Photography & Writing Research: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Whether you're writing historical novels, contemporary fiction, or even fantasy, research photography is a skill worth developing (see what I did there...). Not only does it help with research, but photos also help writers connect with readers, supplement and inspire blogging content, and provide a library of images writers can use with articles and online.

I've already written a post about the importance of shooting "B Roll" images, but today I thought I'd offer a few tips on getting the most from your research photography.

1. Shoot EVERYTHING.

Those of us who grew up in a time when cameras used "film" and photos cost money to develop and print often forget that pixels are effectively free - and it costs no more to shoot a thousand photos than it does to shoot a dozen.

During my recent research trip to Japan, I shot over 10,000 images (in 3 weeks' time). While you may not need that many images, it's easy to delete unwanted photos after you return - and hard to go back in time to capture things you missed. Err on the side of capturing more, and sort/file/delete when you get home.

2. When possible, use maps & signs for context.

Historical and other sites often give out free maps detailing the location and sights of interest. Shooting a photo of the relevant portion of the map before you photograph the location - or even just photographing the sign at the entrance to the historical or other site -  can help you keep track of the photos when you return.

When visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine), south of Kyoto, I climbed to the top of Mt. Inari and took almost a thousand photos. To make it easier to remember where I took them, I also photographed the "station signs" that hang at each of the sub-shrines and stopping points at intervals along the route:

So even months later, I know these torii sit just outside Station 13:

Whether I'm working on a novel, writing a blog or article about my experiences in Japan, or simply offering context for a photo I want to post on social media, using the map or local signs to anchor the photos helps me remember where and why I took them.

3. Shoot your subjects from multiple angles.

During my research trip, I stayed in a Buddhist temple and slept on traditional Japanese bedding - a futon with a buckwheat-hull pillow. I deliberately shot multiple photographs of the futon, alone:

In the context of the room:

And from multiple angles:

...to ensure I had the photos needed, for writing research and for blogs about futons and Japanese temple lodgings. Shooting multiple shots from different angles let figure out which photos to use, and in which contexts, after I came home.

(The Takeaway: Don't waste valuable time sorting photos on your trip. Shoot many, and sort them later.)

4.  Crop duplicate photos to highlight details.

Taking extra photos of the futon in the temple also gave me at least one I could crop for a blog about traditional Japanese pillows stuffed with buckwheat hulls:

Creative cropping helps you turn one image into several (either by using extras or by duplicating the original and cropping it in different ways).

 

5. Remember to wait for a "clear" shot without strangers, or to crop (or blur) their images out.

In some countries, it's illegal to photograph strangers or to share their images without permission. Even in the U.S., permission is required in order to use photographs of identifiable people in many contexts (there are exceptions, but "on my author website where I also promote my books" is generally not among them). The solution: crop or blur photos to remove the images of strangers before you post them.

I shot this original image (note that I blurred the faces before posting it) to show the way a temple nestled up against a mountainside:

Here's the same photo, cropped to remove the people:

With a little practice, and a creative eye, it's easy to build a library of research photos that meet a variety of writing and social media needs.

Have photo tips to share? I hope you'll add your thoughts in the comments too!

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

5 thoughts on “Photography & Writing Research: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

  1. Good timing. I’m heading out on a week-long cruise this weekend, and it’s in conjunction with a photography workshop/tours. Okay, I’m not going to learn to take great pictures; I have a little point and shoot and my iPhone, BUT, it’s my son who’s running the show, and it was a great excuse for a vacation. And no, there’s no family discount! I’m thinking 2 of my characters who got engaged at the end of the last book might be taking their honeymoon on a cruise like this one.

  2. We’ve been enjoying your Facebook photos, Susan, and this information goes a long way in explaining why your photos are always so good. When I’m taking photos of scenic areas — like a wildlife preserve where I’ve taken several pictures of the trails and birds and such — I remember to take a photo of the informative signs at the entrance and along the way. I don’t journal much any more, so this helps me remember the names of the species, fun historical facts, and the name of the national or state park, so I can recommend it to my friends.

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