The consequences of image making

More than just saying “I was here”, photographs can preserve the memory of those lost, keep close those far away, document a collective, initiate improbably relationships, or simply allow a traveler to remember and share their experiences with others. This small selection of images (some of which I  featured on my instagram and facebook feeds this past week), explores the consequences of image making.

This coming week, I will feature some images of summer.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi
A tour group, posed on a thick carpet of ginkgo leaves from a 100-year old tree, documents their pilgrimage to an 1,000 year old mountain-temple.  (Japan – Basho’s Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi)
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Two families from disparate countries, in an act of kindness, help each other create a memory of their once-in-a-life-time visit to Venice. After just this short interaction, they decide to take a joint family portrait. (Under the Realito Bridge, Venice Italy)
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An independent traveler, with nothing but her iPhone, documents the historic stories in the grand murals at the Doge’s palace. (Venice Italy)
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Creating a memory of their wedding day and sharing it with the whole community, they pause for a moment, something has caught their attention. (Temple Bar district in Dublin, Ireland
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Returning to the scene of the crime – Hot Dog on a Stick

 

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As a street and social documentary photographer, I often wonder how the images will look through eyes of future generations, and what will change quickly and what will not. Creating a series of photography over a long period of time of the same place can help document those changes. It also challenges me to look for different views and different situations.

I am now a little over 10 years into my journey as a serious student of photography. Many of my early images are of landscapes and flowers, but there are a few stand outs from some of my more frequented spots such as Santa Monica beach and the original Hot Dog on a Stick location near the pier and muscle beach – which also serves the best lemonade ever!

My husband has somewhat of an obsession with their lemonade. When we head down to the pier, I know that a large lemonade is the price for a couple hours of his patience as I shoot. Over the years it hasn’t changed much. Each summer a new set of high-school and college students man the fryer and make large vats of fresh lemonade, and it still frequented by a wide variety of patrons – both locals and visitors.

This weekend I spent time looking through all my photographs of this iconic location. It is a very small little universe occupying no more than a few hundred square feet. I don’t think I’ve yet done it justice. In looking back at my images there is not enough variety of situations, lighting, and scenes. I now have some new goals to start to examine not just the workers but also its patrons. Can I find my subject in people eating their hotdogs and enjoying their lemonade. How to I visually link them them to the Santa Monica beach vibe and the stand itself? And what does the back look like?

 

This week I am dedicating my Instagram (Nancy_Lehrer)  and Facebook (nancy.lehrer or Nancy Lehrer Photography) posts to photographs from the original Hot Dog on a Stick on Santa Monica Beach.


A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLife Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

Buy it here

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.

Street Stills

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This past Memorial Day, my husband and I traveled to upstate New York to attend my neice’s wedding. We took the opportunity to explore the areas historic estates built in hte mid-19th century along the Hudson River Valley. The Olana Estate was the home of  Fredrick Church, of the Hudson River Valley school of painting. Church worked with the architect Calvert Vaux to realize his house built as a 250-acre 3-dimensional art landscape. Today many of the views of the Hudson are over-grown with second-growth trees and the commerce has shifted from river barges to highway traffic along the Rip Van Winkle bridge.

If a street photographer denies all sense of anxiety when taking pictures of strangers, they are not being totally honest with you. And for some, it is exactly this rush of excitement that draws them to the genre. Though confrontation while doing street photography is less common than non-street photographers imagine, it still exists. Sometimes a full day of personal interactions are, in-fact, exhausting. When I am feeling this way, I look for other ways to capture the soul of the culture around me.

This week I am dedicating my Instagram (Nancy_Lehrer)  and Facebook (nancy.lehrer or Nancy Lehrer Photography) posts to photographs that don’t include direct human interaction. These are not undemanding images of quiet streets, windows, or doors. Each image tells a story, explores the culture, and poses additional questions.


A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLife Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

Buy it here

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.


Woman’s Work

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I sat down this morning to start writing about one thing, got distracted, and ended-up looking through my images from Mongolia.

This is late September in Mongolia. The days were a mix of sun, wind, and clouds. The nights were cold. Just wait an hour and the weather would change. Some days our group ate lunch in our shirt-sleeves in the middle of an open field. Other days we huddled around our hot bowls of soup in a borrowed shelter. One morning I awoke to flurries and a dusting of snow. I bundled up and walked over to our Kazakh host-family house to watch the morning yak milking. This was woman’s work.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to organize some portfolios across my work. It feels unsatisfying to organize a portfolio along one obvious idea such as a single place or subject. Instead, I am looking to find a set of images that I can organize around how they talk about story or culture. This image is about Mongolia and features one primary actor in her surroundings. It is also about women and their role in rural cultures.

