Three weeks ago, my roommates and I took an impromptu road trip to New York. We occupied ourselves with a little bit of the usual tourist gawking...
...but primarily we ate, walked around, saw Chicago, and drove. For a trip planned on Friday night, it was a remarkable success. We also met some awesome strangers along the way, one of whom is the subject of this post.
Before I get carried away talking about the holy intersection of a small Bavarian startup and the decade that produced Back to the Future, let me at least make contact with the point: there are more than a few ways to approach street photography. To name a few, there is the drive-by stealth shooter approach, the ever-patient wait for a subject to come and fill a frame, and the more-posed style - let's call it "streetraiture" - recently popularized by Brandon Stanton in his Humans of New York series. I think a bit less common is the style I'm writing about today: strobist streetraiture, e.g. the process of (and reflections on) making this photo.
When I first started taking photos to do more than document my life, flash baffled me. I used the pop-up flash on my Canon 40D when light was low, but I was never happy with the results. I tried using a borrowed Canon 430 EX II, but all I managed to do was brighten up my photos and get flatter exposures by bouncing it at full power off the ceiling. I only took the flash off-camera once; lacking a TTL cord, I shot 30 second exposures and jumped around in freezing puddles, manually triggering the flash, trying to see how different angles would light ... a tractor.
Last spring, I finally re-read Strobist's Lighting 101. More determined and better funded, both products of my undergraduate education, I purchased a YN-560II flash and got to work. Abandoning ambient and working solely with flash, I started to understand what I liked about my naturally lit photos and why they got that way, but a basic understanding of light left me suddenly flustered when it came to complex outdoor lighting or multi-temperature indoor lighting. I wound up approaching photography in much the same way I approach computer science: I tried to bootstrap, working with tiny kernels of knowledge to build and understand increasingly complex photos. As with computers, I still find myself preferring to work on simple but beautiful systems. Although I still enjoy shooting without flash, my favorite photos now come from one light, carefully placed, with maybe one modifier (I'm no Zack "OneLight" Arias, I just find that I've got a long way to go before I'm ready to regularly use several light sources, although I keep experimenting).
Packing for New York, having just put together this website and a small photographic portfolio, I decided I wanted to add some variety to my portfolio and tossed my Fuji X100s, a lone speedlight, and a cheapo wireless trigger setup into my backpack. I kept my eye out for excuses to use it all day, but took a little while to mentally gear up. I didn't know what I was looking for until we were passing through Times Square on our way uptown and came across a small photoshoot with an on-camera flash and a funky modifier I didn't recognize. Enter: Strobist Streetraiture, flash-lit street portraiture.
Photography is a great way to become comfortable talking to strangers if you're shy and great conversation fodder if you're not, so I went over and asked them what they were shooting and to see what they had so far. Once I got a look, I had an idea for a different direction, and asked if they'd mind me shooting a few of my own. I quickly took the flash out of my bag, set up the trigger, and handed the flash to the photographer's most useful tool - a tall, bendy companion. The first problem was that the ambient light was low and extremely multicolored; shooting dark skin in dark clothing was going to be a challenge. I turned the flash to a setting I guessed might work and popped a test shot at ISO 800 and wide open f/2.8 to keep a fast enough shutter (1/60) for a sharp exposure.
I immediately realized that I had too much ambient to bring out the texture of my subject's face and clothes; the LED backlighting and front flash were flattening him. I stepped down to 1/120th for the next three shots, switching to portrait on the last. The ambient was still too bright, though, and my subject's black clothes were too grey under the flash. A little nervous and trying to move quickly - I wanted to be fast and polite, since I was crashing a photoshoot - I cranked it down to f/5.6 rather than lowering the ISO (oops). With flash and ambient both reduced, I took one more test shot and chimped; finally, I had something I could work with. Surprisingly, the adjustment process took under a minute, although when you've just imposed on strangers and have nothing to show for their time it feels a lot longer.
Now comfortable with the relative exposures, I told my subject I was ready, slightly repositioned the flash, and tried to frame while he resumed posing. I said "Thanks" and began chimping. I felt the photo (number five) looked a little too posed. Meanwhile, James took my "thanks" and review as a sign that I was done and began to walk over to see. Looking up, I caught him adjusting his hat while walking over and asked him to freeze. One last pop and I had my shot.
All it took to arrive at the final image was white balancing and slight exposure correction; I did no other manual channel adjustment or editing. In retrospect, though, there are a few things I would have done differently. First, I feel my framing is poor - had I spent more time working with the backlighting and been willing to move further from where we met, I could have shot with the flag as a small portion of the backdrop, less distracting but still providing the dominant ambient light, not to mention showing more than orange stripes! (although I like the position of the "Lids" storefront sign). I could have also shot at a lower ISO (and wider aperature) to cut down on the distracting background of Times Square. And finally, given how little time the whole shoot took - 1 minute 59 seconds, by EXIF data - I might have explored more poses with my subject. As a process, though, it was everything I hoped for: educational, fun, and it didn't take up too much of my travel companions' time. Time has been a pretty important constraint in helping me develop my photography, so next time I broach the subject, I'll describe how intentionally working under time (and other) constraints has been a key to developing my photographic skills.