Educational

Its amazing to learn more about a person who has achieved incredible things.  Vivian Maier is, I think, quite possibly the best street portraitist who ever lived.  Better than Bresson you ask?  Undoubtedly!  Bresson was a fantastic street photographer who was able to find incredible symmetries.  But he is not known for his portraits.  Vivian made incredible street portraits, and I would put her against the best.

That said, I am not so interested in talking about why her work is of superior quality, you can be the judge of that.  What I am interested in here is the how.  She is the greatest street portraitist for a reason and I think some of the below characteristics came together to form the perfect storm of a woman primed to accomplish such feats.

She’s a foreigner.  She was a transplant from the southern French countryside with no family.  This otherness enabled objectivity, perspective and intrigue.  The eye of the traveler is one that ever wanders.

She’s not intimidating.  You need to be discreet to shoot in the street.  In a street photography workshop I attended, the best shooter of them all was a 4 foot tall Asian girl.  Just think of who would get angry at her for taking their photo?  People were probably delighted!  When I (a six foot tall caucasian) shoot people and am caught, I just look like a jerk.

She focused on using only one camera – the Rolleiflex with an 80mm lens.  Imagine… using the same camera and lens for 40 years.  Studio photographers can switch equipment with the coming and going of the tides.  Switching between this equipment has minimal impact on them.  It’s not about the tools.  Street photographers require the camera to be an appendage.  A tool that is a living, unconscious extension of themselves.  40-50 years with one camera and one lens brought this unconscious relationship to exist.  Her mind’s eye merged with the viewfinders.  She probably saw things as a 6×6 square format.

She was a tough cookie, who was anything but social.  Personal relationships probably got in the way of her photography.  But what liberation!  To not have to worry about other’s incisive opinions and  influences.  Her anti-social behavior gave her the ability to be an individual in a true sense.  Also, being in solitude allows one to focus.  From my own personal experience, I have tried going out with friends and even strangers to shoot on the street.  But it doesn’t work.  I am distracted from my goal.  To be a good street photographer, you need to be alone on the street.

She practiced her solitude daily and began to cherish it.  She felt the need to take photos for herself.   This was an intensely private joy she experienced.  In the immortal words of Joel Meyerowitz “you can make prints out of this and share this… but at a certain point if you’ve done it long enough… you don’t really have to.  It’s for you.  It’s just for you.”  She felt the need to take photos for herself.  The need for sharing simply wasn’t there.

And while she lacked family in the typical sense of the term, the photos made her family.  Vivian surrounded herself with intimate moments with strangers.  She got close and saw people for who they were; humans.  What is family but deep emotional connection with others?  This humanity is evident throughout her portraiture.  Those strangers caught in a strange land doing strange work, they were her brothers and sisters.

Would she have wanted everyone to know who she was and her history (forensic history at that!)?  An emphatic no.  But her life and work shows us the special sauce required to make a great street photographer.

Take heed my friends.

-J

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In this day and age, why spend money on an expensive hobby?  We already have enough expenses with food and rent.  So I think the best hobby is one that can be enjoyed thoroughly without as much expense.  Hence shooting medium format.  Having these huge negatives gives me a lot of joy and can be done cheaply.  Here’s how to do it.

First, get an inexpensive medium format camera.

Sure, you can get a 120mm Holga for $100 new (and probably $50 used).  But really, who wants to shoot with a plastic camera?  If you have decent software on your computer, you can always add hipster effects afterwards…. but if the hipster effects are already on the negative… then you are stuck with them.  So skip the holga.

  • $200-$300 : Minolta Autocord.  This is a great TLR.  Don’t be intimidated by something new (I was when I first bought the pentax 67 though…).  This comes with a fixed lens… but it is a beauty!
  • $400-$700: Pentax 6×7.  This is currently what I use.  I got a whole setup for less than $800 (with 5 lenses). Other choice, Fuji GW690 or the like.
  • $800-$1000: Hasselblad 500.  At this price, you could only get one lens (probably the 80mm).  Nothing wrong with that, it’s a great setup.  The Hasselblad engineering will blow you away.  Other choice: Mamiya 6.
  • There are more choices of course that are much more expensive.  But this post is about how to do things on a budget (remember?).
    **Above prices are estimates based upon used deals on craigslist and ebay.

