The process of exploring photography in New York City has taken me to some unexpected places. I've been working on refining specific skill sets and setting different tasks and challenges for myself designed to push me out of my comfort zone. With my recent acquisition of my Canon 70D and small collection of lenses, I've been working hard to put this new gear through its paces and figuring out what role this new kit will play in the future of my creative profession.
One assignment suggested by Jared Polin (among others) was to cover the back of the camera and limit yourself to a simulated single roll of film. Thirty-six chances to get it right with no chance to see the images until your back home. I tried out the experiment today exploring a four-mile section of Riverside park between 123rd and the George Washington Bridge today and I have to say that I was not prepared for how much I learned in just a single afternoon.
The first and most obvious effect of this self-imposed limit was a drastic reduction in the speed with which I attacked the urban canvas. Expecting that 36 photos would be a frustrating straightjacket, I began the activity without a real sense of what shooting 36 photographs feels like. With a 32BG card, even shooting full RAW means I've got space for over a thousand shots before changing magazines. What I soon found out, though, was that there is a distinct difference between visually scanning for any subject that is remotely interesting and scanning for a subject that is worth being one of those 36. Rather than racing along trying to get as much coverage as possible, my pace slowed and I became much more mindful of the subjects I chose as well as the story I wanted to tell with each frame.
My first subject was a street located under cavernous metal trusses holding up the elevated West Side Highway. Normally I would have taken a couple wide shots with the 40mm and a few closer detail shots with the 70-300mm but under this new paradigm, I really wanted to capture the essence of the space. Whatever the fuck that means. I spent a good five minutes trying out different lenses and zoom variations as well as changing my position on the slanted concrete platform leading from the bridge supports down to the street level. I eventually settled on a rule of thirds configuration with the bridge supports taking up a third of the horizontal space on the left and right as well as about a third of the vertical space. Once I had the framing set, I waited another five minutes or so before the alignment of the parked cars, traffic patterns and pedestrians aligned themselves before pressing that fateful shutter button. After that much planning and thought went into the composition, the crisp snapping sound of the mirror rising and falling inside the camera becomes an incredibly sexy sound.
Truth be told, I actually used three of my 36 frames on this section of covered road. The first frame was underexposed (by a lot) and I only realized my mistake when I saw the light meter after firing the shutter. Right as I took the second picture a bus started to enter the frame so I needed a third to be sure I got the shot and the one above is shot number three.
About an hour later, I happened upon a beautiful butterfly dancing from flower to flower and I expended four frames on this guy. The image to the right is the first of those four and the challenge I was faced with hear was, “How long can I afford to wait for the perfect shot when my subject might fly off into the woods at any moment?” As I composed, I found myself thinking back on the examples I’d seen of film or even plate photographers economizing their shots. I thought of Ansel Adams hiking for an entire day with one glass plate in his backpack and expressing discomfort with the casual triviality of carrying half a dozen plates at a time. I remembered the scene from The Bang Bang Club when Kevin Carter is explaining to Greg Marinovich how seasoned photographer Ken Oosterbroek works from the outside of a scene in toward the middle and then cups his hand over the lens to shoot a black frame once he’s gotten the shot he was looking for. This tells the darkroom tech which shot is the keeper. Finally I pondered the scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty when Walter finally tracks down the elusive photographer Sean O'Connell on a craggy mountain-side in Afghanistan after chasing him down the entire movie. Sean was on an assignment to photograph snow leopards which he tells Walter are called the ghost cat because it never lets itself be seen. As a snow leopard emerges from a crevice, Walter asks why Sean isn’t taking the picture and Sean says, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment…I mean me personally…I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” Whether or not these lofty thoughts were justified as I lay sprawled in the grass, they certainly added a layer of profundity to the experience.
It took about five hours to walk the eight mile round trip to the George Washington bridge and back. What I realized when I got home and loaded the pictures into Lightroom, was that as I looked through those 36 shots, I knew exactly what I was thinking as the shutter fired each time. I know what caught my eye as I walked past. I knew how I mentally composed the shot and which lens I ultimately chose. I remembered the process of framing the shot and deciding how much I needed to compensate for back-lighting when I read the light meter. If I had gone out and taken a hundred or two hundred photos, I wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time choosing, framing and waiting for each shot to be ready and I wouldn’t have remembered the process of calculating all the settings with enough detail to learn from those choices later.
It was a very unique experience and I don’t know how quickly I’ll feel like doing it again but I’d definitely recommend the experiment to anyone looking to step back in time a little and learn something new.