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. 

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

.

.

.

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. 

Twenty More | The Streets of Vancouver – Part Two

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done.  Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.  While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Andy Warhol

I love this quote.  Don’t spend all of your time consuming when you could be out there creating instead.  Don’t crowd source your self esteem by worrying about what others think of your work.  Just get out there and be an artist, doing the work that you love.

Here are another twenty images from the streets of Vancouver, taken at various times over the last six months.

Cheers,

Ian