Street Photography technique and psychology. Post number 5. The ‘second look’ — and ‘Neutral zones’ in your picture.

 

For an explanation of this series and the the conventions used in these posts please see post number 1.

Post number 1. Introduction and Primary and secondary subjects.

Post number 2. My street photography kit.

Post number 3. Clean backgrounds.

Post number 4. Looking for interesting light — backlighting and silhouettes.

 

Bluel Lane, Jodphur.

                                                                                Blue Lane, Jodphur.

 

Background to this image.

Jodphur is the 2nd largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan and these blue lanes  are world famous not least because  the amazing travel photographer Steve McCurry returned many times photographing the city and its blue houses. I love Jodhpur too because it’s a really pleasing mixture of being a vibrant, bustling city whilst still retaining a lot of old world charm. No high rises here — just  beautiful old buildings and plenty of cows wandering the streets. Personally I like cows  and other animals in the street and unlike some other Indian cities Jodphur has them in abundance. And, of course, there are the famous blue walls which are easily found,  particularly in the old sector. It is because of these indigo walls are why Jodphur is known Blue city’.

 

 

 

1/Pre-visualisation.

I was walking around this particular area of Jodhpur with a local chap showing me around. He was taking me to the heart of the blue city. The main reason I had a guide on this occasion was because the lanes can be so labyrinthine it is said to be relatively easy to get lost and start wandering around in circles.

So here we were just turning a corner and I was greeted with this lovely vision, indigo blue walls on one side with a strong shaft of light cutting through the pavement. The light was perfect, strong enough to cast defined shadows of the roof tops but gentle enough for the dynamic range of my camera to capture all the detail in the scene. 

The lane was empty and I realised that all I needed was an interesting character to be in that lane at particular place and I will call that place my ‘neutral zone’. I was looking for this area to have two characteristics. It would be a place that was neither in the strong light nor deeper shadow because I want to be able to show subject detail when it reached that spot. Secondly it would have to be an uncluttered space in the frame, typically at an intersection of image thirds or even dead centre for the composition to be pleasing to me. A the neutral zone needs ideally be a place where that subject is in clear space, not having anything in the background or elsewhere that would interfere with showing its shape cleanly. My having a strong line appear to cut through the back of his head, like a window, for example would not be good, in fact it is usually terrible. Let me put it another way – Put your subject in clear space! Put your subject in clear space! Put your subject in clear space!

 

So to recap – I have an empty scene and I want a subject in my preferred neutral zone and a neutral zone is:

a/somewhere they will neither be to dark or too bright and balanced nicely in the scene composition.

b/somewhere with clear space that frames them without anything cutting across their shape and form.

 

  

2/Technical considerations.

There were two main technical considerations for me here in this shot and they were Exposure and Depth of Field. (DOF)

Exposure. I wanted to capture as much detail in highlight and shadow ares as I could and I say that mainly because there was a big, strong shaft of light piercing the scene. Had I allowed this area to burn out because I was exposing for the shadows areas it would have become a great big ugly shaft of ‘no digital information’. Pure white — no detail on the pavement. Because that light is such a broad area, right in the middle of the scene I I knew it would have been pretty hideous. Moreover, even though this scene was pretty contrasty I knew it was late enough in the day for the level of this light to be within my cameras dynamic range and had the possibility looking very nice. If your camera has a huge dynamic range, thats all very good but the image can tend to look a little like an HDR image which is not style I like particularly. My camera has a pretty average dynamic range of about 11.5 EV and if it is possible to capture a fairly contrasty image within that range I know from experience it can be quite pleasing. To give you an idea of dynamic range — my camera, a  Canon 5dmk3 covers a pretty average 11.5 stops and a Nikon d800 will cover 14.5 stops which is a pretty big difference.

So for the exposure I concentrated on not burning out the highlights and I did this by dropping the exposure down and down until the blinking highlights on my camera were no longer blinking. Yes, turn on your blinking highlights. They may look daft on the back of your screen when you show people an image but, oh boy, are they a useful tool. Once I had tweaked down the exposure I just needed to double check that I am not blocking up the blacks on my histogram. I know Im going to have a heavy black side on my histogram but I don’t want throw that digital information away either. Balance out these highlight and shadows and you will have probably a exactly the right exposure and you will have all the digital information to work with in your raw file when you are post processing.

