Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021

© Sean Nel

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Shoot from the hip

A photojournalist's tips for intrepid travel photographers

As a photojournalist, Peter Martin brings a unique eye to travel photography, one that's more attuned to capturing a moment than documenting monuments. A National Newspaper Award-winning photographer with The Gazette in Montreal, he spends most of the year racing around town on assignment. During the summer, he leads hiking and cycling tours in Europe.

Recently Peter spoke with Doctor's Review about his approach to travel photography. The good news for busy MDs? You don't need a bag full of equipment and painstaking planning to get great photos – you don't even need perfect sunshine. You just have to be on the lookout for a striking image and be ready to shoot.

The view in black and white

"With black-and-white photography, the graphic quality of the image tends to come out more -- the light, the shadows, geometric shapes. The simplicity of those graphic elements can be very powerful.

It's actually more difficult to shoot in black and white because we're used to seeing in colour. Thinking in terms of greys and range of tone is difficult for a professional, let alone for someone who doesn't shoot very much. But some place, some scenes, the romantic in me sees in black and white anyway, especially in Paris. I think of the city in the '30s and '40s, the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson... And if I find a moment that is melancholic or moody, it just has to be in black and white."

Let fate lead you

"I tend to walk the streets and just see what happens. I can go days without taking a picture. I'm looking for that inspiration I'm hoping is going to be around the corner. Sometimes it's there, more often though, it's not.

I don't consider myself a technical photographer; so much of what I do is just instinctive. I couldn't set up a camera and wait 12 hours for that perfect moment, like Ansel Adams. I don't think I'd have the patience. If it's not happening now, then for me it's not going to happen. Occasionally, I'll see something and think, 'This could work with the light at a different time of day,' and maybe then I'll come back later."

Be ready for anything

"What I strive for is spontaneity. If, after I raise the camera, I have to start thinking about light and exposure and focus, I've lost the moment. If you're walking down a street and you think there may be pictures to be had, take a light reading and set your aperture. If you do see something that happens spontaneously, you're ready; you've already saved yourself 10 or 15 seconds of having to set the camera."

Take the shot

"I think it's difficult for most people to take spontaneous photos of people. How many times have you seen someone raise the camera and hold it there and play with it, hold it and play with it? I always watch them and think: shoot the picture!

As a photojournalist I'm so used to raising the camera at that split second and just shooting. If you're going to take pictures of people, you can't hesitate. It's got to be quick and spontaneous otherwise you'll get stiff subjects."

Master your instrument

"I tend to fall in love with a lens and maybe overuse it. It's a little like a musician who stays with a sound for a long time and explores it. I like a wide-angle lens, because it opens up the perspective, it gives me a much wider canvas to work with. I may take a 90mm with me but I rarely use it; the 21mm stays on the camera.

For most travel photography though, a 21mm can be a little too wide. For the average photographer who wants to buy a wide-angle lens, I would probably suggest a 28mm or a 24mm. If I was going to give one travel tip, it would definitely be to use a zoom lens -- say, a 28-80mm -- which gets rid of the need to change lenses all the time. In 90 percent of cases that's all you're going to need. And today, you can find zoom lenses that give you the same optical quality as the fixed-focal-length lenses."

Don't startle the wildlife

"The key to taking candid photos of people is to be inconspicuous. Many of the photos I took in Paris, I actually shot from the hip -- I didn't look through the viewfinder. If I had raised the camera it might have distracted the people around me. I estimated the distance and set the focus on the lens, then I shot about five or six frames.

This usually only works with a wide-angle lens because you need the width to make up for any mistakes in framing. More often than not, this method produces photos that are out of focus, too high or too low. But when it works, you get very candid shots."

They can't all be winners

"If, after spending a couple of weeks in Paris and shooting five or six rolls of film, I come back with five really good shots, I'm more than happy. That's why you need to shoot several frames of a given scene. It's only through the editing process, when you look at your photos back home, that you can see what worked."

Pack light

"When I'm working for The Gazette, I have tons of gear with me in the car. But when I travel, I have just one camera, my Leica -- which is quite compact -- with a wide angle lens, a 21mm. I may take one more lens with me, a 90mm. I never bring a tripod when I travel. Last summer I came close, but when I actually got down to packing, I really wanted to pack light and it was one of the first things to go."

Perfect weather

"Grey or misty days are my favourites. Absolutely. On a cloudy day, you're not going to get a lot of shadows; it's going to be relatively flat light throughout the day, with varying levels of mist and grey. If you look at photographs from the turn of the last century, like Edward Steichen's work, a lot of them were very flat with a grainy, misty quality. Steichen used a very soft palette, no contrasts at all. It was very beautiful."

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