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Practicing What I Preach

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In November, I led my first in-person street photography workshop in two years. Throughout the pandemic, I’d conducted online workshops using Zoom, and these were successful and gratifying, but I missed the real-world interaction with other photographers while exploring the streets together. 

A total of six photographers provided an ideal number with which to work. Each person could receive personal attention, and there was less stress over “herding cats,” as can be the case when working with a large group. 

I walked to the eastern entrance to the Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. A few people stood nearby waiting for the security gates to rise and welcome the first wave of customers eager for a cup of joe or an egg sandwich. 

Daylight savings time had occurred the prior weekend, so I was excited by the beautiful quality of the early morning light. The hard, directional light created patterns of light and shadow along the street. Sunlight was reflected by skyscrapers in the west, resulting in spotlights of light on the opposite sidewalk. The photographers would have a lot to work with on their first day. 

DAY ONE 

After everyone arrived, I shared my approach to photographing on the street. I emphasized the importance of not having an agenda or imposing unrealistic expectations on what we did. It was all about discovery, learning to see in new and different ways. 

We began working with the dramatic morning light and noted how it revealed the details and movements on the street. By just following the light, we were led to sections of the street that promised the potential of a clean and straightforward composition, whether there were people present or not. It was all about allowing the light to introduce us to a scene, and then slowly parsing into it within the confines of the viewfinder. 

“Take your time and find the composition. What needs to be in the frame? What should you get rid of? Do you need to move closer or further back? Go horizontal or vertical? Does the image work even though there isn’t anyone in the frame? 

“Find the setting first, and then allow things to play out. Once there’s a composition, let things play out as people move in and out of the scene, maintaining the composition. Don’t be distracted by a subject to the point that the camera starts following him, and the composition is lost.” 

I repeated this mantra as we moved along Broadway, finding numerous opportunities for a good photograph. I watched as each photographer found his or her shot and dutifully worked the scene, lingering longer than normal. Each waited patiently for the moment of serendipity and luck, where elements came together and the photograph was revealed. 

AFTER THE SHOOT 

In the afternoon, we gathered in the classroom at the Los Angeles Center of Photography. I downloaded each photographer’s entire memory card into my computer and began the critique, going over every shot made. 

It became a conversation not of what images were good or bad; instead, it was an exploration of process. We identified scenes that had shown great promise but that the photographer gave up on and left prematurely. We identified strengths that each photographer possessed and how they could build on them going forward. 

Despite not having spent several hours on preliminary classroom instruction, the photographers immediately started to apply the principles I shared with them. As we culled the images to a selection of four, I was amazed at some of their photographs. Though they had little-to-no experience in street photography, they each created exceptional images. There were several that I wish I had been the one to make.

DAY TWO 

Those shots spurred me to challenge myself the following day when we went to a local farmers’ market. After the first day of shooting and critique, the attendees better understood how to approach the street. Though the open street market offered its own set of challenges, I was confident that they could navigate them and produce even better photographs than the previous day. 

Because there was less handholding involved, I was free to make my own images; however, I wanted to challenge myself and look for an image that was different from what I’d created before at this event. All I had to do was follow my own advice to find the scene, find the frame, and then let things play out. 

I found just that on a street corner adjacent to the market. Previously, I had set this green wall as a backdrop for many of my prior images, but I saw it differently this morning. I gravitated to the scene because of the solid graphic shadows created by the traffic light, and the short ledges jutting out of the walls. The canopy of one street vendor’s stall resulted in a triangular shadow on the sidewalk, while a trash can and a pair of scooters quietly occupied the space. 

I positioned those various elements within my viewfinder and discovered an excellent composition. The frame possessed a wonderful sense of balance and rhythm, with small accents of color, including the small elements of white and orange. 

The only issue was the negative space between the traffic light and the scooter on the right. That expanse of wall, even with the corner of the building, possessed a lot of visual weight. I needed something there to complete the shot. 

This corner stood behind many of the vendors’ stalls, so few people walked on the sidewalk. I might have to stay here a long time before someone entered the frame, but I listened to my teaching and stood there and waited. 