 

Depth of field. DOF. This shot was taken at f20 which I now realise is probably un unnecessarily high aperture for the depth of field I actually needed. By shooting at f20 I was trying to give myself a huge range of depth of field so that where ever my subject was in the frame, they would be in focus. I pre focused on an area about 3 meters from me and left my focus there. My depth of field at F20 would be 1.8 meters in front of the subject (3m away) to infinity. At F8 my DOF would have been 1.9 m in front and 4.16m behind. F20 was more than I needed and F8 probably not quite enough so F11 would have been about right. The problem is that shooting at higher apertures can give you more DOF but it drives up your ISO because you need to get more light into the camera and also importantly, you lens will not be at its sharpest.

Lens sharpness at various apertures. Generally speaking your lens will be at its sharpest from F8 to F11. If you don’t need a an extremely large DOF then don’t drive it up higher than that. I use this resource for looking at various DOF tables — its the best I have found and makes a very nice iPhone ap too. Ken Rockwell seem to think it doesn’t actually matter and he may well be right. Im sure he knows more than me about this kind of thing. In any case a couple of useful links here.

http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/lens-sharpness.htm  

http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

 

 

Histogram for this image.

Histogram for this image.

 

Prefocusing. So, the general idea of pre focusing is this. If you focus on a place where you think your subject is likely to be walking through, you do you do not then need to keep refocusing or tracking your subject with a focus mode like AI servo or Continuous focusing (Nikon). In this instance, the image above, I could have moved over to some tracking focus mode but since I liked the frame I had, I didn’t really want have to track every subject who came in and out of the scene because that would have meant adjusting my camera position as they moved through the frame. Because of the nature of someone walking slightly diagonally across your frame, a continuous focus mode my not be the best mode to employ because you either need to adjust your focus point position in the viewfinder or keep slightly moving your camera, changing the framing of your each time you moved, albeit slightly. So, you can solve all this by simply working out that if you focus say, 3 m in front of you with a 35mm lens, at F11 more or less everything in your frame a couple of meters in front of you and a lot more behind that will be in acceptable focus. Its a quick and dirty way of focusing that works particularly well with wide lenses because they have a lot more DOF than a more telephoto lens. Remember — Wide lenses (16mm to 35mm) offer a lot of DOF and the longer lenses decrease DOF at the same aperture. So your DOF at 85mm for example will be very small, even at F8. At 200mm it will be tiny.

 

Wide angle lenses and DOF.

Let me say a little more about wide lenses and this relationship with DOF. I like the 35mm because it offers a frame that I feel very comfortable with. I feel the shots look about the same as I would see with the my own eye in terms of the width of the frame, what I see from edge to edge. There is quite a lot of debate about what lens mimics the human eye best and I hear contrary viewpoints — suffice to say I like the 35mm and I would hazard a guess that it is the most preferred street photography lens, generally speaking. Famously though Cartier Bresson nearly always shot with a 50mm and did so extremely well. When I put a 50mm on and I feel like someone has tied one hand behind my back because I find it so difficult to frame with. Just the addition of the 15mm makes me feel like I am twice as far away!

So, not only do I really love the frame that a 35mm offers but it has added bonus of offering a comparatively large amount of DOF because it is a wide angle lens. It is the  the least wide of the wide angle lenses but nevertheless it is wide angle. This property of offering more DOF for a given aperture can be very useful because it means you often don’t have to worry too much about your whether your subject is in focus — because they probably are, even if you missed focusing on them correctly. This will not be the case of course if you start shooting at say F2.8 and you need to be careful at F4 but, the higher your aperture, the more likely you are going to have good crisp focus with many of your elements in your frame. Imagine 1 man you focus on and another is standing 4 feet behind him, perhaps a dog standing 2 feet in front of the first man — at F10, as long as you are not standing too close to them, they will all be in reasonable focus. If you miss the exact spot you wanted to focus on then it may not be the end of the world, they may still all be within your field of focus because you are using wide angle lens at a high aperture.

 

 

3/Psychology

So, where is their a psychological element to taking this image? There is a very simple but strong one! As various people walked in and out of my frame and I was shooting quietly away ( remember my camera is always on silent mode) many were looking at me with a look that suggested to me that they were wondering what an earth I was shooting? As usaul I made no eye contact with them that would have suggested I was shooting them or indeed seeking their tacit permission to shoot them. To have such an interaction may have been a nice thing to do but I do not need the distraction of that conversation, I really just want to get the shot and move on. Engaging with your subjects for me is generally something I do after I have shot them, not before.

