When you’re out shooting, what draws your attention?

#AmbulantLife

"Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."

~ Elliott Erwitt
Community Member Dan Redler and I are both currently enrolled in Dotan Saguy's Street Photography Masterclass, which was released earlier this year. I've written a bit about Dotan and his work, you can check that article out here if you feel so inclined. Anyway, one of the module assignments inside of this course requires students to answer the question What Draws You? I find this to be a pretty expansive question with no short answer and wanting to be a good student, I answered the question, but I mean, I really answered the question. I feel that this in important inquiry and I wanted to share it with you. The following discourse could serve separating into multiple articles for independent discussion, though I want to put it here for posterity and perhaps clean it up and expand upon it later. I hope you find something here, and I certainly encourage a discussion in the comments below.

1. Moments that Matter

Ultimately, I’m looking to create images that are beautiful, and which contain moments that matter. That seems pretty simple on the surface but since both of these criteria are entirely subjective it’s really about what these two components mean to me. And each of these two components are loaded up with their own criteria, which again, I have firmly planted in my own head, my habits, and in my sensibilities, but would take a rather long article to explain. I’ll try to do it in short form for whomever might be reading this.

First, one might subscribe to the Henri Cartier-Bresson thing around “the Decisive Moment.” I’m not a subscriber of this whole philosophy, though I am a big fan of HCB’s work and his approach. I’ve seen videos of him working on the streets and he was a balletic little thing who quite literally danced around his images and created magic. Two things that are very important to note is that first, he was a classically-trained painter, and as such he had his fine art education firmly planted which informed his sense of composition and subject weight. This includes all of the geometry and balance that he was so good at. The second important note is that HCB hated the term “the Decisive Moment.” This is misattributed to him. He hated it. That term was foisted upon him by a book editor who renamed his first book The Decisive Moment instead of translating it from the original French title, Images à la Sauvette, which HCB far preferred. He regretted being saddled with that and having to live with it throughout his entire career. I’ve seen many images that contain what could arguably be described as a Decisive Moment, but this doesn’t automatically make for an image that I am going to care about.

Don’t get me wrong; capturing the Decisive Moment requires skill and luck and preparation and luck and reflexes and luck. It’s hard. I prefer to look for, and to attempt to capture to the best of my ability, moments that matter. Matter to me, of course. For instance, a pic of a skier coming off the end of a ramp and flying off into an epic jump is definitely an example of a decisive moment. I’m not into sports though, and therefore I don’t give a shit about such a moment. I’ll leave that to the sports guys. It’s a moment that (to me) doesn’t matter. So, moments that matter. That’s item one for me.

2. Mood

Next is mood. I’m hyper-sensitive to the mood of a scene. This is one of those things that’s very difficult to describe. I either feel it or I don’t feel it. I can often inject the sort of mood that I’m looking for with more or less exposure compensation, or with how I post process the image. (More on that in a moment.) I was talking just today to a friend who mentioned that he is striving to have his images appear as true to life as possible. I told him that I think that’s great for him, but I don’t want my own images to look “true to life.” If I wanted images that look true to life, I’d simply shoot with my iPhone. No filters, no processing. True to life. I don’t want true to life. Personally, I feel that photographs should look “photographic.” And what on Earth does that even mean?? Sounds like nonsense, doesn’t it? It’s not, but it is very subjective and deeply personal.

One of my big problems with technology today is that cameras, both still and video, are just too good. The resolution is too high. Everything looks too clean, crisp, so very digital, and I hate it.

I don’t like to watch HD television programming and I can’t stand HDR photography. I like being inhibited by the camera’s natural limitations. I like that film, and most camera sensors can only see about 65% of the light that the human eye can perceive. I like that if you have a high dynamic range scene and you expose to the right of the histogram, you end up with deep blacks. I like that if you expose for the shadows you wind up with high key brights. I like how film renders “reality.” My favorite images are film images. Hands down. I like that the colors are not accurate. I like that the lighting is not perfectly “true to life.” I believe that photographs should look “photographic” and as such I will process my own digital photos to include some filmic aspects to dull down the perfection coming off of the Leica or Fujifilm sensors that I use. I also shoot film and am working hard to improve my skills around that whole discipline. So there we have mood.

