Today, I received in the mail a Contax G1 with 3 lenses (28mm f/2.8, 45mm f/2.0 and 90mm f/2.8) and a TLA200 TTL flash. The Contax G1 is an autofocus film rangefinder sold during the 90′s. See http://www.kenrockwell.com/contax/g-system.htm for more information on the (unfortunately discontinued) G system and watch this little video I have made of my new toy
As part of WNYC’s Street Shots Online Photo Festival in 2008, Brian Lehrer discusses the legality and ethics of taking photos of everyday people in New York with Bruce Gilden, one of the participants in Street Shots, and Eileen Clancy, founding member of Picture New York. Paul Browne, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information at the NYPD, helps explain some of the policy surrounding public photography.
Besides being a very interesting discussion, this discussion should remind us all our rights and, more importantly, our duties as photographers in the streets. I hope you will enjoy listening to it.
This article was originally posted on Eric Kim Street Photography blog. I am the author of the article and I reproduce it on my website with Eric Kim’s authorization.
What does it take to make a good street photograph? Many, many, many things. Some weeks ago on this blog, for instance, I discussed the importance of taking a picture at the right scale, that is, at the scale of the event you are photographing. As you can imagine, however, the scaling problem is not the only challenge one faces when doing street photography. I might be at the right scale, but not at the right position or angle; the natural light might create shadows masking important elements; the composition of the picture (that is, the organization of the different components of the image relative to each other and to the dimensions of the picture) might diminish the meaning and clarity of the photograph; the colors (if you shoot in color like me) might simply not get along very well (try flashy green on purple for instance ); the contrasts might be too low to easily distinguish the foreground from the background; etc, etc. Street photography is an easy genre to start with (the easiest maybe?), but for sure it is one of the hardest to master as all these problems must be tackled under strong time constraints.
Among all these elements that you and I have to juggle with constantly, one has caused me more trouble than the others and is still my most important source of failures when it comes time to decide which picture to keep or reject after a long day of shooting. I am of course speaking of what is often referred as the “decisive moment” that can almost magically improve the quality of the picture, from mediocre to good, from good to great, from great to exceptional. But what is a decisive moment exactly? How does it work? How can we recognize one and capture it? I do not pretend I will be able to fully answer these questions in this post; like many of you, I am still in the long but rewarding process of building experience and acquiring knowledge in street photography. However, I will make my best to summarize what I have learned during these last months and to provide some (hopefully) constructive reflections on the subject.
- What is a decisive moment? Calling Henry Cartier-Bresson for help -
A quick look at blog posts, magazine articles, or book chapters dedicated to the subject might leave you with the impression that there are as many definitions of a decisive moment as there are people writing about it. One person, however, is consistently cited across all of this literature: the photography master Henri Cartier-Bresson (here his portfolio of Magnum’s website). The famous photographer did not invent the concept; many photographers before him used it more or less consciously. He did not even coin the term; publisher Richard L. Simon came up with it for the title of the English version of Cartier-Bresson’s book “Images à la sauvette” (literally “Pictures on the sly”). However, his work is so tightly associated with this concept, he explored it so deeply in his photographs that it is not possible to ignore his opinion on the subject. Therefore for the rest of this post, I will stick with Cartier-Bresson’s definition of the decisive moment, and I will keep the point of view of others for future writings.
In the aforementioned book, Cartier-Bresson refers to photography as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression”. If you’re like me, you might want to take a good 20 minutes to read this sentence again and again (and improve my average time on website statistics ). It is not easy to understand, and my interpretation of it is still fluctuating. If you ask me again in some weeks, I might give you a slightly different one. “Simultaneous recognition” implies that both the form (the “precise organization”) and the content (the “significance”) of the event must be in harmony with each other at the moment where the picture is taken. In other terms, the picture should contain all the necessary elements to understand the captured event, and these elements in the picture should be organized in a way that facilitates the recognition of the event by a naive viewer. This suggests that each event, whatever its nature and duration, can be reduced somehow to a set of key features that contain the full meaning of the event when they come together appropriately. It is our job as (street) photographers to recognize these key features, to detect when they are arranged in the most meaningful way, and then to capture them during “a fraction of a second”; that is, the time it takes the camera to open and close its shutter. A decisive moment is not necessarily short; it can last more than one instant, but the camera will only fix one instant of it (otherwise, it is not photography anymore, but videography, which is fine too, but not the purpose of this blog).
