Up Close and Personal

One of those silly “rules of thumb” in street photography is: “You can never get too close.” I think you can, but I’m not going to show any examples of it here.

There’s close and there’s too close. We need to define which is which. My personal view is that “too close” is when the lens begins to distort faces, as when you shove a 28mm lens a couple of feet away from somebody’s nose. I mean: what do you expect? The result is always the uglification of the subject — and frankly, I don’t think that’s fair.

Shooting strangers close enough to distort their faces is like shooting polar bears with a machine gun from a helicopter. The latter has nothing to do with “sport” and the former nothing to do with street photography.

After all, where’s the street? Without a little bit of context, the photo is not a street photo but simply a candid portrait, taken at too close a range.

Close, But Not Too Close
The pictures I’m showing here represent the maximum closeness I’m willing to tolerate. My featured image (above) shows a smartly dressed (and presumably married) couple checking their phones. I was tempted to use it for a blog post called “Everyone’s On the Phone,” but I had so many others from the same session it became surplus to requirements.

There was something so “Titianesque” about the woman’s beautiful scarf I couldn’t resist taking a shot as I walked past. I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder so I could only guess the framing and focus. Fortunately, this gets easier with practice, and I was confident the shot would work.

Apart from the subjects’ smart dress, their absorption in their task (probably checking a map), and the low camera position, what makes the image is the quality of the light. This was no accident. Before scheduling a day’s street photography I study the weather forecasts closely to make sure conditions will be favourable.

It’s possible to shoot in all weathers, but I prefer the day to be cloudy but bright, illuminating people and their surroundings with soft, even light. Only on those days can you move in close and take candid street portraits which are not unflattering to the subject.

The Virtue of Light and Colour
Here’s another example (below), taken two hours later. It’s now around lunchtime — and on a sunny day this would have been a terrible shot. As it is, the colourful jackets of these ladies are shown to best advantage (did they buy them together?) even though the lady at the back is curiously out of step with the others. Fortunately, the word “Splash” appears just above her head, accentuating the discrepancy and making it seem deliberate.

You can see why I like to photograph in colour. Once you’ve decided to use colour you have to start thinking about the light — and, of course, the colours in the subject. That’s why I concentrate on light and colour, which I regard as being at least the equal of “form” in the triumvirate of key elements in the art of street photography.

My next shot (below) was also taken in good light. On carnival days in my hometown you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some colour, but you just have to hope for the right conditions. This time, I was lucky. The light was ideal for candid portraits, bringing out the beauty of everyone who’d chosen to present themselves attractively.

Girl in carnival

The girls in the photo are wearing dresses that are somewhat in the Renaissance style, with flared shoulders not unlike Michelangelo’s design for the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. Sorry Michelangelo, I much prefer this shortsleeved, feminine version, without the deep yellow. The Swiss Guard always seem to be “out of gamut” in colour photography, making yellow look orange in most digital pictures.

When the Sun Comes Out
Here’s a final shot which I’m including to show the difference when the sun comes out. It’s not bad — I like its informality and the way in which the subject is clutching her jacket under one arm. The April sun is not especially intense, but it’s not as flattering as the gentle light of an overcast day.

Woman smoking cigarette, chatting on phone

You can tell a lot about the uncertainty of the weather by looking at the photo. Whereas the main subject has removed her jacket, the girl with the red and grey coat is keeping hers on, while another person at the edge of the frame appears to have ventured out in a flimsy, sleeveless dress.

It makes me wonder. Are they all calling up to get the latest weather forecast? Or are they checking if their lunch dates are on their way?

That’s the trouble when “Everyone’s On the Phone.” You can never tell what they’re doing, no matter how “Up Close and Personal” you get.

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