We all make mistakes. We get our exposures wrong. Depth of field is insufficient (though increasingly many regard this as an advantage, not a drawback). Shutter speeds are too long, resulting in blur from subject movement or camera shake. Colour balance is nightmarish. If we use manual focus, as I normally do, we can even get the focus wrong. Under the pressures of “Street photography” – the need to see quickly, and shoot fast – mistakes are easier than in (say) landscapes and still lifes.
We can however learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we may even get a good picture; or at least an acceptable picture; or a picture that is worth keeping to remind us of what went wrong so we can avoid it again, or of what could conceivably have gone right so that we can take advantage of the same technique next time, only more under control. Mistakes are as important in “Street Photography” as in any other kind of photography.
This, for me, is such a picture. I’m quite good with words, so I could if I wanted pretend to explain just how clever it is: about the ancient elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air, and how priestesses worshipped fire and made sacrifices to it. About how devotees of the fire-sects saw themselves not as individuals, but as avatars of the Fire God, and how this picture was meant to represent that anonymity. About how the red of firelight appeals to something deep within us, an ancestral time when fire was our protection against marauding tigers and elephants and indeed marauding neighbours. About how the somewhat aleatory framing allows our brains to supply what is missing. Most of it would be defensible. It would however be a pack of lies. It was a mistake, pure and simple.
Image credit Roger Hicks
Is it street photography? Well, yeah. How often do you think I pack my vast private estates with less-than-overdressed young priestesses? Or indeed priests? And ceremonial fires? It’s a village festival. People are lighting candles and torches and fireworks. Unless either Elf And Safety or Political Correctness (take your choice) have Gone Mad, there’s probably something similar quite close to you, at least once a year.
It was taken with the archetypal choice for street photography, a Leica, because I’ve been using them since 1969. From the look of it, and from the lenses I use most, it was fitted with a 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux. Without either autofocus or a reflex focusing screen it is quite easy to miss focus, especially after a drink or six: everything through the viewfinder is equally sharp, except for the doubled/ split rangefinder area in the middle. I don’t normally get that drunk, but even the main image can get doubled.
At first sight this makes out of focus shots quite difficult to replicate with an SLR, but it is far from impossible. As long as your camera has an accessory shoe, all you need is an accessory finder. In fact, you don’t even need a finder: just point your camera in roughly the right direction, and guess at the framing. Turn off auto-flash and auto-focus; focus manually on a distance adequately different from the subject distance; and start shooting. See what you get. See what you can learn from it. Next time, you may choose a different focusing distance, a different aperture, a different shutter speed, a different ISO, a different white balance. That’s fine, as long as you’re learning. The important thing is to think about what went right, as well as what went wrong. That’s what learning means.
A common piece of advice, when you’re learning – and we’re all learning, all the time – is to go outside your “comfort zone”. The older I get, the more meaningless I find this. Turn it around. Think of your “comfort zone” as “anything you can photograph”. With digital, it costs nothing except your time, and if you begrudge the time you spend taking pictures, how serious are you about your “Street Photography” ? Your “comfort zone” is no more and no less than your successful pictures; and unless you try, how can you know what will succeed?