Ways of Working #4 (Repeatability)

Street photography is whatever you want it to be. You can be aimless and wander; you can bring your lights out onto the street and get pedestrians to sign model releases. Whatever works for you and your tastes. One approach that’s brought me some satisfaction is to have projects that are location specific and calendar-based (meaning they can only be done on certain days, or at certain times of day, at a particular spot) and before I leave the house, I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to do there. I don’t have to think about mechanics. I know what kind of gear I’ll need and I have an approximate understanding of what the light will be doing.

Once you’ve got the location wired and the mechanics down, you’re free to relax and get the shots you need. There’s nothing left to consider, frankly. Things are wide-open; it’s just you and the subject. By answering as many questions as you can ahead of time (where to shoot? when to shoot? with what camera shall I shoot?) you give yourself a wide base on which to stand. You become a nimbler, more aware photographer. You’re prepared and on point. You begin to see patterns in the chaos. You know what to do when the light changes here right now, because it happens every time. You know that when the light dies, it’s going to be really sweet a half-block to the north.

Controlled chaos. Planned accidents. Managing luck. Street photography’s variability is what makes it interesting. Anything can happen. It’s right in front of you, it’s behind you, it’s around the next corner. Sit and wait, wait and watch, watch or leave or not. You can only be in one place at one time. Do you let the streets come to you, or do you take it to the streets? So many styles, asthetics, philosophies, but it’s all about the same thing — taking a good photograph.

In art, formal considerations purposefully limit expression. “Anything goes” steps down to “anything goes as long as it’s done on canvas in oils.” Poets talk about how writing in forms (rhyme & meter) keep a part of the poet’s brain occupied in such a way that frees another part, and allows for surprises emerge. True expression can come from anywhere, when you least expect it.

In photography, form is dictated (in part) by your equipment, but what you shoot and how you shoot is more important than what kind of gear you use. Form can bring structure to chaos, and one way to address form in photography is through repeatability. “On Saturday’s I’ll only photograph people above the waist,’ let’s say. Or, “I’m never going to crop anything; full-frames only.”

A lot of writers talk about how they like to rent studio space so they can go to work with everyone and feel like they have a “normal job” — that there’s a separate space away from home where their task is to be creative and bang it out. I feel the same way every time I head out to No Flash Corner. I’m going to work (in a sense) and I’m going to be surprised and challenged and I’m going to learn something new. I’m focused, with a plan.

I imagine that’s the lure of studio photography. To know your lighting rigs and how you’ll set things up to get great shots, regardless of the model. Studios increase creativity by reducing variability. Studios are all about repeatability.

Recently I was talking to a photographer who talked about having to leave her camera at home because she was getting manic about photographing *everything*. This, this, THAT! By picking a location and discovering its sweet spots, you develop (for lack of a better word) a relationship to a place — and you know you have a job to do when you get there, which gives you the freedom to pass-up distractions along the way.

Working at the same location week after week girds you for what you can’t control; the wildness, the questions from strangers, pigeon shit, the self-conciousness inherent in standing in traffic, checking the strength of shadows cast by your hand.

Everyone has a camera these days, but few explore what can be done by returning to one small spot on the globe, time and again. Try it. Try it while you’re still able.

Obligatory self-links to three exercises in repeatability:
No Flash Corner
Closer Than
Moonshot

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

Ways of Working #3 (Know Your Gear)

If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to assess your gear, know what it can do (and what it can’t do) so you’ll be able to make it all work in crunch time. Let me lay out a few scenarios.

You have a cameraphone with crappy resolution. You might want to stick with bold shapes and simple designs. Capturing people may be pretty impossible, but if they’re brightly lit and standing still, the slim portability of your phone can work to your advantage. Then again, cameraphones are getting better and better, and are already beginning to replace point and shoots.

You have a digital point and shoot. These are the best cameras for getting started. First, make sure that all the beeps (focus beep, shutter beep) are turned off. Second, turn off that auto-focus beam that your camera throws out when you press the shutter halfway down. It’s a common feature, and for street photography, it’s pretty unnecessary. Third, check out this article about Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, who uses advanced digital point and shoots to get great shots in the field.

