Inspiration from Strangers – Carlo Sa

Back in November I published my first “Inspiration from strangers” post showcasing street portrait photographers that inspire my own work.  It features ten street photographers I hugely respect, with established bodies of works in the many tens to many hundreds of stranger portraits.  Yet there was one photographer missing.

Carlo Sa is the exception.  Away from Flickr for a while it took a little longer to get his positive response to my request to show his work.  There are just seven images in his 100 Strangers portfolio on Flickr.  They’re not neatly ordered in a set.  Nor are they posted in order.  Portrait 06 is missing, in fact.  There are elements that some would challenge on technical grounds.  And I’m totally in love with them.

Stranger Portrait 04, Carlo Sa

What they have is that urgent spark of visceral presence that so many – myself certainly included – over-process or over-think or otherwise suffocate.  Portait 04 (above) was the first I came to.  I love the bright, glossy reflection in his glasses.  The weird, at once ultra-real and yet somehow fantasy play of light, especially the odd rim light on his right cheek.

Stranger Portrait 03, Carlo Sa

There’s the same feel of a sticky urban Californian night, and the same polluted wash of light in 03 (above).  The same frisson of human contact.  Portrait 02 (below) is a little more contrived, with more front, but the same fierce, dirty, real world lighting.

Stranger Portrait 02, Carlo Sa

They’re risky portraits for me and packed with lessons I’m still working through for a future post, wanting to keep the focus here on Carlo’s work.  In our email exchange Carlo noted a number of other portraits for his project and I can’t wait to see them.  There’s a raw authenticity to them which I struggle to define, but know I don’t see elsewhere.

It’s a real skill balancing that sense of real life and intimacy.  I really admire the details Carlo leaves in, and his use of found and borrowed light.  The well judged elements of imperfection perfectly catch that random blaze of half met, half missed glances, the brief confrontations and flirtations, the energy of urban life, but hit with a little cinematic supercharge that lifts it above.


Stranger Portrait 01, Carlo Sa

All images copyright Carlo Sa (2014), used with permission.

Street portrait tip – Using Canon’s custom shooting modes to help test backgrounds

When I first upgraded from my Canon EOS 300D to the 5D Mkii, one of the first things I had in mind to do was to sit down and set up the three custom shooting modes.  In the end, they were a feature I barely used.  Now, five or so years on, and a camera model later, I’ve finally found a use for them.

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Unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

I should note that I typically shoot manual, with a single “one shot” AF focal point (joystick controlled, assigned to the shutter button).  I have the automatic “preview” turned off, meaning I have to press the “play” button to view each image I take.  All of this works extremely well for me when actually shooting portraits.  I find it best for control, for the appearance of control and for battery conservation.

However, before I can get to shooting those strangers I have to find a background.  And for doing that, my standard settings are a nightmare.

You see, when shooting strangers for my 100 Stranger Project, increasingly at night, I’m walking around with a light stand and shoot through umbrella in one hand, with a reflector or two tucked under it, and the camera in the other.  I can shoot one handed, with the camera on a black rapid strap, pre-focusing it on the ground, but if I recompose it’s too easy to refocus on the background and have to “reset” it by pointing at the floor again.  Moreover, with only one arm, it’s a nightmare to preview the background, juggling kit to get a straining finger tip to the preview button.


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Another unused street portrait background – Edinburgh

On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I finally got around to testing custom shooting modes for this, and it works fantastically.  I now have my manual mode set up for my favoured settings – “one shot” AF, no preview, etc.  C2, however, is set up with my usual night exposure settings with my portrait lens, the 100mm f/2.8 L IS macro (f/3.2, 1/50, ISO 1600), with automatic preview on, with focusing moved to the back button and deactivated on the shutter button.

It sounds like a small thing, but it’s transformed my night portraits.  I can now whistle around freely, at pace, casually shooting and testing backgrounds whereas before I would decide not to test some on account of the juggling act of gear.  I guess we sometimes build up the custom shooting modes in significance – decide they should have some very important task or emergency application – but what I’m finding is that in fact small, apparently trivial tweaks like this are delivering massively and making my photography more enjoyable again.

Inspiration from strangers – street portrait photographers that inspire my work

As I approach the final portrait in my 100 Strangers street portrait project, I’ve been reflecting on the photographers that inspired me to start and continue that journey.  Some of them proved elusive, but ten of them kindly agree to let me share their street portraits here with a few words as to what I enjoyed in their portait work, and how it inspired my photography.

