NYC

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You can choose from a lot of different lenses and cameras combinations. One mean, lean, street-shootin machine combo was the Voigtlander R4M and Zeiss 21mm 2.8 Biogon. I sold them off earlier this year (the lens and body separately of course to increase the value). This was from a roll of film I found lying around that hadn’t been developed quite yet. Seeing these fruits makes me miss her.

She was sold to purchase the Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii; a massive studio-oriented camera that is antithetical to the rapid fire shooting that a small rangefinder will allow. This is also a bid to further remove myself from 35mm film and dive deeper into 120mm. My Hasselblad SWC should be able to provide some of the same types of images (almost same field of view but square format, shallower DOF and different ergonomics). This is making me want to go on a walk!

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I am still in the 35mm film world though. Below is my trusty Nikon F3HP with 35mm lens. A gift from my brother, she’ll never be sold.

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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

What is the nature of a mirror? What is it’s essence? Mirrors reflect that which is outside of it. So its nature is “aboutness” or “otherness”.

A mirror is perhaps the greatest metaphor for consciousness. Our thoughts are about something else. They reflect the phenomena of the outside world. In fact, we build mighty maps of the outside world inside of our heads. We have mental maps of our kitchen, our bedroom and our office. When someone rearranges the furniture, the changes surprise us and our mental maps must adjust accordingly.

As a kid, I would lie in my bed at night trying to objectify my consciousness. Take my ego, put it into a glass container, stick it on the shelf and marvel at it from a distance. Introspection, looking back at oneself, was always fascinating. But I never really understood why. There was this strange reverberation I felt from these private mental games.

Where did this buzz come from? Using the metaphor of a mirror directly, one might say that introspection is the same as two mirrors facing one another. And everyone knows when a mirror faces another mirror… new corridors are opened up. Introspection is no different. Consciousness manifesting the reflection of itself creates infinite dimensions that we can explore. So in turn we have come to a different conclusion about the mind. Rather than being a flat mirror reflecting exterior phenomena and devoid of intrinsic essence, introspection is the action which turns the mind into an expansive universe with new spaces and regions. A fount of potential.

So how does this connect with photography? How did we get here? How many reflections did it take to get here? Let’s retrace our steps:

1. My mind recognized some reflective surfaces and told my arm to bring the camera to my eye and compose a shot.
2. Clicking the shutter allowed light to penetrate the emulsion of a 35mm wide film frame for a split second.
3. This exposed film was then subjected to chemicals which stopped its light gathering abilities and fixed the reflection of the light it absorbed in place.
4. The film was then scanned by a digital scanner and saved to my computer.
5. I uploaded the file to this website and now your eyes are absorbing the light from your LCD screens and your minds are simulating the reality of that fleeting moment I originally captured.

Phew! Each step is a new direction the reflection has taken and a further development from the original scene I saw. The original reality I witnessed moved from my mind to film to scanner to internet to your mind (and who knows what dirty places you will take it!).

So a photo is marked by reference just as consciousness is. Perhaps this is part of the reason we find photography so intriguing. When we look at our images, we get lost in a deep sea of reflections. Taking a photo of reflective surfaces only drives the point further.

Keep an eye out for interesting reflections… They will serve your photos well!

Happy (self-referential) shooting!

J

The natives used to call Coney Island Narrioch. This meant “Land without shadows.” While the Lenape language doesn’t feel like it rolls off of this caucasian’s tongue the meaning is pretty apt. The beach runs parallel to the direction of the sun and therefore there are few shadows throughout the day. If only the Lenape could see their beloved Island now… they would probably eat a corn dog.

Coney is a quilt of different races, creeds and colors. I’ve met Senegalese, Russians, Israelis, Turks, Chinese… you name it. People are fishing, fighting, dancing, biking and throwing frisbees. The variety of people doing their variety of things eating their variety of foods and partaking in the variety of festivities can be overwhelming. All of these reasons in full technicolor make this one of the best places for serendipitous photography.

So why didn’t I shoot in color with the two above shots? Well black and white is appropriate for all occasions. And shooting film you don’t have much of a choice. The portraits on the boardwalk are also nice in bNw. But I wanted to do something different than my normal portraiture that day… it was time to get wet and get color!!

After moving to NYC, there was little I could do with my underwater photo gear. The equipment I had was sitting there like a pile of raw gold… Lots of potential but no application. So how to mix underwater photography with my love of street work? Coney Island, the land lacking shadows, provided me the answer!

