I’d like to propose a counter-term that points us in another direction: image quality. Not, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind’, or even ‘the degree of excellence of something’. No, I mean it in another sense of the same word: ‘a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something.’Read More
I’ve done enough street photography now that I routinely overcome my nerves, although there are times when that familiar flutter in the stomach returns. I recently heard a comedian say that nerves can be turned into a kind of positive energy. I think I do that these days when I remind myself that I’m doing a ‘job’ - the noble job of photography - and that street is a place where the work has to be done. It’s a little mantra and a form of self-permission and motivation. When I’ve captured some frames, my nerves settle down.
Being in China with the 5x4 Intrepid Field Camera, my nerves were very much present. In point of fact, not since my first forays in public with a camera in hand had my nerves been quite so evident. A discomfiting feeling for sure, but also a life-affirming one. My senses were alive and I was all the time reminding myself about what I’d decided to do. I had come to China. I was going to do 5x4.
My nerves were not helped by the proportional nervous and suspicious looks I received from Chinese security guards, at what felt like every ten or so yards. There are a lot of such workers in Shanghai. It helps you to feel safe, but you are being watched.
Looking back, it may have been something to do with my newly purchased plastic Nikon branded tripod. This I had bought over in China, solely for the purpose of shooting with the Intrepid. The plastic beast came with a convenient black carry-case. You know, a sort of roughly ‘gun’ sized case. A case carried by a conspicuous white man who had turned up in busy areas looking nervously at security guards, walkways, entrances, exits and the crowds. Eventually, I learned to bag the case and carry the tripod with some leg extension - so it looked like a tripod. Everybody relaxed.
I didn’t have long to shoot large format in China. I did a fair amount of scouting for locations whilst shooting 35mm, but probably did no more than the equivalent of a day with the Intrepid. I set the camera up fully on three occasions. Each time was quite magical; the locations, light and people around me each a contributing factor.
On the first occasion I drew some modest attention. One gentleman in particular was quite taken with my red-bellowed companion. He stood for some time watching me work, to the point where I began to give a silent tutorial on the shooting procedure. I know not if he wanted that, but it seemed the polite thing to do. The second time I set up the camera I was decidedly braver in my choice of location - I was in a back alley in the suburbs - but I was much more shocked by the reaction of passers-by. There simply was no reaction! I thought I was bound to be approached by the workers who came out of an adjacent building, but no, they walked around me as if I wasn’t there. I chuckled at my self-consciousness.
The last time, on a car park with derelict buildings, a car drove into my shot at the worst time possible. Just when I began my curses, he suddenly reversed away. I was back in the zone when I was interrupted again. This time a joyous ‘CAMERA!’ was shouted in my direction. It was the driver of the car as he triumphantly skipped by. We exchanged smiles and I thanked him silently for respecting the shot. Well, I like to think it was respect.
So what of my experience of using the Intrepid on this trip? And what have I to now add to my original review? Two important things stand out: one is the relative compactness of the camera; the other is that I really hardly noticed the camera at all.
I was conscious of weight and bulk on my trip, a factor that led me to equivocate over whether or not to take the Intrepid. Having solved the tripod issue, I further reduced my load by forsaking my usual Manfrotto backpack. For this generously padded pack, I substituted my thin branded urban rucksack, inside which I placed a light generic camera bag to protect the 5x4. The film holders and darkcloth sat neatly on top. While the fit was a little tight, it did provide the further benefit of being very inconspicuous. With that rucksack on my back, I was truly in urban mode.
To be able to carry a 5x4 camera in such a manner is a real testimony to the design of the Intrepid. My improvised arrangement for China has made me reconsider my normal backpack: I was left with the strong sense that I had previously been carrying more bag than camera. This was a huge plus for me working in an urban environment, but it is of even bigger benefit for those wanting to work in rural and remote locations. If you are not carrying around a lot of film holders or alternative lens choices, weight is not an issue at all.
Setting the camera up and down was a pleasure. I suppose I have now developed enough muscle memory that such actions are smooth and automatic. There really aren’t a lot of adjustments to contend with. For some large format photographers in some situations this will be a problem, but of course, it very much depends on the work you are doing. As I have written before, if you are starting out in 5x4, the Intrepid makes a forgiving companion. It’s a great ‘learning camera’.
