Flicking through Michael Freeman’s newest book, Fifty Paths to Creative Photography, in Heffers in Cambridge last week, I was drawn to point 37: ‘Dig into your repertoire.’
According to Freeman, your repertoire is your personal bank of stylistic choices, your favourite way of shooting. He encourages his readers to explore and pinpoint their repertoires and thereby to establish what they find visually satisfying. Freeman very handily provides a suggestion of six areas to interrogate within your images to help you determine what constitutes your repertoire.
How to establish your repertoire
How do you choose to organise your frame? For example: fitting things neatly within the frame; preferring a tiny main subject; use of symmetry; use of asymmetry; choosing to break the frame; having subjects just touching; minimalism; or complexity.
2. Directing attention
What do you do to bring focus to your subject? For example: do you use lines to point? Do you look for frames within frames? Do you like things receding in a line? Do you look for the tunnel effect of dark toward light?
3. Light and tone
What sort of lighting gives you the shivers? Edge-lighting; pervasive all-round light; sun stars; chiaroscuro; golden light; harsh shallow edges; high-key; or low-key?
Do you have colour preferences? Muted or garish? Small colour accents? Specific colour combinations? Complementary colour combinations? Overall colour washes?
Do you aim to capture: precision; the peak of action; balletic postures; quirky facial expression; or contrasts of sharpness against motion blur?
Are you keen on a particular technique, such as telephoto plane-stacking, taking an immersive view with a wide-angle lens, or opting for selective focus?
Having a best guess
Intrigued, I thought that I’d have a go myself. However, I played the game slightly differently. First, I tried to guess, albeit in a highly educated fashion, as to what would constitute my repertoire. And then I would look through my library and see how my guess compared to my reality.
So, my best guesses were as follows:
- Balance–I’m a sucker for negative space.
- Directing attention–When I’ve not radically isolated my subject, I have this thing for receding lines.
- Light and tone–aside from when I’m deliberately looking for unusual lighting patterns, I’m not actually sure what my default choice is.
- Colour–I love contrasting colours, or if not specifically contrasting (green/red; blue/orange; yellow/purple) then colours working in combination with each other.
- Timing–I’m always looking for a ‘moment’.
- Lens–I love whopping great apertures and selective focus.
Determining my repertoire
After a little while flicking through my photos, did what I thought constituted my repertoire stand up to what my library actually tells me?
It turns out that while I do indeed love negative space and frequently choose to isolate my subjects, I’m also a lover of patterns. Plenty of my photos capture or somehow involve patterns. I love the ‘infinity look’ of something seemingly running on endlessly, and I also appreciate a quirky break in a pattern. I do wonder if this might run somewhat deeper than just my aesthetic preferences: my degrees are in history, which means that I’m honed look for patterns and breaks in patterns across time. Whether I’ve trained myself to do this or it’s a subconscious preference that informs so much of my life, I can’t tell. For all I know, they are unrelated coincidences; but still, it’s an interesting reflection.
As suspected, my proclivity for receding lines is verging on an addiction. But a surprise pops up, too. I like frames-within-frames. When considered in combination with my attraction to negative space and patterns, it seems that I’m focused on the notion of order. There’s not a great of controlled chaos in my photos. It makes me wonder: I’m not especially tall. Do I choose to shoot things from the side because this is an angle I can manage easily?
Light and tone
Time and again, it seems as if I choose to position myself so as to best capture my subjects lit from the side. But, I also like silhouettes. And there are plenty of instances where I’ve clearly set out to make the most of given lighting conditions.
Bright, bold, and frequently two-tone. However, there’s a lot of monochrome in there as well, with plenty of shots awash with one colour. Of course there are multi-coloured shots, and I’ve converted some to black-and-white, too, but it seems that my preference for strong colours means that I use them sparingly.
Yes, I do like moments, but more than moments, I like poise. It seems as if I strive to capture that moment of stillness between one motion and another.
I wasn’t wrong. I love selective focus. It fits very well with my love of radically isolated subjects and patterns.
What I found especially telling was how frequently I was using my favoured techniques in conjunction with each other. For example, two-tone images with negative space and selective focus. Or side-lit monochrome receding lines. I really do seem have to established a repertoire over the years.
Building on, and building with, your repertoire
Freeman suggests that the value in this exercise lies in being able to develop your personal preferences once you have become aware of them. And that is indeed valuable. But I think that it can also help you to identify the approaches with which you don’t engage, and make you question why you don’t. For sure, sometimes it will be because you don’t find it aesthetically pleasing, but occasionally it will be because you shy away from something that you find challenging, or even that you’ve never considered it before now. In this case, it’s not just about helping you to strengthen your repertoire and make you better at the the things you prefer, but it to challenge yourself to attempt something new, or practise something that you find difficult. Whichever angle you pursue, there is something to be gained from analysing how and why you shoot the way that you do.
What, then, have I learned from this exercise? In truth, I think I’ve given myself more questions than answers, and some of those I doubt I will ever be able to answer. And while I do wish to hone and perfect my repertoire, it has also inspired me to take a look at the techniques and approaches that I don’t much favour. Why I am seemingly afraid of more chaotic, or at least involved, images? Would it kill me to look for scenes that involve riots of colour? Or at least more varying palettes? And perhaps it’s time to think about being a bit braver and trying to photograph things from above?
Now then, what falls within your repertoire?