I rushed into the water with my camera in the large black housing. Most people were really struck by it (about the size of a basketball, pitch black and all aluminum). Lucky for me, many people were simply curious and wanted me to take their photo. I got to work with a kid I met in the water. Shooting on top of the water was fun an can get good results but the kid wanted me to get him all the way under so I happily obliged:

Wandering around in the water some more, I found a dad and his little girl on his back. They were making nice V shapes with their arms, trying to maintain balance.

There were others interested as well. A Russian couple and a some Puerto Ricans. I had such a great time I could have spent the whole day there wandering around in the waves… getting photos… But when I was on my way back, I found a kid having the time of his life just throwing water in the air.

His enthusiasm was infectious! There was never a person so happy to just create water droplets. On the other hand, his dad (on the left) was not so amused with this random guy with a camera in his hands wanting to document the joy.

It was a successful trip and one I will not doubt repeat in the future! I highly recommend you visit the land without shadows (camera in hand!).

Happy (wet) shooting!
J

P.S. – all photos in color on this page were shot with a digital camera – the Canon 7D. While I almost always stick with film, I just couldn’t lie to you.

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Biogon Lens

Wide, fast and prime. No, this is not a description of how I like my meat or my women. These are the characteristics of the proper lens choice for subway work.

Why fast?  The subway is dark!  Lenses that cannot open up wider than f/3.5 will have limited use (unless shooting very high iso).  So go for something that can go to f2 or faster!

Why wide? The subway is cramped! I have tried working with a fast 50mm but it’s no dice, there just isn’t enough space to move and position yourself. This may work for shooting in the subway station as there is a long corridor, but typically not for the subway train car. I have also shot with a 135mm on a train car and while there can be good results, the zoom of the lens is too limiting to take advantage of all of the different available situations you will find yourself in.

I have a sweet tooth for sweet spots. And the sweet spot (in my humble and sugary opinion) are for prime lenses between 21 and 35mm focal lengths.  This really gives you the range between classic portrait lenses on the long end and super-wide lenses on the short end.  A good 35mm lens is really nice to have (even beyond subway shooting).  But for portraits on the subway, I consider it perfect.  On the wide end, 21mm is wide enough to capture a lot of information.  One further point about going wider than 40mm or 50mm is that you can’t shoot from the hip (if you don’t understand why, that will be explained soon my curious friends).

Why prime?  In a word – simplicity. Zooms offer you too many options.  We need to be focusing on things besides the camera!  We need to look at the lighting and the composition!  Then when all of those things align, the camera just becomes a part of us.  The more options/settings/extraneous nonsense you have to worry about the less you can connect with your camera.  And connecting with your picture maker, is an important thing.

There are lots of kinds of equipment that you can get intimate with (and they don’t all have to be in the “adult” category). Camera equipment has such wonderful history and can be such great mechanical pieces of art that intimacy feels natural only after spending a few weeks of shooting. This is why staying with one body and one prime lens is so great. The satisfaction you get from that connection between man and a properly wielded tool is something to behold!  The sound of that clunky springy shutter, the solid metal feel of the body, the dim, dusty viewfinder and simple spot meter… I wouldn’t trade it for the world (to say the least one of those crappy plastic digital cameras).

So go on, work with one camera and one lens (preferably fast, wide and prime).  You guys are a match made in heaven!

Safe Shooting!

J

Disclaimer:
While I think that the rules I talk about in the above post have their strengths, they should not always be followed 100%!  Feel free to break all of my rules!

 

Dust off your old cameras, baby it’s workshop time!  That’s right.  You are cordially invited to come aboard for the month of October to meet other budding street photographers and partake in the glory of shooting in NYC.  You will learn a great deal about street photography, your camera and our lovely city.   Full details below and at the following link:

SIGN UP HERE!

“This street photography workshop will help you get comfortable with your camera, get comfortable shooting in the street and show you a bit of New York that you may not know.  While this course is geared towards beginners, intermediates are welcome as well.  Limit of 5 people per class (some classes have groups of 10 or more, that’s just not good for our purposes).  The class is designed to be cut into four separate parts:

  1. In Class discussion!  We will go over the history of street photography and pay homage to those that came before us.  We will discuss technique in detail.  From framing, composition, metering, depth of field and content.  If you need a tutorial with your camera then I am very acquainted with Nikon, Canon, Sony and other cameras.
  2. Welcome to China Town!  See the madness and beauty of China Town!  This area is a dream for photographers as it is filled with amazing characters, small streets and lots of action!
  3. Coney Island!  A lot like China Town in the amount of energy but with a completely different culture!  See the Wonder Wheel and get a bit of history as you soak in the rays and shoot in the sun!
  4. Williamsburg waterfront.  This is my home turf and as such I like to think I know a thing or two about it!  We will visit the Puerto Rican neighborhoods and walk along the edge of the Hasidic ones.

