photography technique

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

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

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!

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