Editors Note: This article was originally published on September 21, 2010.
Street photography is a style that I have the utmost respect for. It is one of the most challenging styles – you need a strong will, extreme confidence, a fast hand, astute observation skills and of course precise timing. Observation and timing go hand-in-hand, and that’s why I’d like to share with you today this incredible photograph from Carlina (carlina999 on Flickr) which is an excellent example of both. It will also serve quite well as a subject for some photographic forensics.
First, the forensics: The EXIF information isn’t available – so we know very little about the equipment used. As such, we have to deduce much of the details for ourselves. Worry not, there is quite a bit we can learn from the photograph itself. Let’s start with the shooting position. I believe the camera was at or below waist level. That means Carlina could have been sitting, or she could have literally shot from the him. The method doesn’t really matter, but knowing the camera position helps us figure out some other details. If you compare the relative sizes of each person, the differences in size tells us that there is a decent amount of space between the subjects. Quick tip: people vary in height, so it’s best to compare head sizes, which don’t vary as much as you would think. So based on the vertical dimension of each person, we know that there’s a good amount of space between each – but why does is appear as though they are so close together? This is a clear indication that there’s a good length of glass in use. The longer the focal length, the more the depth of the space (the z-axis or the axis perpendicular to the focal plane) gets compressed.
So why are the forensics – or more precisely, the information – important? Because the results show us exactly why this photo is great from a technical point of view. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. Before we go there, I’d like you to take note of the body language of our two primary subjects. Mouth agape, the man clearly looks lost or confused and his posture is a little clumsy, like someone who isn’t comfortable with his surroundings. The woman, on the other hand, is exhibiting a partially open body language – she’s reserved, but willing to emotionally let someone in. She is studying our male subject with a curious expression…one of interest or attraction perhaps? Possibly. Regardless of her emotional investment, this is clearly a moment that we’re witnessing. So back to the narrow angle of view. The compression of the z-axis puts the two primary subjects closer together visually, it provides an intimate space and binds them together. So as you see, the longer focal length and the shooting angle make the shot.
Now, knowing what we know…let’s consider the shot from a real-space perspective. Suppose for a moment that we’re observing these two with our own eyes from eye level. The angle of view isn’t narrowed and, as such, neither is the appearance of the depth between them. At eye level, the woman’s head would be much more even with the man’s head, even if she was shorter. Now what do you think she is she looking at? Remember, it’s only the z-axis that is compressed – not the horizontal (x-axis) or the vertical (y-axis). In actuality, I suspect she’s looking past the man – in front of him – and looking at a point much lower than his face. She could be looking at a car that is way off frame and completely out of context. We lost our intimacy, we lost our connection. The shot is completely lost.
The point is that the camera can be used to create a story from nothing. Here, Carlina created a story about a connection between two people that never existed. In the real world, the woman may not be admiring anything. But as seen by the camera, we see a glimmer of a love story that has yet to be played out. Street photography is about telling stories. But not just any story: The story about the connections between people. As a street photographer, Carlina tells incredible stories – even if they are fictional.
There is only one thing about this photograph that I don’t like. No, it’s not the post-processing. I love the way the colors are muted and I love the vignetting – both add to the intimacy of the shot. It’s not the extra woman off to the side. In a staged shot, she might have been clutter. In a street scene, that goes with the territory and I consider her context in the same way that I consider the reflection of the clock. It’s the lack of title. A photograph as great as this one should have a title. But please don’t let my pet peeve prevent you from checking out Carlina’s photo or her fantastic photostream. Both are worth spending time with.