Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Slices of Life

I had the great pleasure, and very interesting experience, of meeting Thomas Leuthard last Friday evening. Thomas is the creator of the 85mm Street Photography web site and a rather fascinating collection of candid photographs of passerby that he has produced over the last few years. I highly recommend visiting his web page to study his work both for the quality of his photographs and his instructive commentary on the practice of street photography.

I've been dabbling in street photography for a few months now and it is an exciting area to work in. Most of my photographs are the result of a contemplative, almost zen like process. I see a scene and process it mentally, considering angles, elements, quality of light and subject until I settle on the - hopefully - ideal image. This process can take a few minutes or repeated visits over a period of months to a particular place until the image I have in mind is produced. Street photography is exactly the opposite, which is one of the aspects of it that draws my interest. A photographic opportunity typically presents itself for a brief few seconds and if you aren't intimately familiar with your camera operation and can't compose the image almost automatically you will likely miss the shot.

The 85mm web site is an excellent resource if you are interested in street photography. Thomas provides not only a collection of terrific images, but a solid how-to commentary on equipment and technique. I was primarily interested in the latter, as my inherent respect for other peoples privacy was holding me back from progressing in this area. The chance to participate in a personal, live demonstration of Mr. Leuthard in action on the NYC streets was not to be missed. Per the invitation, we met at the 'pointy end' of the Flatiron Building at 5:00 pm. The group numbered six, and and after introductions all around, we went through a short discussion of the various cameras that were brought along and the advantages/disadvantages of each setup. Thomas, like myself, had already started shooting on the way to the meet and had a couple of interesting captures. He continued to shoot even as we were getting acquainted on the corner of Broadway and 23rd.

Once the introductions and camera discussion was completed, we started walking east on 23rd looking for opportunities. The trick to successful street photography is to capture your subject while they are completely unaware that you exist. This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do with a wide prime lens. The range to your subject is typically about 8 feet and often much less. As several of our group quickly found out, New Yorkers are inherently very alert and difficult to sneak up on! Learning how not to draw attention to yourself is critical and no small trick when your camera is a bit of a monster, as my Canon 5DMkII is, especially with the 24-105mm general purpose lens on it. It can be done, however. There are a number of appearance and behavioral practices which help. Avoiding bright colored clothing, no fast moves, no direct eye contact with the subject, etc. One that worked very well for me was to pretend I was shooting another, more distant subject. I would switch to manual focus and preset to the focal plane of the real subject, all the while pretending to be interested in something else entirely. Once it was clear that the subject's guard was down, I would pan them into the frame and activate the shutter.

One of the things to consider with street photography is your intent. Thomas Leuthard, for example, is mostly about the person. He goes for some close up detail, usually a portrait but there are interesting variations such as using feet or hands as the primary subject. My photography tends to be about places and and objects. Accordingly, when I started shooting with Thomas, I quickly found myself shooting in such a way as to incorporate the person into their immediate surroundings - man in his element, as it were. To me, for my style of photograph, this context is absolutely critical. Leuthard's images might be summarized as 'this is me at this moment'. Mine might be summarized as 'this is me in this place at this moment'. My goal is to tell the broader story of not only the person, but the person's immediate environment and how the two components of person and place interact.
(click on image to enlarge)   "Cool Splash"
I was actually setting up to shot another subject when I spotted this man cooling himself in the fountain behind my subject. I had about 20 seconds to get into position, setup and shoot. I caught three frames before he turned and walked away. I love the moment I was very lucky to capture here. It is a very human moment in a public place that very few people even noticed as it happened. This is an excellent example of the power of street photography - the ability to capture a completely natural, unscripted moment in a person's life and to record the human beauty of it. This is the defining characteristic of street photography: humanity. Capturing little slices of unscripted life as it happens. An intimate, real moment captured in time.
(click on image to enlarge) "Distant Relations"
Here, I spotted what appeared to be a mother/daughter team interacting, unaware they were being observed. I took two frames from a kneeling perspective and turned away before they saw me. There is an interesting, complex dynamic conveyed in the body language in this tableau, while the mother is completely absorbed in her cell phone, that inspired the image title.
(click on image to enlarge)  "An Offer of Piano Instruction"
This guy held my attention for a long time, sitting on the sidewalk near the entrance of a subway entrance. He was very alert and I had difficulty getting an unguarded shot. I finally moved behind a column about 10 feet away and tried to set up a shot from there. He then got up to walk away, hesitating for just a moment. That moment was all I needed to the unguarded exposure. The bright sun, deep shadows and, finally, the little random piano instruction advert pulled all together.

I will be doing more work like this. It was an exciting, intriguing and perhaps a bit risky process. The results can be fascinating, however, and it is the only way to capture such natural photographic imagery if you want to incorporate the unaffected human element into your photography. I can't wait to see what develops!