A part of me would like to name the above photo “The Diminishing Returns of Advertising.”  Even if I could read whatever language is above, I am sure none of the words would sink in in any meaningful or lasting way.  So in this case, each incremental advertisement only serves to diminish the effectiveness of the others.  Perhaps I should call this “The Negative Returns of Advertising”.

Naming photos is not something I typically do.  In fact, you just bore witness to the first name giving I’ve ever given.  I want my photos to visually speak for themselves.  Just like the shopkeeper adding more ads in the above photo, adding a name has the potential to create a distraction (hence the title of “untitled” in so many pieces of artwork).

The above photo does work, however.  That is in large part due to the fact that my eyes cannot interpret any meaning behind the symbols.  The little girl cuts through all of the noise and provides a nice focal point.  If that photo was filled with English text, then it would be less visually comfortable.

While I really like my homeboy with the cig and the photo isn’t terrible, the fact that his head cuts off the Haagen-Dazs signage really takes away from it.  Going back to the semantics I mentioned earlier – our brains are hard wired to find the emotion behind a facial expression and the meaning behind a recognized typeface.  We like eating ice-cream because it’s creamy but more-so because it satisfies our biological need for sugar.  Babies like staring at faces because their mirror neurons suggest they do so.  So we’ve established that text and faces grab our attention in photos.  Next up is using both to our advantage.

I think the first thing to steer clear from is text (or symbols) that mean little to you.  This is a general rule in photography – just photograph things that interest you and you’re halfway there.  But back to the text – the meaning should not detract from the overall feeling of the photo.  The reason that the Haagen-Dazs doesn’t help Homeboy is because his head conflicts (visually) with the signage.  The guy in Coney Island is nicely surrounded by text.  And all of the text fits together rather cohesively.  The “Coney” is a bit extreme with it’s telescoping font but it serves to highlight the horizon fairly well.  The “straight ahead” does it too.  This gently prods the eye into exploring other parts of the photo besides the man and child’s face.

Another quality of text that is important is whether it is hand-written or not.  Coney’s text is painted on the walls by hand which gives it a warm, organic quality.  Notice the texture on the walls that the man is walking past.  Billboards give you no such sensation.  The sterile nature of printed adverts only convey qualities decidedly unnatural (saturated colors, perfectly rounded lines, bullshit consumerism, etc.).

But sometimes saturated colors and sterile fonts are exactly what is needed.  Juxtaposing a perfectly printed and perfectly crafted message with the mess and drama of the human condition can lead to interesting results.  There are major artistic precedents for anti-consumerism.  Don’t be afraid to follow in this tradition.  Call attention to the vast disparity between the wealthy and the poor and the self-interested actions of multinationals.  It adds elements of humanity to your work.

Ahh, the death of ads.  Oh sweet rapture!

So while I tried to paint a picture above about using text in your photographs, I typically try and stay away from it if possible!  And this is tough to do!  Times Square is a hurricane of words and colors screaming for attention.

Happy (texty) shooting

J

Some people get downright mad when their photo is taken.  People get violent even.  Case in point, a homeless man punched me yesterday for taking his photo (do not fret friends, your loyal blogger is ok).  On the other hand, there are those who love getting photographed.  Some people even come up to me just to ask to get their picture taken (I get so happy when this happens!).  The law of averages being universal, the vast majority of people react in a similar way – nonchalance.  Most people don’t care.

So when we ask ourselves, is what we are doing ethically justifiable?  And further – what would make a photograph unethical?  These are tough questions to answer and therefore posing them is also somewhat tough.  However, as I like to emphasize… we are the intrepid and immune to trepidation.  So let us strap on our utility belts like Batman and bring evil doers to justice.

John Stuart Mill (henceforth – JSM or Mill) became very famous for his “Utilitarian” philosophy.  In short – whatever produces the highest good or highest pleasures for the greatest number of people should be promoted.   Now JSM did not create “Utilitarianism”, there were many thinkers before him, but his version of the philosophy is one I think worth exploring for today’s discussion.

