A reportage – the making of

1) Introduction – Lady of the Ferry

Mid-August and Paris is half empty as most Parisians have headed to the beach. So this is the perfect timing for a new summer series, similar to last year’s “Countryside series”.

This year I enrolled in a week long photography course in the city of Arles led by Eric Bouvet, a photo reporter that won several prestigious awards during his long career, mostly as a war photographer. Together with 11 other students, Eric taught us how to approach and build a reportage from daily shoots to the final editing. So here we went in great fun to the nearby beaches, campings, harbours or islands in search of shots to build a serie on the theme of the “Littoral zone” in French Camargue. We were limited to 50 shots a day (though I admit I did go over the quota in quite a few instances) that were all printed and commented by Eric at the end of each day. The last day was dedicated to the final editing of each students’ series and resulted in a joint display at the Rencontres d’Arles photography Festival. Over the next two weeks, I will therefore post some of my keepers and favourite shots as well as some hindsights on what I learnt. I will then end by a slideshow of the 12 pictures that made the “final cut”.

So here we start by The Lady of the Ferry. This elegant woman had gone for a day at the beach on the Frioul Islands and remained admirably quiet and cooperative as a herd of amateur paparrazis pointed their cameras at her in the boat commuting back at sunset. This picture was taken as the ferry entered the Marseilles harbour. I took a few shots of her but I believe it was the best due to the tight framing, the woman’s puzzling expression and the out of focus boat masts in the background. Yet this shot did not make it to the final cut. (click on picture to enlarge)

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/1500, ISO200
2) On engagement – Pétanque at Beauduc

On the first shoot, we were basically dropped on a remote beach occupied by campers and their caravans in a hippie type of  atmosphere. The first obvious difference between reportage and street photography came to my mind as in Paris, I usually spot a scene, smile, shoot, smile and go away unless the subject wants to interact with me (in a positive or negative manner). On a beach, this behaviour would be perceived as voyeurism, so one needed to engage with the  subjects and ask for permission. So this is what I did with the group of sympathetic petanque players that illustrates this post. After a quick introduction and few jokes, I was free to take all the pictures I wanted and even got to share their aperitives.  I took around 15 pictures of the scene over 45 minutes, trying mainly to catch movement and find ways to integrate various players in my frame. People tend forget about you after a while when they are busy, but one needs to engage first and be accepted.

Here are the shots that stood out (click on pictures to enlarge):

1) A man’s arm shadow can be seen in the sand as well as he just threw the ball. Graphically interesting yet the smile did not integrate in the final editing. Rejected.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

2) This girl gets ready to throw her ball. Her expression was puzzling and the composition creative. Tough call but rejected.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

3) The point of focus on the beers enjoyed by the players on this hot day. Because of its sense of movement in the background, the selective focus, strong colors and underlying message. This picture made the final cut.

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/4000, ND filter
3) On gear – The gypsy campers

While planning for the course, I had decided to bring along only two lenses for my M9, that is a 35mm and a 60mm. That turned out to be a wise choice since Eric asked students not to use any zooms, so we could learn to move around and preframe mentally. Actually, many of his reportages were done with a 35mm and 50mm combo, and he is a long time Leica user. I never felt the need for a longer lens, and I only once wished I had a super wide angle, so I guess you really can do anything with a 35mm and 50mm lens. I used the 35mm Lux as standard lens for 80% of my shots and mounted the 60mm Hexanon mainly for portraits or when I needed the extra thin depth of field it provides wide open. The shots below were taken in a caravan camp. These two gypsy women gladly accepted to be part of this improvised portraits session. Below are three shots that I found interesting:

Portrait of the gypsy grandmother with the 60mm at 1 meter, notice the very thin depth of field as only her eyes are in focus. (click on pictures to enlarge)

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/750, ISO200, ND filter

Portrait of the young gypsy with her grandmother. Taken at 0.7 meters with the 35mm Lux. Here again the depth of field is very thin yet the wider focal allows to include more subjects in the frame. Yet none of these pictures made the final cut, mainly because they were strongly underexposed (no post processing was allowed during the course).

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/750, ISO200, ND filter

Finally a last portrait with the 60mm lens from further distance. It allowed to include both women, keep a thin depth of field, compress the background, and have an interaction between the girl and her grandmother. Add to that colors in line with the final series and that picture made the cut.

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/350, ISO200, ND filter
4) On cropping : Marseilles harbour kids

As I mentioned in an earlier post, no post processing was allowed during the course. Each evening we would turn in our memory cards (or film) with 50 pictures that would be printed in 10 x 13 format for the next day editing. Cropping was therefore excluded which stirred quite a few discussions between us. Should cropping be allowed in reportage ? Eric thought the initial vision of the photographer should always remain unaltered. I do agree yet provided the camera’s output is an accurate image of what photographer did indeed envision. Leica cameras for example have a framelines system with a safety factor built in, meaning the picture will usually be bigger than the area the photographer sees in the frame. Add to that the parralax effect and it is difficult to anticipate exactly what a picture will look like.