The article discusses most of the ins and outs, but for the sake of being repetitive, I’ll share a few I’ve picked-up. You can use your digital camera in much the same way Winogrand and Bresson used their Leicas. If you’re shooting in sunlight, set your camera such that the aperture is always around f11, for a wideish depth of field. If you can prefocus the camera, set it so that it’s focused on a spot about a meter away from you. You’ll be able to photograph people between a meter and ten meters (or more) away.

One great thing about point and shoots is that (like Bresson’s Leica) they have very quiet shutters. You won’t be broadcasting to the world that you’ve just taken a photo. I’ll get into this in #6, but there are plenty of ways to take pictures without looking like you’re taking pictures (if you’re into that, or for when you find yourself in a situation that requires stealthiness). By setting your camera at f11 and prefocusing, you’ll be cutting down on shutterlag as well.

Most important, make sure your flash is off. That is, unless you want to be purposely shooting people with flash. Just make sure the flash isn’t going to auto-turn-on when you least expect it.

Try some test shots at the different “qualities” of jpg to see how fast your camera responds. With a digital point and shoot, you can set the thing on burst mode (recommended by Majoli) and get away with it, because it’s silent.

You have a digital (or film) SLR. The best thing about these cameras is that they’re fast; they’re quick to focus and calculate shutter speeds. You can pretty much set the camera on aperture priority and roll. You’re not locked-into f11, you can try shallower depth of field (and AF Servo, if you have a Canon) if the light is strong.

That said, when I’m shooting in the street, I tend to set my camera in a way that mimics a meterless film camera. It’s a personal preference, but if the light’s fairly constant, I like to use a handheld light meter, set the camera on Manual, and choose my own settings. This complicates things, but I like to complicate things. It also feels more like photography, rather than poaching. It also gives me a leg-up when I switchover to film cameras.

One of the biggest potential problems with digital SLRs is their bulkiness. When you raise it to your face to take a picture, a few things happen. They’re so large that they cover your entire face, and you become this myopic creature – a big lens-faced head. Some people like to “hide behind” the lens, but for me, the less time I have that thing in front of my face, the better. When it’s not in front of your face, you’re a person with a camera; when it’s in front of your face, you’re a person who’s “taking” something; a photography machine, of sorts. Keep it human, if you can.

Another example: by having a honkin’ SLR in front of your face, you’re kind of like a sailor in a submarine. You’re existing in a periscoped world. Yes, you’ll be able to spend more time composing the shot and waiting for the perfect moment, but it’s hard to know what’s coming from your left or right, or behind you, especially. I prefer anticipating the scene by keeping both eyes open, with the camera in my hands.

Garry Winogrand vs. Lenshead

I recently saw a film that showed Garry Winogrand photographing on the streets of Los Angeles. He had his Leica in front of his face for the amount of time it took for him to compose the shot and click the shutter. The rest of the time, the camera was hanging around his neck and he was grinning like a big bear. If you’re going to model yourself on an example, Winogrand’s approach might be a good one to follow.

You have a medium format something or other and only shoot in the studio. Take your camera off the tripod and walk outside, man. Welcome to the world. ; ) There are many great examples of photographers who are doing great street photography with medium-format cameras. Martin Parr uses an old Plaubel and a Mamiya 7, Brian Ulrich uses available light, and as far as I can tell, Wojtek Wieteska shoots med-format as well.

You have an old rangefinder my grandma gave you. Great, you’re in business. Load that thing with some Tri-X, set it to f11 for 250th of a second and go take a walk. You have a small camera with a quiet shutter that doesn’t take-up your entire face. Silence and size. You have everything you need to take good street pictures.

A fantastic thing about using a rangefinder on the street is that you can hold it up to your right eye (and with practice) be able to have your left eye open to see the wider scene around you. Tell your brain to look through your right when you need to focus or compose, and then you switch to your left (or both) to get a wider view on what’s going on. Here’s a picture of Zana Briski shooting this way. All she has to do is open her left eye when she’s done focusing.

