What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Five

“The eyes are the window to your soul.”

– William Shakespeare

The difference between an “ok” photograph and a great one is often a game of inches.  Consider a simple image of a couple standing at the alter during a wedding ceremony.  This photo can be bland, mundane even.  But, if you capture a moment when the couple glances at each other, smiling nervously with their eyes full of love, then that “ok” picture can become perfect.

Photography is often a game of inches.

Two of the things that consistently elevate photographs for me are emotion and eye contact (given that most of my photos have people in them).  Eye contact in street photography can be a controversial thing for some people; with many purists subscribing to the belief that it isn’t a street photograph if there is interaction between the photographer and the subject.  I care little for rules like this, however, and love it when my subject looks right into the lens as I click the shutter.  It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does I often find the resulting image to be a powerful one.

I took this photograph a few years ago, while I was wandering the streets of Los Angeles with fellow Official Fujifilm X Photographer Rinzi Ruiz.  We were walking slowly, enjoying a long conversation about photography, when I saw two things at the same time:  The first was this lady walking down the street, looking wonderful in her blue and pink outfit.  The second was the wall to my left, covered in blue and pink posters.  I am always looking for elements in a photograph that compliment or contrast with each other, so it was easy to see an image coming together as she walked towards us.

I crossed the street quickly, tweaking my Exposure Compensation slightly to adjust for the bright LA sunshine (my camera was in Aperture Priority Mode with Auto-ISO engaged).  I snapped a few candid frames as the lady entered the frame, but then she paused and looked directly at me.  I smiled, asked if I could make a quick portrait of her and, after a slight nod, clicked the shutter one more time (capturing the image you see above).  Within seconds she continued walking down the sidewalk, I rejoined Rinzi, and we made our way down the streets of Los Angeles looking for the next photo.

That night, as I was viewing the image on my iPad, I was struck by the intensity of her gaze.  The sunglasses definitely add a layer of mystery, but you can feel her looking directly into the lens.  It feels powerful, much more so than any of the candid photos where she was looking down the street.  This connection, this human connection, is something I love about street and portrait photography.

Post production was very quick for this image:  I elected to use a square crop to remove distracting elements on either side of the subject.  I also had to recover some bright highlights on the wall behind the subject, but the rest of the image is just Fujifilm’s Classic Chrome film simulation being awesome. 

I think that a few lessons can be learned from an image like this:

  1. Always be looking when you are out on the streets.  This day was about spending time with a peer while I was on vacation, but photo opportunities will always present themselves if you are tuned in to your environment.
  2. Don’t just take one image when you see a scene coming together, work it to increase your chances of getting the best image possible.  Here I shot an image from across the street, grabbed a few candid frames as I was finding my final composition, and finally took this one during our brief interaction.  Working the scene might mean trying different angles, different compositions, shooting it in black and white or dragging your shutter to create a sense of motion.  Much like shooting a portrait session, the first photo you take is rarely the best one.  Investing time into a great scene is worth it.
  3. Don’t be nervous around people.  It is common for new photographers to feel awkward photographing strangers, be it candidly on the street or in a more formal portrait setting.  But, the truth is that people are almost always wonderful, the world over, if you simply reach out to them and make a human connection.  There was a time in my life when I would have put the camera down and nervously looked away when this wonderful lady looked right at me, but that always resulted in a lost opportunity and a lost photograph.  Overcoming shyness and embracing the connection that comes from direct eye contact will only make your photographs better.

I wish I had been teaching the day I took this image.  The main subject is wonderful, the photo provided a compositional lesson about using colour palettes to tie a subject and background together, it was an opportunity to reinforce the power of direct eye contact, and I got to engage with a stranger on the street and ask to make her portrait.  The whole experience only took 2 or 3 minutes, but it is another in a long list of rewarding experiences that photography has gifted me.

Until next time!

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 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. 

6 thoughts on “What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Five

  1. Jim Sollows says:

    Ian

    This is an excellent article! Might I offer a suggestion. I read this one, Volume 5 and realized somehow I missed volume 4 and I can’t find anyway to go back to that one. You could put links to the previous articles in the series either on the bottom of the page or list them on the “Inspiration Through Reflection” page where the series is introduced. You could automate that by putting all the articles in a category called “Insights” and then on the page where the series is introduced, include a WP Widget that lists the articles in the “Insights” category. Just a thought.

    Jim

    On Sat, Apr 27, 2019 at 10:44 PM Ian MacDonald Photography wrote:

    > Ian posted: ” “The eyes are the window to your soul.” – William > Shakespeare The difference between an “ok” photograph and a great one is > often a game of inches. Consider a simple image of a couple standing at > the alter during a wedding ceremony. This photo ” >

    • Ian says:

      Thanks Jim, I shall do that. They are listed in the Recent Posts section of the Sidebar, but your suggestion would make it even easier.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  2. Stuart de Jong says:

    Thanks for that story. It reminds me of a shot I was trying to get where there was a guy looking off to the side, on the edge of the shot I wanted to take. Every time I raised the camera to my eye, he would turn and look at me. That wasn’t the shot I had in mind, so I gave up, but I should have taken your approach. Next time!

    • Ian says:

      I think it is important to get the shot you are after, which definitely sounds like the one where he was looking off camera in this case. Having said that, there is value in the “get the shot you want, but then experiment” approach to shooting as well.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Cheers,

      Ian

  3. Marilyn Dickson says:

    Thanks Ian, I’m a past student of one of your Vancouver workshops. This reinforces what I learned from you which I am trying to implement, look forward to more and to your book

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