Snapped in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, in an alley off Larkin Street. I’ve been making street portraits for six or so years now. It’s always a thrill, never tiring of meeting people and hitting them up for a portrait. Here’s a set of Tenderloin portraits I made awhile back…
Speaking for myself, photography and making photographs has always been about seeing, imagining possibilities, and then being able to translate and compose what’s in front of me to an image that hopefully evokes and moves. It has never been about gear, whether captured on film or digital sensor, or about camera pedigree. Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about the latter, with very little said about the former. That’s sad. Especially when the issue of capture medium trumps creating a strong photograph. That said, I thought I’d take a stab with a few words about seeing, and how I make photographs using the photo up above as an example.
What makes a strong photograph? For me it starts with seeing, being aware, and always open to possibilities, even when not out looking for photos. I try to find situations hidden in plain sight that people nearby don’t notice because they’re oblivious or take what’s around them for granted. Composing through framing allows one to strongly amplify those situations and moments using contextual environment, light, shadow, ambiguity, mystery, etc., to create images that have power to release narrative to a viewer, ideally evoking some emotional connection or pull.
I snapped the image up above a week ago riding on BART (a subway train) in San Francisco, while not even out looking to make photographs. While stopped at the Glen Park station, I saw the woman on the station platform and reflections from others inside the train car. It was as simple as moving a bit to line things up and then pressing the shutter. I suspect others around me on the train had no idea what I was seeing, being into their iDevices and newspapers.
Overall I was pleased how the photo came out. And more importantly, in the end it is a photo that could essentially be taken with any kind of camera.
This is a photo I captured a couple of years ago on a downtown street off Market, probably Stockton. Originally, and no doubt reflexively back then, it was an image I converted to black and white from the RAW color file my camera produced. I also processed it in a manner consistent with my other converted black and white photos to achieve a certain style that I thought supported my vision. Lately, I’ve been revisiting some of my older converted black and white image files and leaving them in color to see how they look, and have been mostly pleased with the results.
Not so coincidently, for about the last six or seven months, I’ve been mostly “shooting in color” (er, I mean leaving images in color when post-processing) after putting my cellphone camera aside and going back to a conventional dSLR and point-n-shoot cameras. Mostly it’s a personal challenge and to overcome the notion that “real” street photography is best captured/rendered in black and white. I think that all too often photographers grab onto that as being the real deal, in part because that’s what many famous photographers from the past, such as Garry Winnogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, etc shot, adding some legitimacy to the case.
From personal experience I can say with certainty that capturing or rendering photos in black and white in post hides a lot of sins, such as not having to deal with element colors working poorly together. Or, that more leeway or slack can be given to black and white photos that fall technically short, such as not being in sharp enough focus, and if not, believing it helps create noir-esque drama and moodiness. Shooting in nice light is even more important when the image is shot or processed for color. Also, for me, I can’t claim I see the world in black and white, though I know of a few people who do.
In any event, going over some of my black and white-rendered files from the past and processing for color has been a real eye opener. I’m pretty pleased with the outcome, but I think much more time is needed to see if it seriously sticks with respect to regular shooting.
And here’s the photo as originally rendered in black and white. Comments?
That’s my good friend Owen heading to the BART station for his late afternoon train ride back home in Oakland. He’s been covering Powell and Market in San Francisco sitting on the fire hydrant there for 29 years now. Don’t agree with his message, but give him props for his commitment and for being a San Francisco icon…
There are two lenses in the photo on the left. The right-most is Canon’s 35mm f/1.4 L. It’s a superb lens and is what I’ve been using until recently when out shooting with my dSLR. It’s a beast though, weighing 1 lb 4.5 oz. The 35 L sells for about $1,300 to account for the red ring, large aperture, and all of the optical excellence contained within the barrel.
Optically, I don’t think Canon makes a better prime lens. At a focal length of 35mm it’s great for both street shooting and street portraiture, so much so that I wrote a blog article about that almost two years ago – here’s a link. As it turns out, that piece has been the most popular story on my blog, apparently because a lot of photographers are looking for a focal length and prime lens that’s ideal for a wide variety of street shooting circumstances. I’ve probably taken more that 10K photos with that lens and used it exclusively on the Tenderloin USA project. The other option at 35mm is Canon’s 35mm f/2 lens, another fine performer with just a one stop hit, and is almost $1,000 less expensive than the 1.4.
For the last two months or so, I’ve been using a new lens, Canon’s recently introduced 40mm f/2.8 pancake, given to me for my birthday. Compared to my 35/1.4, it’s tiny. Weighing in at 4.3 oz the lens is a featherweight, being more than a pound lighter than the 35 L. Due to it’s diminutive size and weight, it’s like I’m shooting with just a camera body. But boy does it perform! The photo up above taken on San Francisco’s Market Street was made with that lens. At a maximum aperture of f/2.8 you’re down two stops from the 35/1.4 monster. But being significantly smaller in size and weight makes up for that in most shooting situations. True, you will not get the razor-thin depth of field and beautiful bokeh of the 35 L, but for me, that special quality is something that’s best employed sparingly and then mostly for street portraits.
Compared to the 35 L, the pancake’s two stop hit in maximum light gathering capability means that shutter speeds may need to be adjusted downward, or increasing ISO, in very low light situations. However, with today’s high ISO camera bodies such as the 6D and 5DII/III, that’s usually not a big deal. Autofocus speed is not as snappy as the larger f/1.4 lens, but is still very good and feels similar (perhaps a little faster) to the smaller 35mm f/2.0 model. I’ve yet to find that a problem shooting on the street with the pancake. At its maximum f/2.8 aperture there is slight vignetting. Many times I find it pleasing. If necessary the tiny amount of vignetting can be easily and automatically corrected in Adobe Lightroom, the editing software I use for organizing and post-processing my photos.
Sharpness is really good. On the other hand, my photographs have never been about sharpness. In fact, I take a similar view that friend and fellow photographer Jeff Spirer holds. That is, if someone’s first comment on a photo has to do with how sharp it is, then the photo is failing to communicate as desired.
Overall I can highly recommend this lens. When mounted on my lighter/smaller 6D camera body, the 40mm pancake creates a killer lightweight combination ideal for shooting on the street. I like shooting one-handed with the strap wrapped around my wrist and the camera/lens combo’s small size and light weight make the pair a joy to use. And at $149 the pancake is a steal. The California sales tax you’d be paying on the 35 L lens is two thirds of that!
Disclaimer: I don’t engage in equipment “reviews,” as I would much rather talk about photos and what it’s like shooting on the street and meeting people. That said, this post hardly qualifies as a technical review in any sense of the definition. Rather it’s more about my perceptions of actually using the lens on the street and letting others know about how it works supporting my kind of shooting. Your mileage may vary!
Hey cellphone photographers…
Passionate about capturing the world around you with your cellphone camera and have some photos you’d like to share? Then head on over to www.adobeartgallery.org and check out an upcoming juried cellphone contest and exhibition titled Talking Eye. You can enter up to five image files online for a very reasonable entry fee. You’ll then have a chance to win some $ and have your images printed and exhibited at The Adobe Art Gallery in Castro Valley. Exhibited photos will also become part of the gallery’s exhibition catalog.
You need to act quickly though. Deadline is Saturday, March 9. I’ve entered, hope you will too!