A public street, especially a busy one, possesses a balance of chaos and order. The sidewalk, traffic lights, signage, and storefronts are fixed elements that establish the identity of the place. The people that move down the sidewalk and intersections are fluid elements that transform the scene with every passing second. The resulting moments are unique and never repeatable, creating a tremendous challenge for any photographer.
There lies the allure of street photography. The challenge is whether the photographer can recognize a moment where the fixed and fluid possess synchronicity and even an inevitability. Can that person recognize and wield the camera well enough to translate it into a compelling photograph?
I couldn’t verbalize that pursuit when I first took to the street with a camera as a young boy; however, I innately understood that I was searching for something more than a snapshot. When I came upon such a moment, my body reacted viscerally. My gut recognized it before my mind caught up. It was only as I grew older and gained knowledge and experience that I could do it with any level of consistency.
That’s not to say it has become easy. It’s still a challenge. Yet, it’s the challenge itself that keeps the process so fun and intoxicating.
FINDING THE RHYTHM
There is a rhythm to the streets that the average person is oblivious to, but a street photographer knows it exists and tries to sync with it.
The waveform that illustrates the sound levels of music, if possible, could reflect the nature of the street. There are ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, frenzy and quiet. And, much like a song, there’s a moment where the instruments, vocals, and the performance produce something unique and distinct. For me, that moment is a convergence of elements both fixed and fluid that appears and disappears in less than a second.
Unlike music, where the creator works with various instruments’ sounds, a photographer works with light and shadow, line and shape, color, and gesture. Those are the raw materials with which any photographer must work. That was precisely the case with this photograph made in Downtown Los Angeles.
The late afternoon light provided a contrast of light and shadow, producing graphic shapes throughout the frame. It brought emphasis to key subjects while deemphasizing less essential background elements. The contrast of the light emphasizes colors, shapes, and a woman raising her hand to her face. These are the building blocks.
The photograph becomes more than the sum of its parts by the synchronicity provided by the woman’s gesture occurring just as she steps out of the shadow into the light. Compositional balance comes from the woman in the red jacket leading the viewer’s eye to the left, while the male figures at the edges of the frame guide the viewer’s eye to the center. The interspersed people further behind and even the car on the road serve as counterpoints to the main action and establish a sense of place and time. It’s a moment that existed and disappeared before the camera’s shutter completed its journey within the camera.
The recognition of the moment and the adept use of the camera provides that all-important frame. And while those essential elements exist and gel nicely, further refinement is needed to leverage the full potential of the photograph.
[KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image to follow along for practice purposes only and, even though we’re using Adobe Camera Raw in the following steps, you can just as easily follow along using Lightroom Classic (LrC).]
STEP ONE: Open the image in Camera Raw 14.1 (the latest version of the software). Go to the Profile pull-down window and change the profile from Adobe Color to Adobe Landscape. Though this is an urban street scene, the profile provides good vibrancy to the colors as it slightly opens the shadows.
STEP TWO: The exposure was made with a bias to the highlights to avoid overexposure but could do with some tweaking. In the Basics panel, adjust Exposure to +0.50, Contrast to +17, Highlights to –47, Shadows to +49, Whites to +8, and Blacks to –8. This increases the contrast and addresses some problem areas, including the brown sedan in the upper quarter of the frame.
STEP THREE: The next step is to refine the midtone contrast to reveal and enhance the various textures in the photograph, including the clothing, street, and architecture. Magnify the image to 100% to better observe the changes as you increase Texture to +9, Clarity to +3, and reduce Dehaze –6.
STEP FOUR: The overall colors are good but need a little refinement, so set the Vibrance to +5 and Saturation to –8.
STEP FIVE: Though the details of the highlights are good, there’s a slight loss of detail in the shadows. Use the Curve adjustment (LrC: Tone Curve) to address this. Choose the Parametric Curve (the first icon to the right of the word “Adjust”) and edit it with an adjustment of +22 to Darks and +1 to Shadows.
STEP SIX: The RAW file should receive a modest level of pre-sharpening before opening the image in Photoshop. With the magnification at 100%, go to the Details panel. Increase Sharpening to 50 (LrC: Amount slider), Noise Reduction to 41 (LrC: Amount slider), and leave Color Noise Reduction at its default.
STEP SEVEN: We’ve made global color adjustments to this point; now it’s time to create more precise tweaks to colors via the Color Mixer panel (LrC: HSL panel). Click the All tab at the top right so you can see the settings for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. In the Saturation panel, set Reds to –5, Oranges to +14, Yellows to –11, Aquas to +8, Blues to +23, Purples to +15, and Magentas to +8. In the Luminance panel, set Reds to –21, Yellows to –1, Aquas to –1, Blues to +1, and Purples to +11.
STEP EIGHT: The next step is to boost the color contrast between the cool shadows and the warmer highlights. In the Color Grading tool set, set the Shadows control to a Hue of 226 and a Saturation of 12 (you can either drag the circle at the center of the color wheel to set the Hue and Saturation, or you can click on the word “Shadows” above the color wheel and then enter the values manually). Leave the Blending and Balance controls at their defaults.
STEP NINE: A slight vignette can help emphasize the main action. In the Effects panel, click on the disclosure triangle to the right of the Vignetting adjustment slider. Set Vignetting to –9 (LrC: Amount), Style to Highlight Priority, Midpoint to 46, Roundness to +4, and Feather to 71.
STEP 10: Even with all the previous adjustments, there are still problem areas that pull attention from the main subjects in the foreground. These elements include the sedan, the man with a jacket on the right edge of the frame, a man in a brown shirt, and a woman with a gray hoodie. Using a burning adjustment localized to just these areas of the frame will eliminate them as distractions. Click on the Masking icon (gray circle with dotted outline) and select the Brush tool. Set the Brush Size to 8, Flow to 50, and check on the Auto Mask control box. With Exposure set to –0.55 and Highlights to –64 burn in those specific areas.
STEP 11: Next, let’s focus on the two women at the center of the frame. Click on Create New Mask at the top of the Masks panel and choose the Select Subject option. This will create a new mask displayed as a red overlay in the image. (Note: In LrC, you’ll need to manually turn on the Show Overlay checkbox in the Masks panel.) Though it includes more than just the two women, they are quickly addressed.
STEP 12: To erase the three men from the mask, as well as any areas of the street, click on the Subtract button in the Masks panel and select the Brush tool. (Note: Click on Mask 2 in the Masks panel to reveal the Add and Subtract buttons.) Paint out the secondary elements with the Brush Size set to 10 and Flow to 100.
STEP 13: Uncheck the Show Overlay box at the bottom of the Masks panel. With the Mask still selected, go to the Light panel (LrC: the tool panel) and adjust Exposure to +0.30, Highlights to +6, Shadows to +28, Whites to +3, and Blacks to –5. This increases some of the details of the main subjects.
STEP 14: The hue and brightness of the sky need some further refinement. Create a new mask in the Masks panel and click on Select Sky. A red overlay will appear around that area of the photograph.
STEP 15: Go to the Light panel and set Exposure to +0.25 and Highlights to –3; in the Color panel, set the Temperature to +18 (LrC: Temp is at the top of the tool panel). Now we can open the image in Photoshop and be ready to output to print or the web.
The pursuit of images like this is what keeps me eager to go out and explore. As elusive and challenging as they are to capture, there’s an immense sense of accomplishment when I feel I’ve successfully joined the natural flow and rhythm of the street. Even if the image isn’t wholly successful, I am grateful for my time in the beautiful and magical space.
ALL IMAGES BY IBARIONEX PERELLO