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:

 

Shooting Through Changing Light


It is safe to say that I am not a morning person.  Honestly, if you told me that my only options were to wake up early, or have a non-anesthetic root canal, I would probably hesitate before I gave you my final answer.

Morning light creates so many wonderful photographic opportunities though, so from time to time I will suck it up and head out on 3 or 4 hours of sleep to shoot.  Such was the case this past summer, when I taught a 5 day travel photography workshop in Toronto with my teaching partner Spencer Wynn.  Sunrise was around 6:30am that week, so we were up shortly after 4am quite often to ensure that we were on location and ready to shoot well before that time.

My favourite thing about these early morning shoots is watching the light change as the sun rises.  In just a short period of time it can go from total darkness, to pre-dawn light, to sunrise and finally to full daylight, each phase offering a completely different look for our images.  Let’s take a look at a series of photos I made one morning in Toronto, time stamped to see how the light changed throughout the 90 minutes or so that I shot (from 5:56am to 7:28am).

(Note:  all of the images in this series where shot in Fuijfilm’s Provia film simulation, using the daylight white balance setting.  The photos have had minimal cropping / straightening, a few exposure corrections and they have been sharpened.)

(5:56am)

This was the view that greeted us as we arrived on location, the famous Toronto skyline set against an eerie glowing pink sky that reflected off of the water.  We started shooting immediately, working the scene to find the best composition while the night sky still had this glow:

(6:03am)(6:06am)

The sky was brightening quickly however, washing away the wonderful pink hues that were present only minutes before.  I often focus less on the sky and more on detail shots when this happens, in this case photographing silhouettes of the morning cyclists and joggers on the bridge.  It is probably the street photographer in me, but I always find compositions more interesting when I can add in a human element:

(6:15am)(6:22am)
(6:30am)

I especially love how images like these look in black and white:

When the sun finally made its appearance behind the Toronto skyline the light changed yet again, the rising sun bringing a new colour palette with it as it rose higher and higher in the sky:

(6:42am)(6:46am)(6:52am)(7:02am)

When the transition from night to day was complete we looked for other shooting opportunities underneath the bridge.  I fell in love with the geometric shapes and the interplay of light and shadows that we discovered, and then a bird flew into the frame creating an opportunity for an interesting image:

(7:11am)(7:14am)(7:14am)

We finally made our way back to the van, tired but excited about the beautiful sunrise we witnessed that morning.  On the way back, however, we couldn’t resist stopping on the bridge to play with the architecture one more time:

(7:24am)(7:25am)(7:27am)(7:28am)

When shooting a skyline or cityscape we often head out with one main image in mind.  Changing light brings us so many options though, so it is important to keep working the scene, keep responding to the light and, most importantly, keep making images.  Just keep shooting!

I think my favourite image from the morning is this one:

I love the colours, I love the static elements (the instantly recognizable Toronto skyline framed by the bridge) and I love how the cyclist adds an interesting human element to the scene.

If you are new to this kind of shooting, I highly encourage you to spend a few hours on location shooting through changing light… it is a lot of fun.  And, if you are interested in shooting in this exact location in 2019, definitely consider joining Spencer and I on our next Toronto workshop!

The Story of a City – Toronto Edition

Cheers,

Ian

p.s.  This is the fourth and final post from my time in Toronto this year.  Up next on the blog, a lot of new street photography from the streets of Vancouver!

Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part Five

“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.  The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.”  

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Details matter, it’s the little things that count…. how many times have you heard sentiments like this before?  In this series we have looked at a broad overview of how I present street photography when I teach, discussed best practices for both deliberately crafting and spontaneously capturing candid images, and have looked at different approaches for making street portraits.  In this, the fifth and final post in this composition series, I’d like to talk a bit about the little details that can make an okay photo good, and a good photo great.

I came to appreciate looking for the little things in photographs many years ago, when I was out shooting street photography in Paris.  I had been chatting with this lady for a few minutes and then asked if I could made a quick portrait of her.  I shot several photographs from different angles, never found a composition that I liked, and just chalked it up to experience.

