Walkabout in Paris

My earlier post was about photo “walkabouts” — an approach to photo shoots where you allow inner instinct to take over. Here’s a walkabout in action.

In Paris this last summer, I played around with the walkabout process I’ve been trying for the last year. And at that point, my latest trick was to book a hotel or AirBNB in a few (photographically) fun neighborhoods– specifically Montmartre. That way I can do an evening and an early morning walkabout in the Montmartre area without worrying about logistics. More important, staying in an area is the only way to get that neighborhood vibe.

An evening walkabout gives you a lot to work with. First off, the evening light elements are scrumptious, especially in Paris. The business/display lighting that’s used in Paris tends to reflect the more traditional side of the city’s style sensibility. And Montmartre street/restaurant lights are totally 1890s Belle Epoque…. To give us tourists the Paris buzz we crave. The Montmartre lighting is a visual can-can, so why not use it.

Downside of an evening walkabout in Paris? Easy. People. Hoards. Masses. And the only Parisienne to be seen is the one waiting your table. They (we) tourists are all out on the street on this hot July evening. The celebrating tourists make for a fun scene but a lousy picture (until you learn how to trick around it). And trick one is to step as far from the crowds as possible and go wide angle:


The waiter takes a break, Montmartre

Set the Correct Angle and Let Go

Once you’re on location, the first step for your walkabout is to make sure your camera settings are in the ballpark. Shutter speed should at least be 60, people are walking everywhere.

If you’re doing big landscapes, set aperture for as much DOF as you can get. That means pushing ISO up there. But don’t push the ISO to the point you get excessive noise. It’s a different spot depending on your particular CCD. So figure that in.

If you’re doing people shots instead of street /landscape shots, narrow DOF so the image will just have your intended subject(s) in focus. Another obvious trick for dealing with the crowds. And, of course, no flash.


In fact, I had a fun moment at the end of the walkabout when I noticed an enthusiast shooting a charming little shop/apartment. I could see what she liked about it, the warm cream-colored stone and the glow in the upstairs windows. She had already taken four or five flash shots of this painfully quaint Montmartre apartment house.  And she was telling her husband something wasn’t working.

No Flash

My shot

I suggested she try it without the flash — just pump ISO a bit. She gave that a thought. Then I shared my quick snap of the scene. And the penny dropped in place.  Yes, another convert to the gospel of flash as Evil Incarnate. And if you let the light speak for itself, each light source plays against the other.


Anyway, once I know my settings are in place, I just wander. Walk around. Enjoy the energy of the place. Chat with people. And considering how many of them are Americans, it’s easy. And you get plenty of Aussies and Brits. (Not as many Europeans, natch.) So, breath in the energy of this primal European sport.

And watch how the business entity that is Montmartre interacts with the flowing river of tourists. No section of town except the Latin Quarter gets this many tourist bodies. And all the restaurants and bars and shops are enormously skilled at pulling in the fish.

Whatever this particular walkabout is about, that emerges as you use your camera to play. So enjoy the flow. I eventually zoned in on two elements, the deeper compositional issues and what the residents were doing.

For the shot above, I knew that the warm colors of the Gascogne cafe were a great foreground element. And I shifted position to get the red canopies to act as leading lines taking the eye back towards my far-ground element, the dome of Sacre Coeur.

The other issue I played with for the Gascogne shot was this waiter. He was chatting up the young hostess at the cafe across the road. And he had just the attitude I wanted.


The owner and waiter kick back

For this shot (above) the focus is just on folks from Montmartre. The tourists are starting to disappear. But it’s too early to head home.

It’s not a complicated composition but the mood, the human element, is key. And that means zooming in enough (or cropping) to see what each person is feeling and their personal dynamics. And isn’t that part of why we love Paris?

The lighting allowed me to isolate the cook and waiter from a background that was particularly cluttered. In fact that is a key in many urban shots, to eliminate busyness from the shot. And if you use the night lights to focus attention, you’re halfway home.



Another people shot, obviously personal. I took this one from outside the restaurant looking in. Again, just playing off available lighting — and once I got the composition that worked, focusing on capturing the person’s inner experience.


Listening to the waiter

Here the guy is talking to a waitress who is a couple of yards away. I instantly loved this guy. He has the look of a Henry Miller for today. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if this lad is a Bodhisattva reincarnation of old henry.

I’m half way across the street. Shooting the two together would have shown lots of clutter and street activity. You can’t fix that. It’s just an ugly pic. Doing a close crop like this one was the way to go.

The menu beside him does steal a bit of focus (I darkened the menu a bit in post), but it also gives us the Parisienne context. And in my crop, I gave the guy lots of space to the left. That way, we signal to the viewer that he is focused on someone out of frame. But coming in close was the trick here, just the essentials. So many people believe their photos need to explain it all. No.


Montmartre Stairway

The one eternal secret of photography is, follow the light. The street lights are my leading line that points the eye to the warm glow at the bottom of the hill. And in the distance, the dark blue sky is pure gold. Often I will crop sky a bit if it’s not too interesting. Here it was lovely… Paris night, writ large.

Montmartre, Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur Cathedral

There are tons of folks hanging around Sacre Coeur at night, all over the steps, partying at that next level of steps, looking out at the City of Light. A multicultural touch point. And that’s an equally valid way to go. But I was in more of a Classic neo-belle-epoque-eternal look. And for that, I did a traditional look and allowed the floods and deep blue Evening Sky capture a mood. The people are still there. I didn’t eliminate them (OK, a few to the side). They’re living life. But I kept them as shot, shadowed into a mute still life.


View of Paris from Montmartre Hill. This shot from the front of Sacre Coeur church required me to adjust exposure so the lights in the foreground didn’t get blown out and the rest of Paris wasn’t too dark.

Light is the conductor at night. But it takes a while to see that. This shot isn’t an obvious composition…. It looks obvious here. But the actual scene was less than obvious.

The camera collapses dynamic range, far more so than eyes. So to my eyes, the light in front wasn’t about to go blown out. To my eye, the dark sections in the pic weren’t that dark at all. But I noodled it and took a few test shots.

Finally I had Exposure Compensation dialed back a full notch. And you see how the shot has to be. Dark enough that the Camera’s crappy dynamic range turns an OK shot into a landscape tinkered with by Klimpt.

The compositional issue was that I wanted to get that foreground element aligned with the glow of Notre Dame in the distance. Notre Dame is a bit far to balance the foreground properly. But the eye compensates. Everything else in the shot is Paris wrapping up into blue.

My Montmartre walkabout allowed my lots of exploration. I got to spend more time exploring the dynamic range you have at night. Plus, I’m getting better at letting Night and Color tell the story. Negative Space and Brightness, Unmanifest and Manifest.

I got a sense of how this village within Paris lives. And I found lots of stories being told.


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