Sunday, December 2, 2012

my first ever philly photo walk :: hosted by yours truly :: michael anthony murphy

Yesterday, I held my first ever, somewhat organized, photo walk in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. The road to growth as a photographer is a long one. There are no short cuts, no back roads, no Audubon speed limits. Creating compelling and beautiful imagery is a form of art that takes knowledge, creativity and, most of all, practice. These are some of the factors that drew me to the back of a lens some years ago. As my skills have matured over these years I have found many an email in the inbox; friends, family, acquaintances, anons, et. el., asking questions pertaining to gear, technique, composition, lighting, etc. Some photographers out there tend to keep their secrets in their "black box." I, on the other hand prefer to be an open book, welcoming the questions and assisting in any way possible. It wasn't that long ago that I was in their position where I was reaching out, trying to find so many elusive answers. Today, I find it rewarding and fulfilling to give back to the community, whether it be doing some charity shooting or, in this case, teaching, sharing all that is stored between my ears. So, in this effort to give back, I decided to go a step further than simply spewing out some words in a return email. I held my first ever photo walk, yesterday, in Philadelphia.

It was just last week when the event decided to grow some legs. Not sure which exact day it was but I had an email titled "HELP." Enclosed was a lengthy message, a friend, wanting to throw in the towel. This person had become, like many, mesmerized by the gear. That beautiful new DSLR, with its many mysterious features. Buttons, knobs and dials everywhere but no clue what each of those things were there to do. This happens to many new photographers in the world. They see this beautiful camera, run out to buy one, swear to themselves that they will become an awesome photographer only to end up locking that amazing technology permanently in Auto mode. After a few days, weeks or even months of shooting in Auto, they wonder why on earth do their photographs still look like shit.

This is the fork in their road.

The frustrated do one of two things. The first is throw that expensive camera back in the box, never to pick it up again. The other and the road less traveled is to actually learn photography.

Little did the first person know, is that no matter how many thousands they spend on a camera, that tool (cameras are simply tools) will not magically make beautiful images. Fact of the matter is, if you or someone you know, goes out to buy thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, only to leave it stuck in Auto, well, you are better off saving that money. Working a 500, 1000, 3000, 10 or 20,000 dollar camera in Auto will get you results not much better than that of your new iPhone. And I'm not knocking iPhone by any means. I think to day, there are four iPhones in our home. And you know what? They take perfectly fine photos for what they are, point and shoot, full auto digicams.

Now, you've taken the road less traveled, the road to learn the art. Down this road is progress. You've taken that road, you've learned every single aspect of the camera, composition, technique, exposure, light and every fundamental of photography 101. Like the light at the end of the tunnel, you actually see progress. You've thrown the kit lens into the recycle bin, purchased a decent prime, you are actually making photos that look awesome. Those who head down this road find satisfaction and fulfillment and continue down this road. Ah, but this road is longer than they imagined. The path of education and development are endless. You either reject this fact or embrace it. The elite embrace the fact that you must continue to move forward, continue to learn and progress, or die.

Wow, I can really get off on a tangent can't I? Back to that email. So my friend was ready to throw in the proverbial towel. You see, this friend had decided on the road less traveled, wanting to think for the camera (manual mode), rather than have the camera think for them (auto mode). Unfortunately, the exposure triangle, one of the first things I learned, wasn't making sense to said person. We have all been at this point at some time or another, formally or self trained. At some point, nobody had and effing clue what an f-stop was or where to find one. Was an f-stop cheap? Really necessary to move forward in photography? Ok, I'm being a total smart ass. Ignore my f-stop commentary, it was just mean.

My friend, Joei, was about to give up, before she could I offered, rather than a return email, a chance to work with her, hands on. This would allow me to see what was being tried and how I could physically show her how to adjust for her mistakes. She accepted the offer.

It was this same week that another friend of mine, a seasoned event photographer, had called me about some lighting questions, questions about strobes, Pocketwizards, TTL and even some gear questions. I decided to extend the invitation of my hands on event to him as well. Greg also accepted the invite.

Feeling that this could be very educational, while being fun at the same time, I decided to throw the invite out to only a couple more people. Being that it would be my first ever hands on, educational photo walk, I didn't want the crowd to be overwhelming. There was no formal agenda and wanted this time out to be more of a test run than anything else.

The plan was for the group to meet at La Citadelle, a cozy, quiet coffee shop right in my hood, 16th and Pine, in Rittenhouse Square. Those to attend were coming from all directions. Two would be coming from New Jersey, one from West Philly and the last not far from my digs. I had requested that everyone arrive at noon, packed with their camera and any other gear they wanted to use, or learn to use, for that matter.

I arrived at the coffee shop around 11:30, wanting to get a head start on the caffeine flow while trying to come up with some sort of game plan. Greg Brown had called to inform me that due to his new computer crashing, that he would be running a bit late. Joei Hochberg Maier was running right on schedule. Two of the others had cancelled, one having to do some shooting in NYC and the other due to, what I'm guessing, was a massive hangover. Three's a crowd right? I was totally content with having only to work with myself and two others with this first trial photo walk. 