I am a visual animal and I need concrete examples to understand all this heavy language, especially when it is my own :-). I could flood you with pictures and boring explanations for the next 50 centimeters (it is about 4 pages, but the concept of page is irrelevant for a blog post :-)), but I found someone else to do it in a more entertaining way. In the following video, the great William Klein (ok, I lied, I did not stick with Cartier-Bresson all along) comments on several of his contact sheets, showing how he progressively builds a picture and captures decisive moments. Because he shows sequences of images of the same event, you will be able to see the decisive moment coming and disappearing as Klein skims through his pictures. Take the time to watch it (about 14 minutes) and I will wait for you about 5 centimeters below here.
Wasn’t it great? Just for the pleasure, here is a link to another video you should keep for later, where Klein takes a look at his work with a lot of humor and self-derision. It is priceless!
- Why does it work? Some clues from neuroscience -
While I really appreciate Klein’s and Cartier-Bresson’s explanations, my scientific mind cannot be completely satisfied until I understand why these particular moments get my neurons as excited as teenagers at a Justin Bieber’s concert. Putting aside the purely graphical aspect of the picture (because it is not specific to street photography), I managed so far to identify two general categories of decisive moments.
In the first category, I put what I call “exceptional moments”. By exceptional, I am not referring to memorable events (such as the landing on the Moon for instance) but rather to events that challenge our perception of the reality. They can be rare events, so rare that the probability of witnessing similar events again is close to zero. They can be relatively frequent events but represented on the photograph in a way that goes against the usual experience we have of them. The reason why this type of moment shakes our brains so much is to be found, at least partly, in the neurological mechanisms we use to learn about our environment all throughout our life. When we detect an event (for instance a glass of water falling off a table), it is compared with an internal representation of similar events that we have experienced in the past. This representation allows us to build almost instantaneously predictions (or expectations) of what is likely to happen next (the glass will probably break and water will be spilled over the ground). Each time reality does not match our expectations, this comparison mechanism activates a neuronal circuitry that is in charge on the one hand of updating our representation of the event, and on the other hand of increasing our attention level toward the unknown situation in order to collect more information and/or to consciously solve the mismatch using other knowledge (if the glass does not break for instance, maybe it is because it is made out of plastic). When we face a photograph showing one of the “exceptional” decisive moments I mentioned earlier, this circuitry goes crazy and all of our attention gets focused on the picture, hence the fascination such images exert on us.
The second category of decisive moments, the “ordinary moments”, are more commonly found in street photographs. As opposed to the “exceptional moments”, they correspond to frequently observed events, and they are represented in the photographs from a point of view we usually experience them. One excellent example is the picture “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” by Henri Cartier-Bresson. This photograph represents a man jumping over a large puddle, something that you and I have already witnessed many times and probably done on several occasions. There is no element of surprise in this image, nothing that could activate the aforementioned neuronal circuitry. Why then are we fascinated by this picture? Research in neuroscience during the last 10-15 years has uncovered groups of neurons that have a very particular functioning. These neurons are strongly activated when we perform an action (such as jumping over a puddle) or experience an emotion (such as pain or happiness), but also when we witness someone performing an action or experiencing an emotion. For this reason, these neurons are called mirror neurons. While there is still a lot of speculation and debate about the exact function of these neurons, there exists evidence that these neurons could be involved in empathy; that is, our ability to recognize others’ feelings and intents, or in other words, to stand in someone else’s shoes. I would not be surprised if somewhere in our brain, some of our mirror neurons were activated strongly when watching Cartier-Bresson’s picture. Thanks to this simple snapshot, we can quickly imagine how this man felt when he reached the end of the scale and faced the large puddle, why he decided to perform a jump, and what he was expecting from this action. Our empathy allows us to virtually experience the moment, as if we were actually performing this jump (or any other action, or even just feeling the emotion of the character in the picture). If the picture had been taken an instant before or an instant after, the action of “jumping over the puddle” would have been less obvious, less identifiable, our mirror neurons would have fired less strongly, and as a consequence our virtual experience would have been less intense and the picture more… ordinary.
