Manama Souq, Manama, Bahrain
Time / Date:
18:43 / August 27, 2012
Camera Body: Nikon D700
Lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S
Shutter Speed: 1/100
Focal Length: 85mm
This street portrait was made in a souq in the old city of Manama, Bahrain. I was in the city for a couple of days, and wanted to do some street photography, including portraiture. I frequently do this kind of photography in Asia, but was unfamiliar with where to shoot in Bahrain. After taking advice from a friend living in Bahrain and explaining what I wanted to shoot, he suggested this area of the city as being potentially interesting.
It was a typically furnace-hot August day in the Gulf, the sun beating down relentlessly. I delayed going out shooting until the last couple of hours before sunset to allow the sun to begin its descent in the hope of transforming the harsh, bleaching overhead sunlight into something a little more sympathetic to street portraiture.
The Manama Souq – basically a traditional Middle Eastern market – proved to be exactly what I had hoped to find. I wandered through the maze of narrow streets, getting the feel of the place, soaking up the atmosphere and stopping to chat to people as I walked. The souq is a wonderful melting pot of cultures and traditions, with many traders of Indian, Pakistani and Arabic descent. The market was alive with the hubbub of street commerce, and on almost every corner I found groups of men smoking and putting the world to rights over copious cups of tea.
This particular gentleman was sitting unaccompanied enjoying a smoke against a wall, and seemed to be in no particular hurry to go anywhere or do anything other than enjoy the early evening and his cigarette, and watch the world go by. I stopped to say hello; he spoke only a few words of English, but fortunately I had a friend with me who spoke some Arabic, and we were able to converse a little. He had presence and charisma, and a face which looked like it might have some stories to tell.
After several minutes of conversation I asked if he would allow me to make his portrait. He agreed, and I spent several more minutes photographing him.
By the time I made this portrait, the sun was about to set and had already disappeared behind the buildings of the city; there was no longer direct sunlight overhead. The quality of light was favourable: general even illumination from the sky, augmented by soft side fill light as the light from the sky was bounced and reflected multiple times from the walls of the surrounding enclosing buildings in the narrow alley on its way down to street level. Fine light for street portraiture, in other words. My only issue with the light was one of quantity rather than quality; there was not a lot of it in this alley, and light levels were starting to fall rapidly with the onset of twilight.
I was traveling light – I had one camera body with me – a Nikon D700 – and a couple of lenses: a Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 zoom, and a Nikon 85mm f/1.4G prime lens. Having never been in the area before, I wasn’t completely sure what I might find to shoot, so flexibility was important. However, I figured that this combination of lenses would allow me to shoot both wider street scenes and contextual portraits using the 17-35 mm zoom, and also more tightly framed headshots with the short telephoto prime lens. In my experience, less gear is often an advantage in street photography: agility is key, and while it is tempting to carry more lenses to cover every eventuality, loading yourself down with a ton of kit like a donkey (or in this part of the world, a camel) is not conducive to moving and reacting quickly, particularly in the energy-sapping Middle Eastern summer heat in the crush of a crowded souq.
Other typical two-lens combinations which I use for this style of photography include pairing the 17-35 mm f/2.8 with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 instead of the 85mm prime, or alternatively choosing the mid-range Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom instead of the 17-35mm f/2.8. Using two bodies with one lens mounted on each body is another option if you feel that you need to be able to shoot with a specific lens with minimal delay. The advantage of carrying two camera bodies is speed; the disadvantage, weight. Another thing to consider is that wandering down the street festooned with an overabundance of gear (a sin I still commit regularly) can both intimidate potential subjects and attract the attention of people whose acquaintance you would rather not make. The more low-profile, the better.
My ideal working rig for street photography is a Think Tank belt system, as it allows quick and easy access to everything and distributes the weight very comfortably around the hips. The disadvantage is that you can easily end up looking like a SWAT team member and draw too much attention to yourself. A shoulder bag (I normally use the ThinkTank Retrospective 30) is much more discreet, but not nearly as comfortable over a long day. Which I use on any given day – belt system, shoulder bag or photo backpack—depends on where and what I am shooting.
On this shoot, I also carried a Lastolite Trigrip diffuser/reflector, a Nikon SB-700 speedlight, a Nikon circular polariser and a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. None of these were used for this particular portrait.
Making the Shot:
The quality of light was good for a portrait: soft, even illumination without any harsh or deep shadows. Consequently, I had no problems metering the correct exposure nor capturing the entire dynamic range of the scene.
