What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume One

Camera information:  Fujifilm X100F | f/8 | 1/640th | ISO 200

I recently re-read one of my favourite photography quotes from Ansel Adams:

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”

This statement is absolutely true.  To quote David Hobby, we should all strive to become thinking photographers.  I love it when my students ask questions about a photograph because I can see their minds at work.  Sometimes these questions focus on how an image was made (the craft), sometimes they focus on why it was made (the vision), but they always show a student’s desire to improve their craft.

Speaking for myself:  I may occasionally want to know something about the technical aspect of an amazing photograph, but far more often what I really want to know is the photographer’s thought process as they made the image:  What drew their eye in the first place?  What did they see in their mind?  What was their process for the creation of the image?  How did they go about achieving success?

With this in mind, I have spent the last year writing a book featuring my images and the stories behind them.  The book will come out later this year, but in the spirit of open source education I have decided to publish 2 dozen of these photos and essays here as well.  My hope is that everyone can benefit in a small way from this sharing of ideas, much like I have benefited from other photographers who shared with me.  Let’s get started by discussing the image above.

This photo was taken in Paris last year, while I was in the city teaching my street photography workshop.  My students were all out on assignment and I was sitting for a few minutes, just watching people on the streets and planning my next lesson.  Practicing observation without a camera in your hand is something I highly recommend; it can be done anywhere, at anytime, and it makes you sharper for when you are out shooting.

While people watching I saw this gentleman turn the corner and walked toward me, perhaps a block away.  I was immediately struck by two things: 

1) how distinguished he looked with his hat and newspaper tucked under his arm.  And,

2) how beautiful the late afternoon light looked falling on his face, especially the way the light was spilling through his hat.

I knew this gentleman would make a wonderful photo subject, but a great subject alone is rarely enough to make a compelling image.  When I shoot, I am always looking for subject, moment, light and background.  I want to create a cohesive image, one that ties as many of these elements together as possible.  I had the right subject for sure, and he was already in perfect light, so it was really just a matter of looking for the right background and waiting for the right moment.

I quickly scanned the buildings across the street and knew I had the potential for a decent image when I saw the poster on the wall of the bearded gentleman with a hat on.  This would look great juxtaposed against my subject, which is a technique I use often in my photography.

I shifted my position a few feet to get the right composition and then turned my attention to the camera.  When I am out and about I leave my Fujifilm cameras in Aperture Priority Mode, usually around f/8 if the light is good, and I use Auto-ISO to ensure I achieve a decent shutter speed (to freeze the motion of a moving subject).  I may change these settings in specific shooting scenarios, but I always return to them when I start walking again.  The only thing left to do was to quickly adjust my focus (manually focusing), bring the camera up to my eye, and time the shot correctly.

For all of the times we miss images, this was one, I knew, that I had timed correctly as soon as I took the shot.  A few seconds later, the subject turned another corner and the moment was gone.

Post production on the shot was minimal:  I applied Acros+R in Lightroom as this image was captured as a RAW file.  I made a few small exposure adjustments, added a little clarity and sharpening and, finally, used a square crop to remove distracting elements from the frame that pulled focus away from the subject and the juxtaposed background element. 

This last step was very important to the final image.  Somebody once said to me that photography is the art of exclusion, that we should remove distracting elements from the frame until we are left with the essence of the photograph.  This is something that we should always try to do before we click the shutter of course, but sometimes that isn’t possible and we have to rely on a little post production to take the image where it needs to go.  In this case, the final crop met this goal.

I am happy with this image, both because I saw it in the first place and with the final edit.  I had missed two great shots earlier in the day (poor timing), so it felt great to see the finished image in my mind and then to be able to quickly bring all of the important elements together to make it happen.

I hope you enjoyed this first article.  If you would like to see a write up about a specific image I have made please let me know in the comments below (if it is from my Instagram, just leave a link to the photo in the comments below). 

I look forward to many more conversations about the process of photography!



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15 thoughts on “What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume One

  1. Dan James says:

    Interesting to read about the cropping especially. I wondered with shots like these where you have a moving subject and such a slim timeframe whether you shoot slightly wider (or further away) than you want the final image to be, then it gives you some leeway to crop afterwards and move the main subject around the frame a little. Is this something you would typically do, or do you just try to get the overall framing and the position of the subject within the frame right first time?

    • Ian says:

      Hello Dan!

      I always try to get it right in camera, but there are times when that doesn’t happen because of distracting elements, distance, poor framing, the speed with which the moment is unfolding, etc. Getting the photo as close as possible in camera should always be the goal though.



      • Dan James says:

        Hi Ian, thanks for your reply. I thought that was your usual approach. I rarely do street photography, or indeed anything where the subject is moving at all, so I always try to frame and get it right in camera, and hardly ever crop.

        I know some photographers shoot a much wider scene, then rely on the resolution of their camera to be able to crop drastically to get the composition they want afterwards. To me this feels like cheating somehow, a big part of the pleasure and challenge for me is getting it all right in camera and doing a minimal amount of post processing, preferably none!

      • Ian says:

        Yes, for me too. I am all for taking steps to polish a photo in post, but I always want to shoot well in the field first and foremost.

  2. Tracy Habenicht says:

    I love your blog, and thank you for sharing this story with us. It’s amazing that everything came together so well for this photo. I’m especially intrigued by your manual focusing, which I find impossible to do. (Maybe I just need a lot more practice.) It looks like you were really close to your subject, so I’m really impressed that you were able to focus that quickly and take the shot.

    • Ian says:

      Hello Tracy!

      When you are in a fast moving situation the easiest thing to do is often to pre-focus on something that will be the same subject from you as your subject will be. So, if you know that your subject is going to pass by you 6 feet away, just quickly focus on something at that distance before they get to you (you could even just hold a half click on the shutter in auto-focus to achieve the same thing). This type of pre-focusing was very common back in the older film days…. if you had a hard time track basketball players in motion on the court you could just pre-focus on the hoop and wait for the player to come to you kind of thing.



      • Helen C says:

        This is very helpful. Thank you, Ian. I was wondering about why manual focusing, too.

        >> you could even just hold a half click on the shutter in auto-focus to achieve the same thing…

        This is the same as continuous-focusing (auto-focusing), right?


  3. RobOK says:

    Great idea, post a link where we can pre-order the book! (although someone told me pre-orders water down the books release “pop”). This is so much more helpful than knowing the camera settings of an image.

    How close were you to the subject? I realize you cropped a bit, but the X100F is fairly wide. Would you be willing to share a small version of the uncropped?

    I like the close in on his face but rarely achieve this on an x100f.


  4. mikedw says:

    Many years ago a picture agency editor told me her clients liked square format transparencies because they could make the final crop and feel they’d contributed to the creative process. I’m fairly sure she was serious.
    To crop in camera or not? Depends on the subject and end use.

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