It’s Time to Compete

I have entered my first photography competition to try to get more visibility for my work. This is the first time that I have ventured away from the Internet where I have this blog site, Facebook, Adobe Behance, and Flickr pages. I have worked hard on my Internet presence, but the Internet is not a place where a photographer can get honest feedback. That hasn’t been a deterrent or demotivation because I enjoy what I’m doing. Self-assessment over the past several months has provided some growth for me, but now it’s time to get the critical review of experts assessing my work.

I joined the Professional Photographer’s Association of Massachusetts since the organization seems to align well with my goals. Membership opens the possibility of competing with professionals and, importantly, being judged by a panel of professionals who are certified as judges. I’m hoping to get to know some of the members as well, although many are studio photographers who are building a business on photography. My studio is the street and some people don’t even want me to take their picture. That’s not a good business model.

That sounds like a chasm, but I think we also have a lot in common as photographers. Many of the same composition and technical skills are required in the studio of the street. One of the differences is that I can’t control the elements of lighting, the dress and expressions of the people in my images, or the background as a studio photographer can. I still need to know how to use those elements to my advantage to capture images that have impact. I probably delete more images than they do because of those uncontrollable elements.

Soon after joining, I began to study the rules for the 2017 PPAM Photographic Image Competition. Images could be submitted either as prints or digital files. I chose digital because I didn’t have enough time to deal with print quality issues. Most of my images are black and white and I was still in the process of evaluating commercially available black and white printing. There were several competition categories to enter and I chose “Illustrative”, a broad classification where street photos would be appropriate, and “Album”, a category where I thought that I could present a series of images to tell a story.

This was all foreign territory and there was unfamiliar terminology that I needed to understand so that I would be compliant with the rules. I reached out to one of the competition co-chairs with some questions and she referred me to Nancy Green who responded to me directly with an email. Nancy is an accomplished professional who is also an international judge. As my mentor for the competition, she reviewed my work and clarified some of the rules. Her critique helped me to improve the composition of the images that I planned to submit. I made slight adjustments that helped to eliminate distractions and focus on the message being conveyed by each image. These are things that I can apply more broadly to many other images. They are important enough that they could be the subject of another post in the future.

I would have missed the “Presentation” element of the images entirely without her help. The Presentation is a digital matte board designed by the photographer to complement the image. Nancy provided a link to her video on the creation of presentation for an image. I designed a simple off-white matte with a faux bevel on the inside using her technique. My work is black and white and I wanted something very simple that complimented the images rather than distracted from them.

Creating an album was more than I could manage and I decided not to enter that category. There were format requirements and there was creative work that I did not anticipate. In the future, one of my street projects may be suitable as an album, but it will require planning in advance of the shooting and shooting an appropriate series of images. I have at least three series that I’ve done, but none have enough of the correct kind of images to adequately tell a story as an album.

My first impressions of the PPAM are very good. My experiences with Nancy Green were great and I’m impressed by the PPAM culture of sharing and helping. I hope that I have something to give in return. I submitted six black and white street images into the Illustrative category and will now wait for the results. My expectations for an award are not high because of the level of competition. My expectations for critical review are high and I expect to learn things that will improve my images for the next round. In the meantime, see you on the street.

Using Creative Commons

When I began to post my photographic images on the Internet, I researched copyrights and found that it was easy to apply an unregistered copyright to an image. All you need to do is use the copyright symbol followed by the year of origin and your name. At the time, ownership of the images and the right to control their use were my concerns. I thought that copyright was the only alternative.

There are two practical problems with using copyrights. First, enforcing a copyright relies on the integrity of the entity that wants to use the image. Placing an image on the Internet and making it available to search engines makes it available to the world seems to invite an infringement. In that scenario, if someone misuses an image, how in the world will I necessarily discover the infringement of the copyright? Second, my interpretation of information on the U.S. Copyright Office web site is that an unregistered copyright may not provide the desired level of protection, including recovery of damages.

