Ways of Working #2 (Relax)

#2: Relax and know that there are a million ways you can screw-up a potentially satisfying photograph. You could miss the moment. You could be shooting in daylight with the ISO still set at 800 from last night’s party pics. Your finger could freeze, unable to trip the shutter. Why fear failure when it surrounds you?

Photography takes concentration and focus. Street photography takes both while juggling constantly changing variables; shifting light, bodies in motion, someone who’s chasing you, etc… Sounds kind of like sports photography, actually. I like to think about how photographing people in public is like playing music. You need to have your technical chops, but you also have to listen, and be aware, with your ears and eyes wide.

In one of Winogrand’s books there’s an essay that mentions how he lost his “stuff” in the final years of his life. His shots had always been technically perfect, sharply focused and well-composed, but while battling sickness, the technical aspects seemed to elude him, though he kept photographing at a rapid clip, often through the open window of a car. In his later work, Winogrand still had the the spark and impetus, but he’d lost a handle on the how.

When you’re relaxed and focused, you can see all the elements of a picture and how they might come together. At noflashcorner, I need three things to happen in order to get the chance to take a picture; first, a person must walk through (and be briefly illuminated by) a small, finite spot of reflected light that’s moving minute by minute to the southwest. Second, that person has to interest me visually. Third, my spatial distance from the subject (they become a subject once I’ve decided to try to photograph them) must be compositionally interesting while they’re moving through that spot.

When I space out, I get zilch. I see the people a half-second after they’ve moved through the good light. Or I never see them. Or I fail to notice that the spots I’m working with have dimmed, and there are better ones on the other side of the intersection.

There are two things that help maintain my focus. I listen to music. In many ways, photographing in the streets is a kind of dance, and listening to music helps me contextualize the motion. It tones down the chaos and filters out the noise. It keeps my energy up, and it helps privatize me in a small way, which I’ll discuss later.

Second, I use a hand-held lightmeter and figure out the optimal exposure for the lightspots, set the camera to fully manual, and go. There’s something about knowing that my camera doesn’t have to think that makes me feel quicker, able to react. I don’t want to mull over depth-of-field, I just want to set it once and run — and I don’t want the camera to outthink me. Plus, it eases the transition when I’m working with meterless film cameras. (This leads into #3.)

Everyone takes pictures, and it’s easier than ever to click a shutter. Yet, it’s as easy to take a picture as it is difficult to take a good picture. Sometimes the good ones are gifts, sometimes the good ones require days of standing still and being quiet, sometimes you find them after weeks of looking for something else.

Once, I went to noflashcorner and I ended-up just watching. I didn’t take a single frame. I just stood there and watched the light move, and watched how people moved through the light, and noticed how they were illuminated, and for how long, and I looked at my watch and figured out when (weather permitting) the whole thing would happen again.

Being there with my eyes open, I learned more about photography (while not taking any pictures) than I did the week prior, when I took a cardload.

If the soul of street photography is luck, you can increase your chances of capturing moments by focusing on what you’re doing, where you’re standing, how the light’s shining, and what’s coming toward you. And the more relaxed you are, the more open you can be to the shifting nature of things that you can’t control. Same as it ever was. Be fast and sure about the things you can, and move on. Concentrate and relax; rinse, repeat.

Here’s a list of what we’ve discussed, and what’s to come:

1. Get Over It
2. Relax
3. Know Your Gear
4. Repeatability
5. Honesty
6. Masking
7. Study
8. Develop
9. Persist
10. Share

5 thoughts on “Ways of Working #2 (Relax)”

  1. I’ve heard it said that taking a photo of someone you don’t know is an act of aggression. I think we inwardly know this, and have to overcome it to get those sweet street shots. Because even though we don’t mean aggression, it can be interpreted that way by the subject.

    I believe this is part of the battle a good street photographer must face each day. Some get a thicker skin (the extreme: paparazzi), others find covert ways to do it, which in itself seems devious and stalkerish.

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