Interested in following a street photographer for a few hours ? Be it preparation, itinerary, shot selection, exposure settings, composition or interaction with subjects, this article describes and illustrates with pictures a full morning of shooting in the streets of Rosario.
7:00am. The alarm clock rings. I hear the rain hit the roof and wonder if it is really a good day to go hunt the streets. On the other side, the light will be great as I am getting tired of these sunny days where high contrast has me skip on many shots. Today I’ll take a small Domke bag with me in case it pours. In the bag goes the M9, a 35mm, a 90mm, 2 extra batteries, my Gossen lightmeter and cell phone. I also take along a half case to protect the camera from potential showers. I opted for the 90mm since I want to do some compressed shots for the Street Photography Now Project whose instruction this week is to put our 3 dimensional vision in two planes. Finally, I won’t put on my surfer hat today as there will be no sun and I noticed anyways that I get spotted too easily due to my tourist appearance.
7:30 am. A friend that commutes daily to Rosario picks me up for the 25km drive. I hope today will be better then yesterday. A few hours of shooting and only a couple decent shots, bad outings do happen in street photography too.
8:10am. We drive by Rosario’s main park and suddenly ask him to drop me there. The great thing about street photography is that there is no defined goals except to shoot life as it happens, unstaged. You can start anywhere and wander as you wish. Obviously I check with my friend if the area is safe which is a must in large South American cities. Indeed, the last thing you want is to enter unawarely in a dangerous neighborhood. I get off the car, grab my camera and here I go. Evidently, two minutes after that, it starts to rain. No big deal, some of my favourite shots were taken in the rain. I take a few light readings with my lightmeter. Looks like today I will be shooting mainly at F1.4, 1/2000 and F2.8, 1/500. I’ll try to keep the ISO’s down to 200 but might need to raise it in some specificsituations.
8:19am – The horsetrack
I walk by the horse track and notice a few riders that are practicing this morning. I sometimes take shots that have mainly a trip documentary purpose, even though I try to give them a street photography spin. I mount my 90mm lens since the horses pass by at a dozen meters away from me. I look for some creative framing behind the fence’s bars and take a couple shots. Difficult to get a goo timing and sharp pictures in these conditions. I pump up the ISO’s to have high shutter speeds and stop down to F4 for more sharpness and contrast. Two riders pass by and I snap. Not the best shot but it will serve its documentary purpose, I also like the interaction between the two riders. I move on, it starts to rain heavily …
8:25am – The lonesome twins
There is no one in the park at these early hours. Yet I notice an odd face in the distance looking at me. As I come close I realize it is actually a dog sitting on a bench with its master. It is a great scene to compress the planes so I leave the 90mm lens on. I slowly but confidently get closer trying not to be too suspicious to the dog and bring my presence to attention of the woman. I take a first shot from the distance to make sure I don’t miss that moment. The dog doesn’t move so I get closer to get a tighter framing. The dog is still looking at me and I quickly take another two shots. A second later, the woman stands up. I am glad I did not wait too long. I am satisfied about that shot, I think it will be a good one.
8:29am. I noticed a well dressed girl getting ready to cross the road with her umbrella. It could be a great picture but I can’t seem to find a way to position myself to get both the angle and the depth I am after. Also I still have my 90mm lens on and this is definitely a 35mm sho so I resign myself to I skip on that shot. Too bad but there will be other opportunities. In street photography, you can’t spend time being remorseful about the shot you just missed. A greater one can happen a minute later and your mind has to be ready for it.
8:30am – Blue umbrella woman
As I get to the other side of the sidewalk, here is that other opportunity I was telling you about. I notice the woman sitting on the bench and quickly raise my camera to my eyes. I accelerate my path as I want to avoid being spotted. I make sure I keep depth in the frame (the street leading to the top left of the picture) and snap. I would have preferred my subject’s face to look a bit more towards me yet there was a risk not to have the umbrella in a good position since the woman was spinning it. This is the tough part in street photography, to succeed in having all the elements of a picture coincide perfectly in a split second.