 

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLife Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

Buy it here

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.

Writing a Photography Manifesto

Immigrant Hand Shake at the Mercato di Ballarò, Palermo Italy

The Mercato di Ballarò is a large street market in the Albergheria district of Palermo. The Albergheria is one of the four districts of old-Palermo and dates back to the 8th century Phoenician conquest. The market is loud and busy throughout the day offering every type of produce, fish, meat, cheese, olives, dry-goods, spices, and street-food. The immigrant crisis of the last 10 years has had a particularly large impact on Palermo owing to its liberal immigrant policies led by the current center-left (Democratic) mayor – Leoluca Orlando. Due to urban flight, it is estimated that 29,000 Palermitani (Palermo natives) have left the town over the past 10 years. They have largely been replaced by 30,000 immigrant citizens who have fled poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East. Many have settled into the older low-rent area of the Albergheria. Even with only a faint knowledge of this current sociopolitical situation in Palermo, this scene caught my eye as a symbolic hand-shake between the old Sicilian traditions and the new immigrant culture.

In the Spring of 2017, my thoughts about what and why I photograph haunted me like the looping ding-ding-ding melody of an ice-cream truck melody circling the neighborhood. Flipping through my social-media streams left me feeling frustrated and bored. There were so many images that felt like I had seen them before, providing no new information. I wondered if my photographs were just as banal and flavorless. I wondered if I was adding yet one more soulless voice to the cacophony of technically perfect, but emotionally empty, images around me.

It was a call to action. I needed to take time to reflect on the importance of photography for me. Did I photograph to create visual pleasure or to change the world? Where along this spectrum did my passion lie?

In pursuit of this understanding, I gave myself an assignment to write down my beliefs in photography. I tried to analyze why I photograph and why I look at photographs. I thought about images that make me pause and think, and I thought about scenes that thrill me to observe. I questioned if I was attracted to content presented in an interesting way, or interesting content.

It was a messy process. My beliefs were slow to emerge. At first I wrote whole sentences; too many of them and with overlapping ideas. To pare them down, I took a minimalist approach, evaluating and ranking the value of each idea: “Is it truthful? Is it authentic? Is it essential?” My ideas evolved, advancing one day, regressing the next, but finally settling into a short list of unique concepts which I ordered based on their importance to me.

Tentatively, I put the list to the test. I chose some of my favorite images to see how many of my core concepts were present. I applied the same test to images for which I received some form of external validation. I found both confirming and disconfirming evidence that my newly-expressed principles were truly honest with myself. I discovered that some of my ideals were compatible with what others found interesting and worthy, and others were not. I could not decide if my aspiration was achievable, or if I had set the bar too high. I would need to determine if I could I use this list to guide the creation of new work in addition to the evaluation of existing work. I continued to refine my list and strengthen my affirmations to it.

The next step was to explore how to express these ideas to the world now that I was prepared to profess them as my core defining principles. Could I explain them to others and would they care? I took a two-step process. The first step was to identify a couple of representative examples for each principle. Writing in the first person, I set to describe each image: where I was, why I was there, what I saw, what I tried to capture, what I decided to include or exclude, and generally how the image represented the core principle. The second step was to write a general overview of the principle explaining what it meant, why it was important, and how to determine if it had been achieved. I was able to describe some concepts easily, others came with some difficulties, and still others left me feeling communicatively inept.

The final result was my photography manifesto – my mission statement, proclamation, pronouncement – about how, what, and why I photograph. It was tested and explained in a 98-page book and even included a chapter street photography technique. Even though some of the principles were mature and others embryonic, I was ready to share it with the world. But I still wondered if I was capable to live up to its ideals.

Shortly after I completed my manifesto, I embarked on a two-week journey to Italy, spending time in Palermo and Venice. This was my first full-blown test to determine if I could live up to my own expectations. I walked the streets of Palermo for hours exploring churches, street markets, and historic landmarks. I met locals and talked with other tourists. I experienced surprise, joy, awe, loneliness, and discomfort. In Venice I wandered the twisty alleyways, often times getting lost and never quite finding my desired destination. Tired and disoriented, I rode the vaporetto (waterbus) along the Grand Canal back to my hotel to get my bearings. Through all these mini-adventures, I photographed. Hesitantly at first, asking myself too many times: “Is this image worthy? Does it meet my new standards?” But when I settled down, I found more confidence and conviction than ever. I discovered anew my joy, creativity, and satisfaction in my photography. I returned home with a handsome set of images that I am proudly adding to my portfolio.

A Street Photography Manifesto by Nancy Lehrer

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

Life Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.

