Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two More VERY MODEST examples of "decisive moments" in Photography

Both of these pictures were taken in London, in February. The first is a composition that presented itself to me as dusk was approaching, in Trafalgar Square. It is of interest only because it has eight people in it all caught at an instant when they were "doing something," however trivial. Of course, we are all always "doing something." But in this case, although the photograph is admittedly mediocre, I think that both the composition and timing were just right. Of course, if most of the subjects were doing even more interesting things, besides just trying to relax or get into a good pose for taking pictures of their own, then it would be a better shot. The second photo is of my son playing a hand-held video game while we were on the Bakerloo line of the Underground. The older man seated next to him is most likely unfamiliar with the Nintendo DS, and was wondering what on earth my son was doing. In this shot, it is the cast of the gentleman's eyes and the expression on his face that makes it (almost) a fine "people pic". I DO have better examples but I will need more time to use a film scanner and get some older material digitized. My aim, at this moment, is simply to elaborate on my ideas about what makes one photograph better than another. And, to reiterate, I make no claims of greatness here! Both of these were taken with the Leica M8. If you are using any kind of advanced digital camera, and the controls allow it, some good rules of thumb would include: (1) GET THE "WHITE BALANCE" OFF OF THE "AUTOMATIC" SETTING and adjust it for the type of light conditions. And (2) set the camera to produce two images of simultaneously, BOTH a JPEG Fine at the best possible resolution and a "RAW" of NEF or DNG image. You are going to need larger capacity and higher speed memory cards for this!

Monday, May 5, 2008

"The Decisive Moment" in People Photography: A Modest Example

OK, back to tips, FWIW, about people pictures. Please do not misunderstand, I cannot and do not produce images like those made by Henri Cartier-Bresson or some of the other great people / street photographers whom I admire tremendously, such as Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Ruth Orkin, and Margaret Bourke-White. Another disclaimer is that I am no expert when it comes to technical matters about cameras per se. I got a Brownie when I was about 11 and was instantly hooked. It is easy to forget that the photographer takes the picture, not the camera. If I came off like a Leica snob in my last post, I am sorry. But let's be realistic, you are probably NOT going to go out an get a fine old used film camera, a bunch of used lenses of different focal lengths, and have everything professionally cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted, even though it would be REALLY REALLY SMART of you to do so! It's hard carrying all that heavy equipment around. But, please, don't follow the crowd, and definitely listen "with a grain of salt" to the salesperson in the camera store (especially if its a national chain store and not an independent dealer) because they have inventory they gotta move to make room for the new stuff that is coming in all the time! And, as for most (young) people with their tiny digital cameras, please try to remember that most of their pictures are (a) poorly composed and exposed, (b) vanity shots of their friends being BFFs, pretending to be hot models, or sticking their tongues out, (c) produced by cameras they they think of as fashion accessories rather than as image-making tools, and (d) less important than the convenience and instant gratification that the digital medium provides. YOU, on the other hand, are much smarter than they are! You have a worldview and wish to document it photographically. My last post stressed the merits of the Leica or other rangefinder type of camera for street photography because they are quiet and have a shutter that operates more in "real time," with virtually no lag or waiting between the instant that you see the image that you want to capture, and the instant of exposure. Whether the exposure you are making is on ye olde film or on a digital sensor both does and does not matter, but let's be realistic. You're going to get a digital SLR: there are a gazillion of them out there and they are improving all the time (and hence. nota bene, also becoming relatively obsolete more quickly). But even with all their merits, DSLRs are still relatively noisy and, for the purposes of streeet / people photography, inconveniently conspicuous beasts, particularly when fitted with long lenses. OK, enough about that. Have a look at this picture of the two guys that I took in the "Old City" of Jerusalem about 40 years ago. My camera was a Kodak Retina rangefinder, probably set to f5.6 or f8, loaded with ASA 400 Tri-X, and focused at the "hyperfocal distance." I had to be very surreptitious for this one. Their expressions were great. It was A DECISIVE MOMENT! I got a good shot, but as soon as they realized that I had just taken their picture, they got really angry about it! Nothing bad ensued, they didn't come running after me. My point is simply that you have to act fast, and you need equipment that facilitates it. A propos, after tens of thousands of shutter clicks, I am certain that my BEST photos ever were taken: on low ASA speed black and white or color film, low ASA speed slide film, Kodachrome or Ektachrome, without automatic metering,and on clunky slow equipment like the rangefinders or various Rolleiflex or other TLRs. 'Nuff said, for now, more later.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My First "How to Take Better People Photos" Tip

