Roll Review #1 – Birmingham Street Photography November 2022

It’s time to walk through and review the shots from a recent roll of film shot in Birmingham. This is an opportunity to reflect, learn and to tell the stories and thinking that goes on during a walk around with a camera and my ideas or motivation behind each image

For the record, the gear used was:

  • Camera: Canon EOS 1n-hs
  • Lens: 24-105 F4L, 50mm F1.8
  • Film: Kentmere 400, pushed to 800
  • Development: Rodinal, 1:25, 9 minutes
  • Scanner: Epson V600

Jump to a shot:

1. Perfect reactions

Canon EOS 1n, 24-105 F4 L

The last two times I’ve been out shooting on the streets I’ve started to get that classic nagging self doubt that appears to blight nearly every photographer at some point. I found myself walking around doubting every shot I’d taken, feeling fairly uninspired by what I was seeing.

Sometimes you’re walking around for ages, scanning the sea of faces coming towards you, looking for that one thing that stands out or means something – a moment that tells a story, to you at least, and it just doesn’t happen. That’s when the doubt creeps in. Maybe you’re not actually any good at this? Perhaps you’ve just not got “the eye” to see the scene right in front of you. It really starts to drag you down and then you’re more aware of how bad the day is going rather than what’s going on around you.

This doesn’t happen all the time, but is more prevalent when I feel pressed for time or only have a certain window of opportunity to get out and take some photos. If it’s not happening then the pressure builds and mistakes get magnified. It wasn’t until I watched an interview with one of the most gifted street photographers I’ve ever come across – Reuben Radding that I really came to terms with the fact that this is totally normal.

Reuben talks about spending 8 hour days out on the streets finding absolutely nothing and then that one shot makes itself right in front of your eyes, usually as you’ve just given up and are on your way home and then, boom, there it is. This is the magic of street photography, it is quite literally a constantly evolving story and your job as the reader is to notice that subtle turn of the page when something reveals itself and to be ready to capture it.

Of course, when this happens to Reuben, his years of experience and razor sharp eye for a scene usually makes for an absolute masterpiece of an image. When it happens to me, well, I’m just glad to go home with something on the roll that I look forward to developing.

This was the exact situation with the image above. I’d been walking around for a while and absolutely nothing was triggering my instincts to shoot. The streets were relatively busy with the Christmas Markets being on and I’d set myself up thinking there would be so much going on that I’d run through a roll in the blink of an eye. Then it happened, climbing the steps to Victoria Square, I look over to my right and see a guy with a face that screams “interesting” to me, with the best beard I’ve seen all day. That was enough for a shot at least and I need to shoot something just to feel like I was getting somewhere.

I lifted my camera to my eye and instantly he noticed me. Let’s face it, with a paparazzi special set up, a camera which looks like a small baby elephant, I’m not surprised he noticed but what happened next was pure magic. All of a sudden he just pulls this brilliant face, I press the shutter and hope I got it. I was convinced some people had walked into the frame as I’d clicked the release, so I said thank you to him and then asked to take another.

Canon EOS 1n, 24-105 F4 L

He actually didn’t say anything and I couldn’t make my mind up whether he was just a genuinely good sport or I’d out stayed my welcome by taking the second image. I said thanks again and went on my way feeling really bad for potentially taking a liberty with his good will. Next time I shall stick to the golden rule of shoot once, smile and walk away. The guilt and paranoia about that encounter didn’t leave me all day.

2. Head and Shoulders

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

There have been so many occasions where I’ve seen young children travelling around on the shoulders of their parents. It always looks really compelling because they’re towering above a crowd of heads having the time of their life. I think it’s one of those that would look especially cool given a wider context in a more crowded scene. One for next time, maybe.

I’d actually just missed an almost identical set up a few minutes before and had been kicking myself for not being quicker on the draw. Sometimes my mind doesn’t work quickly enough to trigger a response. I’ll see a scene in front of me, think “that’s great” and then I’ll be so taken in by it I almost forget to snap a record of it. I made a conscious effort to be ready should another opportunity present itself to me, I’d missed this one too many times before.

I saw the little girl coming towards me, she was so happy and attentive to all the things going on around her. It must feel somehow safer for a child to sit on shoulders in such a crowded and busy place as Birmingham, than to walk by the side of a parent and be towered over by all those people milling around. I’d raised my camera ready well ahead of time and was waiting for the frame to make itself as I walked towards them.

