Experiments with street photography and motion

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This series of images was captured around dusk in Shinjuku, Tokyo during my last workshop. While my students were off completing their final assignment, I decided to challenge myself to capture the feel and essence of the place in a different way to what I would have normally done. (After all, it wouldn’t be fair for me to put my students outside their comfort zone by insisting on the importance of having a central idea or theme in their images for their assignment if I couldn’t delivery myself, would it?)

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At the same time, I’d felt as though I’d been reaching a little creative stagnation of late, and wanted to force myself to do something different anyway. Having your own style is good, but at the same time, that style has to evolve and grow in order not to get stale or boring. One of the things I’d been doing a lot of lately is jacking my shutter speeds up very high to ensure I was getting every last pixel of resolution out of the new cameras; whilst this made for great definition under the majority of circumstances, this crispness of capture doesn’t always suit the theme you’re trying to shoot to.

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The idea I decided to follow for this series was flow – people as water, life as transient, a moment being more than a moment and altogether insufficient to capture the sheer volume of activity of what was going on around me. It’s a very strong impression I got simply by standing in place and watching life moving around me – people simply didn’t stop, torpedoing from location to location with some objective in mind, dispatching that objective, then moving on to the next one. (I’m guilty of this at times too; it’s a consequence of running your own business. Perhaps this experiment was as close to my subconscious was going to get to forcing me to slow down and smell the roses.)

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The only two ways I could see of communicating this idea were either to have a huge number of people lining streets and thoroughfares to appear as a continuous mass (there were a lot of people, but not that many, and moreover there was no way or achieving that vantage point) or through the use of motion blur – not a little bit, of the kind that appears at 1/30s and with people walking, but something altogether a bit more abstract. In hindsight, this would have been very easy to accomplish with a tripod, but without it, I didn’t have the foresight to pack one in – much less bring one on the day. Even a mini-pod or a Gorillapod would have been useful.

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Instead, I was forced to test the stabilizer of the OM-D to its limits – even with something to brace against (And sometimes not), I’d be needing shutter speeds in the 1/2s-1/5s range to achieve the effects I was looking for. Needless to say, you can only do this when the sun is going down. To give me a higher chance of success, I used the 12/2 for most of these shots, and shot in continuous high burst mode – not for the frame rate, but because I’d be able to keep my finger on the shutter button to minimize camera shake, and have only short intervals between frames. When I had to shoot using the LCD instead of the EVF, I would pull the neck strap tight to tension the camera somewhat against my neck and hopefully reduce shake – this technique is actually surprisingly effective. In hindsight, I should have used the self timer + burst function to completely eliminate finger-induced shake.

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One of the things with this kind of photography is that you really don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until you get it; there may not be enough motion, or too much, or you might have streaks in the wrong part of the frame; all you can do is do a lot of takes until you get the right one.

Compositionally, the most important thing to remember when involving motion in your shot is that there must always be some clearly static and sharp object in the frame to serve as a visual anchor for your composition; if this is missing, the photograph just appears to be blurred or out of focus without the same directionality and focus that is implied by motion blur. In fact, having a large number of people moving through the frame is somewhat reminiscent of the energy of strong, dynamic brush strokes in a painting. I like the idea of abstracting out the people from the scene, and the contrast between the animate and inanimate. For these images, I chose the visual anchor first, then followed it by imagining where I’d want my flows of people to go; needless to say, there were a lot that didn’t work out because I didn’t have enough people moving close to the camera – a foreground is of course a necessity of using a wide-angle lens.