Unless you are very lucky, I believe it that is very difficult, if not impossible, to get good candid street photos of people with a simple "point and shoot" digital camera. You want to learn how to take better pictures because you feel that you are a good observer of the world around you, especially of the human element, and would like to document your worldview through images of your own making. However, it is highly unrealistic to expect your "perfect subject doing the perfect thing at the perfect moment" to wait for you while you hold your pocket-sized silver electronic whirring gizmo up in the air and move it around while looking at the viewing screen! You may get lucky and get a great "grab shot" with a digital point and shoot, but if you are serious about street photography, what you really want to do is to increase the odds in your favor of getting a great result every time you push the shutter button. The good news is that this can be done with a digital camera, but YOU WILL HAVE TO TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN HOW TO USE AND ACQUIRE A DSLR --- i.e., a "digital single-lens reflex" camera with an optical "see through the lens" viewfinder (screen viewing is still there, but it's how you see your results, not how you take your picture!) Your attention (eye) should never move away from your subject! Classically, the finest or most famous pictures of this "street" or people type were taken with rangefinder film cameras, with aperture (size of lens opening) and shutter speeds (amount of light let in to expose the film) generally preset for the type of film and lighting conditions. The most famous street photogapher of all, Henri Cartier-Bresson, is reputed to have used only a Leica brand camera and the Leica/Leitz 50mm ("normal") lens, probably also preset at what is known as "hyperfocal" distance so that he wouldn't have to worry about taking too much time to focus. Think of it as kind of a "shooting from the hip" manoeuver, done very quickly and, in the hands of a great artist, surreptitiously. Cartier-Bresson's pictures were all shot on black and white film at what he called "the decisive moment," and he didn't want to waste time fadoodling with his equipment! Of course, he also needed luck and had to take at least two or three shots of the same subject in order to get one final picture that was good or even better. The Leica and other brands of rangefinder film cameras are far from obsolete. While newer model Leicas (and there is a digital version of the classic "M", not to be confused with any of their "Digilux" cameras) are obscenely expensive, there are older models and lenses and other brands of rangefinders available on the used market at very reasonable prices, considering the mechanical and optical quality of the equipment. Why do I recommend the Leica or other type of rangefinder film camera most of all? First big reason number one is BECAUSE THE SHUTTER IS VIRTUALLY SILENT! In plain English, this means that when you "click" the button, the camera makes no noise. Unlike SLR (single-lens reflex) film cameras with prisms and mirrors, the rangefinder has no internal parts that have to move out of the (film's) way when you shoot. When you are traveling and want to take candid photos of people, you certainly don't want their attention called to you taking their picture by a camera that makes a lot of noise, right? Of course not! Big reason number two for using a Leica or other brand of rangefinder camera (Zeiss, Contax, Konica; many like the vintage Kodak Retinas and a host of others can be had almost for "a song" nowadays) is BECAUSE THE PICTURE IS TAKEN EXACTLY WHEN YOU CLICK THE SHUTTER, IN "REAL TIME!" Therefore, even though the amount of time involved is minute, with a rangefinder there is more of a chance that you can catch your perfect subject doing the perfect thing at the perfect moment. NOW LET'S GET REALISTIC. You probably don't want to use film. OK, but you will have to take the time to explore the optical and image-stablization qualities of the many DSLRs that are on the market, as well as the size of the prints (enlargements) that will eventually be making of your best work. Yes, film is obsolete as much to the professional wedding photographer as it is to the average consumer, but it still takes about 20 million megapixels using a full frame digital sensor to get the quality (amount of "recorded information") that we used to get using SLR cameras loaded with rolls of ye olde print or slide film. Don't worry about what that means. Just keep in mind that the pros have the cashflow in order to acquire the highest-end digital Canons and Nikons, which they also have to replace more often. THE BOTTOM LINE: at the very least, start learning about digital SLR's, which will only improve as time goes by. Even better, in my opinion, is to check out rangefinder options. Google some photo forums and check out used equipment inventories of major dealers (like B&H Photo in New York). Even finding an old SLR film camera that hasn't been used in years and getting it cleaned and adjusted is better than using a digital point and shoot! You don't have to print out all your film photos, just develop the negatives and have a "contact sheet" made! Then can custom print and enlarge the really great one(s)!!! Enough for now. More later, with illustrated examples. Oh, and if you can afford the digital Leica M8, the company is working on an upgrade to make the shutter more silent because it isn't as quiet as the film models were...this is a big deal to certain people.