Gerald Emming

Perhaps the biggest spur to shoot strangers at all was Gerald Emming’s incredible 30 second project.  Seeing Gerald’s work for the first time I could not quite believe this was possible on the street – everything was so clean, pure, intense.  The stark, desaturated sheen and bold, intimate crop gave the series an unmistakable look, so consistently delivered time and time again.  This one especially stands out in showcasing what struck me:

A Stranger - Groningen by Gerald Emming
A Stranger – Groningen by Gerald Emming

Gerald’s work is maybe most appealing to me in that it establishes such an instantly recognisable look, that he’s able to play with it in a number of portraits, introducing candid moments or twists on the style – without distracting from the core.  This next one is perhaps my favourite of those, catching a chance, candid expression within the shoot.  It’s that mix that strikes me in how I try to shoot my work.  Striving for the consistent, recognisable look, whilst accommodating the opportunities each individual presents, and threading them together like alchemy into a magical whole.

A Stranger - Groningen by Gerald Emming
A Stranger – Groningen by Gerald Emming

Peter Grifoni

Heading over to the 100 Strangers group on Flickr I found Peter’s work.  Of many incredible shots, there are two I particularly admire.  The first of Elle I’ve returned to a number of times, in awe of the wild light.  When shooting Lily #69/100 in tough lighting conditions, it’s exactly this portrait of Peter’s that I thought of in trying to harness the wayward sun.  I like the genius economy of the lighting – a single tilt of a reflector in the sun at once adding drama to her expression, depth and texture to her dress, tone to her hair and emphasis to the wall behind.

Stranger #229 - Elle by Peter Grifoni
Stranger #229 – Elle by Peter Grifoni

Compared with the pure drama of Elle’s portrait, there’s an intimate narrative almost to this one of Avalon.  I’m as guilty as many others for getting lost in the compressed, tight headshot. For all their power, they sometimes lack that hint of environmental intrigue, of story.  I love way all that plays out in Peter’s portrait of Avalon.  Despite the consistent crop of head/shoulders, the wider angle lens brings so much more to life around her.  Wider angle backgrounds can be so hard to compose to prevent distraction, and I love how Peter uses the chair on the left and the partition on the right to create a kind of “lead in step” effect in harmony with the centred composition.  With all that going on that pure, smooth light and engaging mix of flirtation and ambiguity in Avalon’s expression is sorcery itself.

Stranger #258 - Avalon by Peter Grifoni
Stranger #258 – Avalon by Peter Grifoni

Tim Ronca

Tim shoots all kinds of incredible characters.  There’s an amazingly raw character to his portraits of Melvin and Eddie, yet it’s one of his diptychs that I especially admire.  Perhaps its the way the two shots both echo and inform one another.  The power of class and character to Stefan’s headshot on the left is kind of at odds with the shorter looking, quirkier character of the environmental portrait on the right.  Yet it occured to me that this is the beauty of what we do – so many of those people we pass, the quirky, the mundane, all of them – have this same inner core if you only stop and speak and look for it.  This shot became kind of touchstone for me in that regard.  A reminder that sometimes we should ignore the cover and take a proper look at the book.

Stefan - Stranger 59/100 by Tim Ronca
Stefan – Stranger 59/100 by Tim Ronca

Jeff Bowen

Jeff’s work over at the 100 Strangers and more recently at The Human Family always struck me for his variety of subjects.  Even writing that note on looking beneath a person’s superficial appearance alongside Tim’s work above, I have to admit I often end up shooting with the obvious “strangers of interest”; the Vogue/Glamour-definition young and beautiful.  Jeff has an incredible talent for seeing and expressing that beauty in a huge range of subjects.

784/800 - Elizabeth by Jeff Bowen
784/800 – Elizabeth by Jeff Bowen

This one of Iman particularly struck me – the skillful technique in difficult light, the beauty of character, the balance of foreground and background and that masterfully judged depth of field retaining a sense of the world whilst ensure even cluttered lights supported Iman, rather than distracting from her.  There’s a magic to shooting in the night which is so well communicated here.

504/600 - Iman by Jeff Bowen
504/600 – Iman by Jeff Bowen

Colin Strain

Meeting Colin at my Stranger #5 was an important moment in my project.  It’s what turned it from a solo endeavour to a social project, through which I’ve met a whole legion of fantastic photographers.  As well as his advice, wry humour, and willingness to pose (generally stooping a foot or so down to simulate a typical subject’s more diminutive frame), his tight headshots especially grabbed my attention.

Stranger #27: Ines by Colin Strain
Stranger #27: Ines by Colin Strain

Ines flirtatious smirk and billiowing hair, and Tiger Lily’s smooth gaze with spiked shoulders are so powerful against that deftly dropped background, and they’re just two of a whole legion of thoughtfully approach, skillfully shot strangers I’d encourage you to check out.

Stranger #23: Tiger Lilly by Colin Strain
Stranger #23: Tiger Lilly by Colin Strain

Peter McConnochie

Peter’s another 100 Strangers photographer I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with a couple of times now, and a 500 miles per hour dynamo with it.  He’s another who’s diptych in particular inspire me.  This one of Thamanay for instance, which comes with a kind of movement to it – a sense of meeting at a distance, and then a sudden, more intense turn in events.

