Sunday, August 14, 2011

Exercise 12: Close and involved

I am always very reticent about using wide-angle focal lengths, partly because of the distortion and partly because it seems like a lot of extraneous visual information is included in the image.  My aim is to explore this more in future as a method of placing the viewer right inside the situation.  Thus far I only seem to have used it to deliberately show more scenery.

From "The classic technique for street photography consists of fitting a wide (20mm on a full-frame camera) or moderately wide-angle (35mm) lens to a camera, setting the ISO to a moderate high speed (400 or 800), and pre-focusing the lens. Pre-focusing? How do you know how far away your subject will be. It turns out that it doesn't matter. Wide angle lenses have good depth of field. If your subject is 10 feet away and the lens is set for 12 feet, you'd probably need to enlarge to 16x20" before noticing the error, assuming a typical aperture. This is why the high ISO setting is important. Given a fixed shutter speed, the higher the ISO setting, the smaller the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the less critical it is to focus precisely.

Street photographers traditionally will set the lens at its hyperfocal distance. This distance depends on the lens focal length and the aperture but the basic idea is that it is the closest distance setting for which subjects at infinity are still acceptably sharp. With fast film and a sunny day, you will probably be able to expose at f/16. With a 35mm lens focussed to, say, 9 feet, subjects between 4.5 feet and infinity will be acceptably sharp (where "acceptable" means "if the person viewing the final photograph doesn't stick his eyes right up against it")."

This is a big area of development for me as my comfort zone is to shoot on the widest possible aperture and preferably with long lenses!  I can't seem to find any wide angle street photography images that I am even remotely happy with.

The advantages are: feeling very involved - high drama shots sometimes with a feeling of danger or excitement, lots of information being included in the image to hold the viewer's attention, a more authentic/truthful feel to the image as the photographer has less opportunity to editorialise through choice of what appears in the image.

Problems include distortion, a chaotic feel to the image, a standard 'photo-journalism' perspective which at worst can look like a picture from a local newspaper.

Exercise 11: Standing back

I feel like a bit of a fraud with this exercise because I always seems to be 'standing back'.  One of my favourite leisure activities is to shoot passers-by with a long lens - my 70-200mm f2.8 being the preferred weapon.  I do also sometimes use a 70-300mm but this can only open to f5.6 when on full zoom and is often a bit too close anyway.

The big set-back with this of course is people and cars blocking the 'perfect' shot. I have dozens of throw aways due to my speedy husband straying into the frame.  I have found also that sometimes the shallow depth of field can be too distracting.  If a certain part or too much of the image is out of focus, even if the subject is very sharp, I find it can ruin a composition.  An example is the image below.  Although it is not very large in the frame, the bin in the right hand foreground is too distracting.  It gives the impression that the viewer is hiding or stalking - not a comfortable or satisfying image.

I like the intimacy of being able to get close to the subject without them noticing - it provides a frisson from the close contact without any kind of self-consciousness.  I also like being able to isolate the subject so the images are quite clean.  This style has always appealed to me much more than messy wise-angle street photography although I am trying to be more open-minded about this.

The three images below sum up the joy (and the downside) of long focal lengths for me.  The old chap has no idea he is being photographed but we can look at the pictures and imagine what kind of person he is, what his home looks like, how he interacts with the world.  Unfortunately I could not shoot without a railing being in the way which I am disinclined to crop out, as this would ruin the balance, but which I find to be a negative part of the capture.  It is also sometimes tricky to avoid the subject being at the dead centre of the frame as focussing has to be quick with these moving targets.

It is actually quite a dramatic editorial decision to zoom in on a person and cut out their surroundings and their interaction with it.  Great for people with very interesting faces or quirky clothes but possibly less so when just capturing the ordinary 'man in the street' and it can sometimes feel too sanitised and controlled.

I get the impression that really talented photographers can allow the surroundings to be left in shot and the isolation of the subject and the intimacy is still there but through killer composition or a very specific use of lenses and correct aperture.

Exercise 10 - 'best' moments

This exercise involves capturing bursts of activity from which to try to catch the best moment.  I have always found it very interesting to observe how much the composition and mood of a photograph can change within a few seconds.  This is a good way to improve street photography skills.

For the exercise, I spent the afternoon in the Liverpool Street/Spitalfields Market area and shot dozens of sequences.  Some worked and some didn't.  Trying to capture people walking towards me was difficult for obvious reasons of focussing, although I do like the end result when I can snap someone looking straight at me.  Many of the interactions I captured would have been difficult to predict so using this approach was quite useful.  I unintentionally managed to get someone picking their nose and a street vendor crying, as well as lots of warm human moments.

The first sequence in the previous post captured an older guy quite unpredictably asking a young man for some money.  The image I chose was the one showing point where the 'beggar' looks down at the young man's hand to see what money he has found in his pocket, maybe wondering how much of it he will get.  A female traveller coming up from the station seems to be looking on, leading the eye back to the exchange.

The second sequence was shot in Spitalfields Market right at the end of the day.  I noticed two guys in a food trailer having an intense conversation and sampling the leftovers as they cleared up. There was something unusual about their behaviour/demeanour that I couldn't quite put my finger on but they just didn't quite seem like stereotypical fast food sellers.  When I later Googled, I discovered that I had photographed Mark Jankel and world famous chef Jun Tanaka!

The first image in the sequence is my chosen one as the 'best' of the set as it depicts the intensity of their exchange as had caught my eye in the first place.

One of my favourite images of the day was the only salvageable image from a sequence taken at an outdoor cafe on Dray Walk in the Truman Brewery complex.  It somehow captures the business of the area but also the very personal moment between two people when time stops for friendship.