May 31, 2005

The Threat of Photography

Recent events have pushed me to write about my Night technique from a camera and gear point of view but it seems that there is a certain amount of my own personality that I take for granted in the making of those photographs. This mysterious element of the creative process involves, shall we say, principled pacifism. I've been out shooting twice in the past 4 days and I've been threatened with violence both those times. I would have totally ignored the morons who directed their harshness towards me but during the last incident, I wasn't alone. For the sake of brevity, I will tell the story of the first loser today and the second, tomorrow.

It was a warm and perfect New York City Friday night. It was Fleet week so thousands of sailors were in town to whoop it up a bit. Among the many patrons in the bars buying them drinks was a guy who seemed eccentric but certainly friendly. His cowboy hat was making the rounds of the sailors and I even snapped a few shots of him posing among them. He was all smiles.

Not an hour later, while I was standing next to him seated at the bar, he turned to me and say, "what you are doing is fucked up. I saw you snapping photos. If you fucking take another picture of me, I'll fucking kill you. I know people in the this city. They got my back. I own this city." Impressive.

A few things go through my head at this point. First is probably, do I care about this guy or not. In this case, I cared. With care comes compassion and understanding so I listened and formulated my rebuttal keeping a nice smile on my face. It began, "hey man, I hear you, I won't take pictures of you anymore, sorry if I bothered you but hey, I've got some nice ones of you and the sailors." I touched his back with my open hand to reassure him and continued, "I didn't realize you were getting pissed. Sorry man." My pleasantries were met with amped up disdain as he continued with his attempts to dismiss me. So then I'm faced with the next decision. Do I give up and ignore the guy as a drunken idiot or continue my efforts at understanding?

While most folks would move on. I feel strongly that my art, photography, is unfairly maligned as a threat to people. (I've kinda blogged about this before.) I wanted this fool to understand that simply taking pictures the way I do, isn't going to hurt anyone. And that earlier in the evening he was perfectly content to be photographed. Why then was I the one going to die because he changed his mind? Booze, of course, goes a long way to explaining his change of heart but it still bugs me that I was the first thing he turned on. I continued my efforts at d├ętente. I asked him his name, I offered my hand to shake, I pointed out that we'd both been buying drinks for servicemen but he just continued turning his back and muttering threats. At one point he said he was "undercover" and I laughed. Any white guy who walks into a bar wearing his hair in braids, under a bandana, under a Rasta skull cap, under a big black cowboy hat and later screams out to the bar that he "got laid today" is clearly not incognito. I've seen and Alias episode or two so I felt pretty comfortable dismissing his claims.

So the decisions have been made and as patience wears thin at his unfriendliness and unwavering hostility, I make a point of shoving the camera two feet from him, snap a shot of his back and move away to another part of the bar. I watch him complain to the bartenders, bouncers and managers but they are all on my side. Clearly his "boys" that "had his back" and would "kill me" weren't in the bar that night. He gave one of the bartenders money to get my phone number which I almost honestly gave. Nevertheless, that's how my time ended at that bar. The night was young and the sailors still had and hour and a half until curfew. Off I went.

Tomorrow's installment of "How Photographs Can Kill" or "Friendly Photographers, and The Dangerous Felons They Hang Out With" or maybe "When Threatening Photographers Goes Wrong" will detail another near miss with violence. Thanks to Mike Dibugnara for those witty titles.

Take pictures. Stay out of trouble.

May 26, 2005

I Am Not Alone

It's really impressive how many people are taking pictures these days. Between the damn camera phones and the general proliferation of little digital cameras, I am often shocked at just how many folks are engaged in recording their experiences. On some level it's exciting. More things are being documented than ever before. Flashers are getting busted, proud parents are making thousands of photos of their children and voyeurs everywhere are now joining me in documenting folk's nighttime misadventures like never before.

A recent 3 hour cruise of Manhattan made clear that my domain is not exclusive any more. While I may be making more technically proficient photographs, I am certainly not the only "photographer." It struck me that my reason for starting this blog, to give people some insights into making more and better pictures, is being challenged by people making a lot more bad pictures. Sure there's a place for the blurry, low resolution JPEGs that come from most camera phones but can we just all agree that that's a poor way to save your memories? Until the things get decent lenses and improved resolution, people are wasting their time. It may be good for a laugh but photography it's not. I am reminded of the term "image capture" which seems like a more fitting description of what everyone is doing. When quality and composition and final output take a back seat to simple LCD renderings, you aren't taking pictures.

