Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
The pilgrimage to El Rocio is a sight to see. This grand, atmosphere-laden journey through Andalusia attracts the faithful by the thousands, bringing their patron saint or the Virgin Mary to the village in a centuries-old tradition. Horsemen in broad-brimmed hats and the traditional traje corto and women in flamenco dresses—escorting a statue of Mary on her float (called a simpecado)—finally arrive at the Wild West-looking town for worship and celebrations. Lots of celebration.
Invited into one of the brotherhood houses I was struck by the incredible color—and by the incredible photographic opportunity. Festivity was in the air but it was also a confusion of activity, not easily corralled into a picture frame. A quick look around and I spotted my salvation—stairs leading to a fortuitous balcony offering just the right vantage point. From on high the close crowd was transformed into beautiful patterns of friendship and fashion. It was rich.
Finding the right point of view is often the key to making fresh pictures. So let me get to the point: If you had the choice of buying two new pieces of gear to improve your photography, which two would you choose: a new lens, a stepladder, or kneepads?
Easy! Buy the stepladder and the kneepads.
Nothing will improve your photography faster or make you look more "creative" than a fresh viewpoint. And getting that fresh viewpoint is often rather mechanical. It doesn't involve reading novels by Tolstoy or deep meditation leading to mystical revelations. It involves putting your camera in some unique location that will give you a new, novel, useful, or intriguing viewpoint. No other gadget you can carry in your bag is as valuable.
And no other photographic technique is as neglected by the vast hordes of photographers producing pictures. Put even more simply it comes down to this: rely more on legwork, less on Photoshop.
Other situations might just call for sitting down on the job. That's what I did for the March of the Lonach Highlanders in Scotland. I sat down in the front row of spectators and put my camera on the ground. Looking up removed the clutter of the background and turned their tartans into dramatic shapes.
So consider these tips for getting a different viewpoint—up high.
- Look around for a high spot. A surprising number of locations have a place you can get up on: a balcony, stairway, tower, tree, veranda, or (if you are lucky) skyscraper. The higher you get the more interesting the scene becomes. Confusion becomes patterns and chaos becomes interesting. So look around. Even a window over a courtyard is sufficient.
- Take your own altitude. Even a lowly stepladder can make a huge difference. Especially if you are in a crowd. Just getting a couple of feet above the heads of the crowd can mean getting interesting pictures. I know newspaper photographers who carry a lightweight aluminum stepladder in the trunk of their car all the time. I'll sometimes find a hardware store and buy a stepladder for a shoot. And a surprising number of stepladders lurk in the back rooms of shops, available to courteous photographers who ask very nicely.
- Practice the "Hail Mary" shot. Newspaper photographers for generations have relied on the "Hail Mary," holding their camera over their head to get above the crowd. You'll see it every time the photographers rush out to get the Super Bowl winners celebrating. Just raising your camera over your head can sometimes make an image. You'll be shooting by feel, pointing the camera as best you can, then reviewing your technique instantly on the LCD screen. A couple of quick adjustments and you can probably come close to the framing you want. And you'll get better with practice.
- Climb every tower. Towers and steeples are golden opportunities, especially in the medieval cities of Europe. Yes, I know there are lots and lots of steps to get to the top. But the reward is a priceless picture. And you'll have your sob story of self-sacrifice to tell with your picture, sure to garner you fawning sympathy (if you play it up really well).
Getting low is the other common option. I was sort of kidding about the kneepads but I know photographers who do just that. Consider these:
- Get the camera on the ground. With practice you can learn to put the camera on the ground, angle it up a bit and shoot away. How much to angle it is the trick, as you'll probably want just a bit of ground across the bottom. A couple of test shots can usually teach you this. Or try putting a small stick or rock under the lens. Once you know where to put it to get just the right angle you can shoot in confidence.
- Carry a small tripod. Any of the really small tabletop tripods will do the trick and don't take up much space in your bag.
- Use your tipping view screen. If your camera has a screen that rotates and tips you are lucky indeed. You can put your camera in all sorts of weird locations and still see what is happening in the frame. I know golf photographers with a full complement of professional gear who carry a simple point-and-shoot for just this reason.
- Find a seat. Spectators at a parade or other event will often block your view. You could stand in front of them but you'll make no friends doing that! But you can often sit down on the ground in front of the crowd and nobody will care. Add a joke or two and you may even be welcomed.
- Buy a right angle finder. This devise can be very rewarding. Most manufacturers and some third-party vendors make accessory finders that slide onto your DSLR eyepiece and let you look down (at a right angle) while your camera is pointing out. This is great for macro work with small flowers and mushrooms. But it can also be used for lots of other kinds of pictures as well. And it doesn't take up much space in the bag, either.
- Look around for a puddle of water. Get down low to the surface of the water (like a couple of inches) and you'll suddenly have wonderful reflections to work with. Even a small puddle of water, only a foot in diameter, is enough. Street scenes at night really jump to life when you do this.
- Get beneath things and look up. If looking down from on high is interesting, so is the view from below. It doesn't happen as often but is worth looking out for. Looking straight up in European cathedrals at the patterns of stonework is one example, but putting your camera under a bed of flowers is another, less commonly used, opportunity.
The real trick is to be open to fresh ideas. Getting out of visual ruts is often solved by using your feet.