subway

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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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There is one montage in Scarface that I have always loved. That is the scene where it shows him getting married, making loads of money, giving a hair salon to his sister and owning a tiger that lives on its own little island in the backyard. He does all of this of course to the tune of “Push it to the Limit”.

The 80’s were glorious indeed.

Dont worry, your humble narrator isn’t interested in dealing illicit substances or buying tigers.  My interest is in pushing film to the limit.

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What we are looking at is Fomapan 400. Its normal rating being 400 iso, I have pushed north of 1600 (more than two stops). Normally this film takes 8 minutes to develop but I let it develop for 26 min. Of course this gives me greater flexibility because I can shoot at fast speeds in low light.

But as with all things in life, pushing it to the limit requires compromise. In Scarface’s case, his drug peddling lead to murder, cocaine abuse, a barren wife and ultimately to his downfall in an epic battle scene with his “little friend”.

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The compromise with pushing film isn’t exactly death but rather graininess.  If you enlarge some of these photos you will notice their graininess.  That gritty earthy grain that you need to eat like wheaties.  That’s what I am talkin about.

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But is graininness really all that bad?  Nope.  In fact, I rather like it.  PUSH IT TO THE LIMIT DAWG!

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!

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

I really wish shooting color on the subway was easier.  I really do.  I know in your mind, you are asking yourself, “what’s the problem Jeremy?”  Well, the fluorescent lighting of the subway makes the photos come out green.  And now you’re thinking, “Illustrate that for me homeboy!”  Well, I only aim to please.

Here is an un-color corrected photo in the Lorimer station:

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Here is a version that I have color corrected (no other manipulations besides more magenta on the white balance):

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Notice the difference?  The un-corrected photo looks like it was tinted by nuclear farts.  It’s an awful, vomitous color.  But even the corrected photo still doesn’t look perfect and this just goes to show you that color correction cannot fix everything.  Why is this so frustrating?  Well the red in that photograph just provides a great example of some of the vibrant, saturated and synthetic colors present on the train.  People dress down in lilac purples, sun spotted old yellers and ferrari red bedazzled jumpers.  But capturing it in color… no matter how hard I try… just doesn’t work because of this light.

Here’s a photo of a guy I caught pissing in Union Square:

I just am never happy with the results of color in the subway.  This forces me to really focus on my black and white down in that rabbit hole of a transportation system.  Not that this is terrible… au contraire… I LOVE BnW!!  And in some ways I am happy that the crappy lighting forces me to shoot in monochrome.  Here are some fun ones I have taken recently:

Digital photos are always captured in color but can also be changed to BnW in post.  So remember, if you shoot film in NYC and want to shoot in the subway, shoot black and white!

Snappy Trails!

-j