Shooting Fear in the Face in Chinatown NYC Part 3 of 5 / by Jason Joseph

I offered to make a photo of TC to say thank you in addition to the tip I gave him for helping us as if he was literally on our team. It’s people like this that make me so proud to be from NY! He was down for it and so while he and Brian worked out one of the details of the beauty dish surgery...I looked through my camera a bit at the place and determined it would be one of two different angles.

Test shot of Brian. Is it just me? Or does Brian bear a striking resemblance to Peter Parker? (If you get the chance to ...please ask Brain what it is he was doing in this photo....I didn’t have the heart.)

Soon as I had Brian free for a moment I popped him into the scene and fired off a test shot.

   I knew that I wanted to go with a black and white image. Not merely because this would get me around the florescent lights that I was not prepared for.  Remember...I’d set out to make a portrait outdoors after all. But mainly because I liked the idea of showcasing the contrast of the geometric patters of the boxes, and also if you look at the background, you can see a riveted steel structure, the color of it sort of clashed with what TC was wearing. In fact there was nothing about the color of the scene that was begging to be included, so I knew color wasn’t the way to go. If it doesn't feel excellent...don’t do it!

   I keep one of the custom settings on my Nikon set to monochrome. It produces a black and white image when viewed on the LCD, however...I am shooting raw, so the image file is actually in color. Best of both worlds! Why do I do this? This allows me to take the color psychology out of the mix while evaluating images. I’m able to concentrate on composition without feeding my brain information that it may subconsciously react to. Color has a tremendous influence over our decisions.

   Now..mind you, the black and white version I see on the back of the camera is not exactly the same as the custom development settings I will later apply to the image...but I can make some adjustments to give me a fairly close representation of the tone and contrast, and the final result of seeing an image in tones rather than colors makes all the difference in the world when evaluating composition.
Now, This is not something I do all the time. If the scene warrants a very careful consideration of the tones of colors, and the true strength of the image is going to be color, then I shoot in a different mode that shows me a color display.

  Side Note: I recently had the wonderful opportunity to make a portrait of famed music photographer Mark Weiss, (His website ) if you don’t know his name, check him out...chances are you most certainly already know his work. Mark asked to see what we were shooting, and upon seeing the black and white images on the back of my camera he said “Oh cool man, you’re shooting black and whites!” I explained that I may actually be shooting color, and the method to my madness. He looked at me and said..”That's really cool actually!” 

   In order to get a quick overall view of the scene, I simply slowed the shutter down to as much as I could bear without making the image look as if it was taken during an earthquake! I cranked it down to 1/15th of a second, @f3.5 with the ASA bumped up a bit from the 100ASA I’d been shooting at, to 250 to assist in gathering enough light. This let the shop lights do the work and fill in the scene.

   This first angle appealed to me because it made for a pleasing composition that would allow for flexibility. (I’ll illustrate exactly what I mean in the finished image)

    I had a feeling this would be my best angle of approach. From this angle I could work at three different heights if I chose and still maintain pleasing compositions. It showed off the main area of the workshop, and that riveted wall in the background, while not the most palatable color...looked plain cool, and added to the overall ‘feel’ of masculinity that I felt...well...that I simply felt good about including. This is what matters most...and this is what I’m asking myself 120 times a minute as I assess a scene. What feels good? What doesn't? All of the technical stuff is simply factual. They’re the basics...no different than is the camera ON...or OFF. And what I mean by this is, all of the technical things there are to worry about (many of which we will be going over as we move through the day) they matter, they simply do NOT matter anywhere near as much as the feelings you get from the decisions you make.

Every decision you make while making images.. should FEEL good. And your subject should FEEL good. Stick with those two rules of thumb...and your images can not miss! The feeling you have will resonate with your viewer. It may be an ineffable thing that they can’t describe.. but it IS the difference between a shot that has feeling...and one that simply ‘is’.

  Also guiding my decision for camera angle, the room had a large garage door at the end, which opened out to the street. (Brian is facing the opening) This meant that very few angles in the room that faced in that direction would allow for a composition that didn't include what essentially would be a gaping hole of light.  It also wasn’t essential to the portrait. The idea was to showcase TC in his environment. It was much more interesting to show where he worked  and what he worked with....than the street which had no place in the storytelling of this tremendously helpful shop worker. You know the old adage..”what you leave out is just as important as what you put in?” It’s resoundingly true.

Straight out of camera. Converted to black and white so you can see what I saw when I looked at the lcd.

While I was fairly confident that I had the best angle for the room, I was also interested in exploring other perspectives. I took this quick snapshot to see if I’d be able to compose something without including the gaping door to the outside world. Once it was clear I’d be able to, I considered this may be a good angle...IF I could get roughly the same angle from a higher perspective. My game plan? Aim for the other angle as my main image...and give this a shot if I could borrow their ladder!     

1st Shot Taken from the ladder provided. Wild how things you "need" are just there when youre creating....

Time to shoot!
I simply explained to TC, that I’d like to show him as warm.. friendly...approachable, and cool. And I also let him know I had another angle in mind and if we had time for both images then we should try this one, if not we should skip to the other. After assuring me we should be ok for time, TC popped in and I climbed a few rungs up the ladder. 

No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen
— Minor White

Now for this shot I decided to let the shop lights do the work (The beauty dish was still recovering from surgery after all!) and if TC could remain still for the 1/15th of a second shutter duration ( I’d explained to him it would be slow..and that he could brace himself by leaning against the corner) then it would be meant to be. I left it up to chance. Had a little fun with it and treated it as a warm up shot! No pressure.

( Well I guess I was chosen because that was pretty still for 1/15th of a second! Thanks TC!)

