Paris, France : Rue Crémieux

It’s always a pleasure wandering around the Paris neighborhoods, camera in hand. A morning wakeup shoot (and croissant), a walkabout of the Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens, that mythic cemetery … evening photos (with dessert) in a dozen places.
Paris fans start to look for locations that have that uniquely Parisian feel to them. And I hadn’t heard of this one. Have to add it to the Paris list …. thanks Pierrre

Pierre P. Photography

Paris, France - Rue Crémieux Paris, France – Rue Crémieux

For those who take the time to wander in every nook and cranny of the city they visit, Paris is a place full of hidden wonders that will never cease to surprise them.

Take Rue Crémieux for instance. This tiny street is well hidden near one of the most important train station of the capital city of France, Gare de Lyon. The district is rather modern, full of austere Haussmannian buildings. And yet, in the middle of it, you find one of the most colourful streets of Paris. A tiny bit of heaven where the quietness contrasts with the usual hustle and bustle of the city.

Though one might believe that the street is an old keepsake of the past, Rue Crémieux actually is pretty young. Indeed, it was only built in the late 19th century. It was named after a French lawyer and politician…

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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:

Montmartre

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Montmartre

Solo

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.

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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

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.

Montmartre

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.

 

Paris Candid Shots: Thinking About Backgrounds

One of the great disappointments after your trip — you look at your photos and none of the magic you felt is in the images. Painful. That’s why photo books and classes were invented, to show people how to add that magic. I’ve been doing my own personal exploration of that mystery, what makes one image great and another just so-so, here with a focus on candid shots.

In some ways, doing good shots of the local folks just being themselves is one of the best places to find the magic. A simple image of a Parisian walking down the boulevard can give us a huge body of info about them and their culture, often on an almost subliminal level. How they dress, what they’re doing, their essential mojo — it’s all there.

But like anything else, there are levels to the game. First, just capturing a person being real (however you define that) is incredibly hard. Dealing with the technical stuff, hard. Seeing the potential of the situation as it unfolds — that one’s real tough.

Now, let’s think together about the context of the person at that shot location — where they are situated in the complex weave of culture and the everyday. The cultural weave is hugely important. Just look at how John Ford’s westerns reveal culture vs. the world view in a film like The Matrix. Notice the background of a great travel shot, or even a Vogue fashion spread. All that stuff is chosen to add detailing and resonance and layers of insight.

Most photo snappers probably don’t worry much about the background of a scene. They see something cool, push the button and if it’s kinda in focus, move on. Later they come to find there’s all kinds of stuff in the frame that steals focus away from the supposed subject. Of course, a good photographer understands that issue. And if they see a subject who happens to be in a crowded or chaotic environment, they will push their f-stop down to 2.8 or so and all the mess dissolves into a creamy bokeh.

Depth of Field control can lead to a great candid shot. Because having a narrow focal plane allows the photographer to show that moment of recognition in the eyes.

Boy on Merry-Go-Rund

Boy on Merry-Go-Round – Very little context here. I zoomed in close to get his communication with Mama. But even so, we know exactly where he is.

The background context with it’s cultural, social and emotional threads helps us to enter the image on lots of new levels. For example:

Models Waiting to Audition

Models Waiting to Audition – I happened upon this scene wandering around the Marais area in Paris.

Chatting at the Sunday Bird market

Chatting at the Sunday Bird market

Going More Abstract

The shots above provide detail about the world that person lives in. If you’re shooting at the bird market, show some birds, show the guys who keep birds as a hobby. However, we can also choose to focus on elements of the location “set” that are more abstract or culturally complex.

The clock view, D'Orsay Museum

The Clock View, Upstairs at D’Orsay Museum

With this clock view, I barely care about my supposed subject, the young lady posing. I’m purposely going very wide angle and shooting at waist level. Both choices help the viewer see the context more abstractly. And fully half the frame is taken up with the clock — as if we’re almost inside time. Whoa.

Palais Royal Sculpture

Palais Royal Sculpture

Another people shot. Here the couple is chatting on one of my favorite sculpture pieces in Paris. These black and white columns of various heights take up an entire courtyard and there’s always someone living life in this domino-like landscape.

These young hipsters were chilling by the fountain just across from the Pompidou Museum. But the background, those strange, archetypal fountain sculptures, acts as a counterpoint. I’m aware that the relationship between subjects and background isn’t as clean as I’d want. A better choice would have been to shoot lower and with more zoom. But I could only get the one shot off before the two lads noticed the camera. That’s the point here, to capture the subject in a real way while offering the larger cultural landscape.

