Monday, April 26, 2010

Chess Club

Chess Club

Took this when I was up in the city on Saturday, further down market. A bunch of people had set up tables to play chess, which I happen to think is all kinds of great photographically. Lots of tension, lots of contrast, lots of intense gazing back and forth -- and, of course, I was in chess club in high school.

I'm very happy with the character on display in this scene -- a bunch of guys who clearly enjoy each other's company and chess, and a lot of this written on their faces. I'm pretty unhappy with the composition, which is pretty mediocre. I think if I'd known these guys better, I would have wanted to get up and in their faces and the boards and gone really wide -- preferably without them knowing I was there so I could capture what we see here. That wouldn't be possible, but this goes to my theory that the reason I like using my 28mm so much is that it forces me into making a decent composition if the photo is going to work at all -- whereas the 35mm is just close enough that I can focus on character and get away with things. I keep using terms like "character" and "scene", but maybe it's really more about "form" and "content". That's how I think about it though -- and it guides (maybe incorrectly?) my choice of perspective.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hassled by the Man

Hassled by the Man

I went back up to the Market Street/Union Square area again, spending about three hours meandering around. Near the end, I decided I wanted to get a slightly lower perspective. This was pretty tiring, and I'm fairly lazy, so instead I just set under one of the lamp posts right near the guy with the No Sex sign usually is.

This was sort of a disturbing development in my photography. Rather than pacing around, going with the flow, suddenly I felt like I was a part of the scene. More than that, I realized that people actually noticed me less sitting on the ground, since most everybody, even the tourists, is used to the panhandlers, performers, and peddlers who are at ground level. If I were holding a sign, I might even be completely invisible?

One guy did notice me though, this gentleman pictured above. I'd run into him earlier, further up the street. I'd tried to strike up a conversation with him, but he was simply too incoherent to communicate with. He remembered me though, and came up to me, still determined to communicate but failing. He wasn't actually ominous, but I did have a moment where I got the idea why sitting on the ground is a little scary, since it leaves you vulnerable in a way you normally aren't. And honestly, this was the first time I'd ever just sat down under a lamp post in a street. The whole scene was a pretty new one for me, so I hope the photo captures that a bit.

Saturday, April 24, 2010



I don't do a lot of off-camera lighting. Not because I think it isn't cool (it seems awesome), but it involves schlepping around a ton of crap. A little ironic, since it seems like a lot of photographers are excited about how they no longer have to carry around 300 pounds of crap to do professional quality lighting. Instead, it's just the stands, the umbrellas/softboxes, three speed lights, backdrops, diffusers, etc. etc.

My compromise for social events is a little fold-up soft-box and an SB-800. Last night, I was at a friend's housewarming party, the conversation got around to another friend's tattoo. One thing lead to another, and he was taking his shirt off to show people. Naturally, I asked to take a picture, and out came the flash.

I had my friend Steve hold this beneath and underneath. My understanding is that muscles and the like work better with some harder light to make them pop (I guess the well-defined edges on the shadows help?), but I wasn't convinced with just one flash I could get enough spread to light his whole back. So, I put on the softbox, and got this.

It's a little more cooked in post than normal for me, but the glow and the flexing-muscles-in-the-dark thing works for me.

Friday, April 23, 2010



A while back, I got a book of photos from Garry Winogrand titled Arrivals and Departures. The book was full of shots he got traveling through airports. The story was, Winogrand was nervous about flying, so he took photos all over the airport to calm his nerves -- the result being some of the finest candid photography ever taken anywhere, much less in an airport.

Why shoot in an airport? It has a lot going for it photographically:

  • Lots of people
  • Lots of light (check out those windows!)
  • Lots of scale -- big planes, tiny people, stuff in between
  • Lots of architecture -- not always good, but frequently unlike most other things
  • Lots of unbearable human misery
I like traveling to new places. Big fan of history, and now that I'm into photography, I find that going to a different place is a great way to give yourself "new eyes". The only real problem is that getting to a lot of interesting places means flying.

If the delays, the skin-flinted airlines, the shitty food, the overpriced wi-fi, or those loud beep-y carts aren't bad enough, I work in computer security. That means every bit of security I go through is a little like sending a modern-era graduate of John Hopkins through a Civil War era surgical tent. There's a lot of suffering and misery, and occasionally somebody survives -- but not for lack of trying on the part of the catgut surgeons.

So, while I'm not neurotic about flying (really, my biggest beef about the actual planes is that they're boring), I do kind of need something in airports to keep my mind off how poorly things are run. I've taken to keeping my camera with me and out, trying to catching something in the good light.

This is probably my favorite airport photo so far -- lots of sweep and drama, and as a bonus it convinced me I really could take awesome images with my janky 28mm.

My advice: Keep those cameras out once you make it past security at the airport.