The alternative that I use is Creative Commons. The protection of my work still relies on the integrity of the entity seeking to use it, but it makes compliance much easier. I give up my “right” to compensation, but retain the right to be recognized as the creator. The entity that desires to use my work needs only to attribute the work to me and conform to other terms and conditions of the specific Creative Commons license. I am more likely to have my work used under these conditions and all I really desire is recognition. The other terms and conditions that can be specified under Creative Commons control further distribution and adaptation by the licensee.

Recently I discovered a peril of Creative Commons. I received a message on Flickr from the Corporate Accountability Lab asking for confirmation of the Creative Commons licensing terms and conditions for a specific image that belongs to me. The image was taken at the Occupy Inauguration Boston protests on 20 February 2017, conducted on the Boston Common. In this day of sometimes unfathomable sensitivities, it is easy to attribute a motive to me for posting them. The Web site stated, “As a non-profit organization we rely upon the generosity of our donors, both our fiscal donors and our creative donors.”

I am flattered that they like my image, but was not so happy that I was identified as a donor to the organization. As a street photographer, I capture events as they happen and my opinion doesn’t count. My opinion is not the point: the point is the image itself. They are free to use my image, but I objected to the implication that I support their mission. They were responsive to my concern and updated the wording.

In spite of this annoyance, I will continue to use Creative Commons licensing. It gives me the best chance of getting what I desire most with my images: recognition. My images give me a lot of satisfaction for their own sake, but I like to think that if someone else likes them well enough to reuse them, the work gets attributed to me.

Street Photography: Night Protest

On 20 February 2017 I went to Boston Common to photograph the Occupy Inauguration Boston protest that was scheduled to begin at six in the evening. Crowds always provide opportunities for street photography because of the high density of humans in one place. Protests are even better because most people participating in the protest expect to be photographed. The opportunities are reduced at night and night protests present some unique challenges for photography.

Street photographers are accustomed to dealing with poor light, but at night there is often lack of light. Autofocus sometimes fails to lock onto the subject and switching to manual and back to auto can be cumbersome and counterproductive. If the camera can’t focus, it is not likely that you have enough light to capture a decent image. As it was, I was hovering between ISO 3200 and 6400 during the evening.

Flash is an option and I brought a flash unit with me. As I waded into the crowd I realized that the flash would be distracting and did not use it. In retrospect I also feel that the lighting would have made the images unnatural, losing some of the impact.

This was a low-budget protest: there was no lighting or platform for the people who spoke. When I first arrived, I could hear the voice over the audio system and followed it to find the person speaking. That led me to the pickup truck that was loaded with mobile speakers. I followed the wire another fifty feet to the place where the voice was located. The only lighting on the person speaking was from a video camera and the person speaking was in a hole. The Nikon D750 Live View was useful on several occasions so that I was able to raise the camera high, frame the picture in the display, and shoot.

Boston Common is illuminated by lamplights along the walkways. I found myself running between lamps to catch relevant shots as the crowd marched through each lighted area. At one point the group stopped at the Parkman Bandstand and the only light I had was the taillights of the pickup truck carrying the audio equipment. I took shots with abandon because I knew that many would have poor lighting or focus and end up in the trash bin.

As I was planning for this event, I debated my lens choices. I did not want to carry multiple lenses because I didn’t want the weight or the hassle of changing lenses in the dark. My choices were narrowed down to the 50mm prime lens that I use for street photography or the 24-70mm zoom. I chose the zoom. My rationale was that the wide angle would give me intimate close-ups if needed and the longer focal lengths would let me capture the action from a distance. I was happy with that decision even though the lens is heavy. I shot with the lens wide open at f2.8 the entire evening.

I read some amusing suggestions for lens selection from street photographers that have experience with protests. One person suggested the 24-70mm for peaceful protests and the 70-200mm for more violent ones. Another photographer suggested wearing a bicycle helmet for protection against rocks and clubs. The Boston protest was peaceful and none of that was necessary. If it had turned violent, I would have been out of there.

