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.

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!

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