People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Close and involved

Brief

Switch lenses (or adjust focal length) to the widest angle that you have. A true wide-angle, judged from its visual effect, is around 28 mm or less. One of the uses of a wide- angle lens is to be able to cover a large subject area in one shot, but here concentrate instead on using it close to people, and try to achieve a sense of putting the viewer right inside the situation — as you will inevitably be! From the point of view of comfort and confidence, this is quite a challenging way to shoot, but try your best.

As with the previous exercise, note down both the problems and the advantages created by working with a wide-angle of view from very close to the people you are photographing.

Results

I used my 16-50 mm zoom at its widest, so an equivalent focal length of 24 mm due to the 1.5x crop factor of my camera. In a few instances I’d most likely have cropped a little in post-processing, but in the spirit of the exercise these are all straight out of the camera, keeping in exactly what was in the frames I shot.

To me, ‘Backlight’ is the most successful shot and that has more to do with the lighting and composition than anything else. I liked the expressions on ‘Young Couple’ and this is probably the only one where I caught a ‘moment’.

‘Three Friends’ and ‘Two Friends’ are OK composition-wise but not very exciting subject-wise. ‘Angled’ I kept in as an extreme example of how hard I found it to keep the camera level when shooting like this (I seem to have accidentally managed a 45º angle and this lends the image a certain something). ‘Photoshoot’, ‘Hat Lady’ and ‘Couple’ had extraneous elements in that I would crop out.

Advantages:

Not many to be honest! More immersive for the viewer in the more successful ones; feeling of being ‘close to the action’.

Brings an element of randomness to the results – mostly unusable but occasional surprises.

Disadvantages:

Distortion towards edges of frame (fixable in post-processing). This is most noticeable in the first two images, with buildings; it’s not so obvious with wide open spaces.

Shooting like this made me feel even more uncomfortable than the long-lens shots, for a very different reason. In these cases I felt like I was really intruding in their personal space.

Much harder to compose – mostly shooting ‘on the run’ whilst passing the subject so an element of randomness to the framing (sometimes works, mostly doesn’t).

What I’ve learned

I’ve previously used a wide lens for getting shots of people in the context of their surroundings, but this was the first time I tried to get up so close and fill the frame with the subject at such a short focal length. It felt like I was really invading their space and ‘snatching’ shots, and from a practical point of view accurate framing was near impossible due to the speed I was working. I didn’t find this style of shooting comfortable.

Right now I’m thinking that one of the objectives of the last two exercises is to demonstrate why the generally-held norm for street photography is a standard focal length – not too close, not too far away. Both of the extremes didn’t sit that well with me, each in their own way somehow taking advantage of the subject more than a standard, middle-ground focal length treatment would do.

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Exercise: Standing back

Brief

Depending on your choice of lenses, select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80 mm and 200 mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? Because of the extra distance between you and your subject, you may have found that passers-by and traffic sometimes block your view. And what special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Results

I’m away from home at the moment without my full set of lenses. The longest lens I have with me is a 16-50 mm zoom (crop factor 1.5x) so full-frame equivalent focal length of 75 mm, falling a little short of the suggested 80 mm starting point. I may therefore repeat this exercise when I have my longer zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) and go right in close on subjects’ faces. However, for the purposes of this version of the exercise I have used the standard zoom at its 50 mm (75 mm EFL) full extent, and have cropped the results a little to give an indication of what a longer lens might have captured.

‘Monk’ worked well in this vertical crop, maybe to do with the complementary colours. ‘Bougainvillea’ was a good example of the focal length compressing the field of view, which in this case led to a good visual effect. The remaining four, though unremarkable in themselves, are good examples of having time to be more precise with the composition.

Advantages:

I got some shots that I might not have otherwise been able to, either because being further away allowed me to go unnoticed, or practicalities like being able to shoot from over the other side of the street rather than being stood in the middle of road.

I could take longer to set up the shot, didn’t feel the need to rush so much.

Notably in the Bougainvillea bush shot, the longer lens gave more visual compression that made the subjects melt into the background. Shot from closer it would have shown more separation between background and subject, and wouldn’t have achieved as strong an effect.

