Strobist Streetraiture

Posted on Feb 10, 2014.

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...

Varun gawking at the Empire State Building (Twenty feet from a sign labeling the Empire State Building)
Me: "Isn't that the Empire State Building?"
Cam C.: "No, I think it's the Chrysler Building."

...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.

Stranger with his E24 M6 Not this guy, but check it out! An M6 that grew up ~10 miles away from me!

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.

Portrait: Jroc in Times Square

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.

A poorly-lit tractor In retrospect, I would have learned a lot more trying to light something vaguely person-shaped. And I don't think there are any flesh-tone tractors.

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.

First test shot Funky white balance on the X100s: the US Armed Forces recruiting station has a LED American flag. Pictured instead: the flag of a more orange-striped country.

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.

Photos 2-5 (Click for a larger version)

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.

Photos 6 and 7

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.

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