Her parents didn’t seem to notice me at all, but just as I went to fire the shutter the little girl saw the camera and seemed really taken in by it. She stared at me momentarily, making eye contact with me through the lens. I knew that was the moment and it really picked up my mood – I now had two things in the bag that would be worth a look at later on.

3. My lord

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

Strangely, I have almost no recollection of taking this. It was an off the cuff, “there’s someone who has something about them” moment and I’d clicked the shutter and moved on without thinking any more about it. I do, however, remember wishing the focus had been slightly quicker because I’d intended to get more of a shot of the front of his face. In retrospect, I’m glad it didn’t quite work out because the side profile in my eyes works better.

I think the slower focus can be attributed to switching to the 50mm f1.8 lens. I don’t normally go out with more than one camera or lens any more as the choices often bog me down and I spend more time worrying about whether I’m using the correct equipment than actually just using it full stop. I’d taken out another camera with the intention of lending it to someone else but they were otherwise engaged and didn’t turn up in the end. I switched over to the 50mm to try and be a bit more conspicuous. With a 1 series SLR this is the equivalent of trying to hide a train with a piece of A4 paper.

The side profile reminds me of those stone busts you see of gentlemen and dignitaries from an age gone by, his particular wonderful haircut and face remind me of the statue of Dr Samuel Johnson (author of the first known English dictionary.) Strange how these things turn out, really.

4. Local Characters

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm f1.8

I would normally avoid taking the same shot twice, but this time there was a compelling enough reason. This guy is a regular on the streets of Birmingham, usually found juggling just outside the HSBC with his dog. I’d seen him weeks before juggling with fire and had intended to take a couple of pictures. I shot a reasonably wide shot and then went in for the close up only to hear that familiar sound of the auto rewind reeling the film back in and it was game over.

He never appears to say anything to anyone and communicates fairly well with his facial expressions to people who give him money or acknowledge his skills. My favourite thing about him is as he is in the picture above – balancing a baton on his head. It appears to be his party piece and I’m sure most Birmingham regulars have seen it multiple times, but it doesn’t stop me smiling every time he does it. The look on his face is fantastic, it’s like he’s shocked, “where’s my baton gone…? Oh! There it is!” It reminds me of playing peekaboo with my children when they were babies.

5. There’s three in this relationship

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

It had started to rain. Rain is gold to street photographers although I’ve never felt like I’ve truly grasped the opportunity when it has arisen. People behave differently, reflections start to appear, the light becomes more dramatic and you get the opportunity to do something just a bit off the beaten track for once.

These two didn’t spark my senses because of the weather, but because they just came across as such total and utter miserable buggers. They were stood there for ages, not a word passed between them, not so much as a glance at each other. Their relationship body language at the time was “bugger off, bab.” I weighed them up for a second or two hoping there would be some kind of connection between them and when nothing happened went for the shot anyway hoping the emotion, or lack thereof, would come out.

6. High Fashion

When I saw this guy I was so mesmerised by his hat that I completely missed the shot. “Sod that!” I thought and instantly turned round and did the classic “walk super fast to get ahead then turn round and try again” trick that has served street photographers well for decades.

I once read in a book that this is a common method that some street photographers will use if they spot someone that speaks to them for some reason. They’ll then effectively follow the shot, waiting for that person to put themselves in a frame that satisfies the message the photographer wants to convey. I’ve got to be honest, I’m not at all comfortable with this notion, it’s one thing capturing a fleeting moment as it passes you by, it’s another to stalk someone. Every now and again, though, you’ve got to go back to get something you won’t see again.

In this case, going back was no problem, this picture wasn’t going to be about where the person was, but just who they were. This guy was making a statement and he knew it. When I finally pulled the trigger, the auto focus hunted at the last second and my cover was well and truly blown anyway. As the shutter finally went off, he looked at me, almost posed and then strutted off in one smooth motion. I almost wish the shutter had lagged just slightly longer.

7. Say Her Name.

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

In a complete change of tone, I turned a corner to find that Amnesty International had set up a silent protest in the middle of the street. Initially I was taken by a woman lying on the floor wearing images of girls and women who had been arrested or murdered for standing up against repression in Iran. The guy in the picture had one of the most serious faces I’ve seen in a long time and I actually felt it sent a more powerful message that a man was standing up for the rights of women for once. I made no secret of the fact that I wanted to frame this one up carefully and capture his expression. He was more than happy to be photographed, I thanked him and moved on.

