On a purely professional level this is a powerful technique. On a personal level it's common sense, the kind of knowledge that has been sitting right in front of us all the time but somehow gets overlooked. Hiding in plain sight.
Taking a moment to experience the beauty of your subject will help you take better photos. The most inspiring of places or people can throw our photography into a tail spin. In the rush to grab the moment we can end up crushing it.
Too often the motives of fear creep into our photography, fear of missing something special, fear of not getting the shot or fear that a priceless alignment of composition will slip away forever. Fear is never your friend, it never makes you a better person or a better photographer. Love will take you places you never imagined, that you never predicted. Love will make your photography the best it can be.
When I travel to new places I am inspired by the mix of familiar and mysterious, but I am guided by my affections for the subjects at hand. It could be a rustic market in Asia, a woman selling beans at the market, or a truck driver waiting for potatoes to be unloaded outside the market. My knowledge of these subjects is likely to be modest at best, but my affection for the experience is entirely my own, it is genuine.
Taking a moment to reflect on why you love a subject will help you compose a shot, especially a subject you know very little about. Tapping into that feeling is essential, that sense of joy, passion, fascination, drama, serenity, admiration. From this seed grows a tree of possibilities.
By pulling the camera aside and entering a scene with your eyes first, instead of the lens first, you allow true moments of magic to greet you. Moments that you wont know existed until you experience them. It's the love of the unknown that draws me to travel photography, so embracing the unknown at every step is essential. You can have a plan when travelling, but you need to be open to changes in the itinerary as well. Life has plans of it's own too.
Neither the photographer or the camera can predict some acts of beauty. Taking the time to enjoy the experience often leads to other experiences that you could never have predicted. In Bhutan we explored a temple the day before a festival, watching the afternoon light move towards the mountains. Patiently we absorbed the atmosphere of the grounds. Girls came out to practice their songs, monks came by to offer us cups of tea, and children ran around our feet to play.
In the final throws of light we found ourselves inside the temple kitchen, sampling savoury rice and watching tomorrow's feast being cooked on the wooden stoves. Smoke filled the air and what little light entered the kitchen burst into banded shafts across the room. In the doorway the girls prepared to practice another song, and we were allowed to take photos. Patience is frequently rewarded.
I often get to watch travellers as they thrust their camera lens into the faces of strangers. They are unaware of how hostile and frightening these foreign objects can be. Crouched forward and taking aim as though a lady selling mangoes is some kind of prize, a trophy to be shot and stuffed. You can only imagine what photos arise from such careless aggression.
Instead of pointing a lens at someone you can throw them a smile first. Begin with a tiny tiny act of kindness and see what develops. Some will smile back, some will laugh and giggle, some will throw a peanut in your direction and gesture to take that camera away from here. I like to tuck the lens into my hip, pointed down at my feet where it can do no harm. I look for the smile before I look for the composition.
In this way you are not stealing moments, you are creating them.
You need never worry about missing that one precious moment because you can always create another. The experience comes first and the exposure then follows in due course, not rushed or forced but as a natural desire to keep some kind of record of what joy has been discovered.
See the full set of images here: ewenbell.com/editorial/Bhutanese+Black+and+White