For those with point and shoot digital cameras, there are lots of exciting developments. The megapixel train is still barreling forward. Canon's new 7 megapixel Powershot SD500 is the size of an iPod. So cool.

Take pictures with cameras, not camera phones.

May 08, 2005

In the Mood for Jody Evans

I spent last week in Nashville which is getting to be a fairly regular destination for me. While I was there for a different shoot, my friendship with Jody Evans and his management afforded me another chance to shoot this rising star. With a more moody approach in mind we headed out to a local plantation to make some photos. We worked quickly and with little more than the sun and a piece of foam core measuring about 2 feet by 3 feet as a reflector. We just wandered around and let nature provide. I shot with the intention of turning the photos black and white so that's what you see. I didn't even bother with setting the white balance knowing my plans.

I don't have any particular approach to turning images black and white. In Photoshop, I usually go between using the lightness channel in LAB color mode or a more complicated method using adjustment layers. I find that it doesn't really matter so long as you get what feels right. Nothing is being batch processed so I can take measures appropriate to each image.

So that's that. Jody Evans fans should be happy there are more photos of their boy coming soon.

Take pictures.

May 01, 2005

Chimping into the Night

My night photography has been generating enough attention lately to have inspired a number of folks to ask me some questions about my technique. I am happy to share what is happening in the camera when I make those photos but I do so with some trepidation. I believe it is a mistake to get too caught up in techniques. The real vitality of photography comes from engaging your subject matter. It comes from allowing the camera to be a simple bystander and interpreter. Your camera's wizardry should not be the focus of your attention.

That said, one of the best ways to transcend the technique trap is to master your camera so you aren't getting hung up on adjusting it's settings when the action is all around you. "Chimping," the act of looking at your LCD right after taking a photo with a digital camera, is okay so long as you aren't missing the point of why you are out making photographs in the first place. In fact, chimping is one of the joys of digital photography and allows accelerated learning. Much of my night photography settings came about as a result of being able to get quick, reliable feedback from my camera's LCD screen.

Most of my night work is shot with a Nikon D100 and a Nikon Speedlight in the hot shoe. I bounce the flash off my hand or a gold reflector and through some diffusion. My shutter speeds range from 1/4 of a second to 3 seconds depending on the ambient light conditions and often I will shorten that by quickly covering the lens with my hand. The flash is set to overexpose and the ambient exposure is set to underexpose. That little balance is where the LCD comes in so handy. Finding the right balance of existing light and flash is something you just need to experiment with to find out what's best. The flash pops when the shutter first opens. Many people think it is rear-synced but they are mistaken. I need it to pop right as my finger hits the shutter release button because that's the moment I want to capture. It would be an interesting experiment to use rear-sync but I'm sure my success ratio would be significantly lower.

I often leave the camera to focus on its own but at times I will zone focus. I was in Argentina a while back when my camera malfuntioned. I shot my friend's entire wedding with the reflex mirror taped in the up position. I couldn't see though the camera and auto-focus was disabled. No problem. With a wide enough angle lens and knowing it's basic parameters, I could carry on as usual. That was one of those times when familiarity with my gear paid off. (btw, I wasn't the official wedding photographer. If I had been, I'd have had a backup camera)

After I look through a night's worth of images and make my picks, they will go through my Photoshop process. Usually, I make adjustments in Levels so the highlights are improved. I will sometimes lighten the mid-tones in preparation for my custom action I call "the thing." I'd share that but it's my little secret. Anyway, at this point you should be developing your own look and feel. Explore Photoshop's capabilities and come up with your own "emulsion." Try not to get too carried away with things. Use Photoshop as your digital darkroom. Burn and dodge with subtlety and keep filters to a minimum. I know it's a shame you aren't using one one hundredth of the program's capabilities. That's okay. Trust me.

Take pictures. I hope I help.