8:35am. The police woman by the Court
My silly moment of the day. I walk by the main Court of Rosario and notice heavy police presence. In Argentina, it is never a good idea to take pictures in front of banks or police stations. I almost got the commando forces sent to me as I took a picture in front of a local bank. Hopefully a person that knew me prevented the person to do so. Still, I couldn’t resist to take the shot and positioned myself next to the police officer. I waited for a couple of minutes while looking elsewhere. Light conditions were pretty dark so I pumped up the ISO’s to 1600 and stop down to F8.0 to get a longer depth of field. I then discreetly aimed my camera towards the police office. The main challenge in this shot was to frame correctly from the hip as a 90mm field of view is very small. I took my time to frame, clicked and left my finger on the shutter trigger to delay the rewinding and avoid extra noise. I then turned around to rewind the shutter and quickly checked the framing on the LCD. I took a second shot with the same procedure, checked the result and felt it was better though I did not feel the compression gave me the shot I have envisioned. Enough, I have had my dosis of adrelanine and don’t want to get in trouble, so I move on.
8:40am. Transparent Umbrella
A block away I notice another woman dressed in green hiding below her transparent umbrella. This could be a great shot so I begin chasing her. I take a first shot from behind and quickly check on the LCD. Uninteresting, I hate shots from behind. My issue here is how to get in front of her discreetly, turn around and shoot on a tiny sidewalk. She solves my problem by suddenly changing sidewalk, so I accelerate my path and I also change sidewalk a bit ahead in front of her. I position myself between two cars and wait for her to enter my frame. These perpendicular shots are tough since you never know exactly at what distance where your subject will cross in front of you. Therefore I stop my lens down to F5.6 and still get enough shutter speed to freeze the moment. I snap without having time to have clear look at the composition. Focus ends up a bit off but I don’t think it bothers much. The main problem of the picture is the bright reflection on top of the umbrella that takes contrast out of the woman’s head.
8:45am A car comes very close to hit my leg at a crossroad. The guy drives on and parks a few meters away. I wait for him to exit the buidling and tell him all kind of words. Interaction with people is not always photographic. Enough emotions, I take a break and head for a bar where I chat with another customer that witnessed the scene.
9:10am The kiosk
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.8, 1/125, ISO200
I am in the street again and decide I am fed up with the 90mm focal. I swap to my standard 35mm which is a whole lot more versatile in shot selection. I have a look at the map and elect to take a “scan” walk. Indeed, Rosario’s downtown has the characteristic to have been built in blocks, so you can either walk on an North-South axis or West-East. I decide therefore to stroll around three streets in their whole lengths from South to North and backwards. This will allow me to discover new settings in the city. The first scene I encounter is a newsstand with some people busy buying newspapers. Something attracts me and I frame quite wide. I pay special attention to the old woman leaving on the right of the kiosk. I also try to exlude the woman on the left but my timing is off. The newsstand seller looks at me puzzled so I walk up to him and say hello. I explain why I took the shot and we start chatting friendily for a few minutes.
9:15 am – The photo shop
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.8, 1/125, ISO200
Scenes such as this one are a good example how human vision does not always translate into a good picture. This photography shop was huge and really gave the impression of over-sized. Yet losing the three dimensionality also makes you lose part of that impression. Still, I like the guy’s expression and how the poster girl on his left makes a counter point to his stance.
9:17am - The girl with the umbrella
When I saw this girl standing at a crossroad, I thought that a picture would get me spotted immediately. It did not, she never saw me. I neared slowly on her left, bent to include her eyes in the frame and shot. I had stopped down the lens to F2.8 to get both some shallow depth of field but making sure the front part of the umbrella would not be too blurry. In the end, I am not too happy about this shot, a bit too dull in my opinion.
9:29am – The red umbrella and the vintage car
I stood a few minutes around this car as I was fascinated by its color in the rain. I looked at all kind of different framing and decided to swap for my 90mm lens to get some compression. I then took two or three shots that were not very successful. Then this woman with a red umbrella neared so I took a few steps back, simulated I was looking at my LCD screen, pre-set the focus, stopped down the lens to get sufficient depth of field, then raised my camera quickly. The resulting shot is ok in terms of creative compostion yet this is not a very exciting scene.