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Now that you have a camera, it’s time to shoot.  So what about the recurring cost of medium format film?  Well there are a couple of ways to trim the fat. Brand new, most film goes for at least $5 per roll (and up to $7-9 for more expensive stuff).  Here’s how to go on the cheap:

  • First, open yourself up to shooting black and white.  BnW has a longer shelf life and therefore can be had for cheaper.
  • Buy in bulk.  Film can last a long time in the freezer so buy big batches at a time and stick them in there with the popsicles.
  • Always keep an eye on craigslist (for both cameras and film).  People can sell film on there for around $2 a roll.  So don’t be shy and go out there and find some in your neighborhood.  I bought non-expired E-6 provia 100f for $3 per roll.  This would sell for new for over $7 per roll…
  • Ebay is another option.  I haven’t seen deals on here like I have on craigslist but it’s worth a look.
  • The cheapest film I have ever seen (new) is Artista EDU.  It used to cost $2.89 but the price went up to $3.19.  I bought 150 rolls of this stuff.  It is really Fomapan – a cheap Czech film that has been rebranded.  One thing about it though – you can’t push this more than 1 stop.  Also of note, the 400 iso is really 240 iso.  So be aware of that.  You can buy it here:
    http://www.freestylephoto.biz/

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I think you will be hard pressed to find film for under $2 a roll (and shooting medium format will only give you 12 shots at most, so that is 20 cents per photo… without taking into consideration development).  Here’s how to save on developing:

  • Develop yourself!!!!  Developing with a lab is outrageously expensive.  Develop the film yourself with your own equipment. You’ll not only learn more about film, contrast, resolution, density, grain… but you’ll gain a much better appreciation for your images.
  • Buy developing gear on craigslist (and possibly chemicals too).  New reels and tanks can cost quite a lot (especially good ones).  I bought my setup for $75 on craigslist which new would have cost over $300.
  • Don’t use stop bath (just use water).  Don’t use PhotoFlo (a chemical that keeps water droplets off of your negatives).  To keep water off the negatives use a squeegee (bought mine for $2).
  • Use Diafine developer.  This developer can be reused for over a year (as long as it is stored in the refrigerator).  While this developer is meant to be reused time and time again, D76 can also be reused quite a lot.  Experiment with this.

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Hopefully this will get more people to be less afraid of medium format and go out and shoot it.  Ours is an expensive hobby, no doubt about it.  But there are ways of cutting corners.  I suggest using all of them :-).

Happy, reasonably priced, shooting.

-J


photo (14)My newly purchased (used) Pentax 67 and 165mm LS Lens :-)!

I love old film cameras.  Their like swiss watches… except you can make art with them!

Because I’ve purchased my fair share of them, I think it only fair to share some secrets regarding the purchase and maintenance of classic cameras.

So you followed the guidelines for buying a used camera.  Now what to do once you bring her home?  Clean her out!

IMG_0010-9Seals? We no need no stinking seals!

While cameras from the 70’s and 80’s are very reliable, even moreso than their new age counterparts, one thing that always messes things up is the foam seals that are used.  These seals degrade over time… and eventually become a funky black gunk.  But the seals provide a very real and important purpose… to ‘seal’ out light from the camera box.

If the seals degrade and light comes into the camera, then you get light leaks.  Want some illustration?  Just take a gander at the upper right hand corner of the above photo.  Notice the big blob of ungainly white light coming into the frame on the ladies face?  That my friend shows you that your camera is leaky…  And it’s time to patch her up and make her right.

photo (9)Pentax 67 Optical Viewfinder

So how do we stop the leaks?  Well replace the seals!  And the first part to replacing the seals, is to get rid of the old ones.

Above you can see that gooey nasty black crud that’s surrounding the bottom part of the viewfinder.  Mind you, this tutorial will describe how to remove the seals on the optical viewfinder of the Pentax 67, but really, all light seals are the same so go ahead and use these instructions for removing the seals in other cameras (and in the camera bodies too).

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Here are my tools:

  • Toothpicks (skewers are better as they are thicker and stronger)
  • Q-Tips
  • Paper Towels
  • Mineral Spirits (other chemicals to remove adhesives will work as well… Goo-Gone etc)

Step #1.  Identify and Attack.

Find the seals that need to be replaced and start applying Mineral Spirits with a Q-Tip.

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Because Mineral spirits and other similar chemicals evaporate quickly, a few different appliques will be necessary to loosen the adhesive underside.  Notice the glossy shine of the chemicals on the above viewfinder.

So we identified where we need to remove the gunk… but… Oh No!  The gunk spread!

photo (10)This is the Pentax 67 body and focusing screen (focusing screen in the center in white).  Notice around the edges of the screen is the gunk!  It transferred from the viewfinder to the camera body!  That rascally gunk  needs to git outta der so we can have clean viewing!

So we have identified two places where the gunk is.  Apply the mineral spirits to the body as well!

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Now start scraping.  This is the tough part.  And can take some time.

You have to scrape off the goo with the backend of a skewer or toothpick.  With the skewer, the blunt end is good for the majority of the work, the pointy part for the nooks and crannies.  Now apply more mineral spirits… Wash, rinse and repeat.  Eventually your work station looks kind of like this:

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But you would rather have that crap out of your camera than inside of it right?  Agreements all around.  And some hugs.

One word of caution – mineral spirits and Goo Gone are liquid and can get into places you don’t want them to.  A perfect example is getting into the vewfinder.  After I cleaned out the viewfinder I put it all back together and found a hazy patch in the middle of the screen!  I was really worried… but after some investigation I found that there was condensation on the inside of the viewfinder (so it wasn’t the lens or the focusing screen… phew!).