The Dance

The Dance

Dancers in the Garden

Dancers in the Garden – Adding more of the formal garden context.

Mood

Attending to the environment also allows you to deepen the mood — especially with a few Lightroom adjustments.

After the Tourists Have Gone, Montmartre

After the Tourists Have Gone, Montmartre – Darkening a few areas of the photo allowed me to pump up the feeling inherent in the moment.

Montmartre Scene

Montmartre Scene

Candid Travel Shots: Capturing the Elusive Parisians

On our trip to Euro world last June, I went heavy into landscape mode in Greece and Italy for obvious reasons. But by the time I made it to Paris, I was feeling pulled to do more candid people photos and less postcard perfection.

Capturing people being people — without pose or artifice, is a huge challenge.  You don’t know what they’ll do, so you start off by noticing who they are and the activity they are engaged in.

Who They Are, What They’re Doing

Montmartre Night

Montmartre Cafe, Night

The Shiseido counter, Galerie Lafayette

The Shiseido counter, Galerie Lafayette – The counter manager waiting on her customer and just being perfectly French.

Palais Royal Gardens

Ball Players, Palais Royal Gardens – Timing is everything. I left some space on the left side to indicate the direction of focus.

Sunday, Luxembourg Gardens

Sunday, Luxembourg Gardens

When I see a person that interests me — immersed in their Moment, well, I’m thinking about shot set up. Because when you get an image of someone that’s totally There … and the background carries the story forward, you have an unbeatable combo.

It also helps if you can see them engaged in activity for more than a few seconds. A couple having a long moment, a rower sculling by, if you have time to see the moment and get a shot off, sometimes that’s the best you can expect.

Walk the Line

Walk the Line – As the skater made lazy turns around the cones, I had time for setting up the composition. To ensure you’ve got the best moment, take more shots than you need.

I get truly stoked when I notice how immersed in a feeling my subject is. But as the situation develops, you need to be ready for the person to serve up something good. The entire process — see it, get it, can be quite fast if you’re ready. If the talent is too self-aware, you lose the shot. Add the fact that you’re in a foreign country adds its own je ne sais quoi.

So seek out folks doing an ongoing activity. Because while a moment unfolds, you can only do two things: 1. Take stock of your environment fast. 2. Compose. 3. Take many pics to improve you chances.

The Old Birdman -

The Old Birdman – I spent about 10 shots on Birdman, getting the abstract feel I wanted. So when the pigeon’s spooked, I was there for the explosion.

Yeah, it kinda comes down to that. Take pictures. Many. Because if you’ve got all the basics covered (and you probably won’t), you still have to get the person with their eyes open doing something totally cool.

Capturing the Moment 

Subway Trains - f4, 1/8 sec

Subway Trains – f4, 1/8 sec

I got the subway shot just as the second train went by and the windows lined up.

The Environment 

When you have a bit more time, you can really work the entire scene, the environment the person is in. That’s what takes a travel shot to the next level.

Street performer, Sacre Coeur

Street performer, Sacre Coeur

Montmartre coffee shop, 105 mm, 1/100, ISO 6400

Montmartre coffee shop, 105 mm, 1/100, ISO 6400

One of the big mistakes that’s made shooting candid is not focusing on the core dynamic. By that I mean the intimate aspect of that person, what they’re thinking and feeling. Less experienced photographers feel they have to show everything, explain.

Showing too much adds distraction. As with any creative activity, you need to weight what’s important — by zooming in or cropping. For example, the image above was cropped, I was half way across the street zoomed out to 105 mm and got this:

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Clearly this shot sucks on almost every level. It’s got all kinds of clutter, the waitress’ face is hidden — all of which I knew when I took the image. The only think I cared about was the deliberate focus of the guy. And I cropped aggressively so his internal focus, his eyes, were central in the composition (using Rule of Thirds). I could have cropped even tighter but I wanted to pull in some of the menu board and the coffee cup for context.

Models on a photo shoot, Montmartre

Models on a photo shoot, Montmartre

I cropped this one as well — but not so tight. The girl’s tennies were essential.

Seeing a moment. Being prepared to capture it. Using the environment to tell the story in a nuanced way. There’s a lot to a good people shot.

Part Deux: Heighten the Composition by Going Abstract

Air BnB: I love Paris when it sizzles…

The Fan In Question

The Fan In Question

I’ve been staying at AirBnB places for almost a month on this trip. In Venice and Rome with Marina, in Florence and Paris on my own (in places less pricey). The one factor that all shared though was that the heat in each city was terrible for that time of year.

