Tuesday, April 15, 2014


It's been two months since I've last updated. A shameful gap in something that I try to keep regularly updated! I'm not sure how I would define "regular," but I'm sure it *isn't* every sixty days. Unless it's a change in the weather patterns or something...

Anyway, a few things of note have happened. Several of them have entries devoted to them which I've started, and there's a good chance I'll finish at least one, so they are entries that you may have a shot at being able to read at some point.

This last weekend was the brass band contest that comes every spring, so I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate. I have an album of photographs I took, which is ostensibly what this entry is about -- the photos, I mean, not the contest. The link to the album is https://plus.google.com/photos/+AndrewSchwartzDMA/albums/6002020948393510417?sort=1

I had the opportunity to purchase an inexpensive camera a few months ago. It was cheaper than the zoom fixed-lens camera I bought a few years ago, and was a package deal that came with two lenses, for a bit less than $300. It has brought the flame of my photography passion (which was rekindled by having decent cameras on my last three cell phones) to a full heat. I've enjoyed taking pictures of the world around me: you may remember a previous entry that featured several photos I took in the park across the street.

But one thing I haven't really done at all is take pictures of people. I live alone, so there isn't anyone regularly available to pose (even unwittingly) for photos. I have taken a few self-portraits, but I find those to be a bit unwieldy. My camera doesn't feature a screen that can flip around for easy access, and there isn't an app to control it from my phone like modern cameras.

But I brought the camera with me on the brass band bus ride, just in case. And it turned out that I took pictures of people almost exclusively.

I may live alone, but there are people around. Every day, I could go where there are people. And while the laws relating to photography are very clear, I am still a shy shooter. We can have our photo captured without our consent if we are in a public area and don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If someone is walking down the sidewalk, I can stand right in front of them and take their picture without their approval.

But that's a fairly confrontational move, especially in a more parochial setting -- if I were shooting in the busy streets of New York, I have a feeling fewer people would care. The last thing I want is a confrontation over me shooting photos. So nearly every photo I'd taken prior to this weekend was of a building, a piece of greenery, or an animal. 

I started off by taking a picture of one of the member's children who was along for the ride. He's one, and not much for complaining about having his photo taken. At any rate, he complains about it far less than being fed strained carrots. He's the face in the first photo of this entry. His parents were seated two and three rows ahead of me, so I got many shots with him looking back while being held on a lap or while watching the cars pass out the window.

Shooting on the bus is fairly limited. I shot from my seat and didn't wander around, so the photos are of the people who surround me in the rows in front and behind, and across the aisle. It's limited in other technical ways, too: the bus constantly bumps around as it rambles down the highway, so the shutter speed needs to be fast to prevent all the motion from blurring. And it has a lot of windows, which is great for natural light -- when there is any. A significant portion of our journey was in darkness or a torrential rainstorm. Either of these conditions make the camera want to hold the shutter open longer to try to capture as much light as it can: again, blurry motion.

And while nearly every person on the bus is a friend that I've been on tour with before, I still don't want to stick a camera in their nose repeatedly and keep taking pictures. As I intimated earlier, just because I technically have a right to do so doesn't mean I care to insist upon exercising that right.

After taking a few pictures while the bus was trundling along, I expanded my shooting on the first day of the contest. On Friday, many of Fountain City's members performed for the solo and ensemble competition. Since the soloist stands up in front of a bunch of people while looking nice, I decided that was a good time to at least snap a couple of pictures of each one.

Some modern cameras have an electronic shutter, which allows pictures to be taken without the traditional "I'm taking your picture" click-clack: mine does not. While that sound is subtle, the soloists have every right to have a performance free of distraction, and the audience has every right to enjoy the performance of just the music. So I made the choice to stay seated (not wandering the room) and to restrict photos to the period just before or just after the actual music performance.

What really surprised me was just how different the pictures were from each other. I assumed they'd be largely the same, since I was sitting in one place and using the same lens. But part of the "charm" of the NABBA solo competition is that different classifications of soloists are happening simultaneously. Every year there is a fair amount of thought and scheduling on the part of our people, trying to see as many of our members as we can while dashing from the High Brass: Technical room to the Low Brass: Melody to the only room large enough to support the fleet of percussion equipment. This year, they weren't all even in the same building, so budgeting some time to get to the studio in the next block became important.

As a result of this variety, the pictures look quite different. The high brass solos took place in two separate yellow rooms: one with large two-story windows with dark wood accents to let in some filtered light, and the other filled with mirrors and giving anyone within a slightly jaundiced pallor. The low brass solos were in the "Gerald Ford Ball Room," a cross between an Empire-era receiving parlor and the height of pastel-80's colors with white icing trim. The percussion solos were in a modern conference room with neutral-gray fabric covered walls and portable sound shields.

But even setting the variety of venues aside, the photographs themselves look largely different. For most of the album, I was using only a single lens: a 45mm portrait lens. This lens (which is equivalent to 90mm focal length in the more traditional full-frame numbers) is one that is primarily used for distance portraits of somewhere in the 5-10 foot range. If I tried to use it on someone across the table from me, their face would be uncomfortably large and probably wouldn't fit all in the frame.

This lens is a fixed lens, meaning the only way to zoom out from or into a subject is to physically get up and move. Since I wasn't doing that, I had to make do with only minor alterations of "as far as I could move in my seat without drawing attention to myself."

In spite of all of these restrictions, I'm happy with the choices I made to make them different from each other. Especially since it was really only a bit of beginners luck - I didn't really think through any of the above reasons before I grabbed the lens. It just happens to sit nicely between my largest and smallest focus ranges.

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The one thing that frustrated me, though, was that I still had to give up on some of the shots I wanted to capture. In addition to the toddler from the first picture, there was a second toddler on the bus and at many of the events. Capturing him turned out to be difficult, because he was more often in motion. Since I was working in lower light conditions, that led to photos that would have been good had they not been spoiled by an unsightly amount of motion blur.

And beyond even the technical concerns, I gave up on some photos because it isn't my place to take them. Sitting in the rows before and behind me were couples -- long-distance couples who had a few days of being in each other's company as they rehearsed and toured. They spent a lot of the travel time with heads close together. Talking low, smiling, teasing, laughing. Basking in each other's attentions. 

I would have liked to capture some part of that that would suggest the emotions involved, but these people, too, deserve their privacy. Sticking a camera in their face and telling them to continue behaving naturally is quite a bit higher on the "creepy" scale than I care to be. So I had to settle for a semi-surreptitious photo of one of the couples holding hands.

I still think it works. Maybe not as well as the smiling faces or heads tucked into shoulders would have done, but with a lot less lens-in-face. The resulting shot is more anonymous in nature, while still capturing some of the "secret" nature of their feelings (and my own, as the observer) by having the point of view being clearly nearby, but hidden.

And that's what I love about all of the pictures I selected: the ability for each one to sketch out the character. Virtually the entire collection is of faces or bodies, but without being posed or artificial. Even the one photo that looks most like a staged portrait -- with the soloist "posed" by the piano, hands folded and appearing to look into the camera lens -- is just a moment right before he started playing for fifty people.

I guess that's the advantage to being "embedded" within the group and not having been tasked or required to take pictures. I could take the ones I liked, leave out the rest. I didn't need to get one shot from each person to fill an album. So the end result will be a collection of memories of people and places, if not necessarily events or moments.

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