This article was written for Fujilove Magazine, and originally published in February 2018. I had a regular column for the magazine for a year between 2018 and 2019, and am reproducing these articles here for posterity. All Fujilove archive posts
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
― Robert Capa
Throughout February, I found myself making pictures very close to people.
This is not normal.
I’m a fan of respectful distances between myself and the subject, when my pictures contain any humans at all. I’m grateful for the separation, whether it is afforded merely by air or something more tangible, like window glass.
It’s one of the reasons I like to shoot at 50mm or greater focal lengths, and a major one that makes shooting from transportation so attractive: space, motion and physical barrier triply protect from the force of encounter, that jarring contact with another human being. I love the vagaries of city life, but am reluctant to be a part of it… which doesn’t make much sense in the landscape of contemporary street photography, where getting inside another’s space/head/life is the name of the game, and really getting up close, in some circles, almost a competitive sport. I’ve never found myself motivated to make those close, crowded pictures. Mostly because I don’t enjoy being in close, crowded situations, and spend the majority of my time in close, crowded confines, looking for escape.
Then the year turned. Just after 2017 gave way to ‘18, I met up with a friend and fellow street photographer for a chat and a walk, and we somehow ended up swapping cameras for the evening. Hers was a compact little one I’d heard a lot about but had never come across: the Ricoh GR II.
(I know, i know, this is a Fuji space. Bear with me.)
In the next few hours of that evening, I found myself suddenly unburdened from my usual – and until then, unnoticed – restraints. Some of it had to do with handling an unfamiliar camera without spending any time getting up to speed with how it worked or where all its controls were. I figured I’d get by relying on exacting technological intuition to produce award winning pictures.
Every picture out of it was mistimed, had all the wrong settings, and oddly framed. Some of it was owed to the play of discovery that comes with a new toy. Some of it had to do with shooting wide angle, when I’m primarily a standard lens operator. But some of it had to do with it not being a Fuji. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t expose, compose, or interpose, because wasn’t a camera that I had to live up to, in a manner of speaking.
And I enjoyed it. Not posting any of those Ricoh shots though, because they are too horrible to share.
I found I didn’t mind the out-of-whackness, despite being predisposed to certain ideas about lines, spacing, and getting shutter speeds just right. It’s been a long time since I’ve shot with the abandon that I did in those few hours. I also saw in those lousy ass snapshots, new possibilities, and significantly, a much smaller gap between myself and the people in my pictures. I had unknowingly gotten closer and closer to people walking by, attempting to capture them in a setting or a moment marking that day.
I started to think I wanted to do that more. Lots more.
I can count on one hand, the number of times I’ve shot someone I was close enough to touch. Each of those times, the resulting image fed back a special thrill. Like this one from back in 2013:
After I returned the Ricoh, I started wondering: how do I bring this spontaneity to the table with my Fujis?
I thought about the experience of having the Ricoh in hand, boiled it down to these factors:
1. The tiny kit made a difference.
I have an X-E3 and an XF27mm – it’s pretty much a pocket kit, and calls no more attention to itself than your average camera phone. It would do nicely.
2. The wide angle also made a difference.
I’m not much of a wide angle shooter, preferring the restfulness of a frame shot at 50mm or longer. But the Ricoh came with a 28mm equivalent lens, which allowed me to be less scrupulous about framing. My alternative, the XF 27mm, gives me about 41mm, which isn’t exactly wide, but it’s better than the 50mm I mostly shoot at. It would do. One step at a time.
3. Use the LCD only.
This is a big one. I really dislike shooting with the LCD screen. But I’d learned that doing this made me less of a nit picking nut and forced me to concentrate on the bigger picture. And because I couldn’t lose the proverbial forest for the trees in the gorgeous viewfinders that my Fujis are equipped with, it also meant I reacted faster to scenes.
4. Just let go.
A sample of the things I have said aloud to myself in the last month:
“It’s in focus enough.”
“Horizons don’t have to be perfectly horizontal.”
“The world won’t end if the shutter speed is wrong.”
“There is no such thing as wrong shutter speed when you’re shooting for yourself, you idiot.”
“You are an obsessed nutbag, you know that?”
Embracing constraints is a tried and tested way of breaking out of a creative rut. And so armed with the first 3 principles above, I went and made pictures around Singapore and Malaysia, during the course of paying various family groups a visit for Chinese New Year.
This is a work in progress, but it’s a departure from my usual mode of shooting, and yielded satisfyingly different results. There’s more motion in my pictures, spontaneity, and almost always an unanticipated element that brings some delight. That alone is enough to for me to push through the discomfort that sticking a camera so close to a stranger brings. I doubt that funny feeling of invading someone else’s space will ever go away entirely, but as long as my conscience of clear, it will get easier to handle.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this period of refresh, and look forward to refining this approach once I’m tired of pure play.
What have you done to refresh your own photographic practice lately?