Zana Briski shooting with a Leica

Another rangefinder plus is that they tend to come with fixed 35mm lenses. A 35mm lens necessitates being close to the subject. When you’re close to the subject, you’re engaged with the scene. Traditionally, street photography is not the domain of the zoom lens (or lighting rigs, Dicorcia aside), so the closer you are to the action, the better. (For more on this, see “telephoto is for cowards“.)

That said, you don’t need a Leica to be a good street photographer. Carolyn Anna Hall at UrbanMusings uses a Contax rangefinder. Other than the Epson, there are no digital rangefinders at the moment, so they’re all film, all the time. To save $$$, take a look at Bessa.

You don’t have a camera yet, but you like street photography and want to start. If you have access to a computer (you do) you’re in a great position to start-out with a digital point and shoot. Prices have never been better, selection is great, and you don’t need anything totally advanced. 4 or more megapixels should work just fine. A used digital camera would work fine, too. Take a look at Canon’s Powershot series (I really liked the s50.) Just get one and get out there and get started.

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

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

Ways of Working #1 (Get over it)

(Please check out the first post, “Welcome” for an overview.)

#1: Get over it; it’s only street photography. Stop thinking about how to approach taking pictures of people and just start doing it. There are many ways to begin, but first, free yourself from your own (psychological/ethical/moral) constraints. You’re not considering taking a picture of Jennifer Aniston sunbathing to sell to the Inquirer, it’s just your neighbor and their dog sitting on a stoop. It’s no big deal. And smile. Smiling helps.

If you’re going to spend time considering someone as a subject, you should spend an equal amount of time considering how you can show your subject some respect. If you’re going to take a picture of someone, you better not waste anyone’s time, and you better do a damn good job. So, if you’re walking around wondering what to shoot, take your lens cap off. Pre-focus your camera. Decide what kind of depth-of-field you want. Consider the light. Get everything set-up so that you’ll be able to react quickly, efficiently, and perfectly, should the right situation present itself (regardless of whether or not you ask permission).

Simply, respecting your subject doesn’t necessarily require asking their permission. Respecting one’s subject may mean taking the best possible picture you can in the least intrusive way possible. Figure out what works for you and your particular situation, then get it done. Quickly.

In February, I was in Manhattan, and was amazed at how my cousin approached people on the street, asking for permission. No one turned her down. My cousin takes great pictures, and yet, when you ask someone permission, you get a particular kind of picture. It’s a picture of someone who’s prepared to have their photo taken. Faces (and bodies) do different things when they know a photo’s about to be taken. Do you want your subject to look posed or candid? Is there a middleground? If you ask someone for permission, will you want to ask them not to smile, to “look natural”?

I’m most interested in photographing people when they’re having private moments in public. When they’re straight-up candid. Most people on the street are just like you and me and are thinking about a thousand things rather than wondering if that person walking toward them may or may not have a camera and may or may not be preparing to take their picture. (Celebrity culture is beginning to change this, as some folks on the street act like they’re starring in their own reality show, with their own iPod soundtrack, and will throw Courtney Love-style fits when cameras are close – I’ve seen it.) You may feel exposed as a photographer, but breathe easy; by and large, people have far more interesting/complicated lives to mull over, and they’re not worrying about you and whether or not you’re about to fit them into your photo-project.

So chill. That’s #2, and that’s next.

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

Welcome

For the last few months I’ve been taking notes on photography. Ways of working. Hints, tips, tricks, and questions, lots of questions.

I made it my goal this year to get better at something I’m bad at; photographing people. I was bad at photographing people because I was scared of doing it. Should I ask permission? Should I not ask? It’s an uncomfortable challenge, and there’s no “right” answer. I’ve been figuring things out by doing, by spending lots of time doing it, by trying variations, and by keeping track of what works (for me) and what doesn’t.

A couple of web posts inspired me to get this down on paper. A few months ago I saw this street photography FAQ and realized that everyone writes their own “rules”. Raul’s “Travel Tips from the Road” urged me to make my own list, so today I’ve begun posting these notes (just noticed tonight that Slower’s begun a similar project) and I’m hoping that they’ll begin to answer questions that have been posed to me in e-mail, in conversation, and on the streets, while photographing.

Keep in mind that everyone has their own way of doing things. There’s no right or wrong, really, if it works for you. That said, on to “Ways of Working” #1.