Disadvantages:

The main practical disadvantage was that there were often obstacles in my eye-line that I had to work around or, in the case of moving obstacles (other people, cars) wait patiently for them to move on. Examples: ‘Monk’ and ‘Paddling’.

I was lucky to shoot with good light and so could work with fast shutter speeds, but I can see that the longer the lens, the more you need to keep the camera steady as the focal length exaggerates any unwanted motion and requires a combination of fast shutter, high ISO, wide aperture and maybe even a tripod (this last one seems out of place in street photography to me).

The biggest downside, and the reason I probably won’t do much of this type of photography under my own steam, is how it made me feel! Compared to the street shots I’ve taken before now, these made me feel very furtive, unethical even. I felt like a paparazzo, a spy, a stalker! I know it may seem contradictory or hypocritical but when you shoot with a normal/wide lens, you’re in the general field of space of the subject, and while you hope they won’t notice you, it feels like a fair exchange as they have a reasonable chance of reacting to you… in comparison the longer lens shots seemed to be much more intrusive – I felt like I was just stealing shots without justification. I imagine that this sensation is further exaggerated with a genuine telephoto lens.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that this kind of photography makes me feel slightly uncomfortable! More so than the closer, more street-level shots I’ve done before. On one level this seems slightly contradictory – before shooting I thought it would be ‘easier’ to shoot from a distance, and from a technical point of view it is, but the vague sense of unease I felt shooting from further away soured it for me a little. I felt less ethical, less engaged, less justified in taking the shots. So it’s both ‘easy’ and ‘uneasy’ …!


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Exercise: Capturing the moment

Brief

Find, as for the last exercise, a ‘comfortable’ situation, possibly even the same location. For this exercise concentrate on bursts of activity, from which you try to capture a ‘best’ moment.

When you’ve finished shooting, review your images and pick out those that, for you, best capture a particular moment. Make notes in your learning log explaining your choice.

Results

I took shots over a couple of days as I discovered that this exercise is not as easy as it looks! Finding exactly the right moments to capture – whether you know at the point of hitting the shutter or find it in the editing stage – is something that is difficult to do ‘on demand’.

The five pictures here are the result of a few hundred that I took in various situations and locations over the last three days. For each one I will briefly explain why I felt it was worthy of capturing that particular moment.

1. Skater

I shot from low down as I wanted to capture both the movement of the skater and the sharp shadow caused by the bright sunlight. This was the one where the body shadow shape came out clearest, and the legs straddled the red cone. The sense of motion is there, with the left leg raised, but the fast shutter speed has frozen the action well.

1. Skater

1. Skater

2. Tourists

I watched people taking photos of the view down onto the sea and after a while these two gents seemed to be mimicking each other’s movements, so I rattled off a few shots. This was the one where they seemed to mirror the pose the best. I still don’t know whether they were together or just resembled each other!

2. Tourists

2. Tourists

3. Photoshoot

This chap was taking pictures of his lady friend in front of a waterfall that I happened to be at the top of. I suppose in a sense I was doing the same as him – waiting for the right pose before I hit the shutter. I hope he got the shot too.

3. Photoshoot

3. Photoshoot

4. Macarons

I think this one stood out as I’ve managed to capture the exact moment she was picking up a macaron and I caught a smiley expression on her face.

4. Macarons

4. Macarons

5. Passing

I set myself up on a bench on the prom in Nice and took lots of pictures of who was passing, on bikes and on foot. My aim was to capture a moment of interaction or alignment between two people. In this one it initially looks as though they are together but on closer inspection it becomes more obvious that they are in fact walking past each other. I think this specific image captures the lines of their limbs well.

5. Passing

5. Passing

What I’ve learned

Whilst I enjoyed this, it did take a lot of outtakes to get to a set of usable images! If I wasn’t collecting images for an exercise I’m not convinced that I’d have considered these worthy of being shared, but they met the brief and proved the point.

In some instances (pictures 1, 2 and 5) I found it useful to pre-visualise what kind of image I wanted, and to position myself where I thought people would (if I waited long enough) wander into shot and do something interesting. For the others I was shooting a bit more speculatively, and really didn’t know whether I’d captured the right ‘moment’ until I reviewed the images after the event.

