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Street photography: All about capturing surroundings that define you

Focus on the details. Keep an eye on the smallest of objects and movements

Mathures Paul | Published 15.10.21, 02:00 PM
Popularly called ‘Jeans Gully’, it’s near Presidency University

Popularly called ‘Jeans Gully’, it’s near Presidency University

Pictures: Mathures Paul

Ninety-nine per cent of my street photography has been about failure (and success), not because of the camera I use or how people react. Here failure stands for not finding the place I wanted to be at and instead turning up at unplanned addresses, coming away successfully with eye-pleasing moments. The idea is to wander, allowing the camera to lead and visiting a place with as few preconceptions as possible, which is always a challenge. 

I arm myself with an iPhone 13 Pro Max, an old Canon DSLR, battery pack, a DJI Osmo Tripod, a bottle of water and off I go to see the world, recalling the words of Dr. Seuss: “Your mountain is waiting.”

Inside Ramanath Kabiraj Lane, a neighbourhood that’s synonymous with shong-er gaan

Inside Ramanath Kabiraj Lane, a neighbourhood that’s synonymous with shong-er gaan

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In the last few years I have learnt the importance improvising because conditions are often less than optimal while the only thing that has remained constant is perseverance which ultimately gets the shots. Call the DSLR a habit of years but lately it’s the iPhone which has won me over because of the convenience factor, the ability to take it to places without alarming people, often the case in off-the-beaten-track locations with people wondering if the photographs are for creating mischief.

There are some who say that walking four hours each day over the weekend help get good shots. I disagree. I do often walk the streets of Calcutta for five hours but not always during weekends. And there is no rule of four-five hours because at times one may come away with stunning shots taken within two hours. It’s about how I see the world, a building, a person, a tree against a window… that’s all that matters. You can either agree with my view of the world or move to another Instagram account.

The para ‘rowack’ or ‘rock’ is where addas reside

The para ‘rowack’ or ‘rock’ is where addas reside

These are media-saturated times when everyone has the power to take a picture, make a picture and iron out a picture to win audiences, especially on Instagram. I believe what makes photographs standout is learning to be drawn towards the smallest of small things out on the street, on the doorsteps of houses. The object is in front of me and I need to get excited by it to take pictures, without changing it and maintaining that important ingredient — spontaneity.

The pandemic has been an era like no other, helping me to explore photographs beyond just people. The vast emptiness around us inspired me — empty streets, empty shops, empty tea stalls, all things empty and vast as the sky. Moving through public spaces, capturing beauty in the seemingly unexpected moments brings me joy.

A “forgotten” fountain near the High Court

A “forgotten” fountain near the High Court

A few weeks ago, an old acquaintance commented on Facebook that one my pictures evoked something in him “even though it was taken on an iPhone”. That got me thinking, how does the medium even matter. Does it evoke a response, good or bad? Does it stay with the viewer for the long haul? There are limitations to both a DSLR and the iPhone but don’t large format film cameras also have drawbacks?

The iPhone 13 Pro Max I use is a beast of a machine, especially when I use the ProRAW format. Size being a limi-tation, there are engineering challenges associated with the camera. iPhones can only get only so big without looking like a device from sci-fi books. What it packs is an on-board “supercomputer” which can process photographs at the blink of an eye and shoot videos without dropping a single frame. I have never missed a frame on the iPhone, just like on my Canon DSLR. The new phone has massive computational photography chops to create or enhance imagery with artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms.

The statue of Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh of Darbhanga is tucked away in the northeast corner of Dalhousie Square

The statue of Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh of Darbhanga is tucked away in the northeast corner of Dalhousie Square

An interesting object near one of the gates at High Court. The machine was first put into operation in Manchester and is probably the invention of one Mr Whitworth of the firm Messrs. Whitworth and Co.

An interesting object near one of the gates at High Court. The machine was first put into operation in Manchester and is probably the invention of one Mr Whitworth of the firm Messrs. Whitworth and Co.

The DSLR and mirrorless cameras will always have an audience. iPhones allow one to adjust exposure, ISO, and white balance but my DSLR has more control over these departments. So, it’s all about what I am shooting and how I am going to use it.

You may ask, what about other phone cameras? Of course, Android flagship phones take excellent snaps but somehow it loses on the computational photography front and videos are nowhere near the iPhone. Plus, there are too many problems with the Android operating system, holding back the phone’s hardware capabilities.

The typical facade of an old north Calcutta house

The typical facade of an old north Calcutta house

Returning to being on the street and capturing moments, lately I have been recording a lot of videos because it’s no longer only about still life. I like to give visitors to my Instagram account a feel of the places I visit and there have been occasions when I came away with enough footage to make a short film. Agreed, feature-length films are being made using the iPhone but my skills need more brushing up.

So I take photos and videos. What do I want to achieve with the thousands I have already taken? Nothing. Street photography for me is a hobby and a way to relax while enjoying my surroundings. It’s about giving the world a glimpse of a day, a month, a year, a decade of my life. There is nothing extraordinary about the life I lead — I have a family like millions out there, a pet cat who is just like yours, coffee, work, outings here and there… — but my surroundings make me feel extraordinary, the people around me feel like the nth removed cousin of Richard Linklater.

A visit to Damzen Lane

A visit to Damzen Lane

I want to take photos of people who are oblivious to my presence and not become someone who takes snapshots of people’s misfortune to tell a poorly-written story to the world. No matter what, a street photographer cannot forget that the person behind a door is a private individual. Respecting privacy and people’s feelings are important. I rarely talk to anybody while taking photographs and if somebody wants to engage me in conversation, it usually means trouble, which has been the case on a few occasions in New Market and near the Old Mint in Calcutta.

A final word of advice: Look at the photographs you are taking because if you don’t do a fair bit of curation you will end up with a massive collection of photos that don’t make any sense. Each day, when you return from an outing on the streets, go through the selection and delete what should be made to go poof.

Inside Jackson Lane

Inside Jackson Lane

Morning scene at the Maidan

Morning scene at the Maidan

What next? Preparing files that can translate into virtual reality. Oculus is here. Why not try it out, says my head. Once my wallet agrees, perhaps that will be the next addition to my skill set. Meanwhile, I will continue to point and shoot. People often don’t know what they want until you show it to them. And Instagram offers me the wall to do just that.

Last updated on 17.11.21, 04:10 PM
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