Tired: Slow Food. Wired: Slow Photography!


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We’ve seen slow versions of everything lately: slow food, slow travel, slow shopping, slow dentistry. (We might’ve made one of those up.)

But have you tried slow photography? It’s like a yoga class for your camera.

Long conversations with subjects, patient exposures, and delicate macros will lend your photos a new calmness and longevity — so vital in these rush-rush go-go slam-crash rock-and-roll times.

Join the Slow Photo movement, and soon you’ll be measuring exposures not in fractions of a second, but in fractions of an eon.

The Photojojo Guide to Slow Photography


What’s Slow Photography?

Like any other Slow-Stuff Movement, nobody owns Slow Photography or makes the rules. That’s part of the appeal! It means that one person’s idea of slowness may be different from someone else’s.

But in general, the goal of Slow Photography is to capture photos that celebrate the passage of time. You can do that by taking photos that show time passing, like the long-exposed streak of a train across the plains; or you can spend a long time preparing to snap your shutter, such as the ornithologist who waits for four hours to glimpse a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

 

“I like to pretend that there’s expensive 120 film in my digital SLR when I’m out shooting, so as to force myself to be more deliberate.”

- Photographer Brandon Norris, whose slow portraiture has been recognized for illuminating hidden detail in his subjects

 

You can’t go wrong if you:

  • Find pleasure and beauty in the passing of time.
  • Plan ahead. Be deliberate and thoughtful.
  • Study your subject from every angle.
  • Ask questions. Wonder. Get lost in thought.
  • Pay more attention to your subject than to your camera.

Okay! Ready to slow down?

Placid Portraits

Top tips:

  • Ask questions
  • Make eye contact
  • Focus on the subject, not the camera

Communication: One of the most important tenets of the slow movement is human connection, and there’s no better way to connect with humans than through portraits. But we’re not talking about the high-volume click-click-click of yearbook photos; we’re talking about long, leisurely, extended sessions that are more like an interview than a snapshot.

Start by forgetting that you’re even taking a picture. Just talk. Get to know your subject. Ask them questions and listen to the answers. Pretend you’re a therapist.

Comfort: Your goal here is to learn about your subject and make them feel at home. When we spoke with pro photographer Brandon Norris about slow photography, he explained that portrait photography is an opportunity convey a person’s spirit, “something we cannot expect to do if we know nothing of our subject, or if they are not at ease.”

Contact: Maintaining eye contact with your subject can help you feel closer to them, so rather than peering through the viewfinder and poking at buttons, use a shutter-release cable. Remember, you’re just two people having a nice little chat; let the camera fade into the background and you’ll free your portraits of awkward, nervous poses.

Laid-Back Landscapes

Top tips:

  • Look for slow-moving subjects
  • Set your tripod legs on a steady surface
  • Cut down on light with low ISO, narrow aperture, and filters

Seek Stillness: Landscapes afford you the opportunity for optimal slowness, since very little changes in a wide shot of a city or mountainside. Seek out subjects that reveal themselves over time, and leave your shutter open for as long as you can, reducing hustle and bustle to a gentle blur.

Every once in a while, you may find a scene that’s so slow, the movement is imperceptible: a desolate desert, a suburb at midnight, the morning after a snowstorm. That’s known as “hitting the slowness jackpot.”

Limit Light: Of course, for a super-long exposure, you’ll need to cut down on the amount of light entering the lens; use a tight aperture like f/30 and a neutral density filter to diminish any bright lights. But be aware: teeny apertures can cause color distortion in some lenses. This is the excuse you’ve been waiting for to buy a “prime” lens: a lens with a fixed focal length will produce a crisper image than one with a zoom.

Potential landscape subjects:

  • Cars swarming in a drive-in movie lot
  • Stars circling in the sky
  • Ghostly trails of commuters rushing through a subway station
  • The tide going out (and coming in, and going out, and coming in)
  • Neon swirls of emergency vehicles outside a police station or hospital
  • Boats riding the tide at a dock
  • Lights sweeping over a concert crowd

Mellow Macros

Top tips:

  • Get really close
  • Look at your subject from all sides
  • Invest in a tripod with fine controls

Macros have always been slow affairs. In fact, if you’ve ever taken a macro shot, you’ve probably practiced slow photography without even realizing it.

Peruse: What’s the slow version of an already-slow technique? It involves a lot of studying. Start by turning off your camera and inspecting your subject. That’s right, with your eyeballs. Don’t forget to blink every few minutes. Take the time to get to know every molecule of your subject, and it’ll start telling you stories that you can tell with your photos.

Perspective: Photographing a plant? Start by looking at the parts you never see, like the underside of the leaves. Photographing food? Spend some time moving lights around, paying attention to how different lighting conditions affect the shine on the surface of your meal. Photographing a sleeping dog? Examine the contours of each whisker. (And try to avoid stepping on any squeaky-toys.)

Some Final Words

“In my experience, it is essential to spend time with my subjects before any shoot.”

- Brandon Norris‘s advice that applies to any subject, whether shooting people or animals or a pair or wooden teeth

Take It Further

  • Use your flash: You can punctuate very long exposures with periodic flashes of light. Just fire a flash every now and then at your subject, and it’ll produce a series of clear freeze-frames amidst all of the long-exposed swirls.
  • Even slower: Okay, you want REALLY slow photos? Check out Solargraphy, where pictures can take as long as SIX MONTHS to expose. The trick: a pinhole camera with super-insensitive film, taped to the side of a building for half a year. We’re going to experiment some more with this technique; keep an eye out for our writeup … sometime in late 2010.
  • Watch out for dust: Dust on your sensor will get darker and more noticeable when you use long shutter speeds. There’s no shame in a dusty sensor! It happens to the best of us. If you have a steady hand and a bold heart, you can read our instructions for cleaning it yourself. But most people leave sensor-cleaning to a professional, since one wrong move can junk your entire rig. The $50 to $100 you pay for a professional cleaning may be worth the peace of mind.

Photo credits: Erwist, The_Tahoe_Guy, Daveness_98.

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