When I do a shoot like this I am always doubtful of the result until I get home and examine the images. My hard work chasing the crowd paid off. I shot a total of 214 RAW images that resulted in ten to fifteen that were worth keeping. Many of the lighting and color issues go away when the images are converted to black and white, my preferred street medium. To me that is an excellent result. Now I’ll see what my followers think.

See you on the street.

The Life of a Street Photo

When I photo hike on the street I will generally take over a hundred photos. As soon as possible after the shoot, I will sit in front of my computer and select the images that have promise. I move those into a separate folder and import them into Lightroom. In this part of the process I consistently reduce the set of images to about 12% of the original set. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I shoot 150 photos or 500.

In Lightroom I use my personal preset to convert the images to black and white and to make a few adjustments. Occasionally I will retain the color if it is important to the subject. In any case, I only do a minimal amount of processing. Once that is done, I will select the final three to five percent that I will post. From a set of 250 photos, I process about 30 and get about seven that I consider good enough to post.

I have started the practice of deleting everything that I don’t post. In the past I have gone back to review all of the shots that I passed over. I have rarely found the gem that is worth resurrecting and posting. There is always an exception. There are sets of photos that I have had for several years and didn’t give them much thought until I became interested in street photography. In some the composition was good, but the color was awful. Now that I’m doing almost everything in black and white, some of those old photos have gained new life.

When I choose photos for posting I look for something that distinguishes the subject and makes it unique. If I capture the image of someone walking or doing some other common act, I need some other element in the composition to speak to me. Sometimes that element can be in the surroundings, the appearance of a person, or the presence of other people. If the act is itself less common, I look for dynamics and action that make the composition come alive. Sometimes that comes in the form of the subject interacting directly with me as the photographer.

I don’t think that my process is much different than that of other street photographers. The thing that differentiates my work from other street photographers is my approach for capturing images of people, the types of human activities that I enjoy capturing, and consistency in processing so that all of my images have a similar look and feel after I have screened the ones that I like. When I see my small cache depleted, it’s time to go out to the street.

Avoid being a Creep

My wife gave me an article from the December 2016 Discovery Magazine that was adapted from “On the Nature of Creepiness” published in the December 2016 issue of New Ideas in Psychology. A graphic portrays a creepiness scale from one through five, five being the creepiest. The scale is used to rate behaviors that people find creepy. The list of behaviors includes six that can apply to street photographers:

  • Watches you before interacting (4.55)
  • Asks to take your picture (4.11)
  • Opposite sex (4.01)
  • Significantly older than you (3.72)
  • Tall (3.08)
  • Has facial hair (2.89).

It is also significant that the study included 1,341 people and over 75% of them were women, that the age range was 18 to 77, and that the average age was 28.97.

Coincidentally, these are all my behaviors as a street photographer, at least some of the time. Before I take a photo, I sometimes study a person or a setting, basically watching people. Although I haven’t been in the mode of asking to take pictures, I have done it and I’m sure that for some street portraits I will do it again in the future. At least half of the time I will be of the opposite sex, I am retired (old), I’m 6’-4” (193 cm) tall, and I have a short-cropped beard.

I have given this some thought since I don’t want to be unintentionally creepy when I shoot street photos. You certainly don’t want to be walking around someone trying to figure out how you want to frame a photograph or following them to get the shot. That’s creepy in a big way. I have at times felt like a stalker, even when my watching isn’t so obvious. There are ways to watch and to set up a shot without being obvious. Standing in one place or sitting are ways to be less active and, hence, much less threatening. When the moment happens, you need to be prepared to raise the camera and shoot with a confident and deliberate motion, take the shot or multiple shots, and be done with it.

Asking to take a picture is a personal act where you make contact with a total stranger. For those cases I decided to hand people my business card with the URL to my Flickr photostream. I invite them to download their photo for free should I decide to post it. I will not ask them to send me an email or to provide any personal information although my card gives them some of my personal information. I may mention that I do not take unflattering photos of people and theirs will not be posted if it turns out poorly.