Over the next 20 minutes, a few people walked through the scene. Though I caught them in the correct spot, they didn’t provide me with what I hoped for. I was tempted to leave, but I didn’t give in to the temptation; I stuck with it. 

When I sensed someone come up behind me, I didn’t have a moment to observe them. I only had time to observe them as they entered the frame. As they passed the spot that I had predetermined as ideal for a subject, I tripped the shutter, and finally had my photograph. I not only captured the subject in precisely the right area within the frame, but I was blessed with a clear outline of his face and the brim of his hat. I couldn’t have asked for better. 

The image was sharp and well exposed, but I knew I could make it better with some slight changes in Adobe Lightroom. The photograph’s bones were strong, so I didn’t need to perform extensive processing on it. 

[KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image to follow along for practice purposes only.]

STEP ONE: After opening the image in Adobe Lightroom Classic, select the Crop Overlay tool (R) and, beginning from the upper-right hand corner, create a crop that eliminates the corner of the white sign at the top of the frame. Cycle through the grid overlay by repeatedly depressing the O key until a grid of six equal-sized rectangles appears. Crop the image so that the lower right intersection on the grid converges with the subject. Press Enter to commit the crop. 

STEP TWO: Next, in the Basic panel, click on the four-square icon near the top right to open the Profile Browser and, in the Camera Matching set, select the Pro Neg Hi profile. Click the Close button to close the Profile Browser. Now make a few global adjustments to brighten the image and increase the contrast. First, drag the Tint to +26, and then set the Exposure to +0.30, Contrast to +25, Highlights to –9, Shadows to +11, and Whites to +32. Though the adjustments are relatively small, you’ll see an immediate improvement in the image. 

STEP THREE: The next adjustments will tweak the midtone contrast, helping to reveal the texture of the wall and sidewalk. You’ll also increase the pop of the photograph’s strong colors. Set Texture to +29, Clarity to +13, Dehaze to +11, Vibrance to +35, and Saturation to +4. 

STEP FOUR: The strength of this image lies in the contrast between light and dark, as well as colors. To emphasize this, go to the Tone Curve panel and click on the second icon to the right of Adjust for the Point Curve. From the drop-down menu next to Point Curve at the bottom of the panel, select Medium Contrast. You’ll notice not only an increase in contrast but also a boost in color saturation, especially with the green wall. 

STEP FIVE: The green of the wall and the red of the scooter are vital colors in this shot, which could do with some tweaking. Go to the HSL/Color panel and select the All option at the top right, which will reveal the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance controls. In the Hue control, set Orange to –7, Yellow to +12, and Green to +11. In Saturation, set Red to +13, Yellow to +8, and Green to +4. In the Luminance control, set Red to –18, Yellow to –17, and Green to +16. You’ll see a slight shift in hue and saturation of the wall and a slight reduction in the presence of the orange/red of the scooter. 

STEP SIX: The image can benefit from a slight vignette to emphasize the center area of the frame. Go to the Lens Corrections panel and click on the Manual tab. In the Vignetting control, set the Amount to –11 and the Midpoint to 13. 

STEP SEVEN: As good as the image looks, there are a few problem areas. The sidewalk on either side of the person needs refinement. Begin with the sidewalk on the left by clicking on the Masking icon (gray circle with dotted outline) below the Histogram to reveal the local adjustment tools. Select Linear Gradient, and drag out a gradient at an angle, setting the middle reference line where the building meets the sidewalk. In the Effects panel, set Exposure to –0.07, Contrast to 4, and Highlights to –3. This slightly darkens the sidewalk. 

STEP EIGHT: Next, let’s reduce the saturation and luminance on the other section of the sidewalk. Click on the Create New Mask button in the Masks panel and select Linear Gradient again. Drag it from the lower right-hand corner until the middle reference line overlays the bottom edge of the building. Set the Contrast to 2, Highlights to 35, Whites to 19, and Saturation to –33. Though the gradient overlaps the shadows, the adjustment has little to no effect on this area. 

Though I facilitated the workshop, I learned from and was inspired by the photographers who joined me that weekend. They did more than just copy my approach to street photography; they brought their vision and sensibility into it and, as a consequence, inspired me to make a new discovery of my own.

ALL IMAGES BY IBARIONEX PERELLO