Street photography at night is hard to resist, partly because it can be so dramatic and partly because so many of us are at work during the day and have more free time during the hours of darkness. This picture reminds me not so much of others’ street photography as of a particularly spectacular example of street painting: Rembrandt’s “The Company of Captain Frans Banning”, better known as “The Night Watch”.
Unfortunately photography is ill adapted to dramatic chiaroscuro, because the eye can accommodate a far greater brightness range than any sensor. This makes it all too easy to “blow” the highlights to a featureless white and “block” the shadows to a featureless black. You therefore need quite a lot of fill lighting, as well as strongly directional key lighting, and very careful exposure.
In street photography there is rarely much you can do to control the lighting, so it usually comes down to choosing the right location and waiting for the right people to be in the right poses. Fortunately this is a place I know well, a few paces from my house, the square in front of the Hotel de Ville or Town Hall.
Even if you don’t know a place, though, one of the great advantages of digital photography is being able to check the picture (and even more importantly the histogram) on the back of the camera. Always use a camera you know well, if you want to be reasonably sure of good pictures: this was my first digital Leica, the M8. Also, you can shoot test pictures beforehand when nothing interesting is going on: when there is “no picture”.
Image credit Roger Hicks
This is the local band, just getting organized before they set off on the march to the other end of the village, where there will be a grand bonfire. Obviously it’s a long way from perfect: I had to lighten (dodge) the band-master’s face and darken (burn) the heads in the foreground. The lighting really is evil, as so often in street photography. The background lighting is sodium vapour: cheap and efficient, but monochromatic. The key light is tungsten from the café-bar, out of shot to the left: warm and yellow.
There are the LED torches the musicians have fixed in various places (head, chest, above the drum) so that they can read their music: hard and blue-green. Then there are the paper lanterns with their candles, though these make life much easier by helping to “explain” the multiple light sources and colours. Of course I could have made the skin tones (almost always the most critical colours) more “realistic”, but there are two factors that predispose us to accept a very yellow tone. One is that we know what tungsten light is like, and the other is that the effect is reminiscent of the yellowing varnish on an old painting: another nod at Rembrandt.
What really makes the picture is the very different poses and expressions of so many of the characters: there is a sense of reality, of people getting ready to do something, involved in something. It is of course perfectly possible, and indeed normal, to concentrate on rather fewer people in street photography. Here, depending on how you count them, there are maybe half a dozen principal characters. The man in the striped shirt commands immediate attention, but then, quickly, the eye darts from one to another; their being together is an essential part of the picture. The boy in the peaked cap and even the out of focus foreground heads give a sense of immediacy and reality in a way that would be hard to re-create in a painting. They add to our sense of being there, of participating, without obscuring too much of the important material and the context behind them.
Further context is added by the deliberately majestic Hotel de Ville (formerly the village school) and the bunting overhead; both barely lit, but essential background. All can be counted as flaws if you want to see them that way; but often, in street photography, if you can combine enough “flaws” you can produce a whole that transcends the shortcomings.