Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The strange case of the missing burst mode

I spot her through the crowds - just a glimpse of pink at first and the pink is surrounded by black. But she's heading towards me. The pink is like a shock to the system; the kind of pink that makes your eyes jump to attention, especially if you're a photographer looking for the unusual shot: the shot that makes your eyes jump in the same way. And a pink that's surrounded by darkness is not only a shock, it's intriguing. I want to see more but I have to wait until she reappears from the bobbing waves of people that surround her.

London's South Bank gets pretty crowded right from the first day of half-decent weather onward, and today it's a sea of humanity with the tide going in both directions at the same time. As she gets nearer I note that she has a guy on each side of her, each of them dressed in something dark, mostly black, but it's her I'm checking as she is without any doubt whatsoever the subject of my next shot. It could be the three of them, with the two guys acting as bookends, but it's the essence of who she is that I want to try to capture and bring out in my next batch of published photos.

It's her hair that's pink and as the trio move nearer I see that she resembles a kind of neo-hippy Gorgon with her hair - if indeed it is her hair and not extensions - in ropes like cascading snakes. She wears a nose ring, studs below her lips, and large dangling earrings with necklaces and pendants to complement them. Her shirt is light grey and its subdued colour only serves to enhance and show off the pink. She has several wristbands, one with a skull, and gloves in a tiger-skin pattern with cut-off fingers and holes cut in the backs. I can't see if she's wearing jeans or something more feminine. In fact, I can't see all of this detail just yet, only the impression of something exotic moving towards me, and she's still a few dozen feet away. But I know I have to get at least one shot. I'll have plenty of time later on to study the detail.

By now I'd usually have the camera up at my face but in this crowd I'm worried that I'll miss completely as her head appears, disappears, and reappears between a thousand other heads. So I decide to put the camera in burst mode and fire off as many shots as I think it takes. I decide not to put the AF into AI Focus mode. I've made this mistake before trying to photograph someone in a moving crowd. With AI Focus mode, you aim at the subject and half-press the shutter release and the camera will continue to keep them in focus as they move. In theory. In reality, it works quite well with subjects moving left to right - animals crossing in front of you, for example. And my particular camera, the Canon 40D, is quite good at handling subjects moving straight towards the lens. But in a crowd it can lose the subject and refocus on someone nearby. And getting the focus back where you want it is a pain; you have to let go of the shutter release, reframe the subject and half-press again. And again, until you get it right. Or, more likely, miss the shot.

So I decide to just go with burst mode, pan the camera along with her movement, and at the optimum moment, hopefully, press the trigger while continuing to track her, allowing the camera to take half a dozen shots. And if I time it right I can have several goes at this as she moves past me. So I press the camera's Drive button to change to Hi burst mode, and turn the wheel on the top of the camera. And nothing happens...

The 40D has two LCD displays: a large three-inch one on the back for accessing the menus and viewing your shots, and a smaller four-line one on the top-right for viewing the per-shot settings such as ISO, shutter speed, aperture, focus mode, single/burst shot mode, and so on. And the icon for drive mode seems to be stuck on ONE SHOT. My first thought: this has never happened before; I hope it isn't broken; I've only had it just over a year and I'd hate to have it sitting in a workshop just when London is chock-full of interesting photographic subjects. Maybe I've changed some menu setting, hidden deep within the hierarchy. The 40D has more settings than I need and I sometimes think it would be nice to be able to hide some of them, at least temporarily. But I don't recall changing any of the settings. In fact, I've made a habit of checking my settings just before a shoot - after making sure my lenses are clean.

Just as the young lady gets about 10 feet away I have an epiphany. On the train into central London, I cleaned the lenses then settled down with my magazine. I forgot about my settings. Some habit.

As she moves nearer I go straight for my mode dial and move it from Portrait, where it has inadvertently ended up after being thrust into my rucksack, onto Av mode where it belongs. Where it usually lives, in fact. Too late now to worry about burst mode, I quickly raise the camera, already accepting that I've probably missed any chance of getting a shot, even a bad one. Great photographic subjects come and go and you can't always be ready for them. And, strangely, on more than one occasion I've found myself deliberately letting one go, knowing that I won't ever get that shot; and since what made the subject interesting was the way a particular person was behaving in particular circumstances, nor will anyone else.

The camera is now at my eye and as she reappears for a second or so amidst the crowd, I take my one chance. And then, with her two companions, she's gone. And I'll probably never see her or get to photograph her again. I feel a strangely mixed sensation of sadness as she disappears, yet happiness that such people exist. I tilt the camera and press the Play button and straight away I experience that feeling that all of us know: the feeling that you got something very right. More than that, even, as I notice that she had blinked as I pressed the shutter release and, far from spoiling the shot, it adds more than I could ever have expected. The picture not only brings out what I perceived in her from a distance, it also shows the elegance with which she held herself, with which she walked. The essence of who she was, right there and right then.

Later on, after running the RAW file through Lightroom, I'm stuck for a title for the picture. It speaks for itself. It doesn't need a title. A title might even subtract something from the viewing of it. Or add something unwanted by suggesting that the viewer prejudge it in a certain way. It's late and I'm exhausted and I take the easy way out. I call it "Pink Hair". A simple description that reveals what triggered my wanting to take the shot in the first place.

Of course, next time I'll remember to check my settings before I start a shoot. I always do. It's a habit with me.


  1. What a great story - the photo you got out of it is amazing - I love it!

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