A long term photographic career seems to require choosing one of two paths; keeping an eye on stylistic trends and moving quickly to incorporate them into your work, or choosing one way of working and sticking with it, adapting on the fly to technical developments while leaving the essence of your method unchanged. I lean towards the latter approach.

I consider myself to be something of a photographic essentialist. I like to pare “technique” down to the very basics; ambient light, a location, a camera, a tripod. I’m fascinated by simplicity and transparency — photos that are looked through, rather than at. By this I mean that I’ve come to really admire images that are understated and nearly invisible, almost like windows, facilitating an audience’s view of a subject rather than calling attention to themselves.

This being the case, I much prefer reacting to and working within the limitations of a space, rather than imposing a lighting design upon it or oppressing it with an over the top style or “look”. Of course, this isn’t always easy; the need for repeatable and predictable results over a set of shots, for example, often means it’s simply impossible to use only ambient light. However I’m always surprised at how effective it can be to just stick with the basics whenever you can. And the nice thing about working in such a straightforward way is how naturally it lends itself to different kinds of jobs. Even after nearly fifteen years of shooting in more or less the same manner, I’m still being presented with new opportunities from new clients, and I’m happy to report that this tried and true approach still has tremendous merit.

Over the past few months, rather unexpectedly, I’ve started to shoot a lot of architectural and interior imagery; recent assignments have included work for Dwell, Wallpaper, and Toronto Life – I’ve included a few samples with this post, and you can see the full Dwell article here. Surprised though I was by this turn of events — after all, I primarily think of myself as a portrait photographer — it seems to be a good fit, perhaps because I’ve always tried to incorporate a strong sense of space into my shots regardless of the subject matter. Also, I love working with people in locations they’ve suggested, and have always considered these kinds of environments, particularly people’s homes, to be extensions of their personalities. Approaching these recent jobs in a similar way has worked surprisingly well. Conceptually, I’m still shooting portraiture, except that as often as not, people are a much smaller element in the frame — in fact sometimes they’re not even in the shot!

While it’s true that I’ve had dalliances in the past with overwrought technique and experimental styles, those days are long behind me, and I don’t really miss them. Your photographic identity is inextricably tied in with your world view — I’ve always maintained that every photograph is on some level also a portrait of the photographer — and for years now I’ve found simplicity and subtlety, both in my life and in my photos, to be much more rewarding then change for change’s sake.

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3 Responses to Location, Camera, Tripod.

  1. [...] A long term photographic career seems to require choosing one of two paths; keeping an eye on stylistic trends and moving quickly to incorporate them into your work, or choosing one way of working and sticking with it, adapting on the fly to technical developments while leaving the essence of your method unchanged. I lean towards the latter approach. via derekshapton.com [...]

  2. Chris says:

    Love the image of the woman watering the garden. Simple & believable. Like them all for that reason.

  3. Dave says:

    Derek, you absolutely hit the nail on the head. The basics are grossly ignored in favor of stunning arrays of speedlights rigged at weird angles (aka strobist) or using post processing filters to polish the proverbial brass turd.

    In football the basics are what makes a good team and photography is the same. Steve McCurry’s global portraits are simple studies of people and yet stunning. The thing that drove this home for me was working with 4×5 film. Taking 10 minutes to consider focal planes, double checking exposure, loading films and connecting with the shot actually made me critical about my wham bam digital approach.

    Great post and wonderful shots!

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