A short discussion of style…
In the dawn of the photographic age, studio photography was the only viable method for photographing people – the equipment was not at all portable, both the subject and the camera needed to be very still to accomodate the long exposure times required of early film emulsions, and lots of light was needed.
In this regard, I even include ‘outdoors’ as a studio setting – essentially a studio without walls, and using the sun as the major light source. The style was very formal, posed and often artificial looking (in terms of emotion).
As we move forward a hundred years, we now have lightweight digital capture and amazing quality under the most challenging lighting conditions possible. However, for the high end of ‘people photography’ – fashion editorial, commercial, wedding and portraiture – the use of the ‘studio’ setting is still most common. Even if the ‘studio’ is again a non-tradional room – such as outdoors, a runway at a fashion show – the style of the photo is highly staged. A modern editoral fashion shoot, even at the beach, is often indiscernable from a movie set. You have set designers, set dressers, stylists, makeup, wardrobe, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, directors, producers, etc. etc.
And that’s only for the image capture. Then this rather large pile of pixels heads off to the wonderful world of Photoshop… where many times the end product bears faint resemblance to original image capture. Men and women alike have had the equivalent of facelifts, liposuction, limb extensions, hair removal and all sorts of operations that would be rather unpleasant if performed medically…
The whole “Photoshopped” issue has been dissected extensively in the media and will not be revisted here, except to make this stylistic point: even at a subtle level, this form of ‘retouching’ is picked up by most people – often with the accompanying statement, “I could never look like that…”
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with idealism, fantasy and other imaging styles that are not accurate reflections of reality, there does appear to be a certain ‘stylistic fatigue’ happening. With the recognition that most of the money spent on women’s clothing, for example, comes from ‘real people’ – as opposed to those fortunate enough to measure their ability to purchase dresses by walk-in closet size rather than credit limit, clothing marketers are turning more casual in their style in some cases.
Even so called ‘catalog’ photography – where the subject is always isolated from any surroundings, often looking like they are suspended on the page (due to shooting on white seamless paper background in the studio) is being subjected to change.
We like things that feel a bit more authentic (whether they are or not is of course not the issue!), more ‘real’, more personal. Whether we are looking at a woman modeling a pair of shoes or a guy getting out of a pickup, there is today a stylistic hunger for ‘approachable’ subject matter. Could this person in the photo be me? Advertisers certainly want the target’s mind to work this way!!
Getting back to style and technology: the advent of 35mm film cameras with relatively fast lenses helped revolutionize the possibility of ‘candid photography’. One no longer needs tripods, massive lights – or the requirement that the subject stand still. While the change from film to digital imaging has not changed things that much in terms of the actual art and practice of candid photograpy, it certainly has made the entire workflow easier, faster and less expensive.
Today, there is a respected genre of photography, “streetphotography.” Like any other distinctive taxonomy, the edges are blurred. What if the photo was taken inside a building? and so on… that is essentially unimportant, it’s the style that is under discussion: the look/feel of a candid, unposed moment that was randomly captured. This ‘lack of preparedness’ by the subject (whether factual or not) helps tell a story of ‘everyman/everywoman’ – thereby aligning the essence of the photo with the viewer. People consuming these images relate more closely to the subjects, or at least see them as ‘more real’ compared to high glamor studio shots.
The actual art of streetphotography is one of the most challenging, as the photographer has little control over many of the things a studio photographer is used to taking for granted. Your subjects don’t often stand where you like them to, there are many visual distractions around and behind them – making composition a continual effort. Lighting, and the resultant exposure requirements, can vary widely. Color temperature, reflected light causing color shifts and other issues conspire against a good photograph.
People, cars, etc. will often invade the shot as the shutter is clicked. Ideally the subject is either unaware of the photographer (these days that is easier, as people on cell phones – which seems to account for 97% of the population – are mostly oblivious to their surrroundings), or reacts only after the shutter falls.
There is a social side to this as well. With virtually every person on the planet now having a cellphone/camera combination, we as a culture have grown much more accepting of being photographed. Everyone knows that even if you are not specifically aware of them, just about any populated place on the earth has surveillance cameras – and we are constanly background subjects in other people’s vacation/tourist snaps.
While no one is happy with those paparazzi that overstep both normative behavior and common sense, having one’s picture taken while anyplace that has the perception of a ‘public venue’ is pretty much accepted and generally a non-issue.
I have personally been shooting this style of photography for decades now, and can remember less than a handful of incidents where someone objected to being photographed. In those cases, their request is always honored.
Probably the most difficult aspect of quality streetphotography is previsualization. Just like any other form of imaging, the best results are obtained if you have the completed picture in your mind’s eye before you snap the shutter. The internal mental speed at which this visualization must take place is faster in this genre than just about any other – you see an opportunity taking place, you may have from 1 to 5 seconds to prepare everything (composition, camera placement, focus, lighting, angle, etc.) and get the shot. This requires a lot of instinctual behavior, and a rock-solid knowledge of your equipment. Just like an accomplished guitarist just ‘feels the music’ and their fingers automatically place themselves on the fretboard – a fluid and experienced photographer can run the camera by feel alone. It’s one of the primary reasons I still prefer somewhat “old-fashioned” clunky DSLR cameras with physical buttons – there is no time for futzing with touch screen menus in this type of photography.
Exposure needs to be set ahead of time, as does lens selection (or focal length setting on a zoom lens). Ideally all you should need to do to react to an upcoming photo opportunity is to compose and focus, and even focus can be preset. It’s always better to let a subject ‘walk into focus’ as opposed to chasing them trying to simultaneously focus, compose and trip the shutter.
The most important bit however is the art of seeing. Most of us look but don’t see. The innate punch of a good photograph is the communcation of the photographer’s “sight” to the audience. Be still. Wait. Watch. There are new opportunities every second. In streetphotography most will be missed – it’s the nature of things. Wrong position, wrong light, person walking in front of you, etc. But perseverance furthers – patience and practice will produce shots that could never be duplicated in a studio.
Studio photography is a wonderful genre, and nothing in this discussion should take away from that – rather this is hopefully an exploration of a type of imaging that has been peripheral but is now becoming more accepted and used in different areas.
To revist equipment for a moment, although I have made an argument for the use of “button oriented” DSLR cameras, like anything, the art is in the photographer, not the equipment. Unfortunately, in this hobby/profession, issues around equipment as being the arbiter of quality/success abound perhaps more than any other. My personal opinion is that, with very few exceptions, camera equipment plays a small part in the overall end result of the photograph. Someone with skill and experience and vision can make wonderful images with a cheap cellphone, while the latest monster 40megapixel hand held howitzer of a camera won’t help someone that doesn’t take the time to learn the craft. I have been experimenting with the iPhone a lot recently, and am plesantly surprised by what one can do with this device. I’ll be posting another blog shortly focused exclusively on cellphone cameras, the iPhone in particular.
In closing, here a few examples of how streetphotography is moving more and more into the commercial world. I happened to get the latest Nordstrom catalog in my mailbox today, and noticed a shot on the inside flyleaf that I recognized: I had taken a ‘street shot’ at this same location recently (Le Petit Four on Sunset Plaza – Hollywood).
Here is the catalog shot:
And here is the shot I took a few months ago (closeup of the right-hand table in the shot above):
Here’s one more example from the same catalog (another ‘street style’ shot):
and here is a shot of mine in the same style – (unfortunately no one was paying me that day for bag/shoes/dress product shots!):