The first part of this psychology is ask yourself what these people walking into your frame might think you are shooting? For a start, they probably think they have walked into your shot. They may think they have walked into your shot of this lovely lane and spoiled it! They almost certainly have no idea that actually you were actually waiting for them to complete the image.  Sometimes people even hurry past me or they apologise because they think they have ruined  my picture by their presence. Mostly though, they don’t even realise that you are shooting them because I am using  my silent shutter and they are completely lost in thought, too preoccupied to be concerned by what I am doing.

The second instance of a psychological element to this situation is that people walking from behind you into the frame will often be very curious and want to turn around and look again. This is particularly true I believe of younger people, children and adolescents. Why? Because younger people in India mostly love being photographed and they are often as curious ass cats! Ive heard it said that in India if you go and mind your own business and  stand on a remote hilltop,  it wont be long before someone will come all the way up the hill to see what you are doing there. From my experience this is true. Indian people are generally curious, interested folk and I like that very much.

I had a strong idea that after these two boys walked ahead of me, one or both of them would look back to see if I was still shooting this scene while they were in it. I was indeed rewarded with that ‘look back’ — great I thought! Im not a big fan of shooting people backs, I think it usually an un-engaging shot that although works sometimes, but if you do it too often it becomes a rather tired cliché. Like shooting obliquely from the side, I think it can be also be a shot that demonstrates your unwillingness to shoot people from the front. My point is I would not have kept shooting if it wasn’t for the gamble that they would turn around and the gamble obviously paid off. I gambled on my suspicion that they would conform to a particular trait of human nature – curiosity. I have many shots where I have relied on curiosity to provide me with a strong expression in an image and I shall share more of those later in this series of shots.

 

Tip – if someone is either looking away from you and you know they have already seen you be aware that they may well take another look and it is this ‘look’ that will often become your most rewarding shot. Either keep shooting or be prepared to shoot as soon as they turn to look. The look may quickly turn into a smile that will look like a pose so you have a split second to nail that more ‘natural’ expression.

 

 

3/Taking the Shot.

Pretty straight forward once I had framed it up there wasnt much to do other than keep shooting. I simply photographed various characters coming in and out of the scene and once I had got the look back from the boy I was happy I had got a shot I would be happy with. I had other characters appear earlier who had already made reasonably strong image but the boys gesture clinched it for me. The main thing I did was to keep shooting while they were moving, my focus was already locked in one place and then the eventual content is entirely down to luck. Work the scene, don’t give up until you have got the shot.

 

 

4/Picture analysis.

Light - pleasantly soft late afternoon light casting quite strong shadows but not so strong as to make the scene beyond the dynamic range of my camera. (5dmk3)

Composition – 1/A leading line — both the strong shadows of the roof on the pavement and the lane in general act as a leading line to what might be considered a secondary subject, that being the pretty blue house details at the end of the lane 

2/It is­ a central composition. The boys, my primary subjects are centred in the frame.

Gesture – the ‘look back’ from the boys, the way they walk and their mirrored body shapes, the fact they are jointly carrying a bag is interesting, the unusual vibrant blue walls.

 

5/What could I have done better?

The shot is pretty much as I would have liked it. I was careful and had plenty of time to get my exposure just as I wanted it. However, I shot this at F20 which was an error for two reasons. I didn’t need that much depth of field so it forced me to drive my ISO higher than I needed. Shooting at F20 also meant my image might not be as sharp as it could have been because my lens will be sharpest around F8-F11.

It would have been nice to have both boys look back. There wasn’t really anything I could do about this other than wait for a completely different shot which is a consideration. Always a good idea to zoom in and check expressions and eyes being open on your image, you may choose to discard it and wait for a better one.

 

 

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this post Id love to hear them. You can of course find me on Facebook for my latest work.

© Mark Carey and www.markcareyphotography.com/blog/ 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Carey and www.markcareyphotography.com/blog/ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

12 Comments

  1. Bob Owen - Terrific article Mark and it goes without saying, a superlative photograph. A really good remind for me, especially about DOF. I sometimes fall into the trap of shooting wide open and spoiling a good image by missing the focus point, especially in a pacy street scene. Always good to be re-focused on the basics, so thank you, a thoughtful and helpful post.

