Street Photography at Oxford Christmas Market: The five things I learned while developing mild hypothermia

You may know photographer Rick Sammon, “the godfather of photography.” One of the things he prides himself on is “specializing in not specializing”, in other words, he takes photographs of everything. This is a philosophy that I subscribe to. I started out taking pictures whenever I travelled, and then travelled to make photographs. As I gained more and more knowledge of photography, I never became enamoured of just one type of photography. I just loved photography for itself, and shooting things other than landscapes was just a different set of conditions and problems, and I think my personality has a definite practical, problem-solving vein running through it. Different types of photography just have a different problems to solve. Photography becomes a puzzle that needs to be studied and mastered.

Oxford Xmas Market (4 of 7)

So when I see candid street photographs, I don’t think “I’d much rather take a landscape”. I see it as a challenge, and a challenge I want to do. Especially as it means learning new skills, like getting over shyness, and capturing moments of candidness while holding a camera. If you don’t know what this is like, go to your local town and take a camera that isn’t a mobile phone, and try and take someone’s picture without them noticing you have a camera.

One of the easiest ways to get over shyness (which I suffer from) is to shoot crowded events. People become enveloped in doing their own thing while staying out of others’ way. At the Christmas market, some were shopping, some were window shopping, others were getting something (warm) to eat or drink. Others were just passing through. However, they all had something to do and therefore often wouldn’t notice me with my camera. It helped as well that it got dark quite quickly, and made it easier to blend in.

Prior to going, I had some decisions to make with regards to kit. This didn’t just mean cameras. I shot the market on Tuesday night and it was bitterly cold but dry. I think it was maybe a couple of degrees. So I wrapped up pretty warm with two layers underneath a coat, leather gloves as a compromise between grip and warmth, a scarf and ski hat, and trainers. Well I wasn’t warm enough, and I ended up after about two and a half hours needing a drink to warm up. I found that street photography didn’t really lend itself to keeping warm. One of my main techniques was find somewhere out of the way, pick an interesting background, and wait for the right set of conditions to occur. This often meant standing in one place for more than twenty minutes.

For camera and lens choice, I had the choice between the a58 and the a77, and I went with the a77. It’s a bigger, more noticeable camera, but it has dials at the front and back and I love shooting in manual mode with the a77, but in manual mode you need to be able to change settings quickly and the a77 allows you to do this faster than the a58. I had the 35mm (52mm equivalent) f/1.8 on the camera from the start and never took it off. In fact I should have kept my kit to that, as that is all I used. I did use the Canon AE-1 from my father for a couple of shots, but I have ISO 125 film in there at the moment and that didn’t really work with a 135mm lens on it, which I wanted to try. Once the light had gone, the AE-1 stayed in the bag, along with the 50mm f/1.8 which never appeared. You may also be able to tell from the pictures I’ve included here, that I shot entirely in black and white.

I arrived at the market at about 3pm I think and my expectations of finding a big, bustling market to hide in were immediately vanquished. The market was set out in quite an odd way with one main thoroughfare on Broad Street going from Waterstones to a where the parking started. Below is a photograph of the end of the market with the prominent “Cyclists dismount” sign which was generally adhered to well. Balliol college (which was open and receiving guests) is in the background.

Cyclists Discmount

All in all there was perhaps a minute walk from one end to to the other. Also when I arrived, it was pretty quiet with few people mulling about. The light quality was generally pretty good with some broken sunshine, but the sun was so low in the sky the market was mainly in shadow.

I didn’t create many successful photographs in this first period, from about 3pm to 4.30pm. The market was too quiet. I spent the time learning the layout and familiarizing myself with the sightlines. I was looking for places with good backgrounds, that were out of the way. On a couple of occasions I was bumped in to by doors swinging open from the little huts. The occupiers would apologise profusely but it wasn’t an issue. One of the few photographs I made in this period that I was happy with is below:

Cyclists Dismounted

After about an hour and a half, I was cold enough that I needed to warm back up. I could have had some churros and a hot chocolate from one of the stands, which I guess would have been the right thing to do seeing as I was getting the photographs, but I really, really wanted to be indoors so I went to the Costa in the Clarendon centre. I’m glad I did really as I got a couple of nice shots meandering back to the market. See below.

