lathe like a Alvin did. Remember that? That guy was so clever. He was just an amazing person. He could make anything, do anything. Alvin Krites. He was the best. How do you guys have the rest of the day planned? Now what do you do? Where do you go from here? He goes and sits in a chair in the old pharmacy. Really? Well his pharmacy's still there. Johnny's totally retired. I have a publication and I've been publishing for years. I don't do it, I have two people that do it for me. What's that about. Construction leads. Really? Very good. I think everything everyone does, I mean, for the most part is hard work, but I think what you were talking about with like craftsmanship being lost, I also think the mentality of what it means to work hard has really changed. I think more people than ever before sit behind a table like this or a desk, but they ever really get to interact as often, so I'm pretty lucky to have that experience. That's one of the hardest working guys you've ever seen. Barry used to come to work. We used to have coffee between eight, nine, 9:30. He would be in his pharmacy at 10:30, 11, every single day and that's the reason why he's done very well. For how many years? Oh boy. I can't remember, but a lot. It'd be from about 55 until 2015. Barry had a stroke. His head is broke. You know what I mean? Yeah, yeah. But sometimes we can talk a little strange. Nice. Why work so hard though? Why not, why not? All my life I never thought of anything else really. And I enjoy it. That looks like a pretty hefty camera. It can get a little heavy and my backpack can get pretty heavy too. I was gonna say, yeah wow. You got these people holding all this stuff here, man. And that boom can't be light. You talking about this? No, the cup. Oh, I thought you were looking at my belly. (laughing) What do you think, Johnny? I think, I-- What, what, what? I think your belly is huge also. I appreciate you guys letting me sit with you and talk and take a few pictures. You get the (mumbles). (laughing) Having an opportunity to sit down and talk with these guys who have been sitting there for the last 30 or 40 years is a great way to start to bring a human element into your story, but you need more than just an exterior and one group of people at a table. You need to really fill it out with all of the details. I wanna move on, focus on the other little elements that make this cafe a really special place and see if we can look at the food, the dishes, some of the other booths and some of the other experiences that you can have here.

Ratings and Reviews

Black Fender Productions

If you are interested in shooting a travel story for publication, this is a helpful class. Ian breaks down the elements of storytelling through photography. He shows you what to look for in building that story and how to shoot it. This is a journalistic documentary viewpoint, not a go on a family vacation and take great photos class. In addition to the story-telling education, I also found it helpful to learn about the technical details; how he uses ISO, shutter speed, Aperture priority (Av), how to shoot into windows, and the importance of shooting both in portrait and landscape. If I were to add to this class, I would include segments on how to pitch your travel photos to publications and perhaps an interview with an editor to find out what they like to see from photographers. I would love to see more locations as well. I've taken some of Ian's other classes, and I think he's a great instructor. This class was definitely helpful.

Chris Miedema

I guess travel photography means different things to different people. I understood exactly where Ian Shive was coming from in this presentation and I found the information was extremely useful. I guess if you are looking for a video on how to photograph the Eiffel Tower, when traveling with family, this is not for you. If you wish to take back a deeper memory of a place, or wish to submit an article for travel publications, this series of videos would be more to your liking. I enjoyed watching Mr. Shive go through the process of documenting the cafe, its owner and its patrons. His general advice and strategies were useful to hear and see in action. He did provide some technical information on settings, although I did note he was in a well lit establishment. It would have been interesting to see how he would handle a place with less than ideal light. Overall, that is a small criticism. I very much enjoyed the flow of the videos and recommend them to anyone who is interested in seriously documenting the interesting locations they come across in their travels.

Marwa Elchazly

as the title is "travel photography" what came to my mind is walking through the street of a city, but it wasn't ... Ian Shive took "Salmon Bay Cafe" as a case study for traveling photography, through which he gave good tips for traveling/ magazine essay / telling a story in general. I've learned a lot about the effect of ISO and "handholding" the camera, tips for how to get the authentic story of a place and tell it with photo... It's not all you need about traveling photography, but it gives a good start and lots of valuble tips

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