A Look Behind A Smaller Photo Project
I recently finished a smaller photo project in Istanbul and thought I’d share a more detailed look behind making a photo project like this. The project, titled “Taksim Skies,” wasn’t a large, complex or highly involved project. It wasn’t covering some serious topic or made for deep meaning. It was more of a smaller scale, artistic photo project, while being somewhat experimental and lighthearted. Hopefully describing each aspect of the project can help you see what goes into making a small photo project like this, while also telling you more about the project itself.
Removing Chaos in Taksim Square
While living in Istanbul, Turkey, I stayed just a five minute walk from Taksim Square. If you’ve ever been to Istanbul, you know Taksim Square is at the center of the city, and always full of life. The largest metro station is here, the busiest pedestrian street starts here, Gezi Park is here, and the famous Republic Monument is here. This is also the place for big events, protests and political rallies. So you get a constant chaos of locals, tourists, commuters, street sellers, and political activists. Even on a slow day.
A day didn’t go by where I didn’t have to walk through Taksim Square. I always had my camera with me and spent plenty of time photographing this active spot too. But with people constantly moving in all directions, you get messy, crowded backgrounds where ever you look. So you’re forced to attempt to organize the chaos when shooting Street Photography here. I’m not a fan of messy streets of people walking in every direction because most photos end up looking the same. A person walking in front of other people walking.
So since I had to walk through this square every day, I decided to start a small photo project attempting to capture these people in solitude. I came up with the idea to use the sky as their backdrop and to take a few photos a day, over the summer, and see if anything could come out of it.
Characters in the Sky
Another thing about Taksim Square is the variety and diversity of people you see. Istanbul is such a multicultural city, where east meets west, and no where is that more noticeable than here. There’s tons of characters and interesting people who walk through the square that makes it great for people watching. So in addition to capturing the people without the chaos, I wanted to capture the “characters” too. I wanted the focus to be on their natural expressions and look, along with the blue sky and bright light to emphasize it even more. So I decided to compose all of them similarly, while letting color become a part of it visually.
Using Free Time for Photography
One of the best parts of a small project like this is that it doesn’t feel like you’re taking on a project at all. I basically did all the capturing in my free time, on my way to somewhere I was already going. A couple of photos a day like this doesn’t feel like anything, but it adds up to something if you stick with it.
As long as you keep your camera with you at all times, you have no excuse.
Choosing the Lens
I wanted a focal length wide enough that I could include much of the sky with the person. But I also wanted the person to show large enough, while not including unwanted background. I knew the subject’s distance would be close too, aimed up from the ground just as they were about to pass me. So I chose a 35mm lens. 50mm would have filled the frame up with too much of the person, while 28mm or wider would have filled the frame with too much of everything else.
I needed to make sure I got the distance and timing down every time I made a photo so I took some practice shots of people walking by first. I couldn’t just kneel down waiting for someone to walk right by me because they might change direction or walk too far around me. So I had to position myself standing in the direction they were coming, while moving if needed. It took a little guessing about where exactly to move, but the moment they were about to walk by me, I quickly kneeled down and tried to frame them in the shot in the same way each time.
After a little practice, the timing and quick composition became automatic. Part of the trick was to be fast, but not so fast it was noticeable enough to cause them to react or move out of the way. 9 times out of the 10 they either didn’t notice me at all or thought I was taking a photo of something else, and made no reaction.
Looking for the Characters
One of the most important parts was looking for people who had enough interest to almost be character-like in the series. So there were a few things I was looking for. People that had character or something interesting about them, people who had a unique look, and people that had some type of expression or gesture, as they walked. If I could find at least a couple of these things, then I would attempt the shot.
Looking for the Light
The other most important part was the light. I chose to work with the natural light and use the sun to brighten up the subjects, instead of flash. Partly for the look and partly for the challenge. What this meant is that I could only capture the people walking into the sunlight.
Since I was only capturing the people in similar lighting, facing the sun on bright, sunny days, I was able to choose similar settings for all my shots. I wanted to freeze the moving subject so I chose a shutter speed of at least 1/750th. I used zone focusing instead of auto focusing since the subject would be moving at a close distance, so I chose an aperture of f/11-16 to make sure they were in focus. This gave me an ISO around 400 with the sunny lighting. I used these manual settings for all photos in the series.