The wider scene was not particularly photographically interesting nor added anything to the story, and so I elected to shoot with the 85mm prime lens for a tighter headshot rather than using the 17-35mm f/2.8 zoom for a contextual portrait and a wider view.
I wanted to shoot with the lens aperture more or less wide open – all the images in the sequence were shot at either f/1.4 or f/2—both because it threw the background out of focus, helping to blur any potentially distracting texture behind my subject, but also because it gave me a more useable shutter speed in the rapidly falling light. My major concern shooting with the lens wide open with a focal length of 85mm was the critically limited depth of field. My subject was quite animated, moving his head as we talked, and I found myself continually re-focusing the lens on whichever eye was closest in order to ensure sharp focus. I considered asking him to remain still, but didn’t want to inhibit his natural body language in front of the lens, so just tried to roll with it and keep my focus cursor over the nearest eye.
I shot in Aperture Priority exposure mode, choosing ISO 400 to give me adequate shutter speed for a sharp photograph with the 85mm focal-length lens. The finals on this shot were 1/100 sec at f/2 and ISO 400.
Editing & Processing:
I made a sequence of frames from different angles, watching and waiting for a moment or an expression that I liked. There were a few frames where I felt that the gesture and the expression worked, but I didn’t nail the focus, and vice versa. This frame was my favourite from the sequence.
The majority of the processing for this image was carried out in Adobe Lightroom 4.
I applied some input sharpening, cropped the image to a square format, set the white and black points to increase the contrast slightly, and then used the Adjustment Brush to apply some mid-tone contrast (or in Lightroom-speak, “Clarity”) to certain areas of the image, as well as some dodging and burning to lead the eye, before adding a vignette. I processed the image for a low-key mood as it matched my impression of the scene and time of day in this small back street in which the light was fading. I then exported the image into Photoshop for some final polishing.
This was my first experience of street photography in the Middle East. The people I met in the souq were friendly and welcoming, and I hope to have the opportunity to shoot there again on a future visit to Bahrain.
I was happy with how this shot turned out, but if I had the opportunity to photograph this gentleman again with the same lenses I had with me that day, I would also have made a few frames with the wide-angle zoom, pushed in tight. Just to mix it up and try something else. I have a feeling that using a short focal length for this particular portrait would have given me a perspective on his features which I would have liked.
There are numerous things to think about when trying to make a street portrait.
The single most important piece of advice I would offer is to try to slow down and build some kind of rapport with your subject. It’s not always easy to achieve given the fact that you may not even speak the same language and come from different cultures. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can communicate quite effectively without verbal language—the majority of human communication is non-verbal, and the fundamentals of human communication are independent of culture. The more time you spend building up some kind of relationship—however transitory—with your subject or subjects before asking to take a photograph, the more likely it is that your photographs will capture the essence and character of the person you are photographing. It builds trust and empathy between you, and that will often be manifest in the images you create. Time invested in building rapport is never wasted.
Clearly, not everyone who consents to being photographed will have unlimited time to spend with you. it is therefore important to find a balance between not rushing unduly while simultaneously being respectful of the fact that the person you are photographing is giving you their time. In other words, take the time to briefly consider the light and how best to use it or modify it, check the background for distracting elements or competing colours, give some thought to composition, and if appropriate ask your subject to move a few yards to a more suitable location where the light or background better serve your creative vision. Once you have the light, the background and the viewpoint/composition nailed, concentrate fully on your subject and wait for a gesture or expression which moves you to trigger the shutter.
It only takes a few moments, and can make the difference between an average photograph and a strong one. The person you are photographing has made the decision to allow you to photograph them, which is, in essence, a gift to you; by taking the time to photograph them to the best of your ability while being respectful of their time, you are showing them that you value and appreciate that gift.
I love the work of Jay Maisel – his use of colour, composition, light and gesture is phenomenal – I look at his ‘recent work’ portfolio over and over again.
Another photographer whom I greatly admire is Mitchell Kanashkevich—his travel photography is simply outstanding. Take a look at his portraiture and see the way he uses light to ‘sculpt’ the subjects in his images.
About the Photographer
Ian Mylam is a photographer, professional pilot and traveller. Originally from London, England, Ian lives on the Island of Funen in Denmark with his wife and two children, from where he travels extensively, rarely without a camera in hand.
Ian’s photography encompasses an eclectic mix of subject matter from all parts of the globe, encompassing travel, landscape and street photography .
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