I haven’t shared them here, but in almost all cases there were ‘nearly-but-not-quite-right’ shots from a fraction of a second either side, that just missed the mark. It’s not always easy to describe exactly what makes each one work better than the close alternatives, but it was clear to my eye which ones ‘worked’.

As an exercise to demonstrate the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, it kind of worked – but as I said earlier, it’s really quite difficult to produce such moments on demand. But a very interesting and useful exercise, that has taught me to be both more demanding and more patient.


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Exercise: Developing your confidence

Brief

Choose an outdoor situation where there will be lots of people and activity, and in which you will feel confident using a camera.

Take as many photographs as you comfortably can in one session. When you review the photographs afterwards, recall the comfort level you felt at the time, and consider to what extent this helped you in capturing expression and gesture.

Results

I took my camera out to a busy food and flower market in France, where I was fairly sure there would be lots of photo opportunities and that I wouldn’t get challenged for taking pictures.

Technical note: I used a camera body with a tilting screen so that I could take my shots without lifting the camera to my eye, to draw less attention. On one level I wondered if this was considered ‘cheating’, but I settled on it being acceptable as this method of photography recalls the old twin-lens reflex cameras that some street photographers used in the mid-20th century.

Below is a selection of the shots from the session (probably about a third of what I shot in total), followed by notes on how I felt when I shot them, and how this helped (or otherwise) in the resultant images.

Individuals:

First, a selection of photos I took of individuals. What made me confident enough to shoot these was the fact that they looked like they were focusing enough on what they were doing and unlikely to spot me with my camera. Having the camera at chest height rather than eye level definitely helped my confidence, even if the difference from the subject’s point of view may have been minor.

Only one of these – ‘Smoking’ – do I consider to be a halfway decent shot. It has a nice clean background, while the others are somewhat messy.

Interactions:

For this second set I looked for interactions between people. In a similar way to the individual shots, I correctly assumed that they would be sufficiently wrapped up in what they were doing or talking about that the fact that there was a bloke nearby with a camera would go unnoticed. I think people interacting is inherently a more interesting basis for a photograph anyway – more chance to capture a unique moment, which is what I like about this type of photography.

The one I prefer is ‘Pointing’ – the alignment of the lines and the stripe patterns and the light/dark colours back-to-back in the middle give this image a number of different points of interest… but rather than being ‘messy’ I think it has enough alignment of graphical elements to achieve a certain balance.

What I’ve learned

Before I started this exercise I thought it would be fairly straightforward, as I like to think I’ve tried this kind of street photography before. However, once I started I realised that I still have a lot to learn!

Much of my previous so-called street photography of people has been from a distance, or with their backs turned to me. I realised that I have the (presumably quite common) concern of getting in too close, getting in people’s faces and generally annoying them. So this exercise broke me past that particular barrier, as I used a reasonably wide lens (27mm) so had to get fairly close.

What I learned in this exercise is that people that are sufficiently distracted, whether alone or interacting with someone else, can be photographed as long as you do so quickly and quietly.

This does however bring me on to the big challenge I have with this type of photography: in all cases here I had to crop and straighten the pictures to some degree. I realised after shooting that my composition isn’t at all precise when shooting quickly. I normally put quite a lot of thought into arranging the elements in the frame, but in the street photography environment I favoured speed over precision – taking longer than a second or two to line up and take a shot could risk the subject becoming aware and taking away the spontaneity (or worse, risking a confrontation).

The successful street photographers (especially the pre-digital ones who couldn’t see their work in progress) amazed me with their ability to spot, line up and take the shot in a split-second. The element that is missing from my photography right now is the rapid composition, so I have to rely on fixing that in post-processing. I need to work on this.

Another major learning: I need to avoid overly messy backgrounds. One piece of advice I’ve read many times, but have yet to put into practice is: find the background first, then wait for people to walk into it!

Finally, a practical point: using a chest-level camera with tilting screen was a major factor in how comfortable I felt taking photos in public. Composition is a little harder, but on balance I think it has more advantages than disadvantages – I simply took shots this way that I would not have taken if I had to lift the camera to my eye. So that must be a good thing.