Digital SLR Photography

Learn how to go with the flow

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Shooting in inner-city environments can be frustrating – it takes forever to get anywhere, and the constant flow of people rushing about their daily lives shows little to no consideration for those of us who want to capture images! While you can attempt trips that coincide with quieter times, such as early in the morning or late at night, at certain times of the year (such as winter) the best light is often when the streets are at their busiest. Rather than struggle to get a crowd-free shot of your chosen landmark, one approach that’s less stressful is to include the moving crowd.

Doing so with a fast shutter speed will freeze the crowd on the spot, however this can often look messy and doesn’t convey just how busy and frantic the environment was at that time. One approach can be to record the motion of the crowd – by slowing down the shutter speed, anyone not standing perfectly still is rendered as a pleasing blur, simplifying the scene, and making it more dynamic too. There’s an added bonus as well – if you ever want to sell the images to a stock agency for a bit of extra cash, then model releases aren’t required as long as people aren’t identifiable. Alongside your camera and chosen lens, you’ll also need a tripod and remote release, as well as an ND filter if it’s bright daylight; a combination of a circular polariser and a three-stop ND is sufficient for almost any situation.

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1 Set up

Choose a location where there’s a steady ebb and flow of people passing by the camera. Obviously try not to stand directly in anyone’s way, but having said that, the centre of a busy walkway is ironically ideal as people will (generally) filter left and right of you. Here, I’m at one end of the Millennium Bridge in London looking back towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, clear of the foot traffic. As we’re going to be shooting a long exposure, a tripod is a must.

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2 Refine your shutter speed

Select shutter-priority mode and your lowest ISO rating. Pick an exposure time of around 1/2sec to one second long: you want to blur the motion of the crowd, but keep it recognisable as people rather than abstract blurs of colour. If it’s a bright day then you may find that your aperture flashes at its minimum, and the image is overexposed. Narrow apertures are generally best avoided as softening and diffraction can become an issue.

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3 Add filtration

If this is the case, then filters can be used to bring down the exposure, allowing you to use a mid-aperture setting for increased sharpness and image quality. Often a circular polarising filter, which absorbs up to two stops of light, is enough, however if not then a solid ND filter may be needed. Here, a 0.9ND filter combined with a polariser takes the shutter speed from 1/25sec to one second. A 0.9ND grad filter is then used to balance the sky with the ground.

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4 Timing the exposure

Now it’s a waiting game – time your shots for when there’s a good, steady flow of people moving past, avoiding times when people stop in one position too long. A remote release is your best friend here – if people see you poised with your finger on the shutter they might stop mid-frame, or (if they’re trying to be courteous) stand beside you waiting for it to be clear. Using a remote and looking away from your camera tends to keep the crowd moving.

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