The point of departure for Mill was that while his predecessors were very interested in hedonism, he maintained that there were a variety of different pleasures, intellectual pleasures being the highest.  So far, so good.  Mill also argued that people desire happiness (the ultilitarian end) and that general happiness is “a good to the aggregate of all persons.”

So what would John Stuart Mill do (WWJSMD)?  How does street photography fit into this picture?

Are we producing the highest good for the highest number of people?  I would answer in the affirmative.  I believe that these images enrich our lives and promote empathy.  To make portraits of people, you have to study them.  The anonymous crowd pouring through the city is now a mass of individuals.  Each person is imbued with love, hate, and joy.  So it is in this sense I think we are philanthropists.  We love humanity.  How many misanthropes do you see shooting street photography?  We find beauty in humanity and accentuate it.

So we are the finders, keepers, distributers and multipliers of beauty.  And to prove another slightly different point, I think this is why I like to photo the grit and the grime of New York.  To show that there is something lovely in the destitute.  The lotus flower is one of the most beautiful… and grows in the muck of nasty swamps.  Our city of New York is covered in dirt, graffiti and rusty syringes.  There is also a suspiciously high number of used tampon applique’s on the beaches of Brooklyn.  But our minds crave beauty and we shall find what we seek.

What about the nay sayers?  Well… I suppose we could take a look at the hater’s argument.  While I don’t think there are many that get displeasure from looking at these photos, there are probably quite a few that get displeasure from their photo being taken.  How are we promoting the highest good if people are getting angry?  The paparazzi harass celebrities into shaving off all their hairs (shout-outs to my girl Brit).  This is where the fuzzy line of ethics in street photography is encountered.  Harassment is definitely the transgression into unethical photography.

Could you say that I am harassing someone when I snap the shutter and walk away?  Perhaps… but that’s a shaky espousal.  If I photo someone, they get upset and I continue to photo them, then the line was crossed (and no, I don’t do this).

So here is my list of unethical situations that I do NOT participate in and I highly suggest you don’t either:

  • Harassing someone when they ask you to leave or stop.
  • Trying to photograph girls up skirt.
  • Peeping Tom-ery.
  • Failing to help someone in need because you’re too busy to take a photo.

I think Johnny Law has some things to say about this – upskirt photography and peeping tom-ery is illegal (coined unlawful surveillance).  And while not helping another person and harassing someone may not be illegal per se, I would argue they are unethical (according to Mill’s definitions of ethical behavior).  So since I don’t do any of that foolishness and never will, I am in the green.  How about you?

Happy, ethically justified, shooting!

J

There’s something really powerful about portraits of peoples faces close up.  Its very confrontational.  You normally don’t get to look at a stranger so close.  The great power of a face in focus at close distance is nothing to pop a zit at.

Getting close requires some courage, especially for us red blooded Americans.  Unlike many other cultures we believe in private space.  The radius of my bubble of personal space has shrank from around the length of a foot long hot dog down to a 2 inch cocktail weener.   Take a ride in any bus in India and your own personal space radius will follow proportional suite.

Starting to take better photos requires the courage to get closer when you need to and the temperance to back off when you don’t.  Getting close is tempting (and slightly unnerving) but it isn’t appropriate for every situation.  Some of the things I look for when I am about to get close:

  1. Is the subject worthy of my time?  The subject has to be very interesting if I am going to focus on their face.  They need not have scars or wrinkles but something needs to be interesting about them and their expression.
  2. Do I have time to get close?  Will the subject still be there after I approach?  Should you move fast or slow to “get ’em”?
  3. What does the background look like?  If the background is interesting, then I may want to incorporate it (which begs the question of how to incorporate the background).  If the backdrop is crap, then go for the super closeup and get rid of it!

How you answer these questions over time will also affect your style.

I chose her because of the funky look on her face.  Some of the reflections in the upper left corner helps as well.  However, I typically like to shoot the subjects sitting on the train straight on.  This shot was at a slight angle.

He is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten (35mm lens).  And I am so surprised he didn’t notice me.  My clunky Nikon FM’s shutter is loud!  His expression of nonchalance and his New York jacket make this photo come alive.  Taking out the background is nice as well (little to no cropping on this).

There was this amazing statue in Madison Sq. Park last summer.  Unfortunately is was temporary.  Happy to grab this shot!  (OK SO IT WAS POSED!)  It’s still a good illustrations of a closeup that I enjoy.

These shots range between super closeups and closeups.  Notice the interplay between the main subject and the background (not saying that I did an amazing job with this but just pointing it out).

See my post about framing and my list of the 4 different types of framing for street.

Happy shooting,

J