My Interview for Mads Magazine

Featuring work from an ongoing Black and White Street Photography Project.

David Dredge Fine Art Print Black and White Street Photography

Please tell us about yourself. Where you are from and other tidbits:

I was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe but I have been lucky enough to travel all over since I was very young.  My father has travelled to almost every corner of the globe for most of his life, as a pilot, and growing up he inspired me to travel, to try new things and to leap.  To risk failure in the pursuit of happiness. Vietnam is the sixth country I have called home, and I have lived in Saigon for seven years so far.

 

I’m a creative person at heart.  My mother and grandmother were both talented artists.  My mother is a skilled painter, and sketch artist and my grandmother was a skilled sculptor.  As a child I was always drawing, building, dismantling things to understand how they worked, painting, and writing short stories.  I first picked up a camera at the age of 18 but at the time it was a tool to document family occasions and us kids were not encouraged to use Dad’s camera: it was almost always hidden away.  Today I am a portrait photographer, a retoucher. and occasionally, an artist.

David Dredge Art Print Street Photography Stairs and Nun

Your first camera? (or your first introduction to your discipline)

I borrowed the family camera when I left home to study film production and media writing in Cape Town.  It was a horrible plastic shit box that devoured 3 volt batteries but it was small and it was: there! A 35mm film camera, not of the charming, well-made mechanical variety but rather the loud, whining, plastic 80’s VCR variety.  It had a ridiculous 10 times zoom feature, and a phallic, plastic Darth Vader-esque member protruded awkwardly outward if you were foolish enough to zoom as this would invariably exhaust the battery. I occasionally used the camera to create storyboards for film courses that I majored in, but mostly I walked around the city capturing scenes that interested me.  I was always short of money so film was a real luxury and developing it was even more so. Later, I began to shoot positive film and slides because I didn’t have to pay to get them printed; I could just hold them up to the light. For my 21’st birthday I was given a Minolta SLR, which I never left home without. It became an extension of my personality.

David Dredge Art Print Street Photography Black and White Temple Offering

What made you choose this medium?

I spent most of my childhood and teens in boarding schools, which taught me to be self-reliant but also kept me in school a lot.  So, when I left for University, it was to a completely new and alien city. I knew no one there but it was going to be a huge adventure.  So, I felt I had no choice, but to liberate the family camera.

 

Later that year I befriended an assistant working for a commercial photography studio.  I recall visiting the studio, which had been set up in what was once a stone church. The greeting area for the studio had huge light panels installed on the walls.  The commercial work was carefully housed behind panes of glass. The images were all medium and large format slides, and monochrome positive slides, some 8 inches by 10 inches in size.  Back-lit by the panels the effect was mesmerising. Similar to studying a stained-glass window up close. Each frame depicted an expertly composed scene with flawless lighting and the colour was like nothing I had ever seen.     

 

I was amazed to see in person what could be achieved with film.  Especially since I was at that moment in possession of a film camera.  I was instantly hooked, I started using positive monochromatic film and slide film and I devoted much of the next 10 years of my life to creating moods and colours, attempting to create something close to what I had experienced that day.  I found my way back to film fairly recently in Saigon.

Black and White street photography Breakfast Alley

Your project

The images here are a small selection from a project I began late last year.  The project began as a personal challenge to shoot and develop one roll of black and white film everyday for 2 weeks, giving me just over 500 frames.  This was the plan anyway. I chose to use Kodak Tri-X 400, as it is generally readily available in Hcmc, if you know where to look, and it is a sharp, contrasty film with a pleasing grain.  At least to me. I quickly found, however, that despite my best efforts, I was wasting a lot of film. I had chosen to capture candid street scenes, an area of photography that I am new to and one that demands a great deal in terms of skill, style, luck and persistence.  So, after developing, scanning and discussing my failures with friends, darkroom pro’s, and scan shop aficionados, I resolved to archive the first 10 rolls in a distant and obscure folder and to start afresh. I continued to shoot Tri-X 400 but I resolved to get closer to my subjects and to only press the shutter if I knew exactly what I wanted the image to say.  Only if I knew the frame contained a story and had a purpose. The selection here is a small collection from rolls 11 to 25. Or 1-15 depending on how you look at things. The project is ongoing.