9:32am – Beverage truck
I took about 4 shots at this scene and could never find the “decisive moment”. Indeed, I liked the view of the wide open truck full of beverages yet I could not find a way to position the delivery man in an interesting manner. He did look at me and smile at some point but I could never re-establish eye contact. Frustrated, I moved on.
9:37 am – US Bombs
As I reached this street corner, I noticed the “US Bombs” graffiti on the wall of the other side of the crossroad. I knew this would be a shot where I would get spotted so tried to walk directly towards the correct position. I also pre-set both focus distance and exposure settings to gain time when I reached the target position. Oddly, the girl never saw me and I waited for about a minute to get eye contact. The boy did look at me but never minded, he probably thought that I was taking a picture of the girl exclusively. My first shot was over-exposed and I took a couple more since the scene was static. I really wanted eye contact with the girl but did not want too look too obnoxious to the other people waiting at the bus stop. In the end I gave up and went on.
9:51am - The extinctor
This shot illustrates the instinctive part of street photography. Indeed I had basically no time to react and was mainly attracted by colors. The woman raised her eyes towars me yet I was not fast enough to catch the decisive moment. At the same time another woman walked in front of me which did not end up too much of a bother. Finally, I had no time to frame correctly and inconsciously aimed a bit too low. Had I caught the moment with woman looking at me with her cigarette in her mouth, it woud probably have been a great shot. Again, it is quite difficult to have all stars align in street photography, this is what makes it interesting.
10:09am – Politics and life
I am usually very attracted by scenes incorporating these old classic Argentinian cars. So when I spotted that red one at a construction site together with a politician ad (election are nearing here) in the background, I thought it was a good setting for a shot. I stopped down to F4.0 to get a bit more depth of field and had to increase the ISO level to 800 to keep a decent shutter speed. I then patiently waited for someone to walk in my frame to represent the Argentinian people. A woman with a trolley finally played that role. Meanwhile I was shooting that scene, a man looked suspiciously at me. I smiled and ignored him, he looked puzzled and walked away after a while.
10:12am – The clown politician
The last shot you took often will influence the next one. This is a perfect illustration of it as when I reached the next corner, I spotted this ad where the nose of a candidate was painted in red. I liked the setting and waited a few minutes for someone to walk in front of it. The picture also shows one of the dilemna of street photography : heels on the ground or good positioning ? Indeed, it is much preferable for your subjects to have both heels on the ground when you shoot them. It will give a good read on what they are doing and be more aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, it also means that you might wait a little more for it to happen (both heels on the ground) and you subject might not find itself anymore in the optimum position. This is what happened in the shot above, I would have liked the subject to be slightly more on the right, yet I went for both heels on the ground.
10:22am - The waitress’s cig.
This is another shot where ones needs to act very quickly to get the candid. Distance was not easy to estimate so I just pre-set the aperture to F2.8 to compensate any slight focus error. I also wanted to give some idea of where was my subject and therefore included part of the sidewalk and customers sitting at a table. When she looked at me, I clicked. She was not too happy about it and asked me if I had taken her picture. I answered positively and explained why. She then acted friendly and explained me she was hiding from her boss to smoke. Talking to people sometimes will bring a great story to tell when you show your pictures.
10:30 am - The ladder guys
This is an example of a complex scene to shoot. Indeed, I had spotted these two men on the other side of the street as they waited for the traffic light to turn to green. Obviously, taking a picture of a ladder from the front will not result very interesting due to the perspective. You will therefore have to position yourself perpendicularly. As the light turned green, I started walking towards the center of the road to get some separation from my subjects. I then estimated the focus distance and turned around quickly. The resulting shot shows that I should have walked even further from them to avoid cut feets and wheels. Also, I focused a bit further then my subjects which will show in a large print.
10:33am - Want mail ?