Take a look at the first picture below taken in the Marseille harbour. A little girl stares at a departing boat. The ship’s position was not perfect yet I think the picture works. (click on pictures to enlarge)

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Well, the picture above is actually a crop of the picture below.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

As you can see, the girl was accompanied by her little brother. Initially, they were both contemplating the boat but as I  positioned myself, the boy suddenly turned and walked away. My initial vision was altered and I bent a bit my camera in hope to still keep the kid in the frame. This resulted in a picture that is in my opinion less appealing. So which picture should be kept in a reportage ? The most pleasing or the most authentic? But wait …. authentic …  did I mention that the kids’ father was also standing at their right ? It was a pure aesthetics choice of mine to exclude him from the picture since he wore an ugly bermuda with matching backpack. That leads me to the conclusion that a picture is never an accurate depiction of reality, but only the photographer’s perception in a given point of time. To me, as long as the end picture reflects your vision, cropping should be allowed.

This being said, the picture did not make the final cut.

5) On consistency of look – the fisherman and the kid

After the first two sessions of edition, it became clear that some of us had a hard time getting a consistent look to their pictures. A fellow student had mixed B&W with color pictures and another mate had shot both 6×6 and 24×36 films. As for myself, I had a mix of wide open shots together with pictures with a long depth of field. Therefore at some point, we had to pick a style and stick with it for the remainder of the week. There are obviously instances where a mix of formats or styles blend well together, but it takes a lot of experience in editing to come up with a coherent series. So in my case, I elected to shoot wide open until the end of the course, I guess it comes at no surprise for those who are familiar with this blog.

A man fishs with a kid in shallow waters a hundred meters off the coast in Beauduc (note that I did take my non weather sealed Leica along …). The first shot was taken stopped down to F8 for an extensive depth of field. Details in all the planes the fisherman are clearly identifiable, such as the boy’s expression.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F8, 1/250, ISO200, ND filter

The second pictures shows the effect created by a F1.4 aperture on my 35mm lens. The background becomes blurry and the scene is therefore more suggested than identifiable. In other words, one could say that the second shot is to the Impressionist painters what the first one could be to the Dutch painters.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

Though I did find the first shot more pleasing, it was this second one that was almost included in the final series as its look was more consistent with the remainder of the pictures. In the end, it was left aside too as other shots better fitted the series, no regrets there

6) On post processing – Miss Gloria

As I mentioned before, we were not allowed to post process during the week. All printed files were JPEG’s straight out of the cameras. Yet I decided to process them to post in order to retain the look of the blog. That brings the question of how much post processing should be allowed in reportage ? Traditionnally, pictures remained untouched with the look being either the one of the orginial B&W or color film. Yet, with the introduction of digital, more and more reporters have been altering their files in magnitudes bigger than just adjusting curves. It even seems that the notion of “artistic reportage” has emerged over the last few years.  I think this makes photography more interesting, as long as the processing is not above altering the scenes through adding or removing key elements. I am sure that a photoshop expert could have opened the BBQ grill below and added a few sausages cooking in smoke … were it the case, I think it would definitely be wrong.

Below are the JPEG and post processed version of a picture of a lady I met at Gloria beach. Note that the processing applied is completely different than my usual one since I usually only shoot raw (I did not use the raw + JPG version on my camera).  The look somewhat remains similar but I was not able to match it as raw files are much easier to work with and retain much more information.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

7) On light – The fisherman harbour

In August in France, the best hours to take pictures is approximately from 7 to 10h and 17 to 20h. Meaning we had to get up early in a couple of instances and stayed in spots until sunset. Obviously we also shot during the day but the very harsh light made it a permanent challenge due to the high contrast situations it generated. The most common mistake I noted among us was shadows in the faces of our subjects. It was indeed never an easy task to have light hit them from the perfect angle, and the fact that many wore hats added to the complexity.
As for exposure, I was on full manual all week, selecting aperture and speed based on light conditions and sometimes helped by my external light meter. Outside, it was pretty easy since we had sun the whole week : ISO200, F1.4 and 1/4000 was my standard setting, helped by a 0.6 ND filter (two stops light reduction). Going all manual allows you to focus purely on the shots in stable light conditions, no worries about your camera being tricked and picking up the wrong exposure. Obviously, some shots ended up slightly over or under-exposed, but the M9 files can easily handle exposure adjustments of one to two stops. So for those using full automation or aperture priority, give it a try, you’ll blunder quite a few shots at the beginning but over time I feel my exposure has gotten better since I am on all manual.