- Enough with the theory! How do we capture the Holy Grail? -
As you can imagine, there is no definitive answer to this question, no magic spell to capture a decisive moment in every picture. It would be too boring otherwise. However, there are many things we can do to increase our chances of pushing the button at the right place and the right moment.
Be technically ready. There is nothing worse than missing a picture because the camera was still in the bag, or off, or set up with unsuitable parameters. Rule number 1 to catch a decisive moment is therefore to keep your camera ready all the time. When out shooting, I always have my camera out of the bag and in hand. I use a hand strap that allows me to quickly bring the camera to my eye when I want to take a picture. In many videos of street photographers, I noticed that they often walk around with their two hands on the camera to ensure fast and stable shooting. I use this technique when I am in a busy area with many potential pictures coming continuously. My camera (Panasonic Lumix GF1) is always on, energy save disabled. Since the GF1 is energy-demanding, I carry with me extra batteries (3 batteries keep me going for more than 10 hours with the electronic viewfinder, which is enough usually). Finally, and probably more importantly, you want to preset your camera to make sure you will get a correct exposure where you take the picture. When the time comes to press the shutter button, the only thing you want to be focusing on is the composition of your picture. Cartier-Bresson himself used a very reduced set of parameters when taking pictures (as told by Ishu Patel in this great article). He wanted to diminish as much as possible the technical parts of photography to focus on the people and the stories he wanted to photograph. What are the best parameters to use then? I will keep this for a future post, this one is already quite long. Long story short: it depends
Be mentally ready. Street photography is practiced live. There is no possibility to stop the action, to make adjustments to the scene or to repeat the shot until it is perfect. Concentration is therefore required to anticipate events and to react on time. I do not have a secret recipe to stay focused. Some people use music to help them reduce outside disturbances. Personally, I find that I need a “warm-up” time during which I walk the streets looking at people, thinking of them. Then all my other “problems” vanish and I can focus only on taking pictures. However, an average human being like me can probably focus intensely for 20-30 minutes in a row only. Thus, it is essential to take breaks regularly in order to rest the eyes and the brain. I noticed that shooting with a partner helps a lot with this issue by providing a natural relaxing activity (socializing) between two shooting sessions, without losing track of the main reason why I am in the streets.
Be perceptually ready. Observation is the key for a good street photograph. I spend maybe 99% of my time looking around me and only 1% looking through my viewfinder. The viewfinder is a tool to compose a picture, but it is too restrictive to help me have a good idea of what is happening or about to happen around me. I would even say that the less time I spend looking through the viewfinder, the better are my pictures. The key is to keep my head and my eyes always moving to get as much information as possible from all directions around me. And I mean all directions possible: left, right, up, down, in front and behind. When I am walking, I stop briefly very often to have a quick look behind me, or to kneel down, or to climb on a bench or a fence. Getting information is essential, both to anticipate the decisive moment and to learn how to anticipate it faster the next time. This last point (learning to anticipate) is probably what I have been focusing on the most during this last year. As an ethologist, I have been trained to observe the behavior of animals and to detect patterns of actions; that is, series of actions or behaviors that come frequently together in a particular order. When you know such a pattern, you can anticipate when the subject will perform a given action by simply observing what he/she is doing right now. Some are easy and stereotyped. Chess players for instance repeatedly pick and drop pieces, and you can predict relatively accurately when one of them will lift a piece and be ready to capture this moment. Other patterns of actions are less obvious. For instance, people tend to avoid pedestrians coming in the opposite direction by stepping toward their right side (it is true in most countries, but exceptions exist, for instance in Japan). As a consequence, busy sidewalks are often organized in two lanes of people walking in opposite directions. If you step into the “wrong” lane, you will automatically attract the attention (and the eyes) of the people walking toward you because you will break their routine, and this can give you great candid street portraits. How can one learn to recognize these patterns? Practice, practice, practice. The more you are in the streets, the more you will observe the people around you, the easier it will be to recognize these chains of behaviors and to anticipate a decisive moment.