3. Subject

Next is subject. Most of my images have 1 or more people in them, though I try not to get crowds in my shots unless I’m specifically showing (say) just how crowded the Santa Monica Pier can be on the Fourth of July. Then I’ll want to get as much crowding and claustrophobia in there as possible (mood.) Otherwise, I do try to simplify my compositions as much as I can by reducing the subjects to only as many as the frame (the moment) requires. Sometimes I can create an image that carries my requirements around moment and mood without any life form in the photo, though evidence of the human element is largely required to pull this off. I tend to look for relationships between my subjects. Of course there’s the gesture that I’m always on the look for, but I largely seek an exchange between two subjects. Shooting in Italy is so much fun because people are arguing with each other all the time and there is so much opportunity for catching two people actively engaged in intense shouting matches with one another, and these relationships make for cool moments. I consider myself to be a fairly (usually) acute observer and I’m looking for all of the things Dotan mentions in this assignment description. Faces, gestures, relationships, exchanges, mystery, emotion, humor, joy (especially joy), irony. While on the street I’m ever scanning my surroundings. Some days I see far more or less than other days and I have been able to connect that with how my life is otherwise going at the time. 

4. Presentation

The next thing I look for is composition and presentation. My favorite images are made with a rather narrow depth of field. I’m not talking about shooting street wide open, necessarily, that’s really difficult to do. You all know the term “F/8 and be there.” I don’t really like to work at f/8 though I’ll do it while I’m shooting from the hip, or while I’m executing a zone-focusing strategy in a particular area. I’m not good enough with zone-focusing enough to do it at a faster aperture than around f/8. When I’m working up close and in tight formation, I will very frequently work at f/4 because (on a 35mm sensor or on 35mm film) this gives me the look I’m after. Have a look at the Jeff Mermelstein image with the man holding the paperback novel in his mouth, or similarly of Mermelstein’s image of the woman with the $10 bill in her mouth. He’s working at maybe f/2 there, and while that’s a bit too shallow for what I’m after, it’s close.

Image Image by Jeff Mermelstein

I feel that to achieve what I’m after, both with regards to the look I’m going for and to convey the story I’m trying to convey, I usually don’t require background elements to be in sharp focus. If I’m working Venice Beach, it’s enough to have a row of shops disappearing off on the left hand side of the frame while a couple of palm trees are visible to the right. These items, combined with a compelling subject moments still conveys “you are in Venice Beach right now” and the background items do not need to be in hard focus in order to achieve this. Also, throwing the background into softer focuses also serves the necessary (for me) function of subtly blurring any other humans that I’d prefer weren’t in my shot, but who are by simple virtue of working in a crowded public corridor.

I routinely deploy all manner of “get high” and “get low” camera angles. I like Dutch angels with a cantered horizon line. I sometimes throw the camera level way off if it will help to create tension, particularly with a subject in motion. I’m not a very big fan of rules.

To that end, I don’t feel that focus is necessarily vital either. Henri Cartier-Bresson once quipped that “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” That line has been taken way out of context and in all actuality enjoys a very rich level of subtext that I think is almost entirely overlooked by a 21st century rhetoric. I’ve been meaning to discuss this one on a live podcast with a couple of fine art friends to really get to the bottom of it. It runs deep, but there’s this crazy obsession with focus and sharpness especially among the sort of male photographers (it’s always guys) who are also heavily into the gear worship aspect of the thing. So many of HCB’s images were soft focus, which is interesting because he was shooting with an M3 or M4 for most of his life and he was using lenses that were renowned for their sharpness. Yet his images are pretty blurry. Yet they’re excellent. They have MOOD for days.

I’ve intentionally pulled focus on some of my images to try to throw them just barely off into abstract territory and I’ve had some good success with these shots. Some of my favorite images in my library are out of focus or were shot with an intentionally dragged shutter to get the motion blur happening.

Here's an example of that, shot in Downtown Los Angeles. I was going for mood and vibe far more than documentation and realism. 

Image by Jeff Mermelstein

Alright, that one was a bit long, so congratulations for sticking it out. What about you? What draws YOU when you're out shooting? What are you after? What's your plan? What's your fallback plan in case your plan doesn't work out?

Thanks for reading, and thanks even more for leaving a comment below.

Cheers!

