Strangers Near The Store


Mu-43 All-Pro
Jan 30, 2010
Real Name
Any holiday that includes my wife will involve a certain amount of shopping in the nearest towns and in the case of a recent trip to Ireland this necessitated visits to Bantry, Killarney and Dingle. I've discovered over the years that this particular type of shopping, as opposed to food shopping or the planned purchase of a particular item, is a bit of an art form when practised by my wife. She can happily spend the whole day browsing at all manner of things that she never knew existed and certainly doesn't need without, thankfully, buying very much (although if I gave her free rein on the credit card that would surely change quite spectacularly). She seems to derive an enormous amount of pleasure from it which I am loathe to deny her and therefore I tag along dutifully, trying not to look too bored.

This time I took a new toy along to keep me occupied, the Panasonic G1. The little street photography I have done has mainly been at specific events where it is to be expected that people will take photographs, so this was an opportunity to take some discreet photographs of ordinary people going about their everyday business.

It's not as easy as it might seem; photographing a stranger uninvited, especially at close quarters, can be a bit daunting. Of course, you can always ask first, at the risk of getting a posed shot rather than a natural observation, and I did try this - once - in Bantry. A pair of old gentlemen, full of character and very photogenic, loitered lazily on a street corner, watching the world go by. They gave me a cheery greeting as I approached and, emboldened by this I stopped to pass the time of day with them. So far, so good. Eventually I popped the question; would they mind if I took a photograph of them. The warmth of the morning sun suddenly chilled by about 20° and suddenly they were in a hurry to be somewhere else. One merely scowled as he shuffled off and the other said "I don't think that would be very likely," which is about as close as the polite folk of West Cork get to saying "**** off!"

I was quite puzzled at the strength of this reaction but my friend later summed it up. He reckoned that these two characters were so visually interesting that they must have been asked, or photographed without asking, hundreds of times. It must become a little wearing to be regarded as a tourist attraction - or worse, the patronising implication that they are odd and eccentrically looking enough to warrant a photograph typifying the "local yokel." I could hardly have been more insulting if I'd ask them to put on silly hats and pose as a couple of Leprechauns!

Lesson learned I resolved that next time such an opportunity presented itself I would invite my intended subjects for a serious Guinness session first to loosen their inhibitions, although how this would fit in with my wife's shopping expedition I don't quite know. In the meantime it was clear that I needed another approach. One possibility would be to blatantly point the camera and shoot before there was any time for objections but this seemed a rather poor way to repay the hospitality of the pleasant and gentle folk of South West Ireland. The better solution seemed to be discreet and surreptitious but obviously this presented its own risks as being rumbled was likely to cause even greater offence to the local population.

The problem is that a hefty DSLR clunking away as its mirror crashes around is anything but discreet. Enter Micro Four Thirds, in the guise of the Panasonic G1 in my case. I have to say that, for a mirrorless camera, the shutter makes rather more noise than I would wish, but it is still considerably quieter than a DSLR, not to mention smaller and less imposing. Also, with a little experimenting I found that when hung at waist level from a neck strap and twisted vertically the pronounced grip of this little camera makes an excellent rest for my left thumb, which can be used quite effectively to steady the camera and keep it vertically aligned whilst the shutter is fired with my index finger.

This was all well and good but the next challenge was to find the optimum focal length (of the 14-45mm lens) and effectively guess the range for the subject. Initial trial and error revealed that 14mm required the subject to be frighteningly close and I instinctively found myself using 45mm and wishing for a longer zoom. Framing was very hit or miss, with a high failure rate, and it is clear that this is going to take a lot of ongoing practice. Nervousness was also a problem and many a time I had a subject firmly within my mental sights only for me to freeze and fail to fire the shutter at the crucial moment (I refrain from using the term “decisive moment” because in terms of street photography I'm not even on the same planet as HCB).

Another problem was maintaining concentration and being aware of what was going on around me and what opportunities were developing. This wasn't helped by the interruptions and demands of the family (“Oooh look at this, John, don't you think it is rather nice?” or “Dad, can I have an ice cream?”). On the other hand my family also served as useful cover. I could speak to them at the moment of firing the shutter to help disguise the sound, or I could patiently loiter on the pavement outside a shop for twenty minutes with the legitimate excuse that I was waiting for my wife to decide whether she preferred the sandalwood or ancient pine scented candle. Of course, just as I had a shot lined up she would call me in to help with the decision before coming to the eventual realization that she needed neither!

Notwithstanding any of my lame excuses, this genre of photography is harder than I thought and clearly needs much practice, refinement of technique with some fresh ideas. Never mind, with my wife's penchant for shopping they'll always be plenty of opportunities and at least now I have something to stop the boredom from slowly sucking the will to live out of me on such expeditions. We're off to the nearest large town tomorrow and for once I'm actually looking forward to it. In the meantime here's a few candids from the streets of Bantry, Killarney and Dingle. And if anyone has a few tips for how to improve I'd love to hear them.

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All this set were taken blind with the camera at waist level and subsequently cropped or straightened as required, except for two that were taken conventionally using the EVF. See if you can spot which two. :smile:

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