photography

I never really mentioned it, but I’ve changed some of the style of shooting I’ve done over the past couple of months.  Partly due to the desire for new projects, partly due to the shooting of medium format.  I have slowed down, caught less candid snapshots, and focused more on a series or body of work than I have in the past.

Previously, I would shoot anything came my way.  This usually made for a bunch of shots on a roll that seemed to be randomly thrown in there.  There was little rhyme or reason to it (the only consistency being black and white film most of the time, the locations and my style of shooting).

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Not to say that everything I am doing now has a strict rhyme or reason. But one thing that has been a marker of my recent work is the shooting of fewer portraits.  I always thought portraits were the best but now I want to get good shots of both portraits and landscapes.  So I have focused more on landscapes.

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Portraits are beautiful and I will always love a good one.  But I feel like it’s almost cheating a bit.  Landscapes are tougher to get a good photo out of because they require more interesting subject matter (in my humble opining).

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The ultimate goal of course is to be able to grab both great portraits, landscapes and potentially the combination thereof?

Cheers,

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

Simplifying your life can really teach you what matters. Imagine everyone got rid of the dish washing machine, car, computer, television, espresso machine and alcohol cabinet. America’s obesity problems and alcoholism would probably decrease and thereby increase our standard of living! Easy peasy!

Well maybe throwing out your modern conveniences is not so easy. But simplifying your photos is! This is the first lesson in taking better pictures and the first thing that amateurs should focus on. So imagine yourself a stripper and take off all of the extraneous fluff until you get to the bare essentials.

Photography has often been referred to as an art of reduction, so here are some tips about things to avoid:

1) Don’t photograph crowds. Focus on one individual.

In shooting street photography, it is really tough to shoot crowds unless you can find some way of making the crowd form some kind of pattern (if everyone is wearing a uniform for example). Normally a crowd is filled with people wearing different colored clothing and this just gives you a hodge-podge that is not that appealing.

Focus on shooting one individual that stands out from the crowd. This brings focus to your photo.

2) Take out multiple and conflicting lines. Focus on one or two lines.

Too many lines, or too many conflicting lines can be confusing to the eye. Remember this is about “visual comfort”.

3) Take out color. Shoot black and white.

There’s a reason black and white photography is so popular. It strips out the unnecessary complications of color! Taking away color allows the eye to focus on facial features, patterns, lines and shade gradations in an easier way than color does.

4) Take out text/brands/logos.

I have written about this subject here. Text is a major focal point and a major distraction. Brands make photos seem like advertisements. Stay away!

5) Shoot fast aperture and shallow depth of field.

By having the background out of focus, it brings focus to that which is sharp. In the majority of cases this should be a face.

6) Stay away from crazy camera angles and shoot at the height of your subject’s face.

This is a comfortable perspective for the viewer as we normally see others at eye level (unless you’re 4 years old).

7) Make portraits.

Making images of buildings is overrated (and very difficult to be successful at). Everyone comes to NYC to look at buildings. Look at the people you’ve come across and photograph them.

So those are some simple starting rules for street photography. These practices work for me so read through them and see which ones suite your fancy. Then incorporate!

Happy Shooting!
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.

Its amazing the things we can learn from kids.  We are so used to the notion that we have to be teaching them but in many ways they should be teaching us!  Intimidation is not in most kid’s vocabularies and that is to their benefit.  Because children are constantly taking on new tasks and learning completely new skills, they are used to going out of their comfort zone.  After being shot out of a womb everything is outside of your comfort zone, it’s a wonder babies don’t cry even more.

The other great thing that kids are constantly doing is working on the basics.  The fundamentals of whatever it is you are doing need to be second nature before any serious work can be done.  Even dyed in the wool professionals could use a basics refresher course every now and again (I think it would be a great exercise for a CEO to become a factory worker for a day).

One of my first photos with my Nikon FM and 50mm F2 lens.