Chris

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Responses

  1. I’m a habitual seer and I’m endlessly curious. I see pictures everywhere I turn my head. When I’m out with my camera I often wish I had no fear. I wish I could enter right into a conversation between two people or a group of people, a family, lovers, etc and shoot authentic moments unfettered. I am compelled to create an image which encapsulates the emotionally charged connection I felt at that moment. Many times I feel that charge from an arrangement of light, color and texture from an old store front or random building, house or whatever catches my eye. I find myself drawn to a scene and most of the time I have no clue why, but I when look through the viewfinder and suddenly what drew me becomes apparent in the frame and that’s when I trip the shutter. This process is unplanned and happens without much thought, it’s more of an intuitive and automatic response for me. I suppose I just want to make the kind of photos that I would enjoy looking and it would be nice to know others enjoy them as well.

    1. One of my major goals right now is to increase the substantive impact my images have, at the very least for myself. I’m starting to realize that the one thing holding me back is fear, exactly as you say. What’s interesting about this is that it comes and goes. You’ve seen me at work, I am often entirely fearless, moving about with zero fucks to give. That’s not how it is all the time though. I find that on other days I do carry that fear around like some sort of cocoon and it — I don’t know, protects me? — keeps me from really getting into that scene and capturing the essence of it. I think the fear also causes me to see less deeply, keeping my perception of a scene rubbing only on the surface of the thing.

    2. Interesting. I never feel the need to click when 2 people are having a moment. Only when the scene is perfect. I’m not too concerned about the people, but the scene as a whole. As thought I am saying “look how happy people are in this beautiful world”. I look at my photos and that’s what I can see at least. I never take photos of homeless people, despair, crying, suffering, fighting, it’s never negative. It’s nothing I think about, it’s just what I see when I look at them now. I think, huh… interesting. I didn’t know that’s who I was. So optimistic. Maybe in a way this is why I relate to photos from McCurry and Parr. I don’t know where I got the obsession with things being arranged properly and strong figure to ground. It feels like an OCD thing almost.

        1. I do like things organized. I’m not obsessed or anything. But for example when I teach. It has to follow a pattern. Again and again. Maybe that’s why I’m good teaching kids. And I do like the routine of life. Maybe I find comfort in a routine and so that’s why I like patterns or organization in a photo.

  2. For me, since I’m a beginner, this is an interesting discussion to have if we get together for a workshop (after or before we shoot). As far as I see it now that I’m at the start of my journey is that I realize one thing is answering this question from my mind, and one thing that I can tell is that sometimes I talk a lot of crap, so that it’s easier for me to LOOK at the photos I’ve been taking and ask myself, what is this guy after? As if I was looking at someone else’s photos. Just go and shoot from my gut and see what sticks out again and again.

    So far this is what I see I’m after.

    Composition:

    I look for simplicity. For some reason I’m really obsessed with strong figure to ground. That tells me where to put my camera. The subject should never get lost in the composition. The subject should stick out. But instead of isolating it with shallow depth of field, I like it when it is isolated because of a strong figure to ground. It makes the subject shine like a bight lightbulb.

    I also like things to flow in diagonal lines or have a geometric balance in the frame. There can’t be any dead space for me. If a photo isn’t balanced or the geometry isn’t well composed I get an uncomfortable feeling in the gut. It’s hard to explain.

    I know if the composition is right when I get a feeling like weightlessness. It’s like flying in my dreams. It’s hard to describe. I also heard Bresson say the same thing about composition. I don’t think that he thought of lines when he was shooting. He said to him it was like perfume. Instinct. That’s funny that he would say that because I’ve heard genius mathematics guys that can remember rows of numbers that take hours to recite, and when they ask them how they remember they say they don’t see numbers like we do, they see shapes and colors some of them.

    So for me composition isn’t anything I think about too hard, but I feel it when it happens and like Bresson would say “BANG!” I take it. And it won’t be just 1 shot, it’ll be a series of shots. Almost like dancing with someone. And i feel it when it is over and I most on.

    Subject:

    I used to think that I wanted to shoot people to have some sort of emotional impact. But actually when I look at my photos I can see that the people are there as part of the overall composition. Like a painting. It’s not the emotion of the person, but rather the beauty of the scene. Isn’t that interesting? I discover something looking at my photos but I thought that I didn’t do that. Actually I do. It’s right there in my shots. I really don’t care much about their feelings. I’m looking for beauty. The beauty of like and the beauty of people in the world. This is what I’m taking photos of. I used to think I took photos because I was curious about people. Not true. The truth is in my shots.

    The “Look”:

    Ultimately, how are my photos going to look like? I’ve gone away from sharpness and bokeh. I could care less about it now. Perfection is boring. I love the imperfections in a lens. and also the classic warm colors of Kodacolor Gold film. Not too saturated, but warm and contrasty where it needs to be.