Young workmen BW street photography

What made you choose this project?

It was difficult.  It was different to the digital work and extensive retouching that I had done a lot of.  It would challenge me and encourage me to explore the city. It would force me to learn how to develop, work within the limitations of the format.  It would be a chance to create something more honest, since I have not altered the image in any way – not even contrast adjustments nor sharpening in Lightroom.  But more than all of this the project would force me to create more collaboratively. It is rare that a film photographer does everything alone unless s/he owns a darkroom.  Thus, every frame is seen by at least, it’s creator, the darkroom owner (to ensure that the chemicals are fresh etc) other photographers using the darkroom, then the scanner(s) and finally back to the owner.  A single process is often a communal effort, and this body of work improved when I sought feedback and applied what I had learned. In short, I started the project to learn a different approach to my craft and so far I have learned a great deal.  

When and where did you capture these images?

These images were captured in Saigon.  I explored several districts, but the ones included here are from districts 4 and 5.

The Reader BW street photography on film

Who inspires you?

People.  Faces, expressions, movements, gestures, and interactions, because the smallest look or gesture can tell a story and make or break an image.  Also, good art and well-conceived, well-crafted work.

Where do you see yourself going within the next few years?

I would like to be creating more work, to have evolved and improved as a creative.  I see myself continuing to work with like-minded creatives, photographers, artists, designers, models and stylists on projects that challenge and inspire me.  

Temple Delivery BW street Photography

What is your advice to other artists?

Do personal work.  Make art that is meaningful to you.  Don’t compare yourself to others – no one can be you and express you better than you can. Set expectations and goals and push yourself. Work hard and strive to master your craft. Be kind.  Be helpful. Smile. Learn from mistakes and failures. Try not to take yourself or your work too seriously.  Some may seem generic, but they have worked for me.

A link to Mads Magazine, a publication highlighting the work of contemporary artists in Vietnam: here.

Candid Portrait Photography: Sri Lanka Diary

This is a personal reflection on my own practice of making candid photographs as well as a few tips, techniques and good practices that could be helpful to anyone with a camera wanting to go out and make candid portraits of their own.

I made these photographs on a family holiday in Sri Lanka and the ways I approached making them I have learned from observing other photographers and put into practice while walking around with a camera.

What follows is not a guide it’s just me showing you what I have made and either how I made it, what I was trying to do, or how I approached a scene. I hope that in reading this you will come across something that you find useful or interesting. Feel free to leave a question or a comment below.

Early morning village scene man on a bicycle wearing and lungi

Wake up early. The areas we know and see going about our daily lives often look very different after breakfast or long after dinner time. In the photograph above the cyclist is passing in front of a closed storefront. If I had made this photograph after 8am the scene would have been different in many ways. The store would be open, and that additional detail would be distracting. The low, warm angular light spilling down the street would have been replaced by a harder, brighter, whiter light that would have fallen at a 45 degree angle. And of course the street would be filled with cars, busses and commuters moving through the frame.

daviddredge.com-1.jpg

No matter what you are doing or where you are make a mental note of any location that you think might make for a good photograph. What time of day would the scene come alive or experience the best light? What type of equipment do you need to get the shot? For the image (above) I had heard the train rolling by from where we were staying and I made a mental note to check it out. On a family walk I found that there was a dirt road crossing at the end of the street. I decided to return the next morning when the light was better.

If you have a family, especially when you’re on holiday, consider separating your family time and more serious photography time. If you’re anything like me you will have trouble being present with your family if you are constantly looking for the next photograph. Make a mental note, make a plan, wake up early, get the shot, meet up for a late breakfast. (Unless of course you are a master at balancing your time and are able to engage fully with your family/companions and capture scenes at the same time).