Gondola Repair, Venice Italy

It was my last day in Venice, a beautiful sunny Friday. The day’s agenda was to make one final exploratory excursion to four of Venice’s six districts visiting one cicchetti bar every two hours between noon and dinner. (Cicchetti are small plates of food severed at bars often consisting of tasty pates, fish, or cured meats and garnish on a small slice of bread.) Even though gondola travel seems to be exclusively for tourists, it is obviously an important part of the Venetian tradition. I had yet to take a meaningful image. I had passed this gondola repair facility twice already during my week visit, but in neither case was I able to find my image. After finishing my cicchetti about a block away, I decided to go back for one more try. I returned to find this scene – a picture within a picture.

Life Happens in Limited Color Palettes

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Life happens in color, but not just any color and not every color all at once.

Being committed to color photography, I am continually thinking about the role of color in my images and evaluating how color is contributing to the emotion and interest of the story I am striving to tell. In this post I explore images that use limited color schemes; using various shades of a only small number of harmonious colors, or by the pervasive use two contrasting colors to create a cohesive image or highlight a detail.

In analyzing the images in my portfolio, I have discovered that my instinctive approach to using color is consistent with the theories used by designers for creating effective color schemes in their work. Designers choose specific color palates based on the sentiment that their client wants to convey: calm, comfort, excitement, danger, etc… Designers carefully consider the both the emotional and cultural aspects of different colors. Their thought processes go beyond simple associations of warm colors as representing the concepts of heat and danger, or cool colors being associated with calm and serenity. Red, for example, is also a color used to represent importance (we roll out the red carpet for important guests), and in some cultures it is a symbol of luck and prosperity.

In addition, the designer uses color to draw the viewers attention in specific ways. Highlight colors are used to draw attention to important ideas, while muted colors can be used to identify interesting details that add depth to the message, but can be glossed over without loosing the overall meaning of the big idea.

Designers will typically work with a five-color color scheme based on a few time-tested recipes. Below I show five specific color scheme patterns and how the colors within them fall on the traditional 12-spoke color wheel.

Color SchemesIf you are interested in learning more about color schemes, I found a very helpful article on creating color palettes by Cameron Chapman in Smashing Magazine from which I have taken parts of the examples above.

The Secret

The cover image of my book, Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto, contains an photograph of a scene from Oaxaca of two young girls waiting to be in a children’s street procession which takes place during the three days of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) activities. Not only did these two girls provide me with a story of friendship and sharing that I could tell through gesture and moment, but the entire scene is composed of a very limited color palette of blue and orange, illustrating the “complementary” color palette. It was a visual gift that the girls’ dresses and makeup so perfectly matched the orange and blue painted walls of town behind them. Not only does this color synergy heighten the image’s visual appeal, but it also connects the girls to the town conveying the concept of belonging.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

This fairly abstract image taken at the Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa Japan, illustrates a story about the care taken to protect trees from damage due to the heavy winter snow-falls in this region of Japan. The color palate is predominately the complementary colors green and maroon. As any garden architect would confirm, the juxtaposition of these specific colors within the garden was undoubtedly planned. It is my goal as a photographer to recognize these color patterns, planned or unplanned, and seize the opportunity to use them to my advantage in creating compelling and coherent color photographs.

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The lead image in this post, of the shy fish monger and his daily catch, caught my attention because of the way that the fish monger used the red tomatoes to draw attention to his display. The overall scene is dominated by brown hues (remember brown is a desaturation of yellow), yet his store front, buckets, and backroom refrigerator provide a recurring pattern of blue highlights. The only breaks in this brown/blue color scheme are the brightly painted triangles on his antiquated scale and those perfect red tomatoes placed out front. This scene provides an example of a “triadic” color scheme where two colors are used predominately and the third is used as a highlight to draw the viewers (or in this case, the shoppers) attention.

Many photographers shy away from the use of color due to its potential for distraction. However, intentional use of color can add depth and emotion to the stories you strive to tell.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLearn more about making compelling street photographs in my book Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto, or you can hear me talk about my photographic process with Ibarionex Perello and The Candid Frame, Martin Bailey Photography Podcast #616, or Frederick Van Johnson of This Week in Photo.

Street Noir

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When I’m out shooting at night, I am often asked: “How are you doing that in such low light?” I see many photographers put their cameras away in dismay grumbling something about high-ISO and image quality under their breath.

Night shooting can be tricky stuff. Exposure settings are critical, and the photographer must continually think about balancing the shadows and the highlights while managing each of the three exposure variables: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In these dimly lit night scenes, these settings may need to be used at their extreme, and worst performing, settings. Slow shutter speeds introduce the potential for motion blur, large apertures reduce the areas of the image that will be in focus, and high ISO settings produce digital noise. (If you are unfamiliar with how these three settings work, I’ve added an “Appendix” at the bottom of this post that describes them in more detail.)