There isn’t much I can do about the other items on my personal list of creepy behaviors. Being opposite sex, being old, being tall, and having facial hair are things that I can’t or will not change. I can mitigate the effects of those by using other factors of my appearance. I can dress well and dress appropriately. I avoid denim pants and t-shirts or mysterious looking hoodies. On a recent shoot I wore a flannel shirt, insulated vest, and tan cargo pants. I try to look like grandpa with a camera rather than a voyeur. That said, there are probably few things that a female street photographer can do to be creepy. I will concede that some of the problem comes with being male.

There are times when being intrusive doesn’t matter and you do not risk being creepy. That often happens in a crowd where people probably feel anonymous. There are times when people do not care that you are shooting pictures that include them. Sometimes when you aim the camera at a person or at a group, magical things happen that give you the gift of a great shot. For me it is an intuitive thing that I can’t describe except to say that you need to put yourself out there and get some experience before you can feel those moments.

Everybody has their own style and their own way of rationalizing their street behavior. Just be aware of the things that may make street photographers creepy. You will be more comfortable with the process of street photography, your subjects will react better, and you will get better results.

Used Lens Bargains

Recently I purchase two used prime lenses for my Nikon D750 on eBay. One is an AF Nikkor 50 mm f1.4 D lens that I am using for street photography and the other an AF Micro Nikkor 105 mm f2.8 D. Before purchasing I did my research and found both lenses to be excellent choices. They perform competitively with the newer Nikon models. I have been happy with the results.

This approach would probably work with other brands of cameras and other types of cameras, such as micro four thirds. For example, I was looking to buy a Lumix DMC-GF1 camera body. There were a number of great used Olympus lenses available for the camera at a great price that would have met my needs. To make this approach work, you need to research older lens series for your particular camera. There are many lens reviews available on the Internet.

When buying from eBay I did not go for the lowest price. I carefully studied the photos of the lenses for wear or indications of misuse or abuse. In both cases I used the “Buy It Now” option because I didn’t want to end up in a bidding battle and I found the prices comparable to the final auction prices anyway. I steered away from lenses where the photos of the lenses were poor or where there were not enough different views to be able to see all sides. The descriptions sometimes turned me away from some sellers because they used language that made it appear that they did not know what they were selling.

Depending on the seller, I was also happy to read that there was no apparent dust, fungus, or oil inside the lens and that there were no scratches or other imperfections on the glass. The condition of the optics is something that you cannot determine from photos. That kind of detail was less important when I was looking at lenses from a dealer that specialized in lenses.

In addition to the precautions above, you should be certain that the used lens is compatible with your camera body. In some cases you may lose the use of some camera features, but the lens will still function. At the extreme, I know that many older Nikon lenses will fit my camera, but will not auto-focus. Some of the third party lenses will support focus verification in the viewfinder although they are manual focus lenses. There are all kinds of variations and you may find that you can justify the limitations for a specific lens. In the case of the prime lenses that I bought, all camera features are supported.

I paid about half the price that I would have paid for a new lens of the latest build and I received lenses that perform as well. No matter what you use for a camera body, I am convinced that you can do well with used lenses.  Shop around and be critical to get the best value.

Camera Strap for the Street

Many street photographers don’t like lugging large DSLRs around. They also like the stealth of a smaller camera. Personally, I’m committed to my DSLR because I made the investment before I knew that I wanted to pursue street photography. The 50mm lens that I have begun to use on my Nikon D750 for street photography makes it look less intimidating. Since I’m tall (6’-4” or 193 cm) the large camera body looks smaller in theory. I also feel that the appearance of the camera has not impacted my ability to get the shot.

For me the greatest problem to solve is how to carry the camera while having it ready for a shot at a moment’s notice. The stock Nikon neck strap doesn’t offer many options to reduce the fatigue of carrying the camera for a long period of time. I purchased a wrist strap that I thought would work, but returned it when I read the notice inside the package that warned against using the strap to carry the camera.