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I did use the 45/1.8 for some of the images, but this proved to be extremely challenging as the lower practical limit for handholding a 90mm equivalent was somewhere in the 1/10s range on the OM-D, which is fractionally higher than what I needed for the desired effect. Still, I did manage to get lucky a couple of times with both very stable shots and convenient things to lean against. I also tried some more and less conventional techniques – panning blur, and combining staticness with abrupt motion of the entire camera to impose an impression of chaos whilst maintaining some semblance of a visual anchor. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results though. Notes for a future experiment: I’d love to try this with a tripod and a longer lens. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Comments

  1. Brilliant stuff, Ming! And unexepectedly among the strongest photos emotionally you’ve posted recently.

  2. Thanks for the article.
    Love that first shot !!

  3. Nice article and great pictures. This is something I want to do from time to time, but rarely get around to doing (and living in a more scarcely populated area of the world doesn’t help…)

    I’m considering getting an OM-D to complement my D800 for walk-around photography and this sort of work. How do you feel about using the OM-D compared to the D800 outside the house? My main issues with the D800 is that it’s quite large with a lens and I don’t always want to give the idea of being a very serious shooter, favoring a more casual appearance and vibration reduction and face detect focus would be useful for certain kinds of work. I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable using a tripod for the shots you took in Tokyo, but I don’t really know, I’ve sometimes used a tripod in Beijing and Shanghai. Right now I’m wondering if there’s some point to the subjective feeling of comfort, or if I need to force myself more.

    • I love the OMD for casual work. Didn’t use a tripod for any of these images – just the stabilizer and the occasional lamp post. I think being comfortable also means you’re confident, and that’s important for street photography. But being creatively uncomfortable forces you to try different things…

      • Thanks. IS is nice since at least it’s possible to do this kind of photography without a tripod and tripods can be challenging in crowds. I’ve done it with a stabilized lens, but seeing that the OMD works so well makes me interested as I could use any lens with it. Being comfortable in a way that gives confidence and creative uncomfort are things that in my mind are not always clearly separated from one another, but creatively I usually work best when I don’t try too hard and just try to get in a flow. It’s an interesting topic, but hard one since it’s not something that can be easily measured or understand when looking at one’s own work and methods.

        • Trying to be objective about yourself is almost always impossible. An as for the OM-D’s IS system, I’ve never been a fan of in-body stabilization until now. This performs absolutely on par with the best lens-base systems out there, and a clear notch above all the other in-body systems.

  4. Tom Foster says:

    #1: did you wait for the walk signal ? nice touch.

    • Absolutely – only way to do it. Since you can’t really predict where the empty patches are going to be, I had to do several takes. Nice thing is that there are lots of people in Japan, so you get quite a few do-overs on a busy intersection like this :)

  5. Impressive – you really got me thinking about new possibilities in street photography. You know, in Germany taking pictures in public is more or less forbidden. But using motion blur and concentrating on other things than faces should be compatible with our regulations. Oh yes, and your crisp colors work very well with this subject.

    • Thank you. Why is taking pictures in public forbidden? You can’t take photos of your friends and family, or scenery, or famous buildings/ landmarks? This is surprising…it can’t be good for the tourist industry.

      • Ah, I was a bit unprecise: Taking pictures of other people in public is forbidden, at least as soon as they become identifiable. And faces, all the aspects of human life (like the soup eating lady in one of your last posts) conflicts with these regulations. So if you care about the law and don’t want to risk trouble, classical street photography is ruled out unfortunately.

      • Yes, of course. But so far I’ve still not overcome my fear of getting embarassed… That’s why my urban images only very rarely show people.

        • Embarrassed by people? You don’t have to show every image you capture. And chances are you either won’t ever interact with those people, or you’re only interact with them once in your life – shoot, smile and move on.

  6. The Taxi is great! Almost B/W and colour together.

  7. Lovely work, Ming.

    A tip for this work: tie a piece of strong string onto a washer, and fix it to the bottom of the camera,with an Allen screw in the tripod hole. Now, step on the end of the string—and tension it upwards. Vertical camera movement stops. Now lean an elbow against a column: horizontal movement stops. This is way better than using the strap on the back of your neck (the head is always moving a little, and blood pulses), or a monopod or a Gorilla pod, in my experience. This was shown to be by a very experienced videographer friend; it is the lightest and most portable solution, and it works perfectly. Please try it and report back.

    String: never leave home without it!

