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.
A blog post I read recently by Autumn Lockwood (here) reminded me of an attempt at a self-portrait a few months ago. I had recently picked up a Nikkor 35mm f1.8 for my D5000. I’d played with for a while and set it aside. On a gloomy day, I was looking for something to shoot. It was rotten outside but it did make for a nice soft light inside.
The image below is the RAW output (converted to jpg) from the camera, 1/50s, ISO 400, F4. The camera had been set up on a desk and put on a timer with the autofocus set for the center of the frame. Since I knew where it was focusing, I just made sure I could see my eye in the center of the lens.
I’m really rather reticent in putting my image online. There is a reason why I’m the guy with the camera, I’m not a big fan of my own image most of the time. But if your holding the camera, its less likely your image will be the one captured. And now that I look at the image, I’m not exactly all that photogenic to begin with.
But there is a reason why its posted. I liked how the eyes were captured. But it just didn’t come out very well. Photoshop, more specifically the RAW plug in, allowed me to non-destructively manipulate the image. The non-destructive nature was important. After 17 jpeg versions I finally landed on one that I was fairly satisfied with, below. The image was achieved by increasing the contrast (100), exposure (+0.45) and brightness (+144), but they are not blown out. Vibrance (+51) and saturation (+21) brought the eyes out. The orange and blue on the cropped sides were from gradient filters, but the face had no spot treatment.
The colors in the eye are all natural, albeit exaggerated with increased vibrance. Wiping out the skin tone and leaving only the most contrasted parts of the image, nose, eye brow ridge, and eye brows, adds emphasis to the eyes.
But still, the asymmetric nature of the face bugs me. Can’t bitch too much because its my face, but the right eye seems more awake than the left. What would it look like isolated? The window of natural light are clearly seen in the reflection, but only really dominates the top part of the eye and is somewhat lost in the eyelid. The bottom part is clear and shows the iris quite clearly.
It is a bit softer than the first two images, but that is more likely from post work than anything else. This bottom image was converted from the RAW file in LR4.4 instead of a previously generated image using the RAW editor in CS5. The cropped eye is certainly a much stronger image than the whole face. In the whole face image, the nose, cropping, and asymmetry really draws the eye from the best parts of the shot.
Summary: A gloomy day self-portrait was changed into a more artistic shot. But the most revealing feature, the eye, was isolated for the most impact.