  2. Anurag Sharma - Mark, I'm not sure how I discovered your work. Probably through the myriad of possible 6 degree separations through some social media platform. I'm glad I did. You know what I like about you, other than some great work, is the fact that you are willing to acknowledge the mistakes. That other than technicals, previsualisation, composition, timing and light, mistakes and failures are as important. Important in learning to produce a better photograph, next time. I've done it myself, mistakenly shot at F18 at ISO 12000 when really a much wider aperture would been sufficient....but I was too busy looking at the great picture I was about to take and not paying attention to the technicals. A mistake though one learns from. I'm a wedding and portrait photographer who is pretty much doused in the ideals of photojournalism and portraiture in producing my work. Very soon, I am going to be showcasing my Nepal project. Nepal, a country similar to India, is full of colour and tradition. There is the soft, blossoming yellows and blues from the sunrises and sunsets and the hard midday sun. I love the sun...any time of the day. In terms of dynamic range and for the sake of art, I feel one can willingly sacrifice shadow or highlight details to achieve a photograph. Content is king. It's a personal thing, of course, and that is what makes each photographer's style that little bit different....and we all learn ideas we can utilise from each other. Looking forward to more of your work and analysis. I personally know how much time one must invest in writing these types of posts, so thank you very much for taking the time and sharing your thoughts. best wishes and kind regards, Anurag.

    • Mark - Anurag, yes, there is a lot of work goes into writing these but I find them interesting to do because they make me analyse my own approach which is how hopefully I improve. We learn more from our errors than our successes I think. Thanks for your thoughtful comments it would be great to see your work. Mark.

  3. Margaret Swan - An interesting read Mark - great tip about turning on the blinking highlights - noted, thank you!

  4. Doug Foss - I've really enjoyed reading this. and seeing the photo of course. Your preparations and pre-vis made this picture possible. I've had a few lucky grab shots in my life, but most of the photos I've made have required work beforehand. I'm a fan of 35mm lens myself. It is only 15mm to a 50 as you say but that is 42% longer! It is rare to find someone that communicate with both pictures and words. I hope to see more of your works. Thanks!

    • Mark - Thanks Doug - I appreciate your comments.

  5. Krishnendu Saha - Superb analysis Mark :) I am proud that I got an opportunity to spend some time with a photographer like you in our city :) God bless...

    • Mark - Thanks Krish - I really enjoyed shooting with you too ;)

  6. Adam Riley - Another great post Mark, I'mr really enjoying this series of posts!

    • Mark - Thanks Adam - Im very happy to hear you say that. ;)

  7. Talat Hussain - Mark, I have to concur with all of the positive comments that have come before mine, especially Anurag's comments with respect to your honesty in disclosing where you feel you went wrong and what you could have done better. I'm a huge fan of your work, and like Anurag, I can't quite remember how I stumbled upon your work but I'm so glad I did. Your wedding work is stunning, and in my opinion better than some of the recognised greats in the UK, as you are consistently producing and showcasing new work, and as they are always rotating some of their past best works which made them famous. Your street work echoes some of the greats that you admire, Mccurry, Webb and HCB. To copy or emulate is a form of flattery, but to execute it, get it right technically and make the work your own, which you very clearly do, is another matter. I really appreciate your insight into your own photos, have you considered maybe a few words regarding your post processing techniques, I know you don't like the HDR look, the processing on your street work reminds me of a cross between Webb & Mccurry's work, which really lends well to your pictures. It seems to me you have put a lot of effort into getting the look you desire, and again I really like it, the black and white processing is exemplary, and I'm left admiring each photograph for what seems an age. I for one am grateful to you for your blog, I'm engrossed in your writing, but admittedly more so in the photos...when's the book due? I know you are working alongside a worthy cause in India and run workshops out there, have you considered workshops/mentoring people on UK soil? If you ever have the time I for one would love to meet with you and listen to you over a coffee for a few hours, I'll provide the coffee :D

    • Mark - Talat - Im humbled by your comments, I really am. I have been very slow in producing more posts in this series but they are very much in the pipeline. I write them when I am travelling but once back in the UK shooting weddings I find it hard to make the time. Soon I will travel again and hopefully find the time to finish it. A book? Who knows? If it were viable I would certainly consider that. All the best. Mark.

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