This is what I mean by not noticing the camera. At each location I was fully immersed in making the image, and my control of the camera and exposure really did flow. I’m pleased with the images I made given the time I had. Interestingly, I think I was shooting 5x4 while still somewhat in a street photography mode. I elected more than once to include a passerby, chancing my arm with borderline shutter speeds and using my intuition somewhat for compositional placement (after all, you have gone ‘blind’ once the film holder is inserted). This may be suggestive of further personal work; crucially, for the Intrepid, it shows how it can be used quickly and with ease in public locations.
I have one small caveat. I find that the front standard doesn’t ‘lock down’ as fully as I’d like, and is prone to moving around its central tightening screw. I pondered in my original review whether the wooden bottom of the standard would be hard-wearing in the longer term. It’s not the wear that now strikes me as the issue so much as the movement.
Now, this movement might simply be a feature of my own copy of the camera, but my suspicion is that it isn’t. I have just taken possession of the new 10x8 model, and I’ve noticed an addition that solves the issue entirely. They’ve included some small grip pads on the standard’s bottom (think sandpaper stickers and that describes them well). I don’t know whether this is in response to feedback, or simply Intrepid’s ongoing commitment to design refinement at work. Either way, the change is welcome and points to an easy user modification to the smaller 5x4. The front standard on the 10x8 is very solid when tightened.
I certainly fulfilled a personal ambition by shooting 5x4 in China, and you will gather from the tenor of my report that I continue to recommend the Intrepid for such a task. I’m looking forward now to doing some work with the newly arrived 10x8, a whole different challenge again. It’s funny that I’ve been in the habit of referring to my 5x4 as ‘the big camera’. That mantle has been lifted from it by the newly arrived 10x8, a camera that dwarfs it by comparison. The 5x4 looks tiny now, but it isn’t just the size comparison that has left me with that feeling. Using it in China has made me realise just what a compact large format camera it really is.
In this instalment of my Shanghai Travelogue I’ll be looking at the second approach I took to shooting in China, namely with 35mm black and white film. Here, I was very much on home ground: my Leica M6TTL being my camera of choice and Ilford’s HP5 Plus my film. It’s an approach I am intimately familiar with, and, in the spirit of Adams’ quote above, one I enjoy for its simplicity. Waking up in Shanghai, with somewhat more than a pocket’s worth of film in my possession, was indeed a heady experience.
I chose HP5 Plus because I know it and its development routines intimately. Many people begin to ask themselves what equipment they need when travelling to new locations, almost as if they are starting again with their photography. Instead, I prefer (and indeed recommend) familiar equipment and technique. Why change your way of working, just because you are going to be somewhere different? Increasingly, over the past few months black and white has become my preferred style, and films like HP5 Plus have been a mainstay.
The majority of my shots were exposed at 320 with a view to developing them in Perceptol. This is something like my default black and white mode right now. One loses a little speed (hence 320 not ‘box speed’, 400) and development times are long, but for me there is something of a holy trinity of sharpness, good tonality and well-controlled grain. My manual 35mm rangefinder camera allows for a contemplative approach to shooting, but when one is in the flow it also allows for speed of reaction too. Choose an aperture and shutter speed, part focus the lens, and shooting can take place almost instantaneously. I’d wager I give the best autofocus systems a run for their money with my camera so primed.
On a particularly misty day (which you can see in the shots), I decided to shoot at 1600. This flexibility is another virtue of HP5 Plus. It would mean another developer (this time LC29), but gave me a twofold advantage: speed when shooting on the underground trains, and small-ish apertures for street shots in the mist. The grain is somewhat exaggerated at this speed, but I think it complements the mist and was an effect I had visualised at the time. If my pursuit of 320 and Perceptol came from my earlier days of wanting to suppress grain for a cleaner look, my embracing grain at 1600 represents a more mature self who has made his peace with the medium and its quirks. There is beauty in grain. As ever with film, the key thing is to assess the situation in front of you and try to use your knowledge of printing and development to see a finished print in your mind’s eye.
I’ll be looking at my experience of shooting large format film with my Intrepid Field Camera in the next instalment. I hope you enjoy the shots.
