What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Three

Camera INFO:  Fujifilm X-T3 with 23mm f/2 Lens | f/5.6 | 1/500th | ISO 400

“I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.”

– Bruce Gilden

I have long held a fascination with people.  I think it stems from my former career as a paramedic, where I would have ten or twelve patients in my ambulance each shift.  These patients came from all walks of life:  celebrities, newborns, holocaust survivors, CEOs, tradespeople, athletes, veterans… each with their own story to tell.  This love of meeting new people and hearing their stories subsequently influenced all aspects of my photography, and most definitely my approach to street photography.

When I see somebody that I think would be a great subject it is usually their appearance that strikes me at first.  It might be an outward characteristic:  their smile, their eyes, perhaps the outfit they are wearing.  Just as often, however, it is something more intrinsic… some indescribable strength, a sense of wisdom, or perhaps a vulnerability that you can see and feel from a block away.  Great subjects come from all walks of life and are a gift to us when we are out shooting on the streets.

Such was the case with the subject in this photograph, who I saw last year while I was teaching in Toronto.  There was something striking about the way she walked, a strength and sense of purpose in her step that was instantly noticeable.  I saw this photograph in my mind within seconds, with her red hair and green dress set against the darker buildings she was walking beside.  I decided to crouch down, shooting upward at the subject, to emphasis this perceived confidence and strength.

My camera was in Aperture Priority Mode (at f/5.6), with Auto-ISO set to maintain a minimum shutter speed of 1/500th (which is usually fast enough to freeze a subject’s motion).  You can see in the settings above how the camera raised the ISO to 400 to maintain my desired shutter speed.  I knew that these settings would nail the exposure for me and, because the subject was approaching quickly, I simply pre-focused on the sidewalk where the subject would be when she walked passed me, re-composed, and a second later clicked the shutter.  

Photographs like this happen fast.  I would say that the total amount of time, from first seeing the subject to capturing the image, was maybe ten or twenty seconds at the most.  What allows us to capture these photos with consistent success is practice.  We need to have the technical aspect of our photography nailed down, so that we don’t have to think about it while we are focused on the process of crafting our images.  I believe it was Seneca who said:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

Preparation (practice) allowed me to capture this image, and all it needed in post production was a slight contrast boost and a crop to clean up a distracting element.

To circle back to the beginning of this post, what was it that made me want to take this photo again?  It was, undoubtably, the subject.  Great subjects like this deserve to be photographed.

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 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.

What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Two

Camera information:  Fujifilm X100F | f/7.1  | 1/550th | ISO 200

It was 2:30pm as we emerged from Vancouver International Airport into the warm summer sun, 15 hours after we had checked out of our hotel in Paris and started the long journey home.  Somewhere over the Atlantic my enthusiasm and love of travel faded, replaced by fatigue brought on by the long flight, the climate controlled cabin and, of course, the 9 hour time difference.

As we started walking to our car I saw this photo right away; the strong backlighting catching my eye as it created silhouettes of the people moving along the walkway.  The scene had everything I love in an image:  beautiful, high contrast light and strong lines (vertical, horizontal and diagonal).  Wonderful colours with interesting reflections.  It was all right there.

I saw it, but in my exhausted state I just kept walking.  

Thankfully, for reasons unexplained, my favourite Chuck Close quote popped into my head:

“Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work.  If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.  All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

I hate his misuse of the word amateur in this quote, but I love the sentiment.  Great photos come from the effort, they come from rolling up our sleeves and getting the work done.  There are days when photography feels effortless and we come home with a memory card full of pure awesome.  There are other days though, days like this one, where we just need to power through whatever we are feeling and get the job done.  Great photos deserve this.

So, I went back.

My camera was already in Aperture Priority Mode and Auto-ISO when I pulled it out of my bag, and a little negative Exposure Composition was all that was needed to place the exposure where I wanted it (with the highlights somewhat controlled and the dark shadows crushed a little bit further).  The composition itself came easily, with the tower in the top right balanced against the backlit walkway that starts in the lower left of the frame.  

I was happy with these static elements, and knew that the people walking through the strong backlight, captured as silhouettes, would provide the missing dynamic elements that were needed to complete the image.  The first few people I photographed were quite tall, their height causing them to blur into the darkness around them.  I prefer silhouettes of people to be clean and fully backlit, however, so I shot for a few more minutes until I had the photo seen above.  Once I was satisfied with the image I rejoined my oh-so-patient family and we continued our commute home.

The photo required very little work in post, just sharpening and a slight contrast boost. 

Craft and vision are essential parts of photography, but they are of little value without execution.  I am sure all of us, at one time or another, have walked past an image without shooting and then regretted it later.  I almost did that on this day, but I am glad I didn’t.  The next time you encounter a situation like this just make the image, push through your hesitation and take out your camera.  The reward is worth it!

I hope that you enjoyed this instalment of the Photographic Insights Series.  

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 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. 

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

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