Um, and don't blame me if you end up in some off the record prison camp because the TSA goon who catches you shoots Canon and you're walking around with your d700. ;)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hair Fugue

Shot this through a window walking down Mission St. on Saturday:

Hair Fugue

I've gone back and forth about this one. On the one hand, it's a pretty cluttered photo -- generally a recipe for a big 'ole pile of nothing. On the other, I find my brain is pretty good at flipping back and forth between the layers of reflection/interior. There's this process where there a few 'key points' in the image my eye keeps locking onto, then wandering away from as I explore what's going on. And then there's the barber, who's sort of my emotional center in the piece -- keep coming back to those eyes. Another one I'll have to revisit with time.

Make Your Own Kind of Music

Make Your Own Kind of Music

Caught this one near the end of the day outside the 24th street Bart station. Loved the musicians peeking through the trees and the shadows.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Caltrain Connection

Caltrain Connection

I went up to the city this afternoon to do some shooting in the Market Street area and visit a friend who was under the weather. Had a lot of fun there, and ran into two other street photographers -- Brad and Jennifer. We walked around for a bit and did some shooting. One thing I've noticed is that when you're with other people, some of the social barriers against street photography go down. I dunno if this is from the same mental structure that also lets us form mobs, or just that people subtly relax when you're with a group. Less lone nut with a camera, and more movement (or at least, gang?).

I have a couple of pictures I liked from today, but the one that popped for me was this little snap from the Caltrain station at the end of the evening. I saw the station attendant giving some dude a light, and my camera went up -- I tend to go for shots with flame, and it was kind of a cool moment. By the time the viewfinder made it to my eye, I realized I had a scene going on. Everybody in this picture is connected to someone else in that picture, and they all sort of hang together. It really worked for me, but ask me again in a week when the new has worn off.

Saturday, April 17, 2010



This is actually a shot from the same day where I captured 'Mass Transit'. Once I noticed the good light, I kind of went to town with the portraits.

In a lot of ways, I feel like this sort of tight, close-up portrait (basically something near a head shot) is kind of a challenging thing to do well. Not the technical stuff (which can also be hard), or even the implementation (ditto). I'm talking about that to a lot of people who look at pictures, there is an emotional disconnect with portraits of strangers.

This one is a toughie for me, since one of best things about getting my first dSLR was that photos of people 'looked right'. I'd never taken pictures of people before that on vacations or whatever since they didn't seem to be rendered the way I thought they should be. Once I discovered that my camera could make faces the way they ought to be, I was pretty hooked.

This isn't everybody though. So, when I try to get a portrait of someone on the street, I try to go for something with character that draws people in. Character, or some emotion we can understand and relate to. Best of all if it's character and emotion, and it's in some nice mass transit-driven lighting.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The High Cost of Living

In honor of tax day:

Take A Seat, XVI [The High Cost of Living]

More about the project that gave me this portrait in a bit -- but I love the use of the dollar here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010



Lots of my friends are into landscape photography. I feel a tremendous burdened lifted from my shoulders with this knowledge: It's not me that has to be out there, tromping through nature, getting bitten by bugs, freezing, boiling, dying of thirst [well, this did happen to me once], falling down mountains, falling in rivers, drowning in underwater caves, herniating something from carrying gear for 37 miles, being eaten by a bear, being mauled by a lion, gored by native spears, or even being digested by a giant spider.

I have a complicated relationship with nature.

My other objection to landscape photography is that you really should be there at a certain time of day, a certain time of year, in certain ceremonial clothing (so that you can pray for the right clouds), and then, just maybe, you will be blessed. In the interim, you get to entertain yourself with hiking. As nearly as I can tell, I lack the gene most of my friends in California have that makes them love tromping through nature. Maybe it's because I grew up where there were snakes/alligators/bears/etc. and in a town which was basically a swamp, I just never caught the bug for it.

This is not to say my breath doesn't catch with the indescribable beauty of the lone photographer who's using his last large format plate to record the dying embers of the sun over Yosemite; I just can't help but thinking of what a bitch it must have been to get that shot.

Every now and then, I pick up a landscape I like. In this case, I was on the 280 with a friend, cleaning lenses as he was driving us up to the Marin Headlands. I looked out the side window, and saw green hills and blue skies. Surprisingly fun composition, and it still makes me smile a little.

More snarky friends asked me where the taskbar and the icons were in the picture.

Me, I just like the cows.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Grant and Division

This is another shot from when I was up in the city to catch some iPad madness. I kind of like that the tension between and near and far, and the sharp diagonal of the shadow contrasting with the light. Not perfectly happy, but I thought it was interesting enough to highlight.

Grant and Division

One of my biggest struggles with street photography is composition. I find that the traditional rules you might have read about either are only approximately true, or not really the key to producing interesting images. Plus, when you have (charitably) just a few seconds to capture a scene, it can be hard to sit around thinking, "Ok, line here, make an angle there...." as you're chasing a decisive moment.