As my body fell in and out of balance to the undulating movements of the Shanghai Metro train, my eyes and brain continued to scan for photographic opportunities. None immediately presented themselves, and so my thinking turned to the next stop and the decisions to be made about my continuing journey.
A man had entered the carriage at the previous stop, and much to my surprise he approached me. When he reached a somewhat uncomfortable proximity, he began to study the camera around my neck. He moved his head around as if his enquiry was of the utmost importance and finally stepped back a little to look me straight in the eyes. “Me: M9”* he forthrightly announced. I smiled as the penny dropped and we stood in a companionable language-less fellow photographer’s silence. The universal language of the small format photographer.
The above encounter, heartwarming as it was, was in no way typical of my experiences of shooting on the streets of China. Up until that point in my travels, I had moved - it felt like - largely as a ghostly figure who had been granted special permission to photograph with impunity. I should be careful not to mistake Shanghai for ‘China’ (the larger entity), and I suppose I should consider the slightly blissful ignorance of the stranger who has no language (I remember well the chagrin of the man on the Paris Metro whom I addressed using the wrong pronoun form). Nevertheless the impression remains: doing street photography in Shanghai was for me a delightful and effortless experience. The Chinese people were curiously indifferent to my photographic posturing (was this the ‘another tourist’ effect?). So it was that I enjoyed the twofold advantage of great freedom, and that freshness of vision that comes from arriving in an unfamiliar land.
During my stay I developed a very high regard for Chinese people. Notwithstanding the danger of generalising (and being mindful of the possibility that as I stranger with no language I simply missed the cusses and negative asides), there is a quiet humour and warmth to the Chinese people that hadn’t come across to me in screen and other media representations. As for any stranger in an unfamiliar place, there were things that were exoctic to me at the start: the face masks, the extension to mind and body in nearly every Chinese person that is the mobile phone, the unquestioned coexistence of fragile human flesh and speeding motorcycle on the pedestrian pavement (and oh, how I nearly met my doom on so many occasions!). And sure, if you are on the Metro, expect to get pushed. Gently pushed, without aggressiveness and with some care, but pushed nevertheless. You are but one of some 1.4 billion people.
On a visual level, Shanghai offers up a heady cocktail for the photographer. The city is enormous, and is dominated by skyscrapers, commerce and competing modes of transport. Naturally, there are plenty of tourist sites, meaning that traditional Chinese styles and customs commingle with the dominant background of modernity. This mixture created a slight tension in my shooting: on the one hand the desire to record visibly ‘Chinese’ culture; on the other my street photographer’s instinct to look for juxtapositions and events that would deliver some social insight. I wanted to avoid making images that were too obviously ‘tourist’ in nature, however, this is in reality difficult to avoid. Not only was I a tourist after all, but I wasn’t about to numb the joy and excitement of my visit with too strict a shooting regime. All in all, I had the equivalent of three full days worth of shooting to work with.
I had decided early on to honour my current work in black and white, and I settled on Ilford’s HP5+ as my primary film. There will be much more about my experiences shooting this in my next post, as well as a final post about the work I did in 5x4. I simply couldn’t resist the draw of colour in China, and, while I did shoot a roll of colour film along the way, I wanted to use my Sony A7II mirrorless camera for this task. I have been making photographs for long enough to remember the somewhat disappointing colour prints I had labs make for me from colour transparencies. My technical know-how and ambitions didn’t stretch beyond these prints at the time, and I have since found a much happier home for my occasional colour work in contemporary inkjet printing. (I suspect I am not alone in this: digital and inkjet have been something of technical revelation for colour work.)
The Sony A7II is a marvellous machine. It is small, packed with technology, and, thanks to an underlying metal chassis, reassuringly solid. The viewfinder is efficient and effective, if not quite the equal of a glass one, and the in-body stabilisation gives a tangible advantage in hand-holding slower shutter speeds. With my Novoflex adapter, I can mount my Leica and Zeiss lenses, and a clever magnification system enables pinpoint manual focussing. My Sony / Zeiss 55 is arguably the most technically accomplished lens I own; it certainly makes a claim to being the sharpest. Built like a tank with a metal focussing ring, it is relatively small and balances superbly on the camera body.