    I mostly shoot between f4 and f5.6 unless, but I think mostly f5.6. My lens looks nice at f2 for portraits or if I need to separate the background for whatever reason with a shallow depth of field. Doesn’t happen often. I would say mostly with portraits.

    I would summarize as “simple scenes that are geometrically interesting and subjects that have a very strong figure to ground and show the beauty of the world and the people in it”.

    1. That’s interesting, Carlos and I think it’s great that you’re beginning to identify with what you like and what is just not interesting to you. I’ve written about this before as well. I don’t know if you’re a raw shooter or if you rely on the jpgs your camera is creating, but you might consider moving your film preset to one of the Acros presets. You can still use the color images derived from the raw files, but having the viewfinder in B&W will help you better determine your figure to ground and will reveal very quickly when you’ve got overlapping and bad intersections. I find that learning to “see” in monochrome has helped my compositions a LOT. Now, that said, I still prefer the color product after I’ve caught the image, but I benefit from shooting in monochrome.

  3. When I was a Masters student (ages ago) the Chair of my department (and the professor of my course on Textual Analysis) was absolutely obsessed with this idea. For his doctoral dissertation, for example, he attempted to define the “moment” when a photographer takes a picture. This was before digital, of course, when there was no such thing as “bursting” or “spray and pray.”

    It gets technical, but he was looking for the phenomenological experience of the “photographer’s moment,” which is the jargon-y way of saying everything in this post. How does one *decide* to take the picture at that very moment? His conclusion: all the photographer’s experience, emotion, settings, and scene, his contextual understanding of the medium (this is very important), and the sheer opportunity – are all thrown into a blender and culminates in that button push at the time.

    I love Eduardo’s response, because it seems to be another way of saying what my professor of yore took a dissertation to say. 🙂

    For me, I started off with a very definite philosophy of how I wanted to take pictures. The world can be beautiful, scary, wonderful, sexy, nightmarish. I see these moments in time, passing by, and how do you describe such moments to give off the emotional charge? How can you *communicate* those points in time that are often very fleeting?

    I wanted to “get good” at photography so that I could share those moments that I saw with people. As in Assignment #8, I wanted people to see them as *I* saw them, which was often radically different than they saw themselves. I wanted people to be as overwhelmed as I was at the colors of the Barcelona market, as thrilled at a swing dance arial, as aroused by the sexy imperfections of a human nude.

    At first it was a point-and-shoot, which couldn’t do what I wanted it to do. Then a simple Rebel XTi, which was much better. Then a 5D. Then a Fuji XT-2. Now a H1. All of them have given me better storytelling capabilities, and also exposed (pun intended) my own limits and need for improved skills. I still see wondrous things in the world, things that make me think, things that drive me to awe, and my goal is still to see if I can evoke that same feeling in those who see what I see.

    Really long response, but at least it’s evident about how much it got me thinking about answering the question.

  4. When I am out with my camera I often feel simultaneously like the kid in the candy shop, and the kid lost in the mall, terrified. I see interesting scenes all around me, but I am often be hesitant to approach them. I am totally seduced by the shiny objects, flashy colors, and interesting textures that just make you want to reach out and touch them. I think this can cause me to be a little ADD while I’m out shooting, something I am working on. Going out regularly has helped with that, as my brain is starting to understand that there really is alway next time, at least there was before the pandemic. When you pull away all of the flashy shiny softballs though, I think what draws me the most is making art out of the mundane. The ordinary moments and objects of life, that when strung together make up extraordinary stories. Images that can connect people, and ultimately hopefully my audience, through shared everyday experiences.

    1. I wish I was like that. When I’m out I usually reject almost everything and it’s hard to put the camera up to my eye. Sometimes I take the camera but I don’t take it out of the bag.

      I think, there’s nothing special there. Or I’ve seen that photo 1000x done much better. Or oh that’s such a cliché, keep walking.

      I wish I had that eye to see a photo everywhere I looked.

      1. Carlos I do understand that feeling, I’ve definitely felt that too. But I wouldn’t worry about whether it has been done a thousand times before or too cliché. The first step in being able to master something is being able to imitate the masters. And if I do find myself uninspired I will just start shootings anything. I think it gets your brain warmed up and ready to see, and at the very least it just gives you more practice with the technical aspects of shooting your camera.

