Buds

“Hey, take our picture!”

It was about 10:30 at night on a Friday, and I was taking pictures of the fountain outside the Park Street MBTA station. Oh, what a crummy, crappy scene! A poorly-lit, dark bronze fountain, with a brightly-illuminated, gilded State House in the background. Yes, I was trying to see how well this camera works in a despicable worst-case scenario. The lighting is almost beyond the limitations of sensor technology in general.

So why shoot it? Well, I chose this as a Kobayashi Maru test. I didn’t expect the Olympus to make a good photo out of this scene; I was curious to find out how well it would perform in failure. Would it cry?

These two gentlemen called out from the sidewalk behind me. When strangers ask you to take their photo and it’s late on a Friday night, it’s clearly a Yellow Alert situation. Eventually, I was able to relax and conclude that they were just two sober, affable men having a lovely evening out, but only after I carefully considered alternate theories such as “they’re drunks and capable of damned near anything” and “they’re going to make a grab for my camera.”

(The worst-case scenario would have been “They’re filming some sort of reality show.” “Take my wallet and my camera,” I would say, thrusting these at the men. “Just please don’t try to draw me into your fake argument about how accurate a stripper’s Swedish Chef costume must be before it, quote, ‘stops being sexy’.”)

I should point out that they didn’t recognize me from my writings or podcasts or anything. They didn’t ask me to send them a copy of the photo, nor did they ask for any information from me which they could use to find this photo on Flickr or whatever.

They were just out and having a great time together. They seemed to simply like the idea of a photo of this Great Time existing in the aether somewhere.

I like that a whole lot. I hope they find this photo.

Photo notes: not a bad shot. Remember that low-light photos are often deceptive. There was a lot less light in the scene than it appears. Really, just some path lighting a dozen yards away. No direct lighting of any kind. Plus, I was still a little bit wary of the whole situation, so I didn’t bother to readjust my settings. The camera was still set to underexpose by a full stop.

I spent months choosing this camera. I imagine that the Nikon D7100 (a conventional “bigass SLR” with a large. DX-format image sensor; it was one of my finalists) could have shot this with less ISO noise. But: this scene is the sort of hopeless shooting situation in which only a full-frame camera (like the Canon 5D III or the Nikon D800) can deliver a truly clean image.

“A camera that works great in every shooting situation” isn’t within reach of the average consumer. That’s the definition of a pro camera. You can only have one of those if money and size are truly no object. Would I love to own a camera that can take clean photos late at night even when there’s no direct lighting? You betcha. Would I be willing to spend about $5000 for one? Holy cats, no. A $5000 camera is so laughably out of my sphere of reality that I don’t even need to come up with a colorful response to the “Am I also willing to lug around a camera and lens that doesn’t fit in any of my day-to-day bags?” question.

There’s a “Zeno’s Paradox” sort of thing in effect when you’re hunting for the best camera, anyway. We chase after “perfection, every time” even though that’s just not in the cards. Any camera (even the one in a cheap phone) can take great photos in 50% of all possible photographic scenarios. Want to try to make it to the 100% mark? A good point-and-shoot camera works great 75% of the time. A consumer-level SLR: 87% of the time. Enthusiast-level: 94%. Pro: 98%. Every level up closes half of the remaining gap.

But the gap is getting smaller each time, and each time, the cost of the hardware at the next level doubles. Whatever shooting scenarios are in that 4%, they’d better be pretty damned important to justify thousands of dollars in additional cost. And no matter how much money you throw at the problem, you’ll never get to 100%, will you? You still need to have the wits to ask these two guys to move a few steps and turn around, to face a streetlamp.

This shot does spotlight one annoyance of the E-M1: no built-in flash. It comes with a tiny external flash unit that slides into the camera’s flash shoe and accessory port. But you can’t quickly slide it on and go, and of course you need to have remembered to bring it with you in the first place. If I’d already had it on the camera, I certainly would have used it here. This is the one thing about the E-M1 that makes me long for my little Panasonic.

Final note: some day I should try to whack up the courage to take pictures of people on the street. I’m a big fan of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans Of New York” photo project. He isn’t sneaky or creepy. He approaches people and asks. He engages with them. And he takes a rather nifty portrait that any of these folks would be very grateful to have.

What guts! I’m terrified that I’ll approach, and ask, and be confronted with a sensible question that I can’t answer, like “How do I know that you’re not some creep who’ll take this photo and use it for God-knows what?” I suppose one solution is to print up Moo cards with the URL of my Flickr feed. Then they’d think “He might be a creep, but at least he’s a creep who planned ahead. And who has a funny squirrel photo on his card.”

This is why I love shooting cosplayers at cons; they’re keen to be photographed and I know they’re receptive to the request.

I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable as one of those jackasses who feel as though their pursuit of Art gives them license to jeopardize someone’s feelings of privacy and safety. I saw the gallery of one proud street photographer that included a shot of a woman blocking her face from the camera’s view. Christ, man. Brandon’s project reminds me that there’s a way to do street portraits that ends positively for everybody.

I realize that this is a kind of photography that I admire but don’t do because I can’t imagine how one would go about it and I’m a little scared to try it. That’s usually a good reason to learn anything.