Street Photography Portraits I
It took a lot of work getting over my hesitation toward street photography and shooting strangers in particular. Getting past that aversion has been yielded some of my most satisfying images.
This blog has several posts on my spring 2013 trip to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) for a conference. While the conference was good, the photography was much better. NOLA is a great place for street photography. The area is still recovering from hurricane Katrina and there is a construction boom going on. With tourism and Bourbon St in particular being such a draw, its a safe place to walk alone day or night. Lots of police, who in general, are pretty chill. Having said that, I’m a fairly imposing male, kept a close eye on my surrounding and never put myself into anything sketchy. Its easy to walk the wrong direction and end up in a really bad part of town.
I’m always hesitant shooting people on the street. I completely understand that some people don’t like to be photographed. Which is why I carry the camera, ahem. But after a while, I distilled my own techniques and philosophy. In general, if I’m not going to intrude on someone, I’ll take the shot. If interaction with them is inevitable, I’ll go with my gut. That’s translates to understanding what the environment is like (e.g. a party, argument, festive, relaxed, intimate) and gauge what I hope their response will be. But some of the most meaningful shots are of people you’ve talked to and then asked for a portrait.
Below is a shot taken a block or so off of Bourbon St. These guys were on break from their kitchen jobs and smoking on the street. Another nice thing about New Orleans is that everyone I met was honestly nice. Its partially the southern thing, but also a tourist thing. They knew I was from out of town by my clothes and camera and yet were genial and open. This would not have been the case in a lot of other cities. I talked to them for a while about my time there and inquired after them also. After feeling more comfortable, I asked if I could take their picture. They agreed.
It was shot with a Nikon D5000 and 35mm f1.8 DX lens. I’d only had the lens a couple of months and this was the first opportunity for street photography. This is a great little prime lens, especially given the low cost. The ISO was pushed out to 3200, which for the lit streets, typically worked well. A better sensor in the newer Nikons would have been great for lower noise, but this was acceptable. That night the camera was set to aperture mode and used wide open. A 35mm lens at f1.8-2.4 with subjects at 10-35 feet usually had an acceptable depth of field. That is assuming the subject was in focus. The downside of the lens is that it does hunt a bit at low light. But I suppose most lenses would.
Notice the nice bokeh in the background kept the emphasis on the guys. In post, I had to increase exposure and make it black and white. There were a mix of lights that cast strange tones in red and green.
I did make several mistakes on this shot. One is that I shot Aperture mode. I should have shot in Manual. That would have blown out the background, but properly exposed the subjects. A 1/750th of a second is way too fast. If it was at, say 1/125, I’d have them better exposed. That was a bit of an issue on those streets. The light levels change a good bit, but given the potential for backlighting or improper exposure, its better to preset the camera. Having said that, you need to periodically check the exposure and not depend on the dynamic range of the sensor.
Alternatively, I think the sensor was set to Matrix instead of spot focus. That would have properly exposed the subject but potentially blown out everything else. A lot of people were wearing black so too tight a exposure meter could have over exposed the whole image. Also, on aperture mode the shutter speed would have been so slow everything would have been blurry.
After more practice and experimenting, I now typically push the ISO way up and use manual mode. The shutter speed is fast enough to prevent subject motion blurring (1/90sec and faster) and still follow the 1/x rule for lens length. Aperture is usually close to wide open. At this point I depend on the dynamic range of the sensor and shooting in RAW to help me fix anything in post. I’m finally getting enough of a feel for the camera to make on the fly adjustments (shutter speed usually) without chimping the histogram after every shot.
Hope this helps.
Feel free to comment. I’ll be happy to respond.