“This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.” ~Henri Cartier-Bresson
Is it any surprise that Paris is one of the five most photographed cities in the world? The City of Light has blessed the professional and amateur shutter-bug alike with her rare wealth of architecture. The great photos of her iconic landmarks built over centuries transcend boring postcard images. Paris life seems to pose for new pictures constantly in her public spaces populated by people both sitting still and in motion every day of the year. Day and night -winter, spring, summer, and fall – Paris is an endless opportunity to celebrate exceptional moments of contemporary life in memorable images.
Whether you are visiting classic hallmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or Notre Dame; wandering back streets or through the stalls of one of the many Saturday markets throughout the city; or relaxing over coffee or a meal at an unassuming brasserie where the menu (or maybe a smiling face) caught your fancy – keep your camera at hand and pay attention to what’s around you. Serendipity is in your favor.
Of course, experience and diligence – learning what works – are invaluable, (Cartier-Bresson also said that “your first 10,000 photos are your worst,”); but professional photographers have never had a lock on great photos. They are perhaps more dedicated and passionate about creating them. Even for the best and most successful professionals behind a camera this art entails a certain element of luck. The big difference, I’ll wager, is that they are far more patient then the rest of us for that special moment to show itself.
Cartier-Bresson’s compatriot and contemporary, Robert Doisneau, was a master at capturing the unexpected tenderness and humorous in ordinary events. His secret, he said, was “wandering around where there is nothing to see” – that is, until he found it and saved it for us.
He understood the power of surprising juxtaposition as in his photo of the Eiffel tower from behind a barge on the Seine, “The Bargeman’s Laundry,” or when he caught the Gargoyles of Notre Dame seemingly nibbling on the tower in the distance and ready to devour a barge on the river below.
Perhaps the most important thing we amateurs can learn from the pros is that the ingredients of great photography are the same in Paris than anywhere else. It’s less about the subject matter, than the attention the photographer brings to it. If you are looking for some techniques that you can easily begin to practice, here are some ideas borrowed from masters past and present to give your photos of Paris a lift.
1. Try your hand at black and white
Pioneers of street photography and photojournalism, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson are best known for their work in black and white. It might seem counter-intuitive today, now that pocket-size point-and-shoot cameras, and smartphones alike can produce images in vivid color. Innovation, however, is often born of constraint. You might be surprised at the powerful effects you can achieve simply by using a black and white filter to capture your own versions of sights you’ll want to remember.
This is an exercise that will make you look closer at the textured forms, focus and framing of your image, and it lends itself to surprisingly fresh and beautiful photos. The strong lines, opportunity for unique angles and high contrast make the Eiffel Tower the perfect test subject.
Paris – Tour Eiffel, Alessandro Prada on Flickr
Paris – Tour Eiffel, Andreas Wecker on Flickr
2. Build the image with a strong focal point
Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau were also known for images high contrast between the subject and background. Strong contrast works beautifully in color too as silhouetted close-up of an arc of iron lattice in the Eiffel Tower demonstrates.
Photo by Lali Masriera on Flickr
A bold color form can pull the elements together so that your image story can unfold. (Here’s looking at you looking at people looking at art…looking back at ya!)
The art and architecture of Paris are legendary. Sometimes, putting these monumental structures in human context is the element needed to enable the desired connection with the scene, because…
3. People tell stories
People-watching is an all-time favorite Parisian pastime. Sitting at a café watching passers-by, in crowds at events or in the street, or just walking by at the right moment, there are occasions when it really is all about the mood of your human subjects.
Frame them so that their body language and facial expressions can speak aloud. Parents (and nannies) everywhere will recognize this crowd waiting for their children outside the nursery school door.
Sometimes this means having the patience to watch and wait for the moment. Sometimes the most wonderful photo opportunities happen by simply getting away from the familiar.
4. So Get Lost!
One of my favorite words that we’ve borrowed from the French is flaneur, the idler or stroller. Paris is a walkers’ city, and, with or without a camera, there are few more enjoyable activities than strolling down the side streets and stumbling upon hidden Paris courtyards. As frenetic as Parisian main thoroughfares can be (as in any major city), a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Seine or the back streets of your favorite quartier is archetypically Parisian – and a wonderful way to find out-of-the-ordinary photo material.
If you have the time to get off the beaten path, take the metro to a less traveled stop, and wander. There are riches waiting around every corner. Maybe you’ll want to capture the focused attention of a shopkeeper carefully setting out the day’s produce offerings, or the carefree innocence of children playing in a quiet park. Do look inside store windows where there are all kinds of magical marvels. You might find a gem like this grinning cat figurine in a small shop’s window display.
5. Don’t let inclement weather deter you
In fact, writes Sophie Pasquet, Embrace it. The outlook isn’t all gray. Colors are more saturated in the rain, and both rain and snow add delicious texture to an image, softening the mood without blurring the lines. Marvelously, each in its own way, rain and snow make color appear in a whole new light.
6. Start early, catch the dusk, stay out late
Morning light in Paris is magical. The first hours of the day also afford the determined visitor a great opportunity to get unrestricted views of iconic landmarks. You’ll avoid the touristy bustle, and the few souls that wander into your frame may offer a perfect human focal point.
Evening and night photography can be a bit trickier; capturing the night lights of the City of Light can sometimes be daunting unless you’re traveling with a tripod. Success may deliver a delicious play of rich color, shadow and light.
7. It’s not about the gear
Finally, “I don’t have a real camera” is almost never excuse. If you’re traveling light, there is a good chance your mobile phone will take a great picture. (The iPhone 5S gets the same depth in focus as a full-frame DSLR at f/18.) Many models can deliver technically great images in a wide range of conditions, and they come with increasingly versatile cameras for taking photos anywhere anytime and sharing immediately.
Making Paris Your Own
Memorable pictures are most often a product of a strong sense of composition, patience, and a love of storytelling. Such great photos rarely “just happen,” and they are most likely to happen when you’re enjoying the process of making them. Also, practice and passion are a winning combination.
So take your favorite camera, no matter how basic or fancy, and reserve some time for you and your own pictorial souvenirs while you are in Paris. I think you’ll find you’ve immortalized some great moments for you to savor for a long time to come.