This is a scene that could have produced a great shot. This was also a very complicated one to execute. Indeed, I suddenly went from day light to the shadows of trees. At the same time, the girl was walking towards me. Since I had no time to bump the ISO up, I elected to stay at ISO200. It meant I also had to let the aperture at F1.4 to keep high shutter speeds. All in all, I needed to nail the focus so the depth of field would include both subjects. Not easy to achieve with moving subjects and though I got the girl in focus, the guy is slightly out of focus. Also note that the girl’s eyes were unluckily closed. This happens in street photography and is pretty much random in these situations. Finally, I noticed later that the girlfriend of the guy was sitting on a scooter on the right of the picture. Potentially, this was an amazing scene but I was beaten by its complexity.
10:35am – I see a girl all dressed in red getting on a cab. As I prepare myself to shoot, she spots me and turns her head away. Another missed opportunity.
10:40am - Time for another coffee break. I have already walked 6 kms today. I am back at the Court and walk in a bar. The waiter asks me about the brand of my camera, this is the second time only in two months that someone is interested in my Leica. Another proof of how unobstrusive it is.
11:08am - The Gaucho
I exit the bar and straight away spot that great character. There is no way I’ll get a candid here so just cross the street and walk straigh up to him and shoot. Some call it the “in your face style”, I don’t especially like it but sometimes it is the only way to proceed. After I took the shot, I say “Hello” and walk away. I wish I had added “Nice hat” to give him an idea of why I took the shot. In terms of settings, I went for a large aperture to blur the left part of the picture. I wanted depth yet the attention had to remain on my subject. While reviewing the shot, I noticed that the man sitting next to him was partly included. Thinking over it again, I should probably have framed a bit more on the right.
11:08am – Intemporal elegance
When I spotted this lady, she was on the same side of street as I was. Given her position, I could not have shot her sideways so I walked across the street until I face her. This was going to be another “in your face” type of shot so I waited for her to look in another direction to buy myself some time to cross the street again. I pre-set the focus distance and aperture and walk decisively towards her. As I reached the selected point of view I realized that a sign post was in the way and had to basically wrap my arms around it. I resulted shooting from a bit further then expected and the shot resulted slightly out of focus. The lady looked at me almost instantly and I said “looking very elegant today”. She smiled and I walked away.
11:28am – The dog crew
Scenes with dogs are always difficult to shoot since they move a lot and their reactions are difficult to anticipate. So imagine when you face three of them accompagnied by a man. I took several shots of this scene but could never get a decent composition with all dogs’ heads in my frame. It was very frustrating because it could have been a very good shot. I also had difficulties to manage the depth of field and should have bumped the ISO up to allow for a longer one. I really wish I would have framed better but given the difficulty and the dogs trying to lick me, I gave up.
11:32am – The little girl with an umbrella
This was my second hip shot from the day. As I said many times, I hate hip shots. I think it is a bit coward and composition is never good. In this instance the scene appeared very quickly so I would not have had the time to raise the camera to my eyes. It was hip shot or no shot. Given the thin depth of field and the vertical position of the camera, I believe the shot was not too bad in terms of composition.
12:14am – The girl at the corner
I have been in the street for 4 hours and I am getting tired. I have now walked for about 10 kilometers and my level of attention is decreasing. Street Photography is a tiring discipline, both physically and mentally. Imagine you are some kind of Terminator robot who is constantly scanning its surroundings looking for shots. Nevertheless, I did notice this elegant girl walking by and decided to go for one of my thin depth of field shots. I nailed the focus but the pictures simply depicts “a girl walking”. Not that interesting.
12:26am – The waiter’s break
My last shot of the morning, probably a good illustration of my state of mind at that moment. When you feel tired, better stop and do something else. I will go for lunch and shoot some more in the afternoon. This time I will pick a few street corners and let shots come to me.
I took about 55 shots that morning of which I have showed you about 23. The rest were mainly multiple shots of a same scene, mis-exposed or mis-focused shots. Out of the 23 shots, I think the dog sitting on the bench really stands out. There are another 2 or 3 shots that I like a lot and could have posted as my daily entry on this blog. I will probably keep around 10 other ones in my archives and will delete the rest. So next time you hear street photographers saying that they are happy when they come back with one great shot out of full day of shooting, you’ll know why.