Every now and then, we get compliments on the photography we post on ParisienSalon.com, along with questions from readers who want to know how to take better pictures while visiting Paris. So we decided to turn to the professionals that we work with, who have agreed to share some of their carefully cultivated wisdom with you. Our first “Photographer in Residence” in this series is David Henry, a pro living in Paris whose work is currently featured in our “Paris in Pictures” section.
Here’s what David has to say about getting the best pictures from your camera in the French capital.
Basically, anywhere in the middle of Paris, from place de la Bastille to place de la Concorde, along the river and about a half-mile inland on both sides are fine, plus Montmartre and some other scattered areas are good choices. I also like neighborhoods that are alive with families, kids, Parisians of all ages, out and about, with shops, cafés, boutiques, restaurants, etc.
Any time during the day is fine for taking pictures. Often the weather in Paris can “be problematic.” The solution is often to wait until nighttime, when it doesn’t matter if the sky is clouded over, and Paris turns in to the City of Lights.
Any season is fine with me also. Being a New Englander, I appreciate the colors of fall foliage. On the other hand, it can be much easier taking pictures of buildings and monuments in the winter when there aren’t any leaves on the trees. The summer is naturally the best time for taking classic urban landscape pictures with full-open blue skies and puffy white clouds. And the sun goes down at 10:00 pm, meaning the light is golden, softer, and comes in at a magic low angle between 6:00 and 8:30 pm. In the winter I keep an eagle eye on the weather forecasts looking for snow as pictures of snow in Paris are very rare and valuable since it hasn’t particularly snowed much for the last 25 years here.
When it’s sunny out the important thing is to “compose according to the light.” Take your pictures either entirely in the sun, or entirely in the shadows, and avoid compositions that are too evenly divided between the sun and the shadows because that will always be frustrating. In such a photo the bright areas will be overexposed, fried out and empty, or the shadows will be entirely black, and there’s no setting that allow the correct exposure everywhere in the photo. Between the two I always go straight for the sun-lit areas, because it’s the sun that brings out textures, patterns and motifs on buildings, façades, trees and so forth. Along these same lines, avoid backlit situations and keep your back to the sun. Concretely, “composing according to the light” means zooming in more. Pictures taken at a wide-angle focal length often have wild differences in brightness. All of this will be harder to notice on a cloudy day though it’s still best to keep the sun behind you, even when the sun is hidden behind the clouds. Actually, all of this advice holds true even with the most expensive of cameras.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and “the essence of the city” will mean something different to each and every person. That said, I’d say the key is to have at least a few days at your disposal, and to be adventurous, optimistic and energetic, and put the time in. Keep walking, and if you feel underwhelmed by one place, keep walking on to the next neighborhood you have in mind. Look at maps. When you see streets that are windy, meandering, and don’t follow some straight grid pattern, this means it’s an older part of town; try heading off there.
I take 95% of my pictures in Aperture Priority Automatic, indicated by an A on most cameras (AV on Canon and Pentax cameras). Keep the lens stopped down halfway (ƒ8–ƒ11 on most reflex lenses), keep tabs on the shutter speed, and raise or lower the sensitivity, and/or open or close the lens in order to get faster or slower shutter speeds. For the last ten years cameras have all kinds of silly scene modes, with icons of hats, flowers, mountains, snowmen, skiers, palm trees, etc. I find all of them to be quite useless, and Green Mode (the completely automatic mode) is frankly the worst.
Get “the lay of the land” and take a look at what pictures have already been taken. Take a look at postcards on racks outside shops, browse coffee table books filled with pictures inside shops. You’ll see photos you like and others you will be less enchanted with. But you’ll get an idea of which neighborhoods you’d like to visit and what kinds of photos you’ll want to take there. I learned this trick when I saw the Guggenheim museum in New York at the age of 15. I was fascinated with the interior architecture, and frustrated because I didn’t have much of an idea of how to take compelling pictures there. I went to the gift shop, looked at the postcards and books for ten minutes, came back and took at least a dozen fine photographs. This tip will work for any place in the world you’ll go to.
I’ve used Nikon cameras ever since I was able to afford one, an FM at $200 at the age of 19. I bought my first digital reflex, a Nikon D90, two and a half years ago and have been very happy with it ever since. I make a point of buying additional accessories each year, things that I suspect will help significantly or will make picture-taking that much more fun. It took a while for digital photography to come out of its adolescent phase, though. Even the cheapest digital reflex made in the last two years is capable of taking perfectly fine pictures of professional quality.
All photographs on this page are courtesy of and copyrighted by David Henry.