Venice was in early June and the heat and humidity were like a damp blanket until 9 or 10 pm. The Venice place was a true B & B called Ca Querini. The folks there were surprised by the heat coming so early but they gave us the use of a door AC unit that made sleeping bearable.

Rome was also well into the 90s (or the 30s in Centigrade) on every day. We had the use of Maurizio’s 2 bedroom apartment close to the Campo dei Fiori, right in the middle of things. The place had an assortment of ceiling and table fans and there were two margin AC units. It wasn’t as cool as a hotel or homes in the US but it was adequate.

In Florence I had a room on the far side of the Arno, staying with Sandrine and her daughter. They were the perfect AirBNB hosts, helpful, showing me where to go, pulling info from the Italian web sites. They had AC but avoided using it. So I used a fan. And for the days when the heat got up to 100, I turned on the AC when in the room.

By now I was used to the fact that Europe was in the middle of a heat wave and that AirBnB places weren’t always prepared. My final destination apartment made no mention of having AC. That’s a bad sign. So I emailed my host (let’s call her Laura) just to confirm that she had a good fan I could use. She didn’t answer that question at all. Another bad sign.

I get there and Laura’s friend lets me in. No fan. It’s 8 pm and the street temperature is still 90 degrees. The tiny apartment is cooler, only 85. But it has only one window and the air doesn’t move. The friend doesn’t speak English at all, so there was no help regarding where the closest supermarket, Metro or bakery is.

I emailed Laura. Laura doesn’t use a fan and doesn’t think she should have one for her guests. Here’s her exact note:

As you can see it’s too small [in the apartment] to have a fan, and it’s the first time the weather is so hot, that’s why i did not buy a fan i also i don’t have fan for you…
Sorry.
And i don’t need fan for Paris so i will not buy a fan…
I am sorry we never have these kind of temperatures in Paris.

Wow. Where do you start with someone like this? Strangely enough I was nice. I didn’t mention that in fact Paris does get 90-100 degree temperatures. It’s happening now and it happens most summers.

I did mention that the latest fans are now small enough to fit even in small apartments. I mentioned that some of us have trouble sleeping when it’s 85 or 90. And I said that some of the folks who are paying her hundreds of Euros per week probably find 100 degree heat uncomfortable. And I was so nice.

Didn’t work. I finally suggested that I would pay half the cost to buy the fan myself. It would only cost her 20 Euros or so. And Laura said fine, buy the fan if you want. She offered no suggestion as to a good place to buy it. But she did provide a generous dollop of attitude.

I ended up finding a department store that had a good fan, a ventilateur de table (pardon my French). I lugged it back to the apartment and put it together. And now I’m sitting here feeling pretty cool. Will Laura actually pay me? Maybe. Here’s our last communication:

Yes [the fan] it’s enough expensive and i would tell you that this summer i don’t have guest so it’s only my problem…
I can’t pay everything for everyone. But anyway it doesn’t mind…
Tell me the best way to give you 22€

Underneath the attitude is a valid point — guests ask for a lot of stuff and if you please everyone, your business will suffer. But any business decides what will grow the business and what’s an edge case that only pleases one person.

I also get that many in southern Europe are more comfortable with heat in their apartments. So their personal attitudes may be quite different from my own. But I don’t think this is a question of attitudes. When someone is a host, they become a business. They are trying to please a wide range of people with needs different from their own. And they are making 80 – xxx Euros a day. So to me, having a good fan or two is a smart investment.

This is the first time I’ve had an AirBnB host that isn’t truly service oriented. And it’s a bit surprising. Ultimately you are at the mercy of the host. You’re in a strange city. You don’t expect to be babied along, given any special attention. In fact I don’t mind paying 22 € for  a fan that I won’t have after 5 days.

But I’m surprised that folks don’t realize that their attitude towards others is their brand. That’s how people on AirBNB are seeing you. I generally try a leave a place feeling that my host and I have a new-found respect. Usually that’s how things play out.

One final note. When we got to Rome, we discovered that the Wifi didn’t work. Maurizio paid for a new router and we didn’t have more than a couple of hours of down time. I know it was a hassle for him but there wasn’t a hint of attitude. He got happy customers, he got Wifi that’s faster and it cost him less than a day of our AirBnB fee.

“Good name in man or woman is the immediate jewel of the soul…”
Shakespeare  (extra credit if you name the character and play)

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