People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Standing back (take 2)

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

Note: I did this exercise once already, but with a focal length shorter than the recommended 80 mm, and I cropped the images in an attempt to emulate the effect of a longer lens (I do understand that this is flawed…). I said at the time that I’d re-run the exercise with a genuine telephoto lens, which I now have done. This time I used a 50-230 mm on a 1.5x crop factor body, giving an equivalent focal length of 75-345 mm in full-frame terms. All the selected shots are from at or close to its maximum length.

What I’ve learned

The first time I did this exercise I felt quite uncomfortable taking photos of people from a distance; it didn’t sit well with me, it felt a bit too sneaky. I felt like a paparazzo, a stalker or a private detective… Well the slightly shocking thing I picked up from doing it again was that – it didn’t feel so bad this time! I must be getting more used to it (which I suppose, in itself made me feel slightly uneasy! i.e. I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was getting comfortable with this approach…).

Anyway – the end result is that I’m sufficiently OK with the long-lens approach that I’m using it in some of the images I’ve taken for the assignment.

I suppose what I’ve really learnt by doing this exercise twice is that sometimes things might seem a bit uncomfortable, but maybe you should try again to see if it gets any easier.

From a practical learning point of view: the advantages noted previously were evident here, notably the ability to more carefully compose each frame before shooting. Similarly, the disadvantages (compression of perspective, obstacles) were equally in evidence.

At the end of the day, it’s another shooting approach I can add to my arsenal. I can see myself using it selectively rather than making it my signature style…!


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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’ …!