The plan would be to head over to Chinatown, to do some interesting street photography. With this in mind, the game plan changed a bit. Greg was taking the El from West Philly to 15th and Market. From there he would have to walk down to Rittenhouse. Rather than wait for him to walk all the way to us and then we all walk back towards him, I called and told him to meet us at 8th and Race, the boarder of Chinatown. Joei arrived at 16th and Pine around noon and I hopped in her new Pathfinder. Together we drove to meet up with Greg. 

We all met around 12:30, camera bags loaded and ready to go. The three of us took a short walk over to the Reading Terminal to get some more caffeine and empty our bladders. Since we didn't get a chance to sit at La Citadelle, back in Rittenhouse, I thought we'd grab a table at the Reading Terminal, sip coffee and discuss their photographic concerns. The place was an absolute mob scene. We could barely walk, let alone find a table. I became a bit frustrated. This wouldn't get me down though. Instead we grabbed our coffees and made our way to a street corner, where we could put down our bags, pull our gear, rest our cups and discuss a few things. It was chilly outside but not unbearable. The newspaper machines were a suitable roundtable. 

After digging their brains a bit, I thought our time would be better spent shooting more of each other rather than spending the majority of time trying to shoot the locals of Chinese decent. My rationale behind this was that I needed some time to explain exposure and metering. The task would be difficult had we tried to keep random people still for extended periods of time. We grabbed our belongings and headed over to a side street, an alley of sorts, where the buildings were blocking most of the sun, perfect for dialing in exposure in a controlled environment. It also served for a nice ambient to add some strobes. This would cater to both Greg's and Joei's needs. Greg wanted to work his speedlight and Joei, her manual settings. 

Over the next few hours, we traveled the lengths of center city. We lugged our gear from Broad Street to Penn's Landing, traversing blocks north and south until reaching the waterfront. We made random stops at interesting locations, shooting locals, vendors, homeless people, performers and ourselves. 

As for myself, I didn't shoot as much as I thought I would or wanted to. I didn't bother me too much, as I felt much gratification helping my fellow photographers learn as much as possible. 

In the end, I think, I hope, the day was a success. Joei decided that she wasn't going to throw in the towel. Greg now had some more tricks in his bag in regards to off camera light. I gave Joei a few knowledge bombs about strobe but not too much as I prefer she grasp ambient exposure before entering the world of off camera lighting. I explained to her that they are two different animals and must be approached in their own unique ways. Baby steps.

Before I go, I did want to get a bit nerdified and discuss one of my favorite shots of the day, the dude playing the sax at the post's opening. As we neared Penn's Landing I noticed this street performer wrapping up his sax, about to call it a day. I knew if we threw him a buck that we could convince him to play again. We all turned out our pockets, trying to find a single dollar. I was out of small bills, same for Joei. Luckily, Greg found a few ones. I took the dollar and approached the man. I politely asked if we could take some photos of him. Kindly, he obliged. He then took out his sax and began to jam away. I asked him to move his position since I didn't like the primary background. Turning him around and I was able to catch the Ben Franklin Bridge in the background, a landmark of Philly. This would work better than the grassy knoll that he initially had his back to. 

I pulled out a Vivitar 285hv, hoping to overpower the sun just a bit and add some strobe for fill, depth and interest. I was working with a 50 1.4 at f/5.0. I cranked the camera past the sync of 1/250 up to 1/320. Typically you'd get some banding by crossing the cameras shutter sync threshold but when it's super bright outside, you can usually sneak a stop or two past. I dropped the ISO down to 50, trying my best to get an ND effect with my exposure. The sky was horrible, bright and just about cloudless. With my exposure I was able to darken things up a bit. I then used Joei as my VAL (voice activated lightstand). With the Vivitar set to 1/2 power, I had her stand about 8 feet from the subject, camera right, holding the flash up high and on a 45 degree angle towards his face. I then worked the scene, moving around the subject, shooting him from various angles. I even flipped the camera upright in portrait orientation, which I don't do too much these days. 

After just a few minutes of firing away, I nailed the shot I had wanted. Take notice of his left side, especially the leather jacket. The flash added that splash of light which was quite specular on his leather. Since the strobe was angled just right, those highlights didn't get clipped. Instead, the speedlight added some nice contrast and depth to his face and his body. The light also brought out some depth and interest to the sax. 

In post I took the RAW file into the ACR editor and made some minor adjustments. First of all, the sky, in my opinion was still too bright. So, rather than take the exposure down, I just went to the HSL/Grayscale sliders and went for the blue luminance slider. I took that down until the blue sky became a richer darker blue, revealing the few clouds that were in the sky. After doing that, I made a few other minor adjustments and then took over to Photoshop for a manual black and white adjustment layer. In there I took the blues down even a tad more. Once completed I opened in the ACR editor once more to bump the exposure ever so slightly. That's about it. Signed, sealed delivered. 

[The other two shots, one of Greg and one of Joei, were both shot ambient only with the same manual black and white adjustments.]


Without a doubt, I will be organizing another photo walk in the city. I will be sure to keep everyone posted to the next date and whereabouts. 

I want to thank my friends for bearing my first walk ever! I hope the experience was informative and I look forward to our future shoots. 

If you live in or around Philadelphia feel free to shoot me an email if interested in the next photo walk:

Until next time...