One of my favourite Photography Meet Up Groups is London Photographer’s School run by Zara Matthews. A format that she frequently chooses is to base the workshop on the work of a well known photographer and to give us a few exercises to complete in that style.
This format gives us a sense of the history of photography as well as the opportunity to broaden our skills. Of course one drawback will be immediately apparent. Well known photographers have had a lifetime to hone their craft, and to build their portfolio of work. We have three sessions of about 40 minutes to emulate examples of their style. Sometimes we do not quite get to that elevated level, but the thought process of seeing and and doing is invaluable
Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was a particularly challenging series of exercises. Cartier Bresson was the master of what he called the decisive moment, waiting for that perfect moment to click the shutter, and Cartier Bresson could wait for hours for that decisive moment to come to him. We only had 30 minutes or so.
Our first exercise in Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was to focus on staircases and the action that occurs on them. Staircases provide diagonal lines, and are usually framed between to horizontal lines. Occasionally those lines can be curved if we have a curved stair cases, but in either case the stairs will often provide a framing mechanism and a backdrop. We can shoot at the bottom, looking up. We can frame our shots at the top, looking down, or we can be at some point on the staircase looking up or down.
We took two staircases as our “model”, a set inside Somerset House and the stairs on the adjacent Waterloo Bridge. Cartier Bresson invariably used a 50mm lens for his work. I decided to use my Lensbaby Velvet 56, shooting at an aperture of F8 or F5.6. The Lensbaby is perhaps not the best for Street Photography because it is a manual focus lens, and if you are looking for a decisive moment, you do not want to be trying to focus and time your shot perfectly. However, the subject on most of these shots would be distant, so I could leave the focussing on maximum distance and concentrate on composition.
The shots inside Somerset House were less successful as I had spent too much time at Waterloo Bridge, and there was not enough time to wait for people to interact with the staircase. Instead I had to satisfy myself with a shot of the detail of the staircase.
The second exercise involved us moving up towards Covent Garden to take images of people interacting with each other. For this exercise I did switch to my standard Nikon 1.4 50mm lens with autofocus. Time would be of the essence, and I would be at varying distances. Couples did not seem particularly amorous this afternoon, perhaps because it was cold, or perhaps just because everyone was rushing about. I was pleased with the shot of the two Chinese girls and dog in the gallery below. I just missed the embrace of the couple with the child, and goodness only knows what the girl facing the man was saying.
While I was reviewing these shots (in camera), the saying of Robert Capa came to mind, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are’t close enough.” This saying is of course interpreted in various ways, and it does not mean that you need to get right into the face of your subject. It can be important to the composition of the picture to show the context, and that may mean stepping back a little. For example, the picture of the boy photographing the seagull needs to have the seagull in the picture. I took the shot excluding the rubbish bag the seagull was trying to tear open to get as close as I could, but perhaps I should have been further back, and I definitely should have stopped down.
It is always difficult being in the right place at the right time. Very often the best strategy is to just wait for the scene to come to you rather than going out looking for something that might develop. For example, and taking as an example, Cartier Bresson’s famous photo of a man jumping over a puddle. That shot was not taken through chance, but through patience. Seeing something that has potential and then waiting to see what happens. I sometimes stand on a street corner and just wait, sometimes taking photos of people as they get closer and closer to me. Of course I am left with a lot of photos that are completely devoid of interest, but, that is the beauty of digital photography, just hit the delete button. It also enables me to check on my focus, particularly where the subjects are moving, and also on the background. Is it interesting? Would a slight shift in angle provide a different background?
The third exercise in our Street Photography in the style of Cartier Bresson was also the one that I found most difficult. Cartier Bresson frequently took as a theme windows, either people looking inside windows at displays inside, or at the people inside, or indeed from inside a shop, looking out.
In terms of technique, shooting through a window into the people inside can be difficult. If it is dark inside, reflections on the glass really obscure what you are shooting. You might get a double exposure effect if you are lucky, but the reflections will make it difficult to capture what you are trying to shoot. Brightly lit interiors such as hairdressers make a good subject with plenty of action inside.
But bizarrely I found it difficult to shoot, pointing my camera at people inside a shop. Bizarre, because I have no problem doing it in the street. It should be more easier shooting someone who is having their hair styled. They can hardly get up and chase after you.
But like all challenges, it is just a question of meeting that challenge, going out and doing it. So my next challenge will be to shoot some people in brightly lit shops and cafes.