89/100 Thamanay by Peter McConnochie
89/100 Thamanay by Peter McConnochie

This one of Anna is great too, offering a different contrast. He shoots fantastic portrait format shots especially – people like Abigail or Emily.  More than anyone else, Peter’s portfolio buzzes with an energy of encounters.  I love the moments when he’ll zap in a shot of strangers tattoo as well as their portrait.  That eclectic mix of street fashion, photo journalism, energetic documentation and fast paced encounter is so full throttle and constantly flexible.

Barbara Asboth

For every posted portrait, we all endure unseen hours on the streets.  Often this is not so much due to rejection, as due to an absence of that perfect stranger to match a background we have seen.  When a stranger does appear, that echoes, enhances and lifts a background it’s like rocket dust at Christmas, and this shot of Barbara’s is perhaps the most perfect instance of stranger meeting perfect background.  Such an incredible mix of vision, patience and execution with so much on the line.

#90 -- Courtney by Barbara Asboth
#90 — Courtney by Barbara Asboth

Then there’s the artistry of this one – where the match of stranger and background is less dramatic, less obviously perfect, yet still so evocative.  Perhaps more so even, with the beautiful balance of costume, style, tone set and expression.

Josie [Stranger 102 / 200] Covent Garden, London by Barbara Asboth
Josie [Stranger 102 / 200] Covent Garden, London by Barbara Asboth

Arnab Ghosal

Arnab’s willingness to experiment and seize left field opportunities is perhaps the thing I most wanted to feature here, but I’d first kick off with this “straight” shot to establish his credentials in a more traditional sense.  Super direct headshot.  Cool.

Stranger 92/100 - Hannah by Arnab Ghosal
Stranger 92/100 – Hannah by Arnab Ghosal

For me, though, Arnab is the guy who hung out at the National Theatre to buy a stranger a glass of red wine, and shot her posing indoors whilst he was outside in the rain.  True story.  Sometimes you can see the edges of those experiments, and sometimes he just blows you away – like with this one of Jesse.  I’d definitely check out the description behind the link for the story and thought process – awesome.  The result with that clean palette of whites and the nuanced balance of diagonals is epic, held together with Jesse’s super gaze.

Stranger 110 - Jesse by Arnab Ghosal
Stranger 110 – Jesse by Arnab Ghosal

Sylvia Cavanagh

It’s a big regret that I missed Sylvia on her recent(ish) trip to London.  Of her incredible portfolio, the following two shots grabbed my attention for the way she harnesses natural light so skillfully.  When you read the detail of that first portrait of Jazmyn and see it’s all achieved with a single small reflector, it makes me feel like a proper plonker carrying lighting gear around with me.  The hazy gold of the distant pillar, the way it infuses the edges of Jazmyn’s incredible mane of hair, and then that smooth even pop from the reflector are all so perfect.  The depth of field is so cool too – getting those diagonal highlights sweeping back into the centre of the frame.

100 Strangers - Jazmyn - 116 by Sylvia Cavanagh
100 Strangers – Jazmyn – 116 by Sylvia Cavanagh

Another amazing reflector shot below, but this time with a superbly matched tonal theme and a totally different background effect, speaks to Sylvia’s flexibility.  This time I love how the reflector changes the tone set up, introducing that warm glow to complement the pale, smokey blues.

100 Strangers 99/100 - Emma by Sylvia Cavanagh
100 Strangers 99/100 – Emma by Sylvia Cavanagh

Davide Viti

There’s such a raw drama to Davide’s (w@@t) portraits.  I’m a big advocate of the idea that “no one cares it’s a stranger”.  By which I mean that when approaching a street portrait, the viewer is judging your portrait just as if it were a portrait of a model or family member.  Maybe when they read the story behind the image they care, but when they first see it, no one knows.  It’s just a portrait, fighting for attention against all portraits.  You’d think you’re at a disadvantage then – shooting random strangers, compared to shooting professional models – but when the situation is handled well, you have an edge.  There’s a spark to street encounters that one does not necessarily find in model shots.  A certain frisson.  Davide’s a master of harnessing that spark.

Stranger 28/100 - Cristiano by w@@t
Stranger 28/100 – Cristiano by Davide Viti

In these two shots that harnessed spark shines through.  The almost feminine expression of Cristiano, with his quirky angled glasses, and the swish of hair framing that femme fatale gaze of Lera.  I’d love to shoot with Davide and see him working with his subjects – inspiring these moments.  Hopefully we’ll get to hook up in the New Year!

Stranger 76/100 - Lera by w@@t
Stranger 76/100 – Lera by Davide Viti

Please note, all images are copyright of the linked photographers.