Compose and wait. In street photography, it is often a matter of half a second or less between a good and a great picture. You snap too early and the moment is not yet here; you snap too late and it is gone forever. One thing that I have noticed during this year was my tendency to shoot too early (and surprisingly not too late), as if I wanted to be sure to get something. I would feel that something was about to happen, put the camera in front of my eye, compose as fast as possible and take the picture, often just before the “decisive moment.” Then it is too late and before I could push the button again the moment was happening and I could only blame my impatience. To conclude this post, I’ve decided to show you the following video of an interview with Sam Abell, a famous documentary photographer for National Geographic (among other things). He is not a street photographer, but he gives what I consider the best piece of advice that I have received this year to improve my street photographs: compose and wait. Wait 1 second, 1 minute, 1 hour, but wait until the anticipated decisive moment shows up. Sam Abell waited 1.5 year to get what is probably one of his most iconic picture, as he tells in this interview. Enjoy the video, and thanks for still being here at the end of this pretty long post.
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This article was originally posted on Eric Kim Street Photography blog. I am the author of the article and I reproduce it on my website with Eric Kim’s authorization.
I am not an experienced street photographer. I started shooting street and candid pictures about a year ago, after several years of irregular experimentations with film and digital cameras. Everything you will read in this post is therefore the result of an ongoing reflection about something that I thought was true, but that I start to find overestimated, and potentially problematic for street photography in general.
Over the course of this past year, I have seen on many occasions people wishing to have the “balls” or the “guts” to go closer to the people they photograph in the street. Others would speak about how wide is the angle of their lens, how it forces themselves to move toward the people, to be part of the action. In several blog posts and articles, I read that dropping my zoom lens and going close would improve my photographs. So I did it. Some months after starting shooting street photographs, I got a 20mm lens for my Panasonic Lumix GF1 (40mm equivalent). I struggled a little bit at first trying to get used to zoom with my feet, but very quickly I started to love the lens and this sort of dance I had to perform to get in the right position on time for the shot. Today, I shoot exclusively with it and it would take something huge (like a Fuji X100 for Christmas ) to make me stop using it. As soon as I had the 20mm, my pictures started to improve (at least in my opinion) and I was convinced that it was because I was going closer to the people, because I had grown bigger balls. I think now that I was wrong about that.
Recently, I watched an interview of the famous street photographer Jeff Mermelstein (here on my blog). At one point in the video, he says that he could have travelled the world to take pictures in more dangerous areas than downtown Manhattan (he cites Gaza for instance), but that he was not a risk taker, that he felt safe and comfortable in New York City where he takes most of his pictures. These 15 seconds in the interview made me realize several things that were probably already in the back of my mind. First, most of us do not need to be particularly brave when shooting candid pictures. As long as we are taking photographs of ordinary people, it is just a matter of putting aside our natural social reserve. Average Joe is not a dangerous person, and the worst that can happen to you is a one-minute argument that can be settled by simply deleting the picture of the moderately angry person. You would need to be brave if your subjects were criminals (as Bruce Gilden for his recent pictures of Russian gangsters), or if you were taking pictures in a war zone. In our relatively safe cities however, saying that we are brave for taking pictures of strangers seems to me as some form of high school bragging.
The second thing I realized is that most of the masters of street photography do not actually go that close to the people they photograph. Some do of course (Bruce Gilden is, I guess, the most known example) but a majority does not, or does not systematically, alternating between close-up pictures and larger scenes (Henry Cartier-Bresson for instance is an excellent example of that). While going again through the pictures of all these famous photographers, I noticed that they used their wide angle lens in many cases not to force themselves to go toward the people, but rather to embrace the context around the characters, to create a complete scene that tells a complete story. I even discovered that some of them used telephoto lenses (as Saul Leiter who regularly used a 150mm lens) and still made incredible street photographs. To take a good street photograph, the size of the lens does not seem to matter that much apparently, nor the distance to the people. So, what does actually matter?