After a somewhat less charming smile I coerced this much more amicable grin after calling him out on the fake smile to which I didn’t click the shutter. This is worth noting...by not taking the photo I’m letting my subject know I’m not going to record what they put out, when what they are putting out isn’t genuine. This no BS approach goes over so well with people from all walks of life. It  proves to them what I care about..and that’s sincerity. By giving up the opportunity to simply ‘take’ a photograph...for the sake of keeping up appearances...I'm then in turn given the opportunity to make, a photograph with the subject. It’s always a collaborative effort, and honesty trumps everything. And when I say all walks of life I mean it. I spent a year photographing for a portrait shop, I photographed over 2,500 people in one year, and it was a testing ground for all sorts of photocologies! ( Photography+psychology= photocology)

   The camaraderie of having worked together for the last few hours paid off here tremendously. There is nothing more important you can do for your subjects than to simply keep your camera in your bag for as long as you can when first meeting them. This helps to establish that the relationship is not one of all take and no give. It’s like dating. Buy me a drink first before you try to steal first base! Ya know?

     We really didn’t have much time at all, the shop manager was getting antsy for us to go. We’d already taken up nearly half the morning. So once I had this shot, I knew that while I could crop in a touch to eliminate it...that the expanse of empty bin forming the black box on the left hand side of the frame mid way up bothered me. We could have,under optimal conditions taken the time to remove some wood from one bin and filled in the space. That simply wasn't an option. Plus, more importantly, this image was a little bit flat in dimension. I was hoping to make an image with a little bit more mood to it.. more swagger, much like the cool cat that was our subject.

Sometimes a Test Shot Is Just a Boring ol Test Shot....

So with only one frame from this position, I deemed it a darned good warm up shot and...I pressed on to what would hopefully prove to be the money shot!

Straight out of camera. I shot this test in color because I wanted to get a completely neutral contrast shot to better see into the shadows of the background. My black and white custom setting, was set to be rather contrasty...and wouldn't work for this test.

And there you have it! Can you spot TC? I kid.. I kid...

We fired off a test shot to see where we’d have to be to get the tones in the background to a point where they had enough detail but wouldnt steal the show. We needed to up the shutter speed a bit. I didn't want to run the risk of losing out on a great image due to motion blur induced from either camera or subject. So 1/60th of a sec.  with dropping the ASA ⅔ of a stop to 250 would tone it down at F3.5 to just where we needed it to be! And f 3.5 at a focal length of around 45, would give me enough DOF on TC, and soften it up still in the foreground and background just enough. One great thing about this lens other than its insanely cheap price, is the fact that its razor sharp wide open at f3.5!

 It was time to see if our surgery patient was ready to produce! Out came the beauty dish.
Brian would be holding the dish off to the camera right, directly in line with TC’s left shoulder and be pointing it at a downward angle of about 45°.

 From Brian's perspective the right side edge of the dish, was about inline with TC..the bowl of the dish ( When is a bowl also a dish? !haha!) was facing the bins, not straight on... but at a bit of an angle. The idea was to just graze his cheek and front of the left side of his face...fill in his jacket and jeans a bit..and to fill in the dark wall.

We were at about ½ power on the Speedlight, and the distance to the wall was about 8-10 feet. The dish was fired in the standard configuration. No grid no sock.. look ma.. no hands!

And it went a lil somethin like this:

The 'Money Shot" Our Final Portrait of TC. And if It Had Been Film, We Had  Spared Plenty!

   We fired off one frame prior to this one and the light had been back just a touch too much and TCs face fell into shadow. No need for him to know that though. I motioned to Brian to come closer to me and as I did kept eye contact with TC, I smiled, looked him square in the eye, lied..and said...COOL! I dig it! Now..again, just like that. perfect...right into the camera..and cool! I darted my eye over the viewfinder to ensure Brian was better situated..and went right back to the viewfinder. TC lifted his finger and the corners of his mouth ever so slightly....and that was just it!  And good thing too because out came the supervisor...and we were told TC had to be pulled inside for another job. Time to wrap it up. We didn’t get a single frame more! Working with TC was more demanding than most celebrities!

   Again, I can’t stress how the ability to form a friendship with your subject on whatever level you’re afforded to do so, can literally make or break your chances at getting the shot! Especially when time is of the essence. It really makes all the difference. Thanks to this angle, we wound up with an image that had much more depth to it and character. A gentle caressing of the tone curve in Capture One and a hint of warm toning, and the image has all the ‘feel’ of meeting my new friend.

Now, I’d mentioned earlier that this angle appealed to me because it made for a pleasing composition that would allow for flexibility. What I meant by that was, from here I could make an image that if it were for a magazine, it would easily be cropped into a variety of different formats without drastically altering the overall feel. I’ll show you what I mean, the following are simply different variations of the cropping of this one photo:

   We parted ways just before noon, feeling uplifted by our chance photograph of our surgery assistant, and we chose to keep the focus on the fact that, while we may have lost several hours and still not a Chinatown portrait of a complete stranger in sight,  (we were after all in Soho, and I wasn't about to cheat!) we’d gained access to a portrait that otherwise never would have happened. Clearly we were on an adventure whose story line was not going to be a scripted one.

 We were ready to eat. We’d been at it since sun up, and it seemed if the morning was to be any indication...we may have our work cut out for us! We stopped for a quick bite, and while we refueled we discussed the plan for the rest of the day.

 The plan went something like this:...

If you want to make God Laugh...tell him your plans.
— Woody Allen

The sun is up...and the entire Chinatown grid is fair game. We are going to canvas it like bloodhounds till we find a subject that simply jumps out at us, and then we are going to say a thousand prayers in between the moment in which our eyes meet and the moment in which we learn if communication is in the stars for us! Shower... rinse...repeat. Till finally we arrive at the portrait that awaits us.

Tune in next week for the 4th installment....as we continue on our mission...

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