I was in Europe for a week back in early June, and had the opportunity visit two cities, London and Paris. First stop was London, and on the third day of the trip, I would hop down to Paris from London’s St. Pancras International train station. Before I left, I had the chance to catch up with a friend.
Jessica and I grew up in the same hometown of Stamford, CT and she’s lived in London for over six years. Our schedules lined up and she had enough time to meet me for breakfast on a Thursday morning. She lives in the charming neighborhood of Soho in the West End, part of the city of Westminster. For our rendezvous, I would venture on the subway, more formally "The Underground" or more casually, "The Tube" and arrive at the Baker Street Underground station in Soho.
I was a little bit early and had some time to kill.
I had my camera with me, and naturally thought to take some photographs of the area, I thought I would just capture some architecture and statues (which I did) but before Jessica arrived, a new thought entered my mind. I had been motivated and challenged by my surroundings and I had to respond creatively...
Something I had heard about London, before traveling there, was, “the morning rush.” Essentially, the morning rush hour when people are getting to work. Not unlike other major cities, Londoners are in a hurry in the AM. But what I heard specifically, was that the morning rush was not friendly to tourists. This was no time to play on the Tube or take artsy photographs in Tube stations. Move!
While riding the Tube that morning to Soho, I experienced it. It was real. The train was packed, person to person. Barely enough room to breathe. When exiting at the Baker Street Station in Soho, I felt it more. Yeah, you better get going or you’ll get pin-balled around.
The crowd was dense and herd-like, but somehow full of speed and energy. It’s like all Londoners are in synchronized rhythm during the morning rush, flowing behind one another. No one is really talking, just moving with purpose, with their eyes focused on their destination. There is very little to no stopping. It was incredible.
I reached the exit of the station, breathed and stretched out into the open air again. I walked across the street and got a quick shot of the exterior of the station:
I’ve been in major US cities, New York, Boston, Miami, and I live in Los Angeles, but the energy of that moment in the London Underground was a little different. Maybe I’ve been dulled and jaded by living in Los Angeles for a couple of years. It’s car dominated and walking the streets in public spaces rarely happens. I'm out of practice.
I looked around the area, the intersection of Baker Street and Marylebone Road and saw an urban scene full of life. Cars, buses bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians. They were all commuters with a purpose and I just had to capture it…
I’ve done event photography for many years and have learned that there’s an energy to all places and crowds of people. My goal is to hide. I aim to capture as much candid photography as I can at an event. I’ve learned how to suppress my energy and seemingly disappear to catch honest moments. Also at an event, where people know there will be a photographer, it’s a little bit easier to work.
But on the street, in a random public setting, for some reason my energy is loud and I stick out. I don’t know what it is, maybe holding a large, bulky DSLR up to my face has something to do with it. Whenever I’m in public with my camera, people look in my direction. It kills the idea of what I'm going for. I can’t explain it, and for the longest time, I resigned to the idea that I’d, “never be a street photographer.” It was a sobering thought, because candid street photography is awesome.
In a year of more travel than usual, I ventured to New Orleans and of course there is an incredible energy on the streets of the French Quarter with musicians, magicians, artists and street performers filling spaces with color and life. I was able to shake a few of my demons when it came to street photography and capture some really great shots.
I was feeling a little more confident, but this was different. There was no music in the air, no brass band playing, no magicians, no centralized moment or event to distract people from the sight of me taking pictures. It was just focused Londoners going to work. Photography was not expected here, and maybe, if I caught the wrong person in the wrong moment, Photography may not be appreciated or welcomed. I really considered all of this. I wasn’t trying to get cursed out in a British accent for taking someone’s picture at the wrong time. Photographer problems.
I thought about it for while, “how do I do this..” and then it hit me. I arrived at my answer thanks to the National Football League.
What the heck does football have to do with this?
Stay with me. I’ve watched football (Sorry, American football. I was in Europe. I have to respect their love of soccer/football.) since I was about five years old, and it’s my favorite sport to watch. In another life, I’d be an awesome football coach. I’m sure of it. Then again, calling plays in John Madden Football on XBOX is not real life. Back to the point…I’ve watched football for many years and naturally there are always commentators highlighting the game’s every play. There’s usually a main commentator or "broadcast commentator" describing the play as it happens with players names and what they are doing or just did. Then there is a "color commentator," usually a former player or coach, who has a greater insight into the game, players and strategies of the given moment.
After countless years of watching games, color commentators have repeated a common phrase about the game that has soaked into my soul. It turned out to be the answer, the analogy that would solve my riddle of how to photograph these London streets:
“Take what the defense gives you…”
If you’re a football fan, scroll down, because you’re gonna be bored right now, but if you’re not, allow me to explain. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but the phrase “take what the defense gives you” refers to a strategy or piece of advice for the offensive team in a game of football. Sometimes offenses struggle to move the football or score points because the defense is too good. They are stopping or disrupting plays and the offense can’t find a rhythm. But, no defense is perfect. Every defensive strategy will have a weakness or opening and offenses will adjust in order to exploit it. When a team on offense starts “taking what the defense gives them” it means they are looking for shorter, more conservative gains instead of riskier plays. They’ll make a pass that gains 5 yards instead of 15 yards, just to start some positive momentum for their drive. It comes up all the time in games and commentators will notice it or advise it.