21 Street portrait backgrounds that never found a stranger…

As I draft a couple of posts of tips for taking better street portraits, I’m reviewing my portfolio.  Among the portraits are scattered, however, the various near misses that are the backgrounds that never found their stranger.

Street portrait background

Above, thick fog diffuses the soft winter light, whilst fresh snow acts as a natural reflector.  Last night’s blizzard has turned The Mall into a giant light tent, with a vanishing point arch of stately trees running through it, but no one is around to ask…

One of the main divides I encounter speaking with others who shoot street portraits are those who advocate a stranger led approach, and those who advocate a background led approach.  I’m generally the latter, for reasons I’ll sketch in coming posts, and so my shots generally start as a stage.  The actors, however, don’t always show on cue.  Sometimes time simply runs out, and you simply have to walk away, leaving these relics behind on the CF card – test shots to nail down settings, compose, prepare, all for naught.  I thought I’d share what that sometimes looks like.

Shooting Night Portraits – Using shoot through umbrellas to diffuse troublesome streetlights

Rosie (Stranger #86/100), London Soho
Rosie – Stranger #86/100, London Soho – Using a shoot through umbrella to diffuse a relatively powerful street lamp and mix light colours with speedlite.

What with work and family travel, I often end up shooting my street portraits at night.  Of course, it’s a lot more sociable when on holiday with my daughter and wife to shoot once they’re asleep, and with an intense, gripping job it’s not possible at lunchtime in the week.  For street portraiture, however, the night offers both challenge and opportunity in terms of mood and light.  In busier areas, strangers can be more open to shooting a portrait; there’s a permissive openness to the night perhaps, that leaves people more willing to take a risk – in terms of participation and expression.

Martyna (Stranger #74/100), London  Sarah (Stranger #38/100), London Southbank

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Whilst the dark shadow and eerie glow of streetlamps or cars can be a fantastic tool in reinforcing this mood, there is challenge too.  If setting up for a sharp shot handheld, one can easily end up with a black background that fails to express the strange nocturnal world in its full, nuanced glory.

My headshots are shot almost exclusively with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro on a 5D iii.  On that lens and camera, to get the DOF and background detail I want from a night portrait, within the constraints of a maximum acceptable ISO (1600 for colour) and slowest acceptable handheld shutter (1/50 given the 100mm and IS, I prefer 1/100), I end up shooting around the f/3.2, 1/50 – 1/100 and ISO 1600.  That gives the background a dark, miscreant glow – perhaps still needing a kick of shadow +50 or similar in Lightroom, but in the right region for the mood I’m after for the background.

The trouble is those are pretty sensitive settings.

You need your flash to be on minimum power, yet can easily overexpose a subject even then.  It’s especially tricky if you want your light close (and therefore softer).  I now put a diffuser on the flash to get rid of more light.  Softboxes being too efficient, I recently moved to shoot through umbrellas in a bid to waste more light still and bring the effective flash power down additional stops.

When I made that switch, I discovered something else – that one could place the umbrella in front of a street lamp to create a strangely blended light.  The street lamp, likely carrying the temperature/tint of your foreground ambient light, mixes with the flash to create a soft, smooth, better harmonised output.  On sensitive settings with weakened flash, streetlamps can throw pretty harsh shadows under noses or chins or within eye sockets.  Umbrellas are perfect for blocking streetlamps, being close and wide, yet a powerful streetlamp still kicks enough light through the umbrella to assist in focusing, whilst blending the colour of the light as noted above.

This was the principle used in the large shot of Rosie at the top of this post – a stranger encountered in Soho – lit with an umbrella boomed out over her to block a street lamp by her friend Lois.

To better demonstrate the difference of this technique, here are a couple of shots of a Paris stranger – kind enough to stop with her friend.  I sadly lost my email notes from the trip, and have forgotten her name, for which I apologise.  (If you’re reading here please do email me or comment below – I have you and your friend’s shots processed and ready to send to you!  Sorry not to give you named credit here!).

Sadly I did things backwards here.  The first/left most shot uses the technique described above.  A 43″ white shoot through umbrella is blocking a powerful streetlight (as well as projecting a minimum power flash from Canon 600EX-RT speedlite).  There is, to my eye, a nicely balanced warmth to the stranger and her background.

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The second/right shot is taken a few moments later, having moved forward from the wall for a better blur, but having forgotten in doing so to ensure the street lamp was fully blocked.  The settings and flash were identical.  However, you can see the impact in terms of harsher, unflattering shadows and a nasty mix of light temperatures.  Try as I might I could not recreate the temperature of the first shot – the mix of cooler flash and green/orange street light undermining any simple attempt to manipulate the white balance without a grueling series of masks and layers in Photoshop.

I hope this idea helps people setting out to shoot portraits at night.  I’m looking at larger umbrellas again to help waste flash power and better mask out/mix in street lamps and the like.  Hopefully I will have more examples for you shortly!