This is why old film cameras are wonderful, not to mention cheap, photography tools.  They are very basic – aperture value, shutter speed, and metering the light are all that you need to worry about.  Once you have those three basic things  down packed – you can play with the more interesting things – composition, lighting, juxtaposition etc.  Cutting away all of the options of digital slr’s and point ‘n shoots really helps narrow your focus.  This is why I recommend basic film camera as a first street photography camera.

Oh and did I mention they are inexpensive???

Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Zorki, Leica… the list of old camera options goes on and on…  Where to begin?

Well, if this is to be your first film camera, then I recommend shooting with an SLR that comes with a working light meter.  That second point is not trivial.  If a camera is automatic in any way and the meter doesn’t work, then the automatic modes will not work (and automatic exposure-only cameras won’t work period).  Also, for convenience’s sake, a working meter in the camera is very nice to have.  External light metering can be annoying… so trust me, the first thing you should check on any used camera is that the light meter works and is accurate.

So why choose an SLR?  SLR’s were made rugged and durable.  They typically are not that finicky or complex.  This is why they last a long time.  The other nice thing about them is that they have interchangeable lenses.  And brothers and sisters, lemme tell yah, there are some excellent used lenses on the market that are not that expensive!

The 50mm lens design is the standard for any camera company.  Millions of these pieces of glass were produced and I would go out on a limb to say that most photos were taken on a 50mm lens.  Because of the volume in production, the prices are low and the quality is high.

So here is my proposal for you – get a used SLR camera from the 70’s with a 50mm lens.  Budget conscious?  No worries! Any tight belted chap can afford this setup!  This combo can be had for around $150 or even less!

Some popular options:

  • Pentax K1000
  • Nikon FM, FE or F (my personal recommendation due to the lenses available)
  • Canon AE-1

Another option to go for would be a rangefinder design.  The reason I don’t recommend this as a first film camera is that the prices will typically be greater unless you go for very early designs.  If you go for very early designs, then a light meter will not be available to you.  Many people prefer rangefinders and I love them too, but for your first film camera, a good SLR cannot be beat.

If you are interested in a good discussion about the benefits of an SLR over a rangefinder then take a look at this youtube video

Any endeavor is overwhelming when you first set sail.  I certainly was intimidated by my first digital slr and again by my first film camera.  But after shooting many frames in both, it became so natural to pick up either, put them to my eye, adjust the settings and click.  Just keep shooting.  And everything will fall into place.

Happy shooting friends!

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

I do get frustrated when I cut the feet off of my subjects.  I could of course crop them to the knees (or above).  But typically if I am framing my shot and I am able to get the feet of my subject in there… then I should do it.

Photos (even instant ones) should be cohesive pieces of art.  Otherwise they can be tossed in the garbage heap only to be found by a wandering homeless who will then use it for a hankey.  Don’t let bum boogers besmirch, befoul or bespackle your bespoke imagery!  Imagine that each photo is screaming out for you to pause before you take it and think for just one golly second!  Each shot is an attack.  The subject is the prey and you the hunter.

So let’s optimize our hunting skills and come back with the finest meats to give to our children.  To frame each subject correctly, we need to break down framing into some different categories.  I like making lists to keep organized.  So let’s make a list of the different kinds of telescoping with the subject:

  1. Major closeup, face takes up over 20% of the photo.  Main focus is on the facial expression.
  2. Body closeup, waist-up takes up a great deal of the photo.  Main focus is still facial expression but style of clothing/senario is beginning to become more important
  3. Full body (with detail in the face).  Body is fully visible but stretches the full length of the photo.  Important details may include emotional expression but scenic elements become much more influential.
  4. Full body (less detail in the face).  Body of main subject is used for reference.  Facial expression is of little importance and style of clothing of little.  Scenic elements become the focus.

There’s a pattern in this puzzle…  The further away you get, the main focal points move from emotion ->body -> scene.  This is also moving from portraiture to landscape.  Both are accessible in street photography of course.  And when both are done correctly then magic can happen.  But it is important to know which kind of shot you are going for here.  This is one of the most basic and fundamental choices you have to make before you pull the trigger and kill your prey.  And this determines in large part the outcome of the photo.  So let’s work at this and get good!