      2. Carlos, you’re overthinking it.  Just shoot stuff that interests you anyway.  Most of your photos are never going to be seen by anyone else so what does it matter if it’s cliche?  And if it’s a photo done 100x better by others how do you know you won’t be the one to find some new angle or interesting light to make it different?  You’re shooting yourself in the foot with all the limitations your imposing on your photography.  Just shoot it anyway and start breaking down those limitations.

        1. I would agree with this wholeheartedly. In the beginning you should consider shooting whatever captures your eye and then deal with editing later. Your voice will definitely emerge from the ashes, but you’ll not be able to ever evaluate the value of the images you don’t shoot.

        2. Yea probably. Not overthinking. I would say that I’m criticizing too much even before I take the photo. But I do just shoot whatever catches my eye too. Even if it’s just to get the settings right.

      3. Carlos, point is you can make it special and if not shooting more means more mistake and more learning to be had. Don’t be afraid to experiment and keep it loose is my advice. 🙂

    2. Yes, art out of the mundane. That resonates with me. Like a flower growing out of a crack in the concrete, beauty in unexpected places. The human spirit, which rises above the grime of the city.

  5. I really had to think about this one for a few days. Where I shoot is probably much more different than many of you. Locally, I try to get out to parks, gardens, museums, and places of historical significance. I really, really love street photography when I get the chance to do it. In both rural and urban settings, I seem to be drawn to great light and bright colors (or lack of – maybe something colorful in an otherwise boring scene). I also find signs and art/graffiti interesting. Having shot in P-Town and NYC numerous times, I continually keep my eye open for something (or someone) unusual or unique. What I once found intriguing, often seems ordinary now. I still shoot a lot of ordinary. Partly due to my location, and partly due to just wanting to take as many pictures as possible. But, one never knows when a scene/situation will change. Chris mentioned luck. A scene, whether intentionally framed or ordinary, may become extraordinary in the blink of an eye due to moving objects, shared emotions, or an alteration in the background. I try to anticipate this a bit now. I don’t usually have a plan when I go out. Other than I like shooting alone. I’m in my zone. Part of my growth as a photographer is seeing things differently and seeking out new and exciting locations (local friends and photographers are on a different page – and different schedules). My sixth sense often kicks in for a shot. There’s a nagging feeling inside that something must be captured and documented. I shoot as much as I can, wherever I go. And, with a little luck, hopefully will end up with a few keepers.

  6. This has been a very useful conversation. Thank you Chris for starting it, and for putting your ideas across so well. I like the idea of making a photograph look photographic. The human eye doesn’t see perfectly sharp everywhere. I believe we only see a small area perfectly sharp, and then rapidly scanning the scene, plus significant processing by the brain, finally paints the picture we “see”. That is why I think that HDR and perfectly sharp photos look unnatural to us.

    As for me, I have a way of overthinking things, which will prevent me from taking out my camera some of the time. The most difficult is to try and shoot in my own town, which is not very big. When I’m in London it becomes easier.

    So what draws me? It’s a really good question. I think I admire beauty, in the straightforward sense, but also in how humans live and survive in the city. As I alluded to in my answer to Joanne, I’m drawn to a human emotion or response that makes sense of living in this world. I’m drawn to pensive or meditative expressions, smiles. I will go for candid photographs when I can, however, I adore a moment of contact with another human being, I don’t mind being discovered sometimes, sharing a fleeting moment of eye contact. That will technically move away from pure street photography, but I don’t mind blurring that distinction.

    Finally, it’s not just the mood of the scene, person, light, it’s also influenced by my own mood. I can be totally distracted and not get any inspiration, or I can be totally in the moment and find many things that draw my attention on a different occasion.

    Finally I think that the process of making a photograph must also feel right. It adds something subliminal to my work, perhaps it sharpens my observation. Part of this process is getting “in the zone”. It starts with preparation, including choice of gear. It doesn’t have to be the latest and greatest gear, just something which has meaning for me. For instance, I’m stuck in the Sony world, and I find it hard now to get inspired, as the system is so much like a computer. I love it instead, to be out with my Pentax MX. It feels just right in my hands, it’s small but substantial, it does something to my creative juices. Going out to do photography with friends requires me getting up really early, sitting on the train for 90 minutes, getting almost mesmerised by the process. What draws me? I think more than anything it is that ephemeral moment, being one with a place, discovering my place in it, connecting with humans, or their traces in it.

    I know this doesn’t show in the work I produce yet. So there’s more to practice and focus.

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