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That tiny patch in the middle was much bigger about 5 minutes before… but over time the condensation went away.  This is important to think about when choosing a chemical.  Mineral spirits evaporate quickly, and in this case, that is a very good thing.

So now your camera should be without gunky crap, which is nice.  And you’ve gotten over the toughest part, so kudos to you.  But now you have to replace the seals.  And that, my friend, is for another blog post :-).

Happy (light leak free) shooting!

-J


The above portrait is meant to draw you in.  To dangle a lure to your eye.  I really don’t know if your brain will bite it or maybe pass it by.

I kinda feel like I am cheating a bit.  Portraits like the above are powerful (to me anyway).  So this is why I feel like I am cheating when I focus so much on portraiture.

Also note the terrible gradations present in the above photo.  In the scanned negative, these gradations are much smoother.  This is due to the JPEG format which is a compressed and lossy format (which I personally despise).

But what else would there be besides portraiture?  How’s about landscapes?

The first photo I showed you I would argue is 100% portraiture.  There is very little besides the faces of that woman that is involved in that photo.  The second above photo has quite a bit more to it than just faces.  It has people’s shadows and also the shadows of a building which is cast upon the building behind my two subjects.  So we are starting to peek into architecture here and the personality of that architecture.

This next one is more the landscape of postures than a portrait (in my mind).  The geometry of the street meeting the geometry of bodies.

This one is again, less portrait and more scenario.  I am trying to combine both items, fine architectural elements and solid faces.

But let’s do away with faces altogether.

This is the lovely trashcan down the street.  I thought it showed personality and emotion.  What kind of emotion?  The emotion of the lack of emotion which is still an emotion because we only have recourse to emotions.

Here we have a nice little Brooklyn setting with some reflection from the window.  The colors I think are nice and not too overwhelming.  It reminds me of the 70’s and even though disco was invented then, that is somehow comforting.  Faces in the photo?  We don’t need any.  They would really be a distraction.

So here you are witnessing a change in the photography of Jeremy (and hence StillThrill).  It is not that I am totally moving away from portraiture.  I still really enjoy it and will continue to pursue it.  But I am getting much more interested in photographs without faces.  Previously I was only interested in the challenge of capturing faces and scenery.  Now I am interested in capturing scenery for its own sake.  Not needing the face to complete the picture.

Is this a major departure for me?  Not so much.  I am just beginning to see the value of a well placed landscape shot.  And I think it will compliment my portraiture :-).

Happy shooting,

J

If I didn’t take photographs I simply wouldn’t pay as much visual attention to things as I do.  The things photography gives us is strange.

The man in the above image is ambling along at 3 miles per and this is what he looks like at 1/125th of a second.  Of course shutter speed determines the amount of motion blur you capture.  The longer the exposure, the more motion the film captures and hence the blur.  But not all of this pedestrian is blurred… his right foot and left hand are sharp!

Why?  Well for starters, the right foot is securely planted and the rest of his body moving around it.  So no motion for the right foot.  The left hand is another matter though as it is swinging.  My theory is that while his body is moving forward, his arm is swinging in the opposite direction, in effect cancelling each other out.  The hand is frozen for my shot because it decided to swing at just the right speed…

Another example of a frozen foot:

Examples like these are in many places in my portfolio.  I like capturing people walking, and sometimes it works well.  However, for the most part, I need to freeze the action!  To do that you must have faster shutter speeds but unfortunately in the subway, that is not possible for the most part.

So what to do?  Shoot amblers and strollers in the street in the daylight and shoot standers in the subway.  Or shoot with flash.  Flash is another way of doing it but I have yet to venture into this territory…

Or…. just shoot someone who doesn’t walk to fast :-):

Happy shooting!

J

Naturally, in New York City, you want to shoot upward.  There’s a whole lot happening “up there”.  But the results?  Not always so good.

Why?  The man’s hands above are larger than they should be (proportional to his body).  This is perspective distortion and it can’t be helped (all lenses do it).  Another issue is that the lines of the building in the back make it look like it is going to fall over.  Mind you, no distortion is 100% bad, you can use it to your advantage… but most of the time pointing the camera up doesn’t work that well for me (unless carefully thought out).

Here’s an example that does work:

Things feel natural in the above photo.  The framelines of the image mesh well with the lines in the photo.  A contrary illustration being the first shot in this post (the building should be standing up straight… not diagonally).

To further the argument, let’s look at some photos in the subway.  I took the next shot with the camera pointed slightly upward:

Compare that with this adjusted shot:

Notice the difference?  The second shot is the same as the first except with a horizontal transformation in post-processing.  The top of the photo was compressed, the bottom elongated.

Now look at the edges of the second photo – notice how the pillars in the subway match the lines of the frame of the photo.  Which feels better to you?  To my eye, the second (post-processed version) is better.

Now the frustrating thing is that you sometimes want to shoot upwards to get other elements.  In particular, I wanted to get someone walking along the top corridor in the above shot.  So I shot upwards.  Well… sometimes you have to.  But keep in mind what it is doing.

Happy shoot!

J