Below is a series of shot taken in the early morning light in a fishermen harbour as the ships unloaded the catch of the day. Second shot made the final edition, though I have to admit that the subject was not a fisherman but a colleague.  (click on picture to enlarge)

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/2000, ISO200, ND filter

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter
8) On patience – Pierrot and friends

After taking pictures at Gloria Beach in Port Saint-Louis for an hour, I decided to head for a straw roofed bar (the famous “Paillotte”, more often illegal then not)  located by the beach. As I sat and began talking with other customers, Pierrot suddenly appeared and sat by me. I promptly asked him if I could take a picture of him. He answered to my request by saying “Try and I’ll punch you in the face” with a playful grin on his face. Since Pierrot was a 1.90 meters high, 120 kilos retired truck driver built like a cupboard, I did not insist. Yet we started chatting around a beer and he turned out to be a very sympathetic and talkative fellow. After 45 minutes, I knew half of the bar’s happy few, had taken a portrait of the pretty waitress and Pierrot turned to me and said “So, are you finally going to take that picture of me?”.

In reportage, patience is sometimes your best ally. Get to know the people, relax and who knows, your best shot might suddenly unfold in front of your eyes. This is what happened to me that day as you will see below.  (click on pictures to enlarge)

Pierrot sitting next to me in the beach bar.

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F1.4, 1/1000, ISO200, ND filter

Portrait of the waitress

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/2000, ISO200, ND filter

And it was while talking to Pierrot that the following scene happened in front of me ; three kids were busing check out a fishing rod  before they head for the beach. This turned out to be one to by my favorite shot of the week and made the final editing.

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/3000, ISO200, ND filter

9) On deleting – Sunrise and sunset

One important point throughout the course was that we were asked not to delete any pictures we had taken (here again, I admit that I did not fully respect this rule). Eric even expected us not to look at our LCD so the printed picture would come as a total surprise the next day. The goal doing that was not to delete potentially good pictures on a first impression. And while we reviewed each day’s shoot, I was amazed to see the number of shots that were judged interesting even though its author thought it was a complete failure. So unless you are limited in storage capacity, a very good advice is not to delete your pictures on the fly. They might end up as gems or an essential piece of your reportage. For those of you that are located in France, the latest edition of “Réponses Photo” (September 2010) has a full article by the course instructor Eric Bouvet on reportage editing, definitely a worthwhile read.

The shot below was taken at sunrise in the fishermen’s harbour. At first, I almost deleted it since I did not like so much the expression of the girl. Nevertheless, it made the final editing, not only because of the special light but also its signification. Indeed, who in France has not gotten up very early on a nice vacations day  to buy bread (and croissants) for breakfast ? In the end, a good picture to illustrate life on the Littoral in Summer with that special early morning light. (click on pictures to enlarge)

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND filter

The second picture also made the final cut, yet I almost delete it as I wasn’t too happy about the composition. Nevertheless, it proved to be a great step in my series to depict the slow decrease of light over a full day. The bars, the terraces of a  touristic town and a girl waiting for someone, … this is also life in the littoral.

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Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/3000, ISO200

10) The final cut – 12 hours

Time to end this series and show you the final cut of a full week of reportage shooting.

On the last day of the course, each of us laid on a table the 300 pictures he had taken during the week to build a reportage.  A very tiring day, though definitely very interesting. A first selection of our best pictures was made, then sometimes a second one before Eric cleverly added a few of his picks and started arranging the pictures in a cohesive series. After an hour and dozens of arrangements, there was the result of a week’s work appearing in the form of a 5 to 20 pictures reportage. It was also time to learn our last lesson, and probably the toughest one, that is the “mourning of one’s best images”. Indeed sometimes your best shots just don’t fit into a series, so one has to accept to leave them aside. Difficult and frustrating, but definitely a wise advice.

My series consists of 12 pictures, some of them I have commented on previous posts while others will be new to you. I named it “12 hours”; a wander through a day and its changing light, impressions of life on the Littoral from sunrise to sunset. Click here or on the picture to launch the slideshow.

Finally, I take this opportunity to thank Eric Bouvet and the full Buvette group for one amazing experience. If you are based in France (or nearby) and would like to learn more about reportage, Eric will most probably give this course again next summer, so check out the Rencontres d’Arles website sometimes next May. Note that Eric also sets up courses for associations and photo clubs all over France, so do not hesitate to contact him if you are interested.

(click on picture to launch slideshow)

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Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux at F1.4, 1/3000, ISO200, ND filter

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