Examples (I can hear Troy Aikman’s voice in my head right now):
“He just needs to settle down, take what the defense is giving him, and find his rhythm…”
“They’ve changed their approach this half. They’re just taking what the defense gives them and marching down the field…”
I mean, I may like football, but if you ask me, this was a pretty good analogy to use in order to tackle (ohhh, bad pun) capturing this busy mass of commuters during the morning rush here in Soho. I figured I would slow down, and not worry about getting the most clever, creative or spectacular candid moments on the street. I would just...take what the defense gave me, take what the energy or the crowd of people was giving me, and tell the story. What the energy of the moment was giving me, or telling me, was that I couldn't just sit or stand still and capture images. I'd have to ingratiate myself with the moment. I'd have to flow as the crowd flowed. I'd have to be a pedestrian along with the pedestrians and capture images on the move.
I went a little bit further. It wasn't just easy enough to think "walk and move in the crowd," because I still had this tiny problem of holding a boxy Nikon D700 in my hands. I still thought people may look up at me while they are walking and look at me taking pictures.
I thought of an idea, an idea I've wanted to try for a while, and that was to just put the camera around my neck and shoot from my belly. What? Yeah, like, just have the camera around my neck. It would look like I was just a tourist (which I was) who was NOT taking pictures at the moment. But...while the camera was just resting, I would snap photos... If you can't imagine what I'm describing, I went ahead and took a photo of what I mean. I would take pictures while the camera was like this:
I would be shooting blind. But like I just mentioned, I've wanted to try that for a while just to see what would happen. I wouldn't zoom the lens, just leave it at 24mm. That's an AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR: an incredibly clean and almost unfair (unfair, because the images look so good) zoom lens.
It may look a little weird or even a little sneaky, but this tactic made sense. With the camera in that position, I wouldn't draw so much attention to myself. It would look like I was just walking around like a tourist. I wouldn't be bringing my DSLR up to my face and pointing at people/strangers. Like this, I could just turn towards something and snap.
What about focus? The Nikon D700 has three focusing modes: spot, area, and scene. I set it to "scene" focus, which meant it would try to get as many focal points in the whole...scene....everything in the viewfinder, in focus as possible. To auto-focus on a Nikon, you press the shutter release button half-way and the camera will focus for you, then when it's ready, you press it fully to shoot. When I would see the lens rotating in front of me, I knew it was trying to focus, when it stopped moving, I knew it was focused, then I would just press the shutter.
I also had a solution for creating images with a portrait orientation. I couldn't rotate my camera while it was around my neck and hanging at my stomach. That would have looked weird, so from time to time I would remove the camera from around my neck and just hold it down to the side like this:
[Side note: I just created those two shots in Pasadena, CA today. I walked outside with all that stuff, my tripod and everything. I stuffed my backpack and camera bag with laundry and put on the same sweater I was wearing on this day in London back in June for continuity, just so you would know exactly what I looked like out on the streets. I do it all for you, my friends...]
I was pretty excited to try this out. I knew that the vantage point would be interesting, a little bit lower to the ground than I was used to. I also knew I was going to get some slanted, tilted or "canted" angles because of being in motion and not being able to frame things perfectly as usual. I very intentionally left those angles in the final edits of the image.
Last thought: exposure. I took one test shot with the camera to my eye, just to get the right settings for the camera. What good would all this be if the images were way too dark or bright?
Now on to the images. I started walking around the streets and started blindly trying to capture the essence of the moment. The morning rush in Soho, London:
This experiment brought up a few thoughts. It made me think to myself: what do I look like when I'm purposefully walking the busy streets of a city?
Overall, I was just curious about the people. They are all in this collective mob, moving towards life for the day. But they were all individuals, with unique stories. Who were they? Where were they going, and why? What was on their minds as they walked? Were they worried about something? content? just focused?
My favorite image in the set ended up being these two backpackers crossing the intersection. Thankful for the composition:
Of course not every image was perfectly candid. In the following one, the man on the far left of the frame is on to me, and looks directly into my camera. I'm pretty sure the girl a little further down, with the headphones on, also sees what I'm doing:
This young lady and the man a little behind her are completely seeing it as well:
We are all obsessed with our cell phones:
This man ended up being my favorite subject of the entire experiment:
He was waiting for someone or something, but I don't know those answers. He was slightly concerned, yet relaxed. His pose almost felt intentional, gratuitous, but of course he had no clue who I was or what I was doing. I never caught his glance or attention and I would stay with him for a few moments:
A local shop owner gives a woman directions:
This man deserves an award:
Motorcycle. Helmet. Wind-breaking jacket. Backpack. Formal slacks. and WING TIP SHOES:
After a good 10-15 minutes of this fascinating observation, I made my way back to the Baker Street Station to await Jessica's arrival. I sat and scrolled through to see if I had gotten anything interesting. Of course, I looked along the way, but mostly kept moving and shooting. I was pleased with some, and further excited when I had a chance to see them on a computer. Thanks for the challenge, London. I took what you gave me, and really enjoyed the spirit of your morning rush hour.
And don't worry, Jessica didn't stand me up. We ended up having a great breakfast. (Shout out to Jess if she reads/sees this.) Good times in London!