Shooting a street scene

July 31, 2019
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On tours I often show some examples of what you can do with slow shutter speeds, to create motion and simplicity. There is one particular image of an old guy and a boy, sitting on the pavement, observing traffic. I thought this setting had potential and I tried to capture it the way I wanted it.

What did I want? To make a photo you need to have an idea, a vision. What do you want to shoot, and more importantly, HOW?

Vision

The idea was to shoot the two subjects. But not just that. That would be boring. Just a street scene with a lot going on. There would be a background. This background was very busy, and to solve this problem I wanted to build in two important factors. One was to remove all these distractions. Unwanted elements can ruin your photo and your subjects will not stand out. The second one was to also create a background which was also pleasing to the eye.

 

Control

This is typically a scene where the auto function of a camera is likely to screw up your plans, so you need a certain amount of control. As they were sitting there I had enough time to set up my camera manually, giving the camera no chance to give the wrong shutter speed, aperture or ISO. There also would be no nasty surprises regarding the light. I needed full control here.

Fasten your seatbelts.

 

Executing the plan.

Hanoi, July 2009, early evening. There is still daylight and some vehicles already have their lights on. With aperture you can make the background more blurry, making the subjects stand out more, but this would not be enough. The idea was to use a slow shutter speed. Using a slow shutter speed means that anything that moves will become blurry, to the point that you cannot recognise the motorbikes and cars anymore. A slow shutter speed also leads to light trails. I wanted both.

So the plan was: subjects in focus, light trails as background.

Easier said than done. Shooting people at slow shutter speeds is a disaster. When they move, they become blurry. To make matters worse, if I move the entire photo becomes blurry. So it begins with stabilising the camera. I did not have a tripod with me, so this would be difficult. I also did not bring my spaghetti-pod. (What is a spaghetti-pod? Check the Shutter Speed chapter.) As you can probably see, my position was at the same height as the subjects. So I was kneeling on the pavement and my left elbow was resting on my left leg. More stability, but still tricky.

To create the light trails I mainly used a shutter speed of 1/4th of a second. Sometimes 1/8th, but this was too fast to create long enough light trails. The aperture in all images was 4.5, giving me enough depth of field to have both subjects sharp. ISO was 400. It was a 50mm lens.

A 1/4th shutter speed is already difficult when shooting static subjects, let alone people who can potentially move. But I had to use it, otherwise the whole plan would not work.

In the final image you see that both subjects are sharp and there is a nice light trail. Some other factors were pure luck. The boy is pointing at something, which makes us think about what it is that caught his attention. There is communication between him and (I assume) his granddad. The other part I like is that the light trail is interrupted where their heads are. Horizontal en vertical lines can be quite annoying. Remember trees or poles sticking out of people’s heads?

Now we come to one of the most important parts. A shutter speed of 1/4th means probably failure. Despite the odds I succeeded. The reason is very simple. If one image does not get what you want, keep shooting till you have it right. Digital photos don’t cost you any money, so don’t give up and continue taking photos until you have what you want. And when you finally have that photo there is triumph. You have created an image that stands apart. That is the only image you would want to show.

The photographer in me would not want to show the failures. But the teacher in me wants to make you aware that it does not matter if you keep getting bad results, as long as you continue till you have it right. Hard work pays off.

So here are my failures. I took 23 photos in a space of 5,5 minutes. Not bad, considering some of my other shots took days to get it right. Luckily I got my ultimate image before they left. But then, probably I was the one who left the scene.

The final step: delete all photos you don’t like!

If you prefer any of the other images, please feel free to comment!

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