Planning for the photograph of the train (a fairly mediocre image) lead me to this Image 5 minutes later on a walk along the railway tracks. Having a plan, a few potential locations to explore and even a rough route to take before you set out can be helpful as your mind is free to focus on what is happening around you and not looking at a phone or a guide.  Something to be aware of: making candid photographs of strangers often divides people, and for good reason. Some say that the more candid the approach to making a portrait the more intrusive or even exploitative it is. And I agree. Pointing a camera at someone will often raise an eyebrow and cause some apprehension, especially when the photographer or the photographers intentions are unknown. As image makers, travellers or image consumers we have to be mindful of this. Isn’t it unfair and impolite to take without asking?  So why do photographers make candid images of people? Often to capture a beautiful moment that they would not be able to make if the person was aware of the camera. The authenticity of the moment is often destroyed by this intrusion and while there is an art to being fast and unobtrusive, I think it’s best to show the photograph to the subject and to ask their permission.  In the photograph above the gentleman stopped at a small kiosk just left of frame.  To be completely honest I haven’t always used this approach and I have taken candid photographs of people without asking, but I am trying to move toward this approach and I feel more confident sharing images captured in this way.

Planning for the photograph of the train (a fairly mediocre image) lead me to this Image 5 minutes later on a walk along the railway tracks. Having a plan, a few potential locations to explore and even a rough route to take before you set out can be helpful as your mind is free to focus on what is happening around you and not looking at a phone or a guide.

Something to be aware of: making candid photographs of strangers often divides people, and for good reason. Some say that the more candid the approach to making a portrait the more intrusive or even exploitative it is. And I agree. Pointing a camera at someone will often raise an eyebrow and cause some apprehension, especially when the photographer or the photographers intentions are unknown. As image makers, travellers or image consumers we have to be mindful of this. Isn’t it unfair and impolite to take without asking?

So why do photographers make candid images of people? Often to capture a beautiful moment that they would not be able to make if the person was aware of the camera. The authenticity of the moment is often destroyed by this intrusion and while there is an art to being fast and unobtrusive, I think it’s best to show the photograph to the subject and to ask their permission.

In the photograph above the gentleman stopped at a small kiosk just left of frame.

To be completely honest I haven’t always used this approach and I have taken candid photographs of people without asking, but I am trying to move toward this approach and I feel more confident sharing images captured in this way.

Shark in fish market with fishermen

Be mindful of your body language and the body language of the people around you. If you approach people or even enter a space feeling uncertain or apprehensive this will show and it’s only natural for people to react to you in a guarded, apprehensive way. Try to be open to people and ready to share your images or to chat with people. In Sri Lanka people asked me where I was from and I always tried to use this as an icebreaker to show interest in what they were doing, or an appreciation of their beloved national sport: cricket.

If you find that people react when you raise the camera to your eye you can use this as an opportunity to ask rather than to press the shutter release. What’s the worst that can happen? They can only say no.

Be polite and respectful of people’s space. If you are entering a space where people work try to stay out of the way. In wet markets the ground is wet and slippery. Try to anticipate what you might see in the locations you plan to visit and avoid any areas that make you too uncomfortable or squeamish. In addition you’ll never regret wearing a good pair of shoes because you never know what you’ll encounter, or how long you are going to be on your feet..

salting fish fish market sri lanka

Be deliberate with your framing. Exclude any irrelevant details that do not add to your story. If possible wait for actions or interactions to unfold and raise your camera to your eye just before they happen.

Try to put yourself in situations where interesting things (whatever you find interesting) are happening all around you. And as I mentioned, think about the best time to visit, what is going to make for an interesting image? Perhaps something unusual or out of place? Or experiment with framing and positioning yourself until you make an image that has a purpose, captures a mood, an expression, or tells a story.

Be mindful of the effect of your lens choice. A wide angle lens (above) will exaggerate the scale of the scene making nearer objects appear bigger and make people even feet away from the foreground appear further away than they are. Try to fill your frame with the story or action that you intend to show and try to leave everything else outside of the frame. With wide angle lenses you generally need to get closer to the action or subject to make them prominent in the frame. With normal or longer lenses it may be easier to create tighter, cleaner compositions and if your lens doesn’t zoom: move your feet.