Robert Capa once said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. This is probably the favorite citation of all the advocates of what I would call “close contact street photography”. If Capa says we have to go close, it must be true. However, Capa does not say that exactly. He says that we have to go close ENOUGH. I am not here to speak instead of Capa of course, but I like to remind you that he was before all a photojournalist. His job was to bring back pictures that would capture the essence of an event, whatever this event could have been. If you want to do that, you have to make sure you are taking the picture at an appropriate scale (the “close enough” of Capa). If you are too far from the event, you will include external elements that will diminish the strength and clarity of the information you are trying to convey. If Capa had taken his pictures of D-Day landing from a boat a mile a away from Omaha Beach, they would have never became the iconic documents we all know.
In street photography, we face a similar problem. We are trying to document events of the “everyday life” and we have to make sure we are capturing these events at the right scale, reducing as much as possible intrusive elements by zooming (with our lens or our feet) toward our main subject. Following the same principle, getting too close is not a good thing either because it would crop out elements that are essential to the full understanding of the captured event. Therefore, the distance at which you photograph people should not be a function of how brave you think you are. Actually, such an attitude might become very problematic for street photography in general, as it would reinforce existing prejudices against street photographers. Instead, the distance should be determined by the main subject of your picture and by how much useful and useless information you are including in the picture at a given distance. If your subject is the tattoo on the back of someone, then go very close. If it is a pick-up streetball game, take some distance. Whether you use your zoom, or your feet if you have a prime lens, does not really matter. What really matters is the scale at which you take the picture.
More and more, it seems to me that my pictures were actually not improving because of the length of my lens or because I was able to go closer to the people. I am not more brave than a year ago. However, I am more confident in what I am doing. By spending more and more time in the streets, I have improved my ability to detect and to anticipate interesting situations and potential pictures, I have learned how to approach people without making them worried about my intentions, and above all I now have a better understanding of what elements should, or should not be included in the picture.There is still a lot of room for improvement in my work, but I am sure that it will have little to do with my gear and my balls.
In street photography, it is often a matter of half a second or less between a good and a great picture. You snap too early and the moment is not yet here; you snap too late and it is gone forever. One thing that I have noticed during this year is my tendency to shoot too early, as if I wanted to be sure to get something. I would feel that something was about to happen, put the camera in front of my eye, compose as fast as possible and take the picture, often just before the “decisive moment”. Then it is too late and before I could push the button again the moment was happening and I could only blame my impatience. I worked a lot on this problem during the last months, and I learned to wait. I learned to compose, and wait. Not long of course, things are moving fast in the streets, but enough to be on time for the moment, not too early, not too late.
In this video, Sam Abell, famous documentary photographer for National Geographic (among other things), tells nothing else but this: compose and wait. Even if the wait lasts one year and a half as in the case of one of his most iconic picture.
Yesterday I posted a video in which famous photographer William Klein was telling how he chooses his subjects and how he selects his best pictures on a contact sheet. Today, street photographer Chun Tong Chung from Amsterdam (visit his Flickr stream, he is very talented) showed me another interview of William Klein in which he takes a look at his work with a lot of humor and self-derision. Priceless!
When looking at the pictures of another photographer, it is not always obvious to understand why he has chosen to capture a particular scene or why has decided not to show the picture he has taken one second before or one second after this particular moment. In such situation, and unless the photographer is around me when I look at the picture, I often end up confused and I cannot decide whether I am looking at a great picture or just a piece of crap. The difference between both lies sometimes in the context surrounding the picture and the intentions of the photographer. For instance, the pictures taken by Robert Capa during D-Day landings might not be perfect from an artistic/aesthetic point of view, but the context in which they have been taken and the will of Capa to document this incredible moment of history transform these fuzzy images in rare, powerful documents. If they had been taken during a simple training for instance, without danger or fear, such pictures would have probably end up in a trash can.
