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Shooting People: Candid Shots on the London Underground

Shooting People: Candid Shots on the London Underground by Richard Gray

 

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a person. And us persons, or people, are interested in our own kind. On a very unscientific estimate, people make up about 1% of all the world’s objects, but probably half of all the photos in the world have people in them. People provide endless fascination for photographers. With our photos of people, we tell stories, we try to understand people’s motivations, we try to show their feelings, get to their essence. Our most deep-rooted instincts developed over millions of years make us gaze at people’s faces. When I started taking photos with my iPhone, I shot lots of buildings. I used to think people spoilt the lines of my architectural images. But back in February I started giving a course in mobile photography and I couldn’t really avoid doing people. The iPhone is great at candid portraiture and street. You can get closer to people with the iPhone camera than with a big camera. Many photojournalists, most notably Michael Brown in Libya, have said how more doors will be open to you with your iPhone in your pocket than with a big camera over your shoulder. And access is often key to getting a good shot of a person. So one week I set my students some homework to get some candid shots of people on the London underground (or Tube). And I did the homework myself. And, as my followers on Instagram will know, I haven’t really stopped since. Before I sent my students off to do their homework, we had a discussion about the ethics of candid shots. Yes, you are concealing what you are doing. But that deception is not for any nefarious, commercial or fraudulent purposes. You’re capturing images of humanity for artistic and personal reasons. You don’t want your subject to realise you’re taking a photo because you don’t want to interfere with the subject. You want to capture it naturally. Also, from a purely practical point of view, it would be impossible to ask every single person on the Tube that you photoed for permission. But if you did, most of them would be OK about it. Even though it’s not practical to ask everyone for their permission, if I think someone wouldn’t want to see their photo on Instagram (for whatever reason), I don’t publish it. I was pleased with the photo above not only because both faces have interesting expressions, but because the picture is very clear. As with all photography, when taking shots on the Tube, you have to look for the light. You’ll see a lot of my Tube photos are actually taken during the day overground. That’s because light gives you more chance of clarity and it will usually make for a more nuanced image. In the photo below the sun was reflecting off the woman’s book into her face through the window. I mentioned our primeval fascination with people’s faces. And of course the part of the face that most interests us is the eyes. Poets, artists and photographers down the ages pay more attention to the eyes than to any other facial feature. We are said to see people’s souls in their eyes. Without the eyes, a picture of a person is only half a picture. Well, not strictly true, but suffice to say – we love eyes. Below is a photo with good eye action. But it’s also got something else. Did you spot it? Yes, the backdrop has the word “Eyes”. And, like salt on potatoes, having an interesting backdrop can help a photo a lot. The London Underground, like in many other cities, has some a rich variety of billboards with bold words and images, that can provide interesting, sometimes ironic, backdrops to your candid portraits. If you compare this photo with the first one, you’ll see a very different editing process. My first-stop app for editing is Snapseed. And many of my recent Tube candids use two Snapseed features that I think work great with portraits: the Ambiance option in Tune Image and Structure in Details. I’m not entirely sure what Ambiance does in technical terms, but it seems to give a photo a sandy or perhaps old-style printed look. And the Details feature really brings out every wrinkle on your subject’s forehead and every vein on their hands. The photo below also uses one of Snapseed’s excellent vintage filters (which unfortunately seem to have been bugged by the latest iOS). I used to be a Snapseed Drama addict but these two features have given me a bit more variety in my processing. While backdrops can add something, they can also be distracting. As can handrails, bags and other obstructions. But a photo can often be saved by removing these unwanted distractions with an app like Touch Retouch. While portraits are obviously all about people, an image also has to stand up on its own compositional terms. Which means that the lines of the backdrop and the body language of the subjects have to work together to give a balanced overall combination. Sometimes the expressions may be interesting, the colours may be vibrant but the lines just don’t work. I can’t be any more scientific than that, but we know when an image has that elusive balance. Candid is all about not being rumbled. So how do you not get caught? Here are a few tips: 1) have your camera out when you get on the train: pulling it out after seeing someone interesting will immediately arouse suspicions; 2) look at your subject through the screen: never catch your subject’s eye; 3) use the volume button to fire the shutter: it will allow you to take photos from different angles and it will not look you’re taking a photo; 4) take photos without looking through the view finder: although it will give you less accuracy, it will increase your anonymity; 5) don’t put your camera down when you’ve taken a shot: what you do after a shot will be as much a signal that you’re shooting as before it; 6) wear headphones: the iPhone can play music aswell as take photos, so it’s another way putting you in your own little world, from both your own and your subject’s perspective; 7) as an emergency cover-up measure, wave your phone around dramatically as if you’re playing some sort of video game. And perhaps the best tip for candid portraiture is to keep on taking shots. There are so many variables beyond your control (the eyes, the body language, the light, camera shake, unwanted frame incursions, the backdrop, etc.) that although you can try and wait to capture the “decisive moment”, you’re luck may not be in that day. The image below took around 50 shots until I got something I liked. So be bold and keep on shooting until your stop. All images copyright of the author. Richard Gray is @rugfoot on Instagram and Twitter. He also blogs at www.iphoggy.com.

11 Comments

  1. Good images, good tips, good article! Thanks for sharing, Richard!

  2. I hadn’t come across your work before Richard, but these shots are right up my street, awesome work. The article is brilliant, I had always avoided shots in the type of environment such as the tube but with your tips and advice I’m a lot more confident about giving it a go. Thank you.

    • Thanks Lee. Sounds like you’re already trying this sort of stuff. What’s your handle on IG?

      • I’m LeeThatch on IG

  3. Great work Richard! I really like the feel you’ve got with the Snapseed filters.
    Another cool tip is to use the volume button on the earbud cord. In that way you can hold the iPhone in a very nonchalant grip and simply be “adjusting your volume” for the shot. This works extra well if you’ve got a wallet style case with a flap covering the screen.
    cheers
    Michael

    • Thanks a million Mikey. Do I know you already on IG? Yes, I say that’ tip on Koci Hernandez’s videos. Unfortunately I also have some largish headphones and i couldn’t find a cable that worked with it. Good idea with the wallet case. I had been a bit concerned about the people sitting next to me seeing what I’m doing. There’s an app called Sneaky pix where the screen goes blank while you’re shooting – but it only produces lo-res shots.

  4. Well-written article. Great insight into street (tube) photography. I love the tips for being candid. :)

  5. Wonderful images and article. Ah yes the eyes, many of my street photos don’t feature the eyes because I’ve yet to become as bold as I need to be! Loved reading about your process and your hints about taking photos on the sly. I just discovered a new app that although not accurate allows for anonymity when shooting. It’s called sneakypix and you set it to take a certain number of images (from 2 to continuous) and it snaps every few seconds. The screen of your iPhone looks like you’re making a phone call. I haven’t got the aiming down yet, but I’m having fun!

  6. Excellent article! I’ve been trying to work on doing more of this kind of work, and have been challenging myself to become more brave to take random shots of people. I’ve tried the headphone shutter trick, but always come out with blurry pics…will keep on trying! I also use Snapseed, it’s such an awesome editing tool!