What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Four

Camera INFO:  Fujifilm X100F | f/8 | 1/600th | ISO 200

Let’s talk for a minute about being prepared, both mentally and physically, when we are out shooting on the streets.

My approach to street photography is usually more methodical than reactive, working to build an image in layers with deliberate consideration.  It starts by finding something that could be the foundation for a compelling photo, such as an interesting framing element, a unique perspective, beautiful light, or perhaps strong colours.  I will then work the scene for a few minutes, trying different compositions, until all of the static elements in the photograph are arranged the way I want them.  Some photos are done at this point, but often I will then wait for the right dynamic element (usually a person) to enter my frame to complete the image.  This is a very mindful, zen like process that I enjoy immensely.

The danger in this methodical approach, however, is that we may not see or be prepared for any spontaneous photo opportunities that present themselves.  There is a very real risk of “tuning out” while walking through the streets of a city, only re-engaging our creative eye when we spot our next scene, which could lead to us missing wonderful moments.  Always seeing, and always being prepared to react, allows us to avoid this.

Such was the case with this image, seen as I climbed up out of a Paris Metro station on a beautiful sunny afternoon while en route to meet my wife and daughter for dinner.  I saw the composition instantly: the Metro sign framing the top of the steps perfectly, with bright sunshine backlighting the entire scene.  In a moment of pure serendipity this gentleman stopped at the top of the stairs for a few seconds and I knew I had my photo.  I loved his posture, and hats always make for a great silhouette.  I managed to snap 2 or 3 frames, standing on the steps as people moved passed me, and then my subject walked out of frame.

We have talked about the importance of seeing constantly when on the streets, but just as important is to ensure that your camera is ready to go.  I have worked with photographers who pack up between scenes, or who always have the lens cap on except when they are physically taking a photo.  These actions create a barrier that will result in missed images.  I prefer wearing my camera on a sling, allowing it to hang out of the way by my right hip.  I also always ensure my camera is set up to immediately grab an image.  Let’s talk about that for a second.

I often change my camera settings when I am deliberately building a photograph, perhaps manually focusing, manually exposing, adjusting Exposure Compensation, etc.  When I am done with that scene, however, I always reset my camera back to the same settings (my “home base”).  I have alluded to this in previous posts, but home base for me is Aperture Priority Mode (around f/8 depending on the light) with Auto ISO set to give me a minimum shutter speed of 1/320th (again, depending on the amount of light).  For other people home base might involve setting a manual exposure and zone focusing.  How you set your camera up isn’t the important thing, it is that you develop the habit of going back to those settings when you are just walking around, so that your camera is ready to capture an image that suddenly appears in front of you.

Always be seeing, always be ready.  

Cheers,

Ian

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About this series:

Ansel Adams once said: 

“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.

When I look at another photographer’s image I am always interested in the photographer’s thought process:  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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS:

8 thoughts on “What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Four

  1. mikedw says:

    I once saw Brian Brake work the crowd at a horse race meeting with a Leica (an M4 I think) – manual everything. He moved slowly and quietly, always watching, framing the shot in his head. The actual exposure was one smooth movement. Camera up, click, camera down. I’m sure he changed settings as he walked but he didn’t look at the camera at any time. It was an extension of his hands and eyes.

    • Ian says:

      I love watching people who are at that level of their craft. It could be a photographer, a skilled musician, a chef… it’s just a pleasure watching somebody who is totally dialled in like.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Cheers,

      Ian

  2. Hank R says:

    Hi Ian:

    I hope this email finds you and yours well!

    As always, another great article. A quick question for you: what focusing technique (manual, zone, AF-S, etc.) do you employ with your “home base” settings for street photography?

    Thanks, Ian!

    All the Best,

    Hank

  3. Khürt Williams says:

    > The danger in this methodical approach, however, is that we may not see or be prepared for any spontaneous photo opportunities that present themselves. There is a very real risk of “tuning out” while walking through the streets of a city, only re-engaging our creative eye when we spot our next scene, which could lead to us missing wonderful moments. Always seeing, and always being prepared to react, allows us to avoid this.

    This sometimes happens to me when I into the field for landscape photography. I have a plan and particular shot in mind and it is only later that realise that I have missed an opportunotu​ for an even better shot​

  4. Rick Garvia says:

    Sound advice. I enjoy shooting as if I have a roll of 36 exposure film in the camera. One camera, one lens, one roll of film. It’s more fun to wait and explore than run and gun. It’s not about coming home with hundreds of images.

  5. Jeff Gardner says:

    Hi Ian

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    It’s really helping me mature as a street photographer.

    I’ve just launched a new initiative called The Gratitude Project.

    It aims to amplify messages of gratitude in the culture.

    And I was hoping you’d consider contributing a short audio message of gratitude.

    If so, it’s easy to do using the voice recorder app at the bottom of the page over at http://www.gratitude.global

    All the best,

    Jeff Gardner

    On Wed, 20 Mar 2019 at 06:05, Ian MacDonald Photography wrote:

    > Ian posted: “Camera INFO: Fujifilm X100F | f/8 | 1/600th | ISO 200 Let’s > talk for a minute about being prepared, both mentally and physically, when > we are out shooting on the streets. My approach to street photography is > usually more methodical than reactive, wor” >

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