    • Actually, I used to use this trick in the days before really good stabilizers – I don’t need it with the OM-D, and there’s plenty of street furniture that can help too :)

  8. Ming, Nice job on pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. Its evident that you can capture tack sharp perfectly exposed images. Its also great to see the creative side of Ming too. Really enjoyed seeing your experimental side. For me these images are visually exciting and out of the norm. Well done!

  9. Hi Ming, just last night a was going through on old family album with photographs taken just after the war in Germany. Most of them had some reasonable motion blur because of the slow speed films, slow lenses and cameras with limited (slow) shutter speed ranges. Yet the people in them were ‘alive’ and not ‘frozen’ at very high speeds. I really liked those photographs and your photographs in this post immediately reminded me of those old ones taken so many decades ago. I think people should start using their shutter priority modes a lot more and intentionally shoot at lower speeds when photographing people or moving subjects, it’s amazing how much more life there is in a photo with a bit of motion blur.

    • Thanks Jurgen. Motion is great for isolating subjects or providing mood – but I think ideally there should still be a visual ‘anchor’ in all of the shots that doesn’t move. Just my opinion…

  10. Nice and beautiful take on Tokyo, give the feeling of how transient the flow of humanity against the static buildings. I wonder how a 10 stop ND filters would change the look?

    • Actually, if the shutter speed extended any more, the place would just look deserted – the people become so abstract that you don’t see them at all, just an amorphous fog. I tried longer shutter speeds but >2s you just get the fog.

  11. Excellent, something different thanks for sharing………….

  12. Very Cool Ming! Nice effects!

  13. Having lived in Tokyo for several years, these images are exactly my recollections of the city’s orchestrated, efficient movements with that iconic urban backdrop. I love them!

    PS: I read the Q&A w/ you on the Leica blog this morning; it’s evident in both your writing and photography, of course, but you are truly pure genius. !

  14. Cool Stuff!! I was just doing similar concept in Times Square are of NYC last night in the snow (I’ll put some on the flickr group). Congrats on your Leica blog feature. Did you graduate secondary school or Oxford at 16? I spent quite some time there myself. Where did you read? Any update on US Workshops next year? Thanks again!

    • Looking forward to seeing them.

      Thanks – it was Oxford at 16; I did Physics (cosmology) at Balliol. Secondary school at 12. Long story…

      Still waiting for fixed commitments in Q1 to be nailed down before I get the workshop dates fixed; don’t worry, you’re on the mailing list :)

  15. Love the pictures; # 1 is great !

  16. Hi Ming, I have been following you on the blog and FB for some time, and value your opinions and passion for the craft. One think I am always astonished by is the crispness and clarity of your photos, regardless of which camera you use. There seems to be no noise, crystal clarity, and perfect sharpness every time, yet the photos are very natural and lack any artificial post-processing look. Can you share how you get these results? I can’t believe they would be straight out of the camera… Do you favor some presets in LR perhaps? Thank you, Maurizio

    • Thanks Maurizio. No presets – impossible because every situation/ image is different. All are run through photoshop in a fairly standard workflow, but with different strength of adjustments. I have a DVD that covers my photoshop workflow available here.

      As for not seeing any duds…selecting what to show is also a useful skill! :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] any more of it out there. Please note that this is not to be confused with (moving) 3D effects or motion blur in street photography. You may even have done this yourself, or would like to try it out. If so, I […]

  2. [...] This series of images was captured around dusk in Shinjuku, Tokyo during my last workshop. While my students were off completing their final assignment, I decided to challenge myself to capture the…  [...]

  3. [...] This series of images was captured around dusk in Shinjuku, Tokyo during my last workshop. While my students were off completing their final assignment, I decided to challenge myself to capture the feel and essence of the place in a different way to what I would have normally done. (After all, it wouldn’t be fair for me to put my students outside their comfort zone by insisting on the importance of having a central idea or theme in their images for their assignment if I couldn’t delivery myself, would it?)  [...]

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