That Elusive Devil

June 26, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

As I write this post, I am sitting in a deckchair, next to my campervan.  We’re away for the weekend, so that I can continue my training for the 12km swim that I am doing next month.  The campsite where we are staying is blissfully quiet, so my only real companions this morning are the birds, singing in the trees overhead.  My wife has gone for a run, most of the other campers don’t appear to have surfaced yet, so I feel like I have the place to myself.   When these moments present themselves, which isn’t all that often, I tend to go into a reflective mood.  This morning is no different.  Today’s subject?  Preparedness.

This weekend actually started on Thursday, when my wife had to go to her office in Bristol.  I love Bristol for many reasons, but principally for its chilled-out vibe and the opportunities it presents for people watching.  As a photographer, people watching is usually a segue into the genre of Street Photography, which has been popular since the 1930s. Perhaps the most famous street photographer of them all was Henri Cartier-Bresson, who’s concept of The Decisive Moment, revolutionised the whole act of composing and shooting some action unfolding before us.  In layman’s terms, the decisive moment is an instant in time when something is captured, where nothing in the frame has been nor will be repeated either side of it.  Everything in the composition has a role within the picture, with nothing superfluous to describing the moment being included.  The viewer is presented with all the visual references needed to make sense of what the picture is, and derive some meaning from it.  There are many famous examples of the decisive moment throughout photography and it’s a notion that is regularly reassessed and challenged by artists to this day.  That’s not what I was reflecting on, however.  My wife and I had come up with a plan, where we would drive to her office on Thursday, I would spend the day in Bristol, and after she’d finished her work we would head straight to the campsite near Cirencester, which is closer than it would be to return home first.  I’d decided that this was an opportunity to experiment with some street photography, by using a slightly longer focal length lens than is usual.  The genre usually involves a small 35mm camera with a 28, 35 or 50mm lens fitted, in order to capture the action and whatever visual context is elsewhere in the scene, that will encourage the viewer to look at the whole frame.  28 and 35mm lenses are considered ‘wide-angle’ in terms of field of view, so are perfect for capturing those details, with the only drawback being that you have to get close to the subjects.  Street photographers who use these focal lengths tend to be pretty confident people, because alerting the subject(s) to them being photographed not only potentially alters ‘the moment’, but their reaction could become aggressive it they took exception to it.  For example, Bruce Gilden used to literally push his camera and flash gun close to the faces of his subjects, while shooting on the streets of New York.  Most people either flinched or forced themselves to ignore what was happening, but some reacted angrily.  Using a short focal length introduces some risks then, but the payoff is that wide angles offer interesting perspectives when shot closeup, while preserving more of the background context.  50mm is what’s known as a ‘normal’ lens for 35mm cameras as it closely represents what the human eye sees in its central field of view.  Cartier-Bresson used 50mm on a variety of Leica cameras, stating that he saw it as an extension of his eyeball.  Although these are traditions that date back 90 years or so, there’s nothing to stop someone using a longer focal length for street photography, and that is what I wanted to do.  There were a few good reasons, of course, the first being that when shooting digitally, my options are not all that great for this genre of photography.  My DSLRs are really noisy, with a mirror flapping up and down every time a picture is taken.  The best way of drawing unwanted attention to what you’re doing, is to use a camera that screams “look at me!”.  I have many film cameras that would do the job, but I didn’t really want to shoot film on this occasion, because I still have a backlog of developing get through before I return to that medium.  The only digital camera without a noisy mirror was my compact Sony which, although quiet, has no viewfinder and needs to be composed using the rear screen.  Again, if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, best not use a camera where you’re waving your arms in the air like some demented chimpanzee.  Another more technical reason was the separation that can be achieved when using a longer focal length at a wider aperture.   Separation of the subject from background, where the latter details gradually blur out of focus, doesn’t fit the traditions of street photography or indeed Bresson’s decisive moment.  It does help draw the viewer to into the key subject in the frame though.  Again, traditional approaches didn’t mean that I couldn’t experiment with it a little.  I chose an 85mm f/1.4 lens to go shooting with, which traditionally used for portraiture.  The advantage of this lens, apart from its speed, was that I could compose from a comfortable distance with a setup that, from the subject’s perspective, looks like I’m shooting something broader, because it doesn’t look telephoto.   My plan was simple enough: walk around the city observing anything around 20m or so away from me, shooting with an aperture between f/4 and f/8 to get that separation of subject from background, but leaving enough of the latter for the image to make sense.  The day was great fun, as the sun was shining, and everyone in the city appeared to be having a good time.  


All photographs: Nikon D300, 85mm f/1.4, ISO250, Yellow Filter

However, when I returned to the van to edit the pictures, that’s when I realised that my seemingly careful planning of the shoot was somewhat lacking.  My old DSLR uses a Compact Flash memory card, which is generally used less and less in modern digital cameras, most manufacturers now choosing to favour smaller SD cards instead.  I have a card reader, but which I’d forgotten to bring with me.  In the event of this occurring (it does more frequently than I’d like), I can download the images from the camera directly, using a mini-USB cable and adapter for my MacBook, which has only USB-C compatible ports.  Of course, I had brought every conceivable cable with me in my camera bag, for connecting lots of other devices, except for that type.  Now, in the grand scheme of things, the ability to download and edit pictures immediately after shooting isn’t really all that important.  It was frustrating though, and it led me to reflect on how I tend to approach things these days and the conclusion was ‘increasingly lazy when considering the finer details’.  I’ll have an idea for a project, plan it to a point and then get shooting.  While you can’t plan creativity to the n’th degree, the practical details appear to get lost in my haste to get to the part that I most enjoy about photography.  What I find interesting is that I didn’t used to be this poorly organised in my previous career, where the smallest details needed to be captured and understood.  You couldn’t design a solution to a problem, for example, without carefully having planned how to validate that it works, both predictably and reliably.  You cannot just rush to what you believe the end goal is in an engineering environment.  Of course, coincident to my reflections here was the terrible news of the loss of five people aboard the Titan deep sea submersible.  With the realisation that the worst scenario has now happened, the questions have immediately started circulating about the machine, the robustness of its design and its suitability for the use in one of the harshest environments on the planet. It is wrong to speculate about such things while investigations are ongoing, and I won’t do that here.  However, as human beings we cannot help ourselves but ask ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ when something in our plans, whether trivial or serious, goes wrong.  What I’ve realised is that I sometimes focus too much on ‘letting go’, a criticism levelled at me by a few of my university tutors previously, in order to be creative and make photographs, leaving the other more mundane details to take care of themselves.  Perhaps I should be planning the practical side more to begin with, and give myself the space to create afterwards, rather than think of it as a single process.  As Burns said “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft a-gley”, which make sense.  However, Nietzsche put what I see to be the counter suggestion, “The Devil is in the Detail” and I think he may have been on to something there.  


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