It is always interesting to hear a photographer tell the story behind his pictures. It is even more interesting to hear him explain how he selected a particular picture to display at an exhibition or in a book, and why he rejected many other pictures that have been taken shortly before or after. It is what famous photographer William Klein does in this short video found on PetaPixel. It is a rare document that illustrates the creative process and the story-telling talent of one of the best contemporary photographers.
Jeff Mermelstein is with no doubt one of the most brilliant street photographers of our times. A large part of his work is dedicated to the streets of New York City where he lives and works. He captures the spirit of this city like no one else, with both humor and tenderness. In 2003, he gave an interview to the TV series “Media matters” where he explains his approach and why he loves so much taking pictures in New York. I found the interview (see the three following videos) on public-life.org, a website that I strongly encourage you to visit if you are interested in street photography.
Interview of Jeff Mermelstein (part I)
Interview of Jeff Mermelstein (part II)
Interview of Jeff Mermelstein (part III)
If you are a bit aware of the street photography blogosphere, you probably already know Eric Kim (http://erickimphotography.com/). He is a young street photographer based in the Los Angeles area and taking pictures all around the world. Eric Kim is undoubtedly talented with a camera in hand and he has a natural genius to detect and capture these strong characters that enrich the streets. However, his photographic talent is not (yet) what makes Eric Kim special in the world of contemporary street photography.
His originality comes from his incredible enthusiasm to share his passion and to pass his knowledge on to others. In less than two years, Eric Kim has built a large, passionated network of aspiring street photographers who follow his adventures and his progression toward, hopefully for him, the status of professional street photographer. One of Eric Kim’s favorite mean of sharing information is through the making of small videos, often taken in his office with his webcam, where he speaks about his photographer life. Recently, he has started to roam the streets with a GoPro video camera (http://gopro.com/) attached to his DSLR, giving us an unprecedented point of view on his shooting technique and his interactions with the people he encounters. The result is shown in the following video that I hope you will enjoy. You can watch more videos by Eric Kim on his blog (http://erickimphotography.com/blog/) and his Youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/erickimphotography).
No need to introduce Robert Frank (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Frank). He is one of the most famous street photographers (and photographers in general) of all time. “The Americans”, his most famous book (at least as far as I know), was published in 1958 and contains a picture (taken in 1955) of a young woman working in an elevator. This woman caught the attention of famous writer Jack Kerouac. In the introduction of “The Americans”, Kerouac wrote: “That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name & address?”. More than 50 years later, Sharon Collins, the young woman in the picture, tells on NPR (http://www.npr.org/) how she discovered the photograph for the first time, 40 years after it was originally taken. Discover the story thanks to the NPR player below. Also on NPR, listen to “‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography”.
Photography is, by essence, a visual art… so I thought until today after watching this video that the Beirut Street Photographers group was kind enough to share on its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/beirutstreetphotographers). This video (from the series Artists Wanted) features the work and life of Pete Eckert (http://www.peteeckert.com/) who became blind because of a genetic disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retinitis_pigmentosa). As a photographer, I am not sure how I would have reacted if affected by this terrible disease. But Pete Eckert reaction was truly amazing: after becoming completely blind, he simply decided to take photography seriously! Using sound as a way to detect objects and people, he composes pictures that seem to come from a different world, a world that I cannot fully understand because I cannot see with my ears as Pete Eckert. I hope you’ll enjoy this video and Pete Eckert’s work in general because, in a certain way, he pushes forward the boundaries of photography.
UPDATE – Chun Tong Chung (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hideousmanki/) kindly informed me of an awesome vintage documentary about Joel Meyerowitz’s work filmed in 1981. You can find it on the iN-PUBLIC collective’s website at this address: http://www.in-public.com/news/2011/3/1981.
When a master of street photography, the great Joel Meyerowitz, decides to put together a video to explain how he works, the only thing you can do is watch and learn. The quality of the video is not great, but the lesson is priceless.