Peak Design Strap Connector with Button Snapped in Place
Peak Design Strap Connector with Button Snapped in Place

After searching, I found two complimentary products from Peak Design that satisfied my requirements. I consider them complimentary because the camera attachment system supports both. The primary component of the attachment system is a plastic button on a loop of double-layer, high strength line. The line attaches to the camera and the button snaps securely into the connector on various Peak Design strap products. The line has a wear indicator so that it is obvious when the line and button need to be replaced.

I purchased the Slide Camera Sling ($59.95 list) and the Cuff Wrist Strap ($19.95 list). Peak Design also makes the Clutch Wrist Strap and two light weight slings, all using the same attachment system. The Slide Camera Sling can be configured a neck strap or a shoulder sling. The length of the strap is easily adjusted using a locking buckle. As a neck strap, the sling is attached to the strap buttons on the top of the camera. As a shoulder sling, you can use one of the top buttons and a button on an adapter plate that screws into the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. The plate is designed to work with Arca-Swiss tripod mounting clamps, although I do not use the plate for that purpose. The Slide Camera Sling comes with four buttons.

Peak Design Cuff Wrist Strap Attached to My DSLR
Peak Design Cuff Wrist Strap Attached to My DSLR

The Cuff Wrist Strap is a nice alternative that you can keep in your pocket until needed. It comes with two buttons. For me, I will use the Cuff when involved in shooting for active situations where the camera will be coming up and down constantly for shooting. The Slide is useful on those long hikes of discovery when you want to safely let the camera swing by your side.

The Peak Design site has a store; I purchased mine on Amazon and got very quick delivery being a Prime member. I’m very happy with these straps. I’m relieved from the neck pain of the stock Nikon strap and at the same time feel that my camera is secure. Finally, the Slide Camera Sling is a great alternative for anybody who is looking for a neck strap alternative, not solely street photographers.

Toy and Train Show

The event was the second day of the Greenberg Toy and Train Show in Wilmington, Massachusetts. It was held at the Shriner’s Auditorium that has one very large hall about the size of two basketball courts end-to-end. Vendor booths and tables formed aisles for visitors to hike. There were also full-size toy train layouts with operating trains. This was my first shoot using my AF Nikkor 50mm f1.4 D lens.

I shot about 150 photos, which is low for outings such as this for me. Of those, nineteen made the initial cut. I always make an initial pass through the lot just after a street shoot to choose the most promising. Looking at them a day later I can say that maybe half of them will make the final cut.

The activity at the venue was somewhat limited. People went there to look at toy trains mostly and to purchase items for their train collection. There wasn’t as much diversity as you would find outdoors on the street, but the crowd was significantly large and in constant motion throughout the hall. People being people, it wasn’t a waste of time and I enjoyed looking at the trains. I have some great images for the effort.

Authors and Street Photographers

During one of my wanderings on the vast wasteland of the Internet, I discovered two great street photographers, Thomas Leuthard and Eric Kim, who have both published free e-books on the subject. My favorite Thomas Leuthard e-book is Going Candid . . . An Unorthodox Approach to Street Photography. Generally there is no “orthodoxy” in street photography, so his title is on solid ground. It covers significant and diverse topics, such as composition, ethics, and promotion of your work. You can download this e-book and others from Thomas Leuthard’s web site http://thomas.leuthard.photography/.

Eric Kim also has several free e-book titles as well and I have read Street Photography 101 and Street Photography 102. While Leuthard and Kim share many opinions concerning street photography, Kim takes a slightly more philosophical approach in his e-books. 101 discusses the motivation and equipment for street photography. 102 covers composition is some detail with emphasis on interacting with human subjects. Eric Kim has been a prolific writer and some of his works are for sale on Amazon. For free e-books and information on his Amazon publications for sale see his web site http://erickimphotography.com.

You can follow both of these exceptional street photographers Thomas Leuthard and Eric Kim on Flickr.

Boston Chinatown

Took a cloudy day trip to Chinatown. I’ve lived in the Boston area for 30 years and never took the time to walk around there before. It is an oddly Chinese enclave in the heart of Boston. I happened to pass Mary Soo Hoo park where I saw people playing Chinese Chess or xianqi.

Check!