When I was editing and processing the images from this trip I was about to delete the photograph when I noticed the woman’s hands.  A ridiculously tight crop made me realize that there was a photo there after all, if only I had been paying better attention to the details and not just trying to make a portrait.  This realization, which I’m sure everyone else already knew about (I’m usually a little slow), was a game changer for me.  It taught me to look for details, to pay more attention to shadows and reflections, to look up and down more often, to focus in on different elements in the frame and really just to view a scene in different ways.  It taught me to make photographs that are sometimes a little more abstract, perhaps a little less “street”, but ones that are often visually appealing to me such as:

Now, focusing on details doesn’t always mean that the detail has to dominate the entire frame.  Sometimes it is the little things that actually leap out at a viewer, like in this photo:

When viewing this photograph some people first see the lady who is walking across the frame.  For me, however, the interesting element is the employee pushing the cart out of the doorway.  Two things make this photo work for me:

  1. The timing of the photograph, capturing the employee where he is in the deep shadows of the doorway.  I love how his hands are in the sunlight, but you can’t see his upper torso or head at all.  This adds an element of mystery in the photo.
  2. The overhead lights are arranged in a way that creates leading lines, which frame the employee and draw the viewer’s eye to the area of darkness where his upper body should be.

If there was bright sunlight shining directly into the doorway, or if I had waited a split second longer to click the shutter, the employee would have been fully lit and most of the strong elements (the important little details) would have been lost.  Here is the same image, horribly overexposed and with the shadows lifted, just so you can see the difference:

See what I mean?  The little things really do matter.  When the subject is obscured by shadow it allows the little details like his hands to pop out, adding visual interest to the image.  When you can see everything in the photo it is far less interesting in my opinion.

Let’s look at another example:

Someone once told me:

“When you are photographing a parade don’t point your camera at the parade itself, because that’s not where the interesting photos are.”

What they were really saying is that there are photographic opportunities all around us when we don’t tunnel vision in on the obvious subject.  There are so many amazing photographs to be found when we point our cameras at the crowd watching a parade, for example, capturing the wonderful expressions on people’s faces as the parade goes by.  These photographs are an important part of the story, but ones that are often missed by many photographers.  This has always stuck with me and is something that I use in all aspects of my photography.  When I shoot weddings, for example, the best photographs are often when people react to a moment like the first kiss.  Learning to view everything around you, and to anticipate moments, is a skill that is worth developing because it will help with your visual storytelling.

Now, to tie this concept in to our discussion:  on the streets we should always look for details around the subject and not just focus on the subject alone.  In the photo above, for example, people were walking past this puddle which a friend and I had found during our travels in Paris.  The images of the actual people were… just…okay… but their reflections in the puddle made for an interesting image.

(Note:  I inverted this photograph when I processed it, just in case you were wondering what the hell was going on.)

Moral of the story:  Always look for the important details, both in the frame and around the subject.

Let’s look at a few more examples where I didn’t shoot the subject themselves, but instead chose to focus on another detail in the scene like their shadows:

Focusing on details can even give a sense of place to an image, without the need to show iconic landmarks or portraits of people.

Amsterdam, for example, is famous for its bike centric culture:

And, you don’t need to see anything else to recognize where this Hollywood photo was taken:

Honestly, great details are everywhere!

In Summary…

I think this final image really sums up how small little details can make a photograph.  There is no single subject in this photo, but the interplay of light and shadow combines to offer the viewer several small details that I love:  The brightly lit frog legs in the upper right corner, the hint of the employee behind the counter, the light falling sporadically on the balloons and prizes, and the partial shadows of people walking by.  

This photo is all about the details.

And, with that said, this five part series on street photography composition has come to an end.   No series, not even a five part one, can cover all aspects of a vast topic like composition.  I hope you have enjoyed it though and perhaps picked up a thing or two along the way.

If you have liked these posts, or would like to see articles on other aspects of photography, please let me know in the comments section below… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Cheers,

Ian

Part One – Overview

Part Two – Crafting Street Images

Part Three – Capturing Spontaneous Candid Moments

Part Four – Making Street Portraits