Crosswalks and Bokeh

Hellios 44-2 58mm f/2 lens. 16th Street NW at U Street NW, Washington, DC.

Crosswalks are ground zero for street photography. One of my favorite street photographers, Tokyo's Tatsuo Suzuki, does a lot of his work walking through Shibuya Crossing where he always has thousands of passing faces to choose from. Having strangers in close proximity with a wide open space around you, which usually means more (or at least more uniform) light than on the sidewalk, is perfect for using a mid to wide-angle lens with zone focusing to get street portraits. There's the added bonus that people are so focused (forgive the pun) on getting to the other side of the street that they're less likely to stop and yell at you for taking their picture.

So I use crosswalks a bit for standard street photography...

Rough Day. I'm tempted replace his backpack with a briefcase and the cars with 1960s Buicks and Fords.

I was so excited by the idea of catching Justin Bieber's face like this that I ran up so I get the shot while the shirt-wearer was still in the sun and I could get lens flares.

Everyone always takes some variation of this shot sooner or later. Cliché or not, it's too fun to resist.

A map of DC walking through DC.

But what's drawn me more lately is using crosswalks for abstract bokeh experimentation. They're good spots for that because the various background lights will be nice and far away (and completely out of focus), and no matter how abstract the shot is the white stripes give an easily recognizable reference, and nicely frame the dark silhouette-blobs of anyone in them...

The Soviet Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5 lens. This is an example of how delicate this lens's blur spots can be, with most of the blur spots brightest around their edges, and showing various personality and shape depending on where they are in the pictures frame. This was looking across U Street NW, at 14th Street NW - one of my favorite DC intersections.

I've written before what a great bargain the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is. One of the reasons it's one of the best lenses you can find for under $50 is the bokeh...

While the blur spots don't have quite the subtle personality of the Jupiter-3, look how ginormous they can get. The Helios 44-2 can focus to very close distances, giving far off lights extra big blur spots.

Next up is a more obscure lens, at least going by popularity on flickr - the Asahi Takumar 35mm f/2, which I found mounted to a Pentax in a bin of old film cameras. The camera's price tag said $80. I brought it to the register, unscrewed the lens from the Pentax body, and told the store owner, "I don't need the body." He replied, "I don't need the body." I said, "How about $75 for the lens?" and she said sure. Probably not perfect haggling on my part, but it was a good deal for both of us - they go for around $125 to $200 on eBay, but this one is pretty beat up and hazy.

Not bad, but not as good as the Jupiter and Helios.

One more, this time back to the Jupiter-3...

 Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

...I liked how the abstraction doesn't make it any less clear what's being shown here - I was lucky with how well the white of the crosswalk so nicely frames the couple's interlocked hands. When I posted it on 500px, photographer Joseph DiPolito commented with a more clever caption than I ever would have come up with - "Love is always out of focus."

Dupont Circle in the USA Today

I was happy that USA Today used two of my shots of the Dupont Circle fountain in this terrific article about the efforts to revitalize the Dupont Underground.

Dupont Circle is my favorite spot in DC to start photographic walks from. It's equidistant from some of the District's most photogenic neighborhood -- Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and the U Street corridor to name a few. And the Dupont Circle neighborhood itself is a great mix of DC's culture and classic architecture.

Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA in Japan

One of the reasons I picked up the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA was so I'd have a high-quality wide-angle for a trip I was taking to Japan. I got some nice shots with it like the following ones, but my final verdict is that it's just too big and heavy for a 35mm lens. The thing that bothers me most about the size of it isn't the inconvenience, but how much attention it draws. Candid street photography is a lot tougher when everyone is noticing what looks like a giant zoom lens.

So I'll be (probably maybe) selling it at some point. I'm not particularly into native lenses for my camera anyway -- I don't like using autofocus, and I don't mind changing the aperture manually (which you have to do with this lens anyway). Plus the cost was like 10 times what I'm used to paying for vintage lenses.

But I can't say I wasn't very happy with some of the shots it caught, like these five...

 

This is the great Mistral Bleu Bar in Tokyo. The Zeiss was very nice here wide open at f/1.4, with a 1/80th shutter and 1250 ISO.

Zeiss confidently calls their 35mm Distagon the "master of light." It does handle various exposures wonderfully, such as this overexposure on the very scenic Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima. Shutter: 1/250th, f/2.0, ISO: 100.

This was peeking into a record store in Osaka. I loved the Lightin Hopkins poster on the wall. The lens gave me a pretty flexible depth of field considering it was wide-open at f/1.4. Shutter: 1/125th, ISO: 100.

Another from Osaka, also wide open. There's a lot going on here between the bright lights and the bits of night in the background, but the lens did fine with all of it. The bicyclist isn't as sharp as she could be, but that was only due to her movement, and my zone-focusing being a tad off. Shutter: 1/100th, f/1.4, ISO: 500.

This was on a train from Nara to Kyoto. Obviously this one is more a matter of content than anything special photographically -- I might've been just as happy with a phone photo of the moment. I always feel self-conscious taking shots like this. That raises the question: Is it creepier to overtly grab shots like this with a big lens like the Distagon, or to be stealthy about it with something smaller? Shutter: 1/250th, f/6.3, ISO: 500.

Street Photography

Everyone loves a good street photo. Even viewers who have no interest in the artsy or experimental will, when seeing the right street shot, feel the vicarious thrill of being in the vibrancy of city life. And many photographers love going out and taking them.

But I'm not one of those photographers, because street photography, at least how it's thought of lately, could also be accurately called "Stranger Photography." I'm totally a fan of it when others do it, and it's perfectly legal to do here in America and most other countries, but I just don't have the right constitution for it. I'm cowardly when it comes to the idea of getting caught taking a stranger's photo on the sly, and then getting confronted about it. People do occasionally freak out in those situations, and who knows what dark motivations they might ascribe to me taking their photo. 

In my opinion the best way to handle such a confrontation would be to say, "Nothing personal. I'm just out trying to capture city life, and photographing as many people as I can." I'd also offer to delete the photo as a courtesy, but there's no obligation to do that.

All that said, I will take a stranger's photo if the context makes me very confident that they'd enjoy having it taken. Last Friday night I was walking down U Street here in DC when when two women started dancing to a singing, bicycle-riding street preacher. I felt pretty sure that none of them would mind a photographer's attention...

Zeiss 55mm f/1.8, wide open on the Sony a7ii.

Now and then a stranger will stop me and ask me to take their photo. Those people always make for great subjects, because they're never lacking confidence...

This just happened to be the corner where he stopped me, but I like the combo of warm foreground light and cool background light so much that I would return there for portraiture work.

Any city will also have its local celebrities of one sort or another, and they're usually enthusiastic subjects. The other day I was in DC's Meridian Hill Park, and George Whitlow was there with one of his bicycles that he's modified to blast music. He spends his free time spreading funk and soul music through DC.

He was cranking up Michael Jackson for the whole park to hear.

But other than those situations, I don't take photos of strangers' faces. That's just my personal choice - like I said, I'm still a fan of when others do it. For now I'll content myself with shots like the following, where I might catch a bit of the face over the shoulder.

Ilford 125 ISO film, Canon 7Ne SLR, and Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens, probably at f/1.2 or thereabouts. This on the Potomac River, with the Kennedy Center in the background.