When photographing people try to get eye level with them. With a medium lens like a 50mm this will give just enough context and allow for a little negative space around the subject. In most cases with a portrait you want to show the subject as close to the way they appear in everyday life. People speak to one another at eye level and generally look each other in the eye.

For more stylised or emotive portraits you may want to get closer or to experiment with more unusual angles. I generally try to have the subjects eyes in the centre of the frame and two-thirds of the way up the frame.

Always focus on the eyes and make sure you have a tack-sharp image before you move off. This may involve zooming in on the eyes afterward to check that they are sharp.

Catchlights (the highlights or specks of bright light reflected in the pupil or iris of the eyes) are often very important in making a good portrait. The catchlights give the eyes depth and add a sort of spark or life to the eyes.

elderly Sri Lankan man wearing lungi

I came across this man while he was burning dried leaves. His wife and two sons live across the road, and while we could not communicate on a deep level I asked to make this portrait of him and later discovered via his son’s translation that the family run a large guest house and surf school while their father works as a tuk-tuk driver in Colombo. He was proud of his work and his tuk-tuk, he’s been a driver for 30 years. I’m not sure if this image captures him well but he is incredibly strong and fit for 71.

A few general portrait tips:

Try to position your subject’s body at a slight angle - it adds depth and is usually more flattering.

It’s often helpful to demonstrate the way you want your subject to stand or sit rather than trying to physically move them or repeating your directions.

When shooting in areas with strong sunlight - try to keep your subject in the shade and protect your highlights by underexposing slightly. Shoot RAW files: the flexibility will allow you to recover the shadows. Note that you cannot always recover the highlights if they are blown (overexposed). Check your histogram.

Make the portrait a positive experience for the subject - be polite, thank them for their time, share the image immediately after making it.

Consider posing the hands. Hands are interesting and can say alot about the person or be distracting. If your subject’s arms are hanging loose it may look awkward. Have them put their hands in their pockets, set their elbows down on a table, or have them cross their hands or arms.

Be aware of the hands, arms and feet in your frame. Try not to crop the fingers or feet - it usually looks better to place the frame above the elbow, and above the knees, if you have to.

Try to work quickly - don’t keep your subject waiting otherwise the energy and the life in their expression may fade.

fishermen with fishing net
Bicycle on a wharf

Be aware of your background - a background may make or break a portrait. Try to position yourself so that the subject is between you and a pleasing background. Consider whether the background adds context or interest to the frame or whether it distracts the viewer.

If you like the background go a step further after taking your first frame. Is there a better composition using this background? Where can you position yourself to take advantage of this? It may be worth your time to stand and wait for something to happen in this light, or against this backdrop.

Consider the light. Position yourself to create more depth or to include any interesting shadows. Creating depth and accentuating the shape of an object (like the wooden box or the bicycle above) can be achieved by including and positioning shadows relative to your subject. Focus attention on your subject by photographing it (or him or her) on a darker background, or move yourself to place shadows (cast by the subject or something else) behind your subject to act as a sort of background to increase the contrast in that area, to make the area more 3 dimensional, or to ‘make it pop out’ of the background.

muslim man reading at sunrise

When I come across a subject that I like (this gentleman above wearing a white robe, for instance) I try to position the light colours against a darker background (the darker trees in this case). This helps the form of the man to stand out from the background. In this case photographing the man from the front would have given me beautiful highlights on the right side of his face and shadows on the left, accentuating the shape of his face, however, I chose not to disturb him and used the lighthouse and sky as a background.

If the gentleman had been wearing a black suit, for example, I could have used the sky, the sea, or the lighthouse, as lighter backgrounds to separate him and create depth.

cyclist entering Galle fort

Choose a scene that you like and wait for an interesting subject to pass through it. Decide on your framing and your position and then look left and right for approaching people. Ideally you want to choose a subject before they enter your frame and then raise your camera a few seconds before they enter it. Try to decide beforehand where you want the subject to be in the frame when you capture it. Be patient - it may take a while. Make sure your settings are correct. If you are trying to freeze motion make sure your shutter speed is fast enough.

Man on a bus Galle
boy at bus window Galle
reflections and silhouettes
little face at the window
strangers on a bus

Look for frames within a frame, beams of light, colours or shapes, motifs that help to draw attention to your subject.