Focusing on failures for some people can frustrate them into raising the white flag.  Let us not be downtrodden for we are street photographers.  Failure only makes us strong, as Nietzsche would say.  So here are some close to success… but not quite:

That left hand would have been nice…

His feet, although stinky and corn-ridden, are necessary…

What I would have given for that HAT!!!  Hasid’s are so tough to shoot!  I should have backed up…. although I guess I was lucky enough even to get his head and some curly fries :-).

In the excitement to get these photos I overlooked some basic framing tenets that should always be followed.  Remember that list of frames and think about how your subject will fit in that frame.  How big should the Hasid be compared to the scene of the train?  Will the feet be in there?  I know his body will be in there but what about the extremities?  Work… may she never be done as she is my main source of compulsion.

J

One of the most characteristic things about photography in New York City is that you find these sources of light coming from interesting places.  Glass covered skyscrapers reflect the suns rays down into the subway (try the Bryant park station at 42nd and 6th Ave at 8:00AM).  Scaffolding for construction creates large X’s on the sidewalk from their shadows.  Building outlines create sharply defined steppe shadows that people walk along.  Highway overpasses allow cracks of light to peak through like lazer beams of direction (example from the BQE below).

To capture these pockets of light, you need to first train your eye to find them.  There can be many things to make a photo interesting but one of the main ones is the quality, quantity, direction and contrast of light.  Finding interesting light is a lot of fun… and when you get it you feel like you’ve won the lottery.

So where to find them?  Mid-town is awash with reflections from the skyscrapers!  Lots of uniform blobs of light reflect down onto the street from the windows.  Take this example from 41st street (between 5th and Madison).

The other nice thing to recognize in the above photo is the reflection of other buildings in the glass.  Reflections of other items in your photos can be used in fun ways to juxtapose different elements that are not supposed to normally be there.  The next photo I took in Williamsburg Brooklyn (at the intersection of Ainslie and Leonard).  There are lots of religious paraphernalia on the street and this particular one has a nice reflection of the apartments across the street (with a nice distortion to boot).

Sometimes of course, a reflection can hurt a photo more than it helps it.  The below photo may be one of those instances.  This is a bit too busy for my taste.  Of course with a carefully used polarizer, you can eliminate reflections altogether.  That is for another post.  But if you don’t have a polarizer then moving your subject into an interesting position to take advantage of the reflection can make a stronger photo.  If I would have positioned the tree trunk right behind the woman’s head with the glasses… it would have looked like she had a million tree limbs growing out of her head.

By the way, these two ladies sit at this bench on North 7th and Bedford Ave almost every Sunday.  Good old geriatric predictability :-).

The next shots are an extreme example of “pooling” light in a really deliberate way.  In order so that people do not throw plastic bottles in a newspaper recycling bin, steel tops with a newspaper-formed cutouts cover the bins at Bryant Park.  I noticed the garbage men opening up these covers (they are hinged).  This gave me a cookie cutter perspective of people on the street.  A funky folded newspaper view of the passer-byes.  Just another interesting way of cropping your image to get some captures.

Mentioned earlier, scaffolding can be a great way to chop the light into different patterns.  Most often, these can add directionality to photos as they add lines to your image.  This next shot also illustrates nicely how to take the best advantage of these lines.  Notice how there is a shadow line going down the man’s face (even crossing into his eye).  Since the shadow lines are a main focal point and the man’s face another main focal point… putting them together is only natural!

Of course, New York City is not the only place where pools of light exist.  They exist everywhere.  I have only outlined some of the different ones that are easy to spot.  One of my favorite pockets of light is in Italy at the Colosseum.  While this next shot isn’t perfect, I still really enjoy the Gypsy’s wild dress… and the fact that she is standing in light that is defined by one of the arches of the Colosseum doesn’t hurt either.

Happy shooting.

-J