I'm not sure what the best way to get good at this is. So far, I've been pursuing a variety of different strategies:

  1. Studying people I consider to be 'masters' of composition on the street: Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, etc.
  2. Trying to study some classic artwork (think: Renaissance masters, etc.)
  3. Relentless culling of my own work to try to find what I like, and studying those. Then trying to re-inforce that.
  4. More time than is healthy spent with the crop tool, trying to 'find' better compositions of a frame.
I dunno if any of these will work, or will ever lead to the place where finding the right arrangement of a scene isn't quite so challenging. My deeper concern is that there's just some set of people who have The Eye for composition, and you can beat yourself against the rocks of it for years before you realize you're just never going to find the frame you want. Ok, maybe that's a little depressing. The good news is, the only way to know if I'll ever be happy with my compositions is to try, and it turns out that's unreasonably fun. :)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mass Transit

My last post about being trapped got me to thinking about this portrait, which is also about being confined. I was on MUNI with some co-workers for an offsite activity, and we were crammed in. I always feel pretty weird taking photos of people on mass transit (possibly because there's no escape route?), but the combination of being with friends and being jammed in made it seem more natural, so I was on the lookout for interesting situations.

Mass Transit

There was a group of kids at the head of the bus laughing and goofing off, and this kid kept stepping into this pool of awesome loop-but-near-Rembrandt style light, and I thought it would be a great capture. I managed to capture him looking dazed and a little sad, and the confining framing made the portrait work for me.

I shot this with my 135mm DC, which is probably my favorite all-time lens for candid street portraits. You can view a wider crop here, but after a few months, I kind of realized I liked it tighter.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hell is Other People

When I was up in SF for iPad madness (I didn't buy, which is something of a minor miracle), I made my way into the store to hold one in my one two hands. It was ridiculously crowded -- just jammed packed with people, in a way that was actively unpleasant.

Hell is Other People

I like this one since my eye ends up following that diagonal, then gets 'hooked' on this woman, who looks like I felt at the moment. Not perfect, but I'm interested with the way it captured my mood.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Just one more post to kick off the blog. Figured I needed something in color to liven the place up, and a little more help procrastinating with taxes.


My good friend Damien was in from out of town, and he wanted to take some canonical touristy pics of the golden gate bridge from the Marin Headlands side. I'm a terrible driver -- bad enough that everybody cringes when I'm at the wheel. It lets me make cultivate skills like being a scintillating conversationalist, amusing (if not accurate) navigator, but also: pictures from out of a moving car.

So many shots of the bridge have been done, it's hard to get something I'd want to keep. But I'm in that "the real story is the people" school of thought, so as we blasted across the bridge, I had my 180 out, and was on the lookout for The Shot.

I won't say that I was hoping for someone to jump while we were crossing, but instead will say that this picture made up for the fact that no one did.

Yawning Towards Gomorrah

I live in Mountain View, which is arguably a less fertile venue for street photography than San Francisco. I was rambling around after dinner last week, and I heard some really loud yelling, and ran into this pair of guys. One of them had a video camera to record the other guy yelling (and people's reaction), which I thought was kind of perverse. In fact, I briefly wondered whether this was some kind of performance art. Given the duration and fervor of the yelling though, I deduced that this was all too real.

Pretty irritating to have this nut in front of the town's main bookstore, so I kind of wanted to go for an in-your-face kind of shot. I'd just gotten my new 35mm in the mail the day before, so that's what I had on my camera. This was the result:

Yawning towards Gomorrah

I was ok with this image, though it feels like it could have been a bit more. The 35mm seems to be technically a very nice lens -- superior in basically every way to my POS 28mm, but it doesn't quite have that "magic" that the 28 does when it comes to an in your face street scene. That may be my inexperience with the lens, or it may just be you'll never get that look. I also felt like the 35 might be too good -- it's sharp enough that it feels a little clinical for what I like from a street shot, but that may be more fallout from my abusive relationship with the 28.

In This Sign You Will Conquer

Last weekend, I went to the Apple Store on Market Street to photograph the madness surrounding the iPad launch. I got there a little late in the day, so after some shooting near the store, I wandered around Market Street. Very harsh light blasting down this street, and lots of cool shadows -- kept milling around behind pedestrians on the street, and eventually got this one, which I really liked.

In This Sign Will You Conquer

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Road From Damascus

For a long time now, I've been unhappy with pointing people to my Flickr stream to show them my photos. I really felt like I needed multiple streams -- carrying a camera with me everywhere means that I take a lot of photos. Some of them are "social" -- with, by, and of friends. Some of them are portraits. Some of them are street photography. Some of them are just my favorites.

I could have bought a second Flickr account (and I may still do that), but none of the upload tools are well-designed for dealing with that problem, so I decided that a photo blog would be the right venue.

This blog is where I'm going to post my favorites, or at least the hopeful monsters from my shots. Owing to my personal taste, expect most of these to be stuff from the street or portraits. I'll also be occasionally linking to photos from other people that fall into these categories. I'll try to post at least once a week, but the only real rule is that every post will have a photo.

Ok, here we go: First photo!

The Road from Damascus, Remix
"The Road from Damascus"

This photo was probably the first shot I made with my little Nikon 28mm that I really loved. I was walking along Market Street in San Francisco, and looked up to see some interesting flaring going on. Only had a second, but I noticed that the people had sort of converged in a pattern that tickled my brain. The scales fell from my eyes, and I knew I had a shot.

It's why I love street photography: One tiny little moment, and then it's gone forever. Hope you got the shot -- last chance to see!