One thing that sticks in my memory about this moment is something that stokes the fire of my love/hate relationship with Birmingham. As a city it has moved on so much in the last decade or so and feels far safer, more welcoming and diverse than ever before. Sadly, however, it is still occupied by people who seem to have literally no understanding of boundaries, context or the feelings of others.

This silent protest was quite clearly laid out, a crowd of protesters neatly encircled the woman lying on the floor – it was obvious what was going on. During the minute or so I was there, not one but two food delivery riders on their bikes rode straight through the crowd, one of which nearly rode over the woman on the floor. I cannot understand insensitivity, selfishness and a seeming total lack of common sense like this. Some people really come across as believing the world is theirs to do as they please with, yet we only survive and thrive when we are aware, and respectful, of those around us.

Just a thought.

8. Bad to the bone

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

The rain was really coming down now and the streets were beginning to clear. I was getting cold and frankly, I’d had enough by this point. Walking back towards the station, doing a classic “one more street and then home” job, I stopped outside Starbucks to see if anything would come my way.

I often forget to look into the buildings, shops and restaurants I walk past on the streets. I guess this is because I’m conscious that it’s not really fair to shove your camera up the window when someone is paying to just enjoy a bite to eat, I don’t enjoy being overly intrusive.

I turned round and looked into the window of Starbucks to see this absolute statement of a man, casually sat there drinking his coffee. The image made itself, just look at him! There is a man who has a story to tell, has had an interesting life and carries his sense of being and style in to older age. It is these people who one day I am going to pluck the courage up to talk to, to see if I can tell their story in a more detailed manner. Normal people are the most fascinating in the world. For now, enjoy his hat, that mental beard and the beautiful reflections that add to the scene.

He gave me the best thumbs up after I’d taken his picture. I smiled, returned the gesture and went to the station.

9. Laurel and Hardy

Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

This was a joke more than a planned shot. Walking up the stairs to the Bullring from the open markets, these two were stood there filming me and others coming towards them. I obviously don’t mind this, it’s literally what I was out doing in still form, but I did think it would be funny to wait until the last minute and snap them back – tit for tat.

I had no idea until I scanned the negative in that the guy on the left has the single best expression on his face I could’ve hoped for. It reminds me so much of Laurel and Hardy that I really should print this with the caption “that’s another fine mess you’ve got us in to.”

10. Drive by

Every now and again you’ll see someone, know that they’d make a great picture but for one reason or another it just isn’t right to stop and frame it up. This was one of those times, if I’d have stopped and taken a normal shot I’d have been stood in front of an empty tram stop shelter, just me and him, shoving a camera up his nose. It just wouldn’t do.

Instead, I held the camera by my waist like a total coward and shot it quite literally off the hip as I walked past. I couldn’t have hoped for better when I saw the poster behind him, what it says and the sheer fortune of capturing both him and the poster in the same 50mm frame was really quite fortuitous. There’s no story behind this one, it just makes me smile.

11. Rain street

Last shot of the roll – Canon EOS 1n, 50mm F1.8

The light was failing, it was coming to early evening, I’ve just shot Mr Starbucks and I’m going back to the station with one last frame remaining on the roll. Normally I’d just go home and shoot another picture of my daughter to finish the roll, but as I crossed the road the rain looked great on the road in the headlights of passing cars. I thought “leading lines” about the tram tracks and shot an off the cuff shot. I wish I’d stood more centrally in the road, but I think it still works.

Landscapes, or cityscapes in this case, are really not my thing. Shooting architecture and “people stood in shadows or near them” doesn’t inspire me at all, yet that’s what so much street seems to be about these days, you’re not getting published unless you’ve taken a picture of a boy playing football next to a huge, sharp triangular shadow. I don’t get it, if I’m honest, but this rainy street scene really did speak to me and I’m fairly disappointed it didn’t turn out quite how I imagined it – but that’s experience for you.

Anyway, there’s an insight into my thoughts, experiences and motives through a roll of 36 exposures. Every time I go out I learn something new, hopefully progress and take something from each roll into the next. I’ll certainly put more time into framing up the next rainy street that takes my fancy! I’ll see you in the next roll review.

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