What do you do when you want to take a photograph? Chances are that you lift your camera up to your eyes, zoom in or out depending upon the shot, maybe fiddle with a few other controls, and then snap the shot. For this post, I request that you consider a different take on taking pictures, creating a different POV using a different POV.
Wait, Did I Just Take a Picture by Accident? Haight Street in Front of McDonald’s, 27 August 2006
For a long time, I’ve wanted a means of taking/performing/committing street photography inconspicuously, without anyone realizing that a photographer (gasp!) lurked in the vicinity. Took me a while to realize that I always had such a technique available. Occurred in the photograph above, occurred in the photograph below.
Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California
I sometimes snapp pictures by accident–an involuntary twitch of the right forefinger, and the shutter closes. In the past, I had reflexively, without thinking, deleted them from the camera and/or my computer. But a few months ago, I took in the Garry Winogrand exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shortly before it closed for renovations.
Stunning experience. Winogrand often did on purpose what I had done by accident (and had always assumed was a blunder). What had always seemed a dumb but temporary waste of pixels had constituted a major part of the work of one of those great photographers I had never heard of because I know so dang little about photography. Then I remembered a scene from the Costa-Gravas movie Z in which a photojournalist interviews the widow of the assassinated politician, sneaking photographs of her with a camera that seems to dangle uselessly at his side. I figured out that one can take pictures without even looking at the subject!
I call it The 30 Shot–largely because I have no idea what term professionals use.
The technique requires a small point and shoot digital camera with a very large view finder window. I zoom out as much as possible and use the default Landscape setting, then just let the camera dangle at my side. The lens hangs roughly 30 inches above the ground, hence my name for the shot. But the technique proved very difficult for me to learn and led to a lot of hopeless but deletable mistakes. I took all of the following shots in the past few days using a Nikon CoolPix S9100. I have not edited any of them for reasons I’ll mention later.
The biggest mistake: simply missing the shot.
Yes. I would call that a miss.
Another problem I encountered consisted of horribly tilted angles that even editing in iPhoto couldn’t cure. I finally solved this through practice. Find a long stretch of flat road (think that’s easy in San Francisco?), with a brick or cinder block wall, something with long straight lines running parallel to the ground. Practice walking while pointing the camera at those lines and keeping it both steady and untilted.
The goal is to develop what actors call muscle memory. Try to remember the stress on your wrist and fingers as you hold the camera level. Once you do that, you can take pictures without looking at your subjects knowing that the results will turn out level or more often, almost level but easily fixable. Something like this.
Not a masterpiece of course, but with cropping, correcting the tilt, and adjusting the light and dark areas (actually, I’m thinking B&W), should be an acceptable picture.
If you walk past a sitting subject, take a batch of shots, one quick one after another. Some will slightly miss:
One or two will prove usable.
Correct tilt, bright and dark spots, get rid of that bleeping pigeon, and I’ll have another adequate shot. I took 6 pictures of this gentleman rooting through his bad and deleted 4. No regrets–and no regrets are a vital part of The 30 Shot because believe me, you will miss far too many great shots.
I’ve learned a couple of other interesting techniques: first, that you don’t want take a shot as your foot hits the ground because it produces blur (unless you want the blur for artistic effect); and you can twist the camera around so that you take pictures of subjects directly behind you without even knowing what you’re photographing. Such as this man:
A good example of the virtues of zooming out as much as possible. When I edit copies of this picture, I can crop it many different ways to produce many different new pictures. Megapixels are meaningless most of the time; I have no idea why people obsess over them (the sensor and the lens are far more important). Cropping is the one time when I do want the megapixels; however, even here the “mere” 12 megapixels I have are more than good enough for editing purposes. An 8×10 or even a 9×13 will look good.
Potentially, my mistakes can prove a lot of fun, and that is a very good thing because I make a lot of mistakes, no, I make a LOT of mistakes. Precision of expression is good. Whenever I practice The 30 Shot, I end up deleting 60-80 per cent of the pictures because they are truly hopeless. Not a problem. My definition of A Real Photographer is someone who can take 100 pictures, upload them to a computer, study each one carefully, edit each one as best as possible–and then delete all 100. Obviously, I am not A Real Photographer.
But the mistakes will sometimes amuse me.
This next one deserves some photographic love and affection and tender loving care. I wanted to photograph a young couple walking their hyperactive Shih Tzu, but three of the shots missed badly (and I deleted them), while the fourth yielded this:
Look at how her posture almost exactly mimics the man reflected in the glass! Can you also see the reflection of a second man’s legs in the marble? Similar posture! This is a Garry Winogrand type of shot, very typical of his late period work where he would ignore the rules about including the entire person in the picture. I think he actually The 30 Shot or another technique akin to it. No, no, of course I’m not even close to his level of quality, but I think Winogrand took a lot of shots using a similar technique. Of course I’ll convert to B&W because I’ve never seen a Winogrand photograph in color, and I’ll crop the left and bottom edges a bit. If presentable, I will present the finished results in a later post.
I do think that all of these shots would have been even worse had I taken them at eye level. Something about keeping the lens 30 inches above the ground seems to produce better angles and therefore results, esp. when the objets d’art are sitting. I can’t explain why. Please don’t think I’m trying to teach you anything, because I have no idea what I’m doing. Really, I don’t want to teach; I want to share how I’m learning. This post represents me as a student, not a teacher.
The final shot–perhaps–has the most potential.
Let us not kid ourselves; right now the photo is a complete mess. Total disaster. The shadows are too dark, the whites are too bright, and you can’t tell that’s her helmet she’s removing from her head. But the composition, and the story it tells of their relationship at that moment in time (more like that millisecond in time) means that I might have (accidentally, of course) captured Henri Cartier-Bresson’s beloved Decisive Moment.
And that is why I have edited none of these photos so far. I’ve concluded that my previous commitment to “editing in the camera,” while a good idea, should have never become an absolute rule. All of the professional photographers I know edit their pictures, believing that taking the picture is only the beginning, not the end. So I will take this messy collection of bad photographs and teach myself how to edit them.
Presenting the results later–assuming I have anything worth presenting.
Vonn Scott Bair