It isn’t quite all roses in the garden of Sony mirrorless, however. Despite the technological array at my fingertips (and being the king of high ISO shooting in my kit), I don’t have quite the same satisfaction in shooting with it as I do my Leica rangefinder. The reasons for this are numerous and warrant a more detailed exploration, perhaps for another occasion. I don’t find the Sony as fluid to use, nor have I entirely gelled with its viewfinder and focussing options. On are more tangible level, the battery life is appalling (a second battery, or more, is a must - I suspect the stabilisation is a huge drain), and I’ll be darned if I don’t turn the aperture wheel the wrong way every time I stop up or down (I’m convinced this is because turning an actual aperture ring is so hard-wired in my brain that I think I’m turning a ring when I turn the wheel - and the direction is wrong!).
A further quirk is worthy of a mention. The camera insists on defaulting to a 1/60 second shutter speed when in aperture priority mode. It almost always does. While there is no doubt a logic behind this, especially given the in-body stabilisation, the problem is that 1/60 doesn’t always work. With my 55mm lens mounted, it is quite in keeping with the old advice to use the reciprocal shutter speed of the focal length. So, 55mm = 1/60. This is, however, somewhat conservative if you are looking for pin-sharp shots. You are much better off with 1/125 second or even faster. The camera might be stabilised, but the world is not. Nor is the body of the street shooter who sometimes puts camera to eye before the muscles can arrest the body’s momentum. I see the results of this in my shots. You don’t always have the luxury of being able to steady yourself properly.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing street photography in China, and I hope this is something that comes through in my images. It’s tempting to make a recommendation about China as a potential destination for photographers, but not everyone shares my perspective and predilections. If you practise street photography, and think you might be coming from a broadly similar perspective as my own, I wager you’d like it. In many respects, Shanghai is a lot like London, Paris, or any other major metropolitan centre. It’s the Chinese visual culture that makes Shanghai special, and experiencing it was a great thrill for this particular western newcomer. I would like to have spent longer in China, and would certainly like to return. For now I’ll be busy processing, printing and savouring the work I did there.
In the next instalment I’ll be presenting my China work on black and white film. I hope you are able to take a look.
* Leica M9 digital rangefinder.
As a young street photographer, I couldn't get Meyerowitz's words out of my head. It seemed such apposite advice for the would-be street shooter: you will find yourself looking on and thinking, but think too long and the moment will be gone.
I'm not entirely sure that it's a motto I've been able to live by as a photographer; I'm not properly convinced it suits my style, nor have I always been brave enough to execute it.
The above recent image is, however, one of those moments where I followed Meyerowitz's mantra exactly. I had been shooting all day long, and had long shrugged off any early self-consciousness or hesitancy (that's usually the way it goes for me: starting gingerly, getting into the flow). I saw the scene from the corner of my eye and immediately raised my camera. There was next to no time to frame, and my press of the shutter was immediate too.
It was one of those images, where I intuited that something had taken place, but wasn't sure it had come together. I'm not even sure I could have had time to perceive the whole thing; it really was a case of intuition and experience leading the exposure.
I enjoy the mystery of the image, and that it is made up of a number of interacting elements.
Find the street scene, then wait for actors
In a great deal of the best street photography work there is a special relationship between the setting and the people in it. We often find ourselves marvelling at these shots because not only is the composition elegant and convincing, but there is a person in ‘just the right’ place in the frame. There is a coming together of setting and event, and in the very best this carries the extra weight of a poignant meaning as setting and actor(s) create a frisson. Henri Cartier-Bresson is one such master of this technique.
There is a simple technique you can use to make this happen in your shots (not that I’m promising you’ll immediately become a Cartier-Bresson). You simply find a setting you like, paying attention to composition and the shapes in the frame, and wait for somebody to arrive, in the right place.
In the image above, I was struck by the scene and the view through the opening (the slanting tree caught my eye), long before anybody arrived. I realised I could use this technique and wait for somebody to walk into the frame. It took several attempts to get somebody in the right position, and the right somebody, posture particularly, at that. I enjoy the way the woman’s leaning stride echoes the leaning tree. This elevates the shot from a view that catches the eye to something more.
A great technique if you’re into street photography.