Saturday, November 1, 2008

Masked for Halloween

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - "Notes for Next Year": Friday night at the halloween parade in NYC was challenging and fun, and using my camera off the tripod with my new, "walk-around" lens and in a different kind of shooting situation was instructional. This is great people shooting; everyone there wants to be in pictures. If the weather is anywhere near what it was yesterday, I want to go back next year. When I do, I want to remember some of the things I did right and some I did wrong:

1. TIMING - PARADE STAGING: We made the right decisions about when to arrive and where to go. The staging of the parade is better shooting than the parade. We arrived near Spring Street and Broadway around 2:30 PM. My first shot is time stamped 2:46:26. We were in no rush to get to the site of the parade and spent 20 minutes dawdling and casually photographing street life and beautiful light. We were headed for the parade, gathering site at Spring St. and 6th Ave. A block away, on Sullivan St., we saw floats and a lady in a truck showed us the plan for float parking. There were many areas set aside for floats and parade vehicles on Varick St (an ave west of 6th), but we never got to any of these.

After photographing ranks of police (3:30 pm) getting their marching orders, a fellow-photographer pointed us (no pun intended) toward the topless girls. They were on Spring St. Once on Spring St. we first encountered the giant skeletons and the ghosts' ball. An Alberich-like dwarf was helping a few people get used to wearing the shoulder braces. There were maybe a dozen photographers exploring, parade participants relaxing and preparing, and the first costumed marchers were happy to be photographed.

The topless girls were at the Varick St. end of the block and it took 10 minutes to reach them. They were painting each other and getting painted by two body paint pros. This is the best show going. I shot the first topless photo at 3:41:01.

Essential to getting inside the restricted staging area without prior registration was arriving early and having an intimidating looking camera. As we had gotten in early, we were never questioned, but I almost got locked out when I started to stray outside the barricades. My big lens got me back in. The key is arrive early and be prepared to stay.

2. PEOPLE: I should have been more aggressive in engaging participants in conversation and posing them where I wanted them to stand. This was the same mistake I made at the 4th of July parade I shot. It is a sign of my inexperience with street shooting.

3. TECHNIQUE: My new 18-200mm street lens is a good deal heavier than my previous street lens, and I quickly found that my best planning in how to shoot was being undermined by my handling of the camera; the new lens changed the balance of the camera and tangled my thumbs. I had a terrible time setting exposure and then realized that I had somehow fumbled and changed camera settings without realizing it. Throughout the evening I experienced accidental changes to exposure compensation, shutter speed, and I frequently switched the mode off of shutter priority without realizing it. Practice, practice! Check metering often!

The side street is very contrasty and at a slower pace would call for spot metering. However, things change so fast that I found myself shifting positions constantly. As the girls moved, I moved. At any given minute at least 3 others were shooting the girls. Sometimes the girls were lit brightly, and sometime they were in shadow. We needed a diffuser on the sky, but the bright light also brought out the crustiness of the body paint. Quite honestly, it never occurred to me that I would be better in matrix metering. Lesson learned, switch to matrix metering.

To make matters worse, I find I have a habit of hitting the dial on the back of the camera with my thumb and sometimes with my nose. As a result, the focus point was never where I expect to find it, and I lost precious time finding and moving it to meter and focus properly. VERY IMPORTANT: Turn the lock on to keep this from happening.

4. PARADE SHOOTING STRATEGY: We made the wrong decision about shooting the parade. As the parade was forming we decided to leave and were shocked to find 6th Avenue packed with spectators behind barricades looking in at us. What a rush suddenly to see thousands of faces looking in to where we were. Next to the staging area were corrals where the hoards of marchers gathered and from which they were systematically released at intervals to march between bands and floats. We were about to leave the staging area, join the spectators, and head uptown to see what the passing parade looked like, when we found a gap that let us into one of the corrals to march with the parade. Doing so turned out to be a mistake. Once inside, the police would not let anyone exit. We were locked in the corral for the next 40 minutes. When we did find a gap to escape, we discovered we had just moved into a neighboring corral. No sooner were we there than the police released everyone in the first corral into the parade, and we contemplated another 40 minute wait until we might be released. Finally my companion, Bob Lejeune, found a policeman who took pity and let us rejoin the multitudes of spectators.

Once on civilian territory we found as many costumed celebrants wandering Greenwich Village as in the parade. There was partying everywhere. A better strategy for shooting post-staging would be to shoot the partying. I would find locations with good ambient light and let the party pass while shooting from stationary positions.

5. THOUGHTS ON COMPOSITION: After reviewing shots, I always see opportunities missed. a) I need to constantly remind myself to watch backgrounds. This is always tough in fast-paced, street shooting. It is tougher on east-west streets like Spring St. where the setting sun created bright light and deep shadows everywhere. b) Always watch for chances to include the grand old buildings of the area. Often this means getting low to shoot upward. c) The giant puppet skeletons, ghosts, and other props that are raised on the shoulders of marchers often look best when the shots include at least the shoulders and heads of those marchers. Usually it is a mistake to focus only on the puppets as the supporters provide scale. Where the marchers can't be used for scale, these puppets must be shot against buildings or other objects that give them scale. Lacking this, they are not especially impressive. d) While there are many opportunities for portraits of people, the parade is as much about the city as it is about people. It is important to look around often for chances to shoot the city with the parade passing through it.