Trent Parke Technique Analysis
Updated: Jan 21
If you don't already have Trent's book 'Minutes to Midnight' or 'Dream Life' then buy them now. I won't take no for an answer and they are awesome. Like any photo books, there are lessons to be found if you examine the images but especially with Trent's work which is unique and has a very distinctive and recognisable style.
As part of my ongoing quest to analyse great photographs and get inside the head of the photographer, who better to examine during a trip to Sydney. So, digging out my copies of his books, I looked for an image where it would be possible to track the exact location (after having my fingers burned by Jesse Marlow's white horse goose chase). The image also had to have something about it that I wanted to explore and learn from.
Here is the image I chose, one of my favourites of his.
What interests me about this image is the motion blur during a bright sunny Sydney day. That is an unusual combination and I wondered if I could recreate something similar by dropping the ISO right down to get a slow shutter speed, but it is not obvious how that would work without ND filters. I'm pretty sure Trent would not have been using ND filters. Time to experiment.
This is a location that should be easy to find since 'George Street' can clearly be seen in the background (top middle), and there is very distinctive old fashioned theatre type lighting on the building. Without that lighting as a feature I don't think the photograph would have worked. It is those little touches which makes Trent such a great photographer, and is probably what made him stop at the location.
I found the location easily enough, this is what it looks like today. It was an overcast, wet morning, with roadworks for a new tram line, and a news stand that must have appeared in the years following Trent's shot.
For his shot he would have been lower and to the left, pointing upwards - I just could not get the exact angle due to obstacles. The state of the location reminds me that photographs are transient. They are a moment in time which may not exist again. It is for this reason that I carry my camera everywhere I go and why I revisit potential scenes time and time again.
As I tried to get the angle it became very clear that he was very low to the ground, and angled up slightly. This reminds me to experiment with low (and high) angles - something I forget regularly.
The sun was not out so I not could attempt the sunshine / motion blur, but based on the motion I estimated he is shooting at 1/30 or even 1/15 of a second. Any slower and there would be camera shake, any faster and the motion blur would disappear. The problem is that to get that kind of shutter speed in harsh sunlight means an ISO several stops below my lowest (ISO100) even closed right down on the aperture.
Fortunately I was testing the technique the day before in Melbourne when the harsh Oz sun was shining. So to recreate the technique I set my shutter to 1/15 and ISO to 100 - to hell with it, significant over exposure but I wanted to see what would happen.
Back in the hotel after my testing, and importing into Lightroom, I pulled the exposure back to see how much could be recovered from the blown highlights. Interestingly, although I could get much back, the colour had been wiped out in over exposed areas. See below as an example where I tried to catch motion blue on a car. I also converted to monochrome with some grain and contrast to try to roughly replicate the styling. so it is possible, but you still need the right composition to make it work.
I do not know for sure that this is the technique Trent uses to get his unique images, but since he shoots in black and white, and (I think) film, this may work. Digital is good at recovering detail from shadows, whereas film is good at recovery from highlights. Add to the that high contrast black and white images, and this may well be what he is doing.
I hope some of you found this examination useful. I am not suggesting you go out and copy this style - you need to develop your own style, but it is unique enough to to practice it for the purposes of better understanding the photographic process, and to encourage experimentation. Too often I chase a shot down using familiar techniques since I don't want to 'lose the shot', but sometimes it's good to pause and try other things.
For a stream of my work, follow me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are interested in rapidly improving your street photography, get in touch about my workshops (mainly London). Also open to commissions or editorial of course.