Many photographers start pulling out their tripods for long exposures, leaning on a rails, or packing up completely. But because my street work focuses on human interaction and relies on nimble movement to find just the right angle, using a tripod is not really an option for me.

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My solution, instead, is to use the constraints of darkness and light to add character and depth to the story I am capturing. I accept the digital noise in the shadows and the motion blur in the people. Indeed, a big part of my approach to all my photography is to seek story first and carry a carefree attitude of “image quality be damned” if the light is just not right.

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It would be easy enough for me to leave the discussion here and just say: “Stop complaining, stop pixel-peeping, crank up your ISO, frame up your scene, and take your image.” But this would be a little disingenuous. There are some specific techniques and camera features that I use to get the best out the night.

  • Pre-focus on the lit areas: The bright areas of the scene will provide the best contrast for your camera auto-focus. It will also be the areas that our human brains will hone in on in the final image. Pre-focus on the bright areas, then wait for the rest of the scene to play out.
  • Camera or lens stabilization features: In addition to lenses with image stabilization (also called vibration reduction or optical stabilization) many of the newer mirrorless cameras have in-body image stabilization. In either case, using a lens or camera with image stabilization will help you reduce blur due to camera movement.
  • Fast prime (single focal length) lenses: A “fast” lens is one with large apertures, f/1.8 or larger. (Remember, the smaller the number, the larger the aperture. For example, f/1.8 is a larger aperture than f/2.8). A prime lens is one with a single focal length (i.e. not a zoom). It is called “fast” because by opening the aperture, you can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speeds. In the digital world, as you open the aperture, you can choose to either increase the shutter speed or  lower ISO to get the same exposure. Unfortunately, you won’t find zooms with apertures larger than f/2.8, and these zooms are larger and more expensive than a good fast prime.
  • Shorter focal length lenses: The focal length of a lens provides its magnification power. However, with more magnification, there is more magnification of even small amounts of camera movement, resulting in blurry images. For night shooting, I recommend to sticking to the shorter focal lengths – 50mm, 35mm, 28mm. They have the dded advantage of providing better depth of field, being lighter, as well as being available with large apertures (see the previous principle on the use of fast prime lenses)
  • Expose for the highlights: Exposing for the highlights typically means underexposing the image overall. While this may seem counter-intuitive for night photography when the scene is already quite dark, the camera metering system wants to expose the full scene to be an average gray forcing a scene which should be dominated by dark shadows to be mid-gray instead. Allowing the camera to average the scene will not only wash out the shadows and blow out the highlights, but it will also require the use of even longer exposure times, slower shutter speeds, and higher ISO values.

Capturing the nighttime stories that play out in pools of light and dark can be very rewarding. I say, forget about image quality. Go ahead a push you camera into new territories using fast lenses and higher ISO. Start looking at the images and not the pixels.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLearn more about making compelling street photographs with my book Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto. Hear me talk about my photographic process on my interview with Ibarionex Perello on The Candid Frame.

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Appendix: Explaining the exposure triad of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.

Exposure is controlled by 3 variables: shutter speed (how quickly is the picture taken), aperture (how much light is entering the lens), and ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity to light). Each of these variables has a unique impact on the rendering of the final photograph:

  • Shutter speed: controls whether motion is stopped or blurred. Shutter speeds faster than 1/125th of a second are usually required to freeze the motion of people. Also, a slow shutter speed may introduce motion blur due to camera movement. As a rule of thumb, to avoid having the shutter speed impact image sharpness due to camera motion, it should be at least as fast as the fraction of a second represented by one over the lens focal length. That is, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, the shutter speed should be at least 1/50th of a second. Often guides will recommend 2 times this minimum shutter speed, or 1/100th of a second for a 50mm lens.
  • Aperture: controls how much of the scene is in focus at one time, also known as depth of field. Larger the apertures (i.e. small f-numbers such as f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8) create shallower depth of field. Simplistically, the physics of optics dictates that if you focus on a very near object, distant objects will be blurry to some degree. Correspondingly, if you focus on a far object, close objects will be blurry.
  • ISO: controls image quality and digital noise. Increasing the camera’s ISO tells the camera to electronically multiply the amount of light signal actually hitting the sensor. This is like a “gain” control on a microphone. Due to various properties of signal-to-noise physics, this creates color and intensity artifacts that might appear as speckles of light or color in the final image. Lower ISOs (ISO 100, 200, 400, 800) produce smoother and finer image detail. Higher ISOs (1600, 3200, etc…) can produce grainier looking images. The impact on the final image of high ISO settings will vary greatly across different camera makes and models.