No “Shooting from the Hip”
I did not want to shoot from the hip, even though that would have been much easier. “Shooting from the hip” is when you hold your camera at waist level and take the shot from there, instead of bringing the camera up to your eye to take the photo. This allows you to be less noticeable, but also takes away much of your control over composition. I wanted to frame without guessing and I wanted complete control of the perspective.
Being Comfortable with Looking Weird
While most of the people I photographed didn’t seem to notice me, plenty of other people watching me did. The number of weird expressions and reactions by observers was plenty. Some people watched, confused, trying to figure out what I was doing. While others just looked at me like something was wrong with me.
So I had to be comfortable looking weird to others and just focus on taking the next photo. This can be true in much of Street Photography so I’m already past feeling self-conscious. But doing this specific project, and always in the same square, did magnify how much I had to be ok with it.
When you think of some random guy quickly kneeling down and taking a photo up at you as you walk by in the middle of the street, you would think I received a lot of reactions. But the truth is I didn’t. I get more reactions with regular Street Photography than I did this project. And I never received even one negative reaction.
Why? People just didn’t pay much attention to me. They were too busy focusing on other things. Even when they did notice me, they never seemed to think I was actually taking a photo of them. In normal Street Photography, it’s more obvious what I’m doing to the average person, but with this project, it didn’t seem so obvious. I guess they assumed it didn’t make enough sense that I would be taking a photo of someone like that.
Curation & Editing
I use Lightroom for all my organizing and editing. Whenever uploading my photos, I input the project’s title as a keyword for these photos. Once it was time to start editing the project, I went through them by rating with Lightroom’s 1-5 star method. Honestly, anything rated 3 stars or fewer probably won’t even get a second look. Then I waited some more time before going through the 4 star photos to see if my mind had changed any of them to 5 stars.
After waiting some more time, I then went more closely through all my 5 star photos. From here, I used Lightroom’s color rating system to narrow them down further. At this point, I was down to around 100 photos so I decided to concentrate on the post-processing before narrowing down any further.
I already imported them using the basic pre-set I’ve created for all my photos, but I wanted to change it a little more for this project to emphasize the “characters” and the compositional style of the series. I decided to bring out a little more of the color than usual, particularly the blue of the sky. Then I made sure the people were all properly exposed and the tones, saturation and brightness all matched throughout.
Once I was done editing and had them matching, I was able to really focus on the curation for the final project.
One of the biggest problems that arose from this project was my Leica M9’s sensor. Unfortunately, there’s a very known problem that can arise with these specific sensors, and that is sensor corrosion. What this does is show very small spots that almost look like dust, except there’s a white ring around the darker spot.
This problem isn’t too noticeable in most photos, but the more narrow the aperture you shoot with and the cleaner and lighter the background is, the more it shows. Making this project the worst case scenario for showing sensor corrosion. I actually didn’t really notice it until I started this project, but it was clear afterwards. So I had to remove every little spot in Lightroom for each photo. Being a blue and white sky made this easier, but it was still a major pain.
No matter how small the project, you have to be ready for something to go wrong.
*Since then, I’ve gone to Germany and had Leica replace the sensor for free.
After I had the final photos picked, I tried to put them in an order that spread more similar photos apart, while keeping some flow. Then it was time to export and display. Online, I find they work well in a grid format, but slide format works too. Thankfully, LensCulture has quickly picked up the projects as an Editor’s Pick and a few online exhibits have requested to show it. You can also view the final project on my portfolio website.
It’s always nice finishing a photo project, no matter how difficult or small. This was a project I started mostly out of fun to do in my spare time commute. I didn’t have any expectations for it at the beginning, but sometimes those are just as satisfactory as the bigger, more stressful projects.
I hope this detailed look behind the project example not only gives info on “Taksim Skies,” but can also be helpful for some to get an idea of what goes into a photo project. Even a smaller, less serious one. Be sure to tell me about any photo projects you’ve worked on in the comments below!
And for a look at other photo projects with helpful tips and how to’s, be sure to check out Why You Should Shoot a Photo Series Everywhere You Travel: Tokyo Alleys and How To Know the People You Photograph : Marari Beach Families