A Satisfying Fraction of a Second

Posted in In My Opinion...

I like to do night photography... the theatrical staging and lighting in these scenes just winds my spring. Link, Brassai and Weegee are my heroes. Night photography and business travel go hand in hand, or at least used to. If you're on 50% travel to places that include Tokyo and London and Munich, it's nice to have a passion that can fill the hours after you get out of the labs or meeting rooms.

Osaka used to be one of my regular destinations to give talks or meet with customers. I'd usually add it on to a Tokyo trip and take the bullet train down. My night work breaks down into two categories... street/candid work (mostly when I travel) and still life stuff with huge exposure times that can exceed 30 minutes (mostly when I don't have to screw around with airport security). Train stations are one of the premiere locations to practice candid night photography and the train stations of Japan have been a favorite for that. Japan has an incredible amount of visually fascinating street activity that starts in the late evening hours and that has been another favorite subject matter.

Back in 92 or 93, I was in Osaka with my camera... a late-60's Canon TLb loaded with TMax film that would get pushed past it's rated ASA speed of 3200 to 12,800. Sorry, but as president of ASA, I never say "ISO". Grain is your friend when things are moving in low light. I love that my Canon is both manual and all metal. You can bash a guys brains into a slick mush with it and still take a picture of the body when you were done, so it's still my primary 35mm film camera after 28 years. I digress...

On that trip in the early 90's, I headed over to singularity among interesting places... street musicians, hawkers, alternatively-employed ladies, etc. We (guys I used to travel with) call it "the bridge"... it's not far from The Sony Building. There are ALL kinds of visually (and otherwise) unusual stuff to be seen there after midnight. Next to the bridge is a moderately size open area where two mostly-pedestrian roads come together, one which crosses the bridge. I was across the lane facing the bridge watching the 20-something Japanese guys in their neon satin suits and Elvis DA haircuts attempting to arrange social encounters with some of their lady friends... when I saw this young guy and girl coming my way on an old English 3 speed. He was driving with this purposeful, laboring look to his entire face and body, while the young lady perched on what little rear axle there was. She had this *perfect* gymnast's posture... she *owned* that axle and if I had to guess, she couldn't tell you the guy's name if you asked her. She looked completely at ease with her chin resting on her hand, propped on the guy's shoulder. It looked cool to me and caught my eye well before they got into the "kill zone" I was working with my camera, though they were heading into it. They were approaching a place on the brick pattern where all the lines in the bricks came together, and by some miraculous act of God, all the other people in the shot were just about to be in a perfect place too. The foreground was full of people that seemed to be exiting the shot just for me... It seemed like a photo I had to capture was crystallizing into existence right in front of me. It was mine to screw up.

I probably had 2 and a half sec to get ready. The Canon, being completely manual, meant that I had focus out in front so I picked the vertex of the bricks. My exposure (I was shooting at 12,800 so I could freeze human speed motion adequately in the night lighting) was already set for slower pedestrian motion, and I'd like to have gone up a couple of notches on shutter speed if I had the time. The focus was good so I panned back to the girl on the bike who was looking ahead as she approached her mark. I stepped out of the shadow into an over head light which caught her eye JUST as they crossed the perfect spot on the bricks, and the other 50 people all hit their mark. She looked RIGHT into the center of my lens and I NAILED it. The moment the loud mechanical kachunk was done, everyone scattered and the scene dissolved into it's normal chaos. There was another guy from the US about 20 feet away at the corner with one of those medium format Pentax cameras that looks like a huge 35... he looked over at me and asked "Did you get it?" with a little excitement. I guess I answered with a huge smile because I remember he smiled back and nodded.

That was the most satisfying photographic moment of my life... everything I could control, coupled with the unfolding chaos which I couldn't, all came together perfectly. I was there and ready for "the moment"... my personal "Moonrise over Hernandez" moment.

When you do night work, you're usually out there alone waiting for light to gather in your camera for long periods of time... hours. It's like ice fishing, only you can't eat what you catch. Digital has reduced some of that waiting, but for this picture, there's no way my digital set up (EOS 20D) would have been fast enough to get a keeper. After you finish processing the pictures and show them to a few people, the usual reaction is polite blank stares as they struggle to say something nice ("Oh.... um... I love black and white pictures"... hey... they tried:). I think night photography is one of those things you do strictly for you... for the joy of doing. It's not about what people who look at the end result think. You better really get off standing out in a driving snow at 2am taking 2 or 3 half-hour test Polaroids and explaining to bored cops in their warm cruisers that you're not a terrorist and that big 4x5 Speed Graphic mounted on the massive tripod isn't a portable rocket launcher. Good thing my buddy Rich from Western Digital was there to keep me out of jail when the CHP kid stopped and screwed with us while we were shooting the over pass in the Laguna Canyon Fwy at 2am. (Hey... if anyone knows how I can reach Rich Compeau these days, shoot me an email).

Anyway... my work for ASA used to blend a lot of night photography and I just stumbled across this shot I took on a biz trip, so I thought I'd waste some of your time talking about it. That'll teach you to read this damn blog:) Later.

Mike