Oxford Xmas Market (1 of 7)

Oxford Xmas Market (2 of 7)

These were actually taken on a walk back from St. Michael’s street and through the main shopping street, Cornmarket street. It was dark by the time I got back from having a coffee and I felt more in my element. I was now hunting invisibly, unnoticed. I was just another face in the crowd, a typical tourist in Oxford.

I made my way back in time to see the Menorah being lit by a Rabbi, for which a small crowd had gathered. After taking a couple of pictures with the college as the background, I moved around to the other side to be able to see the Rabbi’s face as he lit the candles. Unfortunately, there was little to no light hitting him, so I actually had to use the pop up flash. Below is a more balanced shot of the foreground and the background. The only issue really with the picture was that the metallic surface of the lift platform was overly reflective which I’ve tried to dial back in post.

Menorah

After this, the market got a lot more crowded, as people finished at work and had a wander round or met up with friends. One of the keys of photography is isolation within a frame. Often this can be achieved through narrow depth of field and using wide apertures, and this is something I was using. However, working quite at 52mm and at hyperfocal distances often quite a lot would be in focus. I wanted to work on a couple of techniques which I want to talk through now.

Slow shutter speed, focus on one static subject

The photograph below was one of my favourite images of the evening. You can see how one figure is isolated even though there are perhaps ten readily identifiable people within the frame. She was slowly sipping a coffee, and stood perfectly still for just long enough. I took three frames of her drinking and this is the one that was most successful. To achieve this, I had to slow my shutter speed down to 1/5s. Staying wide open at f/1.8 gave me an ISO of 100 which I was happy to use. The rest is a bit of luck and a bit of experience. I thought I was quite lucky to get the “Oxford’s Christmas” identifiable on the left with the Christmas Tree lights relatively sharp, plus the “OLD” of the fairground ride sharp enough, and the repeating triangular rooftops leading into the background. There is some dead space at the top right of the frame, and I considered removing the top third of the frame to make a letterbox ratio, but as the space is black I feel it is truly negative space and is therefore not distracting.

Oxford Xmas Market (3 of 7)

Slow shutter speed, panning camera with dynamic subject

I was less successful with this technique, I think my shutter speed was a little too slow. There were a lot of cyclists walking by who made obvious panning targets. The concept is as follows: moving your camera at the same speed as your subject should blur everything else in the frame other than your moving target. It can be real trial and error technique, and I was mainly erring. Below is about my best example from the day.

Panning

I rounded off the evening with a few more shots of a brass band that came along collecting for charity and then called it a night. I went to the Turf Tavern for a club sandwich a pint of the local, and went home, completely frozen but having had a good afternoon shooting.

Oxford Xmas Market (5 of 7) Oxford Xmas Market (7 of 7)

Oxford Xmas Market (6 of 7)

In terms of post production, most of the work done on these pictures was cropping, dodging and burning, a bit of noise reduction, and cloning out some minor distractions, but otherwise it was relatively straightforward.

In the time honoured way, I have some tips:

1. Dress for the occasion. If you’re cold, you’re going to get miserable pretty quickly and stop shooting. Treat yourself if you are getting too cold though.

2. One of the things I found useful was to actually compose in the LCD. Everyone thinks you’re an idiot if you’re holding the camera out at about waist height, but actually, it can be a really effective way to photograph.

3. The other thing that worked would be to pretend to be shooting at a narrower focal length. I would often place someone on the rule of thirds, then pretend to be very interested in what was going behind them and to their side. Then I would just place them following the rule of thirds and they wouldn’t feel like they were being photographed.

4. Black and white works for street photography. It just does. Way too much colour and yellow lights going on to worry about.

5. Get familiar with a place before you shoot it. My images seemed to get better as I went along and as I became a part of the environment. At the start most of my images felt like failures, and I did get a bit disheartened. But I stuck with it, eager to try out some new techniques and perfect some old ones. If a technique isn’t getting you what you want, try something else for a bit.

If you’d like to see the whole set, you can see the album on Flickr here.

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