City Photo Assignment

Photo essays on cities should always include some time exposures of the ‘city lights’. This image, of Toronto’s ‘old’ City Hall reflected in an adjacent modern building, features lights, reflections, and the contrast between old and new architecture.

“This is National Geographic calling. We’d like you to photograph Urbanville, Pennsylvania, for our city special next summer. You have to come back with the essence of that metropolis, distilled on a dozen frames of film. Can you match Michael Melford?”

This kind of project is a variation on the photo essay, and photo essays -good photo essays- are hard to do. They require research and patience and are not a weekend affair. My photo essay on Toronto began in 1967, soon after I moved here, and is a work in progress.

Looking with New Eyes

If you can learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city, to visit and explore as though you were a visitor, you’re well on your way to creating a successful city assignment. Exploring cities other than your home with your camera is even more exciting. For example, my wife and I once popped into Kingston, Ontario, for lunch while on a long drive home and discovered a delightful, historic place. Later, I spent thirteen weeks there, in the summer, taking courses at Queens University. I explored by bicycle and on foot, always with a camera and a bag of lenses. The travel articles and photos I later sold paid my university expenses, and each image now reminds me of a special period of my life.

On a city photo assignment, you must research the special attractions that define your target area. All cities share some of them–markets, ethnic neighborhoods, waterfronts, famous buildings, skyline views, famous streets, shopping areas. You can most likely add to this list, but it’s a good start. A combination of these will spell “Toronto,” “Boston,” or “London,” to anyone viewing your images–and certainly to the residents. Libraries and tourist information will tell you what to look for, but you need to contact a local camera club to discover special photographic locations.

Special Spots

A heavy rainstorm had flooded this parking lot, overlooking the harbor. You only see reflections in water like this if you get your camera down to water level. Good skyline shots should be made just at dusk, after office building lights are on, but while there is still light in the sky. The CN Tower makes this shot of Toronto’s inner harbor destination-specific.

Such a spot is Toronto’s “Polson Street,” which runs west from the south end of Cherry Street, close to Toronto Harbor. At the end of this short street, the entire Toronto skyline is spread out for you, the famous CN Tower being most prominent. A 50mm lens is adequate for the best images. The office towers will be spectacularly lit long before the sky loses its color. You’ll want to bracket your exposures for different effects. If the surface of the harbor is still enough, you might capture wonderful shots of the city reflected in dark waters. In fact, you might want to shoot on a rainy night, and pray for large puddles. If you get your camera down to water level, you’ll find the reflection in the puddle contains the entire skyline. You’ll go home with muddy knees, but you’ll have great shots.

Photographing people against the skyline makes for great travel images, but you need to use a special technique. First, set your exposure for the ambient background light in the sky, the brightest part of the image, say one second at f8. You must now light your foreground subjects with the same amount of light from a programmable flash. Tell your flash to deliver “f8 of light,” and remember that you’re going to “drag the shutter” at one second to burn-in the background. (Don’t allow your subjects to move after the flash goes off.)

Another special Toronto locale is the Kew Beach boardwalk, just south of the east end of Queen Street. This area is known locally as “The Beach,” one of Toronto’s landmarks. In summer, the action includes soccer tournaments, jazz concerts, beach beauties, and roller blades. There are great restaurants all along Queen Street, and you can get there from downtown by streetcar. The boardwalk makes a great leading line for you to photograph people walking, skiing, biking, and roller-blading. A 135mm lens with a wide-open aperture will isolate your subjects from the background, which can often include the CN Tower.

Downtown photography at night is exciting, wherever you are. Use of a telephoto lens will compress long streets. Wide-angle lenses on a wet night can yield wonderful effects, using reflections in puddles. A slow shutter speed will cause long red-and-white tracks to appear along any roadway, as moving vehicle lights burn their way across your frame.

In Toronto, including views of the famous theatres along Yonge Street (said to be the longest street in the world) or the wonderful red-and-yellow signs artfully written in Chinese along Dundas Street, will make your shots “destination specific.” (If you can’t make an accurate exposure measurement, start with a five-second exposure at f8, and bracket up and down in full stops.)

Toronto’s “new” City Hall, with its unusual architecture, provides photographers with one of those ‘destination specific’ opportunities for travel images. In summer, people gather here for picnics and concerts, while the pool becomes a favourite skating rink when the temperature drops.

Toronto’s best-known market area is Kensington, which covers a number of city blocks, just west of Spadina Avenue, south of College Street. Saturday mornings are the best times to shoot at any time of the year. Kensington is a real ethnic market, constantly evolving, always crowded, stuffed with constantly gridlocked vehicle traffic. (I prefer using a 300mm zoom telephoto lens and a monopod, but often I’ll choose a 135mm short telephoto, handheld, with a small flash for fill light.) When it comes to burning film, Kensington is Toronto’s Grand Canyon.

Looking for a unique viewpoint from which to photograph a city’s best-known buildings can lead to all manner of great photographs, so carry a variety of lenses. The CN Tower can be framed by other tall buildings, through narrow lanes, and down several wide streets. Making the same shots from the Toronto Islands will require you to take two delightful ferry rides, and open up many new possibilities. (Don’t be afraid to tilt your camera, zoom while you shoot, under- and over-expose. Break the rules, and gain impact in your images. )

The “new” Toronto City Hall, now forty years old, challenges your compositional eye with its unique clamshell design, reflecting pool (full of skaters in winter), and arching walkways. Your ultra-wide lenses will love it. Go up to the Bay Street Grill at the top of the Hudson’s Bay store at Yonge and Queen, for the “bird’s eye” view, and don’t leave without sampling their crabcakes.

An Insider’s View

An important part of city life is eating out. For interior shots that show decor and features, I prefer to shoot when the restaurant is empty. Ask for permission to shoot, and see if the managers will turn on all the lights for you. Create compositions out of set tables by windows or maybe long views along the bar. Use your tripod, and take the time to design your image. Promise the management some prints, and be sure to deliver. At night, or when the restaurant is busy, I handhold with a 17mm lens, perhaps using a bit of bounce flash. With slow shutter speed, moving people will blur, lending an impression of activity and involvement.

A traditional hurdy-gurdy, with a smiling proprietor, adds to the fun of the Lake Ontario eastern beach area known as Kew Beach. Flash fill produced detail in the shadows under the hat, and the overhang.

Try to include people in your shots–inside or out. Cities, after all, are where people congregate. Shoot people walking into your shots, not out of them, and facing toward you, rather than away. Work on good close-up portraits of children at play, men at work, old people in their lovely, wrinkled faces. Markets, playgrounds, and dock areas are great sources of people shots.

Finally, what do the locals do for fun? In Toronto, we sail on Lake Ontario, enjoy the beaches, visit the Toronto Zoo, bicycle everywhere, or ride our subway or buses to new places. In the winter, we wait for summer, go to the theatre, and eat out. Here’s a neat way to photograph moving transportation at night or underground: Set up your camera and flash, with the exposure set for a slow shutter speed, and pre-focus. When the train/bus/trolley is at the edge of your frame, start your exposure and fire the flash, dragging the shutter to burn colorful lines of blur across the film. The front of the vehicle (hopefully, with a distinctive sign?) will be sharp, lit by the flash, while the blurred lines across it will give the impression of motion.

by Michael Goldstein

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