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A Moment with a Stranger

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In my youth, I stuttered and was shy. The result was a self-consciousness that made it difficult to interact with people, especially with my peers. It made me less socially adept, but it made me a keener observer, a quality that certainly benefited my photography. 

I gravitated to people as subject matter from the very beginning. And while photographing people from a distance with a long lens satisfied me initially, I yearned to create closer, more intimate results. Eventually, I learned that the camera made it easier to overcome my tentativeness around people, especially strangers. 

After a while, my desire to make such photographs overcame my fears and insecurities. I discovered that the camera allowed me an entrée into other peoples’ spaces and lives. It gave me the excuse to strike up a conversation with a stranger, something that otherwise terrified me. By beginning a conversation with a compliment, I found myself engaged in conversation: “That’s a cool hat you’re wearing,” “Your dog is adorable,” or “I love the way you look in that shirt.” Those genuine and sincere compliments opened the door. 

I realized that people appreciate and enjoy being recognized for something unique about themselves. It was something they enjoyed talking about, even if just briefly. Most importantly, I realized that I didn’t have to be terrified about speaking to people, despite my self-consciousness. My sincere interest was enough to overcome my awkwardness and my stutter. 

Though still inept in small talk and cocktail chatter, I became increasingly confident when wandering the streets with a camera. It encouraged me and gave me greater confidence. I learned to control my stutter, and social interactions became something to look forward to rather than dread. Some of my favorite photographs resulted in just such encounters. The experience of meeting and sharing a moment with another human created a special memory. It added life to the image beyond the aesthetics that may or may not have made it a great photograph. 

Over the past year-and-a-half of living during a pandemic, I missed those moments. Fear of a virus made everyone hyper-aware of their personal space, and encounters with a stranger now evoked a newfound sense of perpetual anxiety. 

STRANGERS IN PARIS 

Our recent trip to Paris provided a respite from all that. In retrospect, I realize now that we were graced with a time between the promise of normalcy and another spike created by a variant of the stubborn virus. Yet, despite its brevity, this respite provided me wonderful opportunities to engage with a stranger and to make his portrait. 

The conversation began while sitting in a crowded Parisian café. A bold young man (Benjamin) squeezed past our table to flirt with a young woman seated in front of us. My wife and I looked at the table next to us where Benjamin and his friend were sitting. We smiled, amused and impressed by the young man’s boldness. 

I learned that Benjamin was a local DJ who had transitioned from a career in the fashion world in London. I was struck by his story and the way he carried himself, so I asked if he and his friend would pose for me. We walked them down the street to where there existed an incredible shaft of light. The late afternoon illumination and the canyon created by the residences on either side provided an ideal spot for a portrait. 

I was now faced with a high-contrast scene. Using my Fujifilm X-Pro3 and XF 35mm f/1.4, I set an exposure that retained highlights but did not underexposure his dark skin tone. The image looked good on the back of my camera’s LCD, but I knew I could do much more once I imported the file into Lightroom Classic. [KelbyOne members can click here to download a downsized DNG version of this file for practice purposes only.] 

STEP ONE: After importing the RAW file into Lightroom Classic, go to the Develop module and select the Crop Overlay tool (R). Choose the 4×5/8×10 Aspect ratio and crop out the photographer’s shadow at the bottom of the frame. Press Enter to commit the crop. 

STEP TWO: In the Presets panel, expand the Portraits: Medium Skin group and click on PM04. This provides a good starting point for the rendering of his actual skin tone. For photographers inexperienced with photographing people with darker skin tones, it’s easy to create a look that possesses too much orange or yellow. In this case, this preset provides a good neutral starting point. 

STEP THREE: Because of the direct lighting, the resulting image is high contrast. To create a less harsh look, decrease the Contrast to –35 in the Basic panel. 

STEP FOUR: To create a more nuanced degree of contrast in the overall portrait, adjust Highlights to –36, Shadows to +32, Whites to +45, and Blacks to –15. 

STEP FIVE: The subject possesses good quality skin. To reveal texture, but reduce some of the shininess, increase Texture to +10 and decrease Clarity to –10. 

STEP SIX: To add a little more pop to the color of the skin,but without adding too much orange, set the Vibrance to +9 and Saturation to –6. 

STEP SEVEN: The skin is a tad yellow, so to achieve a more neutral and accurate look, go to the HSL/Color panel and click on the Hue tab. Adjust Red to +6, Orange to –5, and Yellow to –5. 

STEP EIGHT: To achieve more color contrast between the subject and the background, go to the Color Grading panel and click on Shadows to view only that color wheel. Adjust the Shadow control for Hue to 221 and Saturation to 30. This will result in a slightly bluish color cast to the shadow area. Set Blending to 11 and Balance to –1. 

STEP NINE: Add some sharpness to the overall image by going to the Detail panel. Set the Amount to 45, Radius to 1.1, Detail to 6, and Masking to 31. 

STEP 10: To bring greater emphasis to the face, we’ll apply an aggressive vignette. Go to the Effects panel and then to Post-Crop Vignetting. Set the amount to –29, Midpoint to 37, Roundness to –25, and Feather to 64. 

STEP 11: The brightness of the shirt is a concern, as it detracts attention from his face. To selectively darken it, grab the Graduated Filter (M) in the toolbar below the Histogram panel. In the Effect drop-down menu, select Burn (Darken). Then, while depressing the Shift key, drag your cursor from just below his necklace upward until the edit pin is between his lips. Darken the area further by decreasing the Exposure to –0.62. 

STEP 12: The previous adjustment has also darkened his bearded chin, which is undesirable. To refine the mask, click on Range Mask at the bottom of the Graduated Filter panel and select Luminance. Check the box designated Show Luminance Mask. A red overlay will appear on the image indicating the area impacted by the adjustment. 

STEP 13: Next, adjust the left Range slider to 26 and Smoothness to 20, which creates a change in the area covered by the mask. 

STEP 14: The mask is still darkening Benjamin’s chin and beard, so go to the top right of the Graduated Filter panel and select Brush. In the Brush section at the bottom of the panel, click Erase and paint over the area around his chin and lip to eliminate the influence of the mask. Tip: Use the Bracket keys on your keyboard to quickly resize the brush. 

STEP 15: Next, bring out the color and details in his eyes with the Adjustment Brush (K). From the Effect drop-down menu, select Iris Enhance. To increase the size of the image until the eyes are enlarged on the screen, hold the Command (PC: Ctrl) key and tap the + key on your keyboard. Reduce the Size of your brush, and paint the effect onto the iris of the eyes to both brighten and reveal detail. 

STEP 16: There’s a distracting shine on the bridge of his nose and forehead. To fix that, we’ll again use the Adjustment Brush. Click New at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel to create a new brush and double-click the word “Effect” at the top left of the panel to reset all the sliders to 0. Reduce the Clarity amount to –27, set the Brush Size to 5.2, and paint over the problem areas to reduce the shine, while still retaining skin texture.

Encounters like this and the resulting photographs are special to me. Despite the brevity of such moments, these interactions persist in my memories. Those brief conversations are gifts that make my travels unique, personal experiences. Making and having photographs like this remind me of the importance of being connected, even when traveling halfway around the world.

ALL IMAGES BY IBARIONEX PERELLO