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!

Cheers,

Ian

Upcoming Workshops:

 

The Wall – Revisited

Last year I posted a series of images called “The Wall”, taken while I was in Toronto for meetings and a workshop.  The series, which can be viewed HERE, features night time silhouettes photographed against a brightly lit wall.  This is a location that offers a variety of shooting opportunities:  faster shutter speeds allow you to catch some lights turned off as they recycle, creating interesting and often uncontrollable compositions.  Slower shutter speeds, however, produce a pure white wall that is perfect for placing the focus on the silhouetted subject.

As a reminder, here are a few images from last year’s shoot:

I love returning to fruitful shooting locations, so when I was back in Toronto this past summer I made a point of working on the series while out with my students.  This time I decided to focus more on the silhouettes themselves, so I set my shutter speed to produce a consistently white background and spent my time looking for interesting subjects (and combinations of interesting subjects).

Here are a few images from these sessions…

You often see the same people pass by when shooting along the wall, as it is next to a very popular and busy square in Toronto.  I spoke with the gentleman below for a few minutes when he asked me for money to buy a drink, then made a quick portrait of him.  Because we were standing very close to the building the wall acted like a giant soft box and gave us beautiful soft light:

And, people being people, after we parted ways I looked back to see him posing for me one more time with a smile on his face:

My students and I talk often about how fabulous people are, all over the world, when we give them a chance.  Sure, we may meet the rare bad apple, but it is amazing how often we are rewarded with a wonderful conversation and a photo or two when we reach out to a stranger.  That was most definitely the case with this gentleman.

And yes, he did get his drink:

🙂

Photographs that feature silhouettes like these are quite easy to make.  You simply expose for the bright background, lock your focus where your subject is (or is going to be), and time your shot to get a clean silhouette (this is the most important part).  You don’t need a full wall to make photos like this either, you simple need a brightly lit background large enough to fully surround the subject.  Here are two more photographs, taken while a subject walked in front of a sign in another part of the city:

There is an aesthetic and a visual strength in photographs like these that I like, but it is even better when you can add a storytelling element to the photo as well.  This last image is a good example of this, and is one of my favourites images from the series:

I like the composition and the silhouettes in this photo, but there is also a narrative derived from the main subject asking for assistance as the crowds blindly approach and then walk past him. 

…photography really does offer us an endless world of possibilities, doesn’t it?

Until next time!

Ian

The Importance of a Moment in Time

The most significant moments in our lives are usually made up of tiny slivers of time.  I will always remember exactly when my daughter took her first breath and the moment my wife said “yes” when I asked her to marry me.  I remember where I was when I learned that planes had hit the towers in New York City and I remember the time I said something brutally honest to a friend and then regretted it instantly, even before I saw the hurt in his eyes.  I remember all of the times that my sickest patients, whom I had fought so hard to resuscitate, defied the odds and started breathing again.  Many of these moments were only seconds in length, but I remember all of them with absolute clarity.

The times in between these events, however, are rarely remembered with any true clarity.  I don’t have special memories of grocery shopping, waiting in line at the bank or of working out at the gym.  To be honest, as the years go by, I find myself trying to clear the “noise” from my life more and more, actively focusing on the important slivers of time that really matter.  I don’t want a life consumed by “in between” things… I want the memories.

Now, there is a direct parallel between these moments in our lives and our photography.  Anybody who has shot long enough will have experienced at least one special moment when out with their camera;  the street photographer who sees and captures that rare time when the subject, background and light all come together in a perfect composition, or the landscape photographer who finds themselves shooting through a sunrise so beautiful that it must have come from God, or the wedding photographer who captures the first kiss, but who then stays with it and captures a tear on the cheek of the bride as she pulls away, her eyes still locked on her new husband.  These are the moments I live for as a photographer.  

As we gain experience I think it is important to learn how to anticipate these moments, to create them if it is within our power to do so, and to not get distracted by all of the “in between” photos that present themselves.  It is important to know the value of that one special photograph and to not get lost in a sea of “in between” ones.

I love the photograph at the top of this post.  I think the lady is beautiful, the expression on the waiter’s face is perfect, and I love how well the subjects match the background.  The light in the scene is good and, perhaps most important of all, the photograph tells a story.  There is a genuine moment here, captured as a slice of time in my camera. These photographs don’t present themselves often, but I would gladly trade one thousand “in between” photographs for ten or twenty that truly tell a story like this one does.  

When I took this photo I knew I had something I loved as soon as I clicked the shutter, and it got me thinking about the fact that I seem to be making more and more of these images as time goes on.  Upon reflection, I can honestly say that the main difference between now and a few years ago is simply this:  I have slowed down, which allows me to see more.  I have learned to focus on those special moments in time and to not get distracted by all of the “in between”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of modern street photography, wrote often about this concept.  Here are a few of his thoughts that have influenced my approach to photography:

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” 

“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” 

What is Henri saying here?  I think it is that the photograph is already out there, but to capture it we need to be more patient, more cerebral, more focused and yes, sometimes more instinctual.  We must slow down, see more, and be ready to act when we do find that perfect moment in time that will only last for a few seconds.  Henri also wrote:

“We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.” 

When we first learn photography the right side of our brain is often overloaded by the technical aspects of shooting.  This is as it should be, we need to shoot a lot in the early stages to develop our skills.  Once we have the technicals down, however, it is important to place the focus on our creative vision.  For the street photographer, this means learning how to become more attuned to the environment, to anticipate moments, and to shoot photographs in a way that captures the story that our eyes are seeing.  We won’t nail it every time, far from it actually, but it is so satisfying when we do.

So, here is my challenge to you:

The next time you hit the streets, coach yourself to slow down and see more.  Really take the time to become in tune with what is happening around you without a camera up to your eye.  Don’t shoot the “in between” photos during this outing.  Don’t settle… wait for that special moment.  Wait for the decisive moment, where you make that one photograph that will mean so much more to you than a hundred “in between” ones.  

It might take some time, but it will absolutely be worth it.

Cheers,

Ian