Go where the people are and look for interesting compositions and juxtapositions. Look for interesting things happening in otherwise arbitrary places.

Make bad pictures. Walk around and photograph anything that moves you. (not just anything that moves). When we photograph we are bringing with us our experiences, memories, knowledge and a whole host of other influences. I think in order to tap into this self, or this intuition, you need to trust your gut. For this to work try not to be too critical of yourself, and if you find yourself snapping away think, what is it that drew me to this? Is there any way I can capture it better? Is this location worth revisiting? etc

In this type of exercise it can be helpful to use a digital camera and to automate as many of the functions as possible. Try using P mode while you walk from one location to another, allow the camera to control as many operations as you are comfortable with (focus, ISO, exposure) and then just react freely. If you happen upon something truly great fire off one or two frames and then review your settings. If the settings are not optimal for what you are trying to achieve then change them.

This exercise is not helpful when you have a good idea of what you are looking for and you know how you want to capture it: it’s for when you’re ‘hoping for something unexpected’ or when you’re ‘making you own luck,’ rather than waiting to accidentally get lucky.

Doing the opposite can be even more rewarding. Revisiting a location and looking for something that you know is going to happen, with settings and equipment that you have had success with in the past.

Sunset Urban Bus and Colonial Architecture Colombo

Get creative. Creativity for me is the freedom to experiment without the fear of failure. It’s time to play and to be open to whatever happens. It’s completely natural to expect results or to set the bar high for yourself when you have been making photographs for years, but thinking this way doesn’t necessarily lead to new or even better work. For me creativity is something you nurture and practice and in doing so develop. Pressure and the fear of failure will inhibit the freedom to create and to fail.

Practicing being creative and reacting intuitively is not a waste of time. Even if you are a wedding photographer, honing your skills on the street may help you to react quickly and to problem solve when you come across difficult subjects, unforgiving weather, shitty people, or harsh light.

Fail often. One of my favourite quotes by Stephen McCranie “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Failure itself can be a lesson but we need to learn not to repeat the same mistake or be discouraged from going out and trying again. Then repeating this process until this becomes comfortable and you need to push yourself even further to get out of your comfort zone to learn again.

Gold classic car in golden light Colombo Urban street

Shooting Cinema Film in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

For my first trip to Phnom Penh I decided to take along two film stocks that I had never tried before. Kodak 500T (a tungsten balanced film) and Kodak 250D (a daylight balanced film). I only had 2 days and 2 nights in the city before returning to Saigon so I walked around all day.

KIT: For this trip I used a Nikon F100 with a 50mm f1.4 and a Minox 35ML which has a 35mm f2.8. I rated the Kodak 250D at 160ASA to retain shadow detail. Wish me luck finding this film again in Saigon, try your luck at Croplab.

Scanning: The film was scanned on a Noritsu scanner and I opted for the highest resolution 16bit BMP files from Llab.

Editing: I did a batch edit in Lightroom using a tone curve adjustment to add contrast and deepen the shadows and blacks. Nothing else, no sharpening.

Overall: I’m very happy with how the 250D rendered the colours. This retro, warmer look was exactly what I was looking for - not wanting them to look like holiday snaps but still have some cinematic character. For street photography in South East Asia I would choose Kodak 250D over the colour plus line (because I prefer the skin tones and grain here) and the Portra line (a little too expensive for street photography - for me anyway). The summery, nostalgic warm look is still present without being too dominant and having pulled the film one stop the scans I got were the right mix of desaturated, flat and tastefully warm.

As the sun went down the heavens opened on both days but I refused to give up. Determined not to leave without at least one roll of Tungsten film exposed in the glorious glow of the city. So I jumped into the nearest tuk-tuk, promised the driver a good tip if he kept the plastic tarp sides rolled up and off we sped into the dark deluge.

KIT: I rated the Kodak 500T at 250ASA (probablyout of habit). I shot the entire roll with the F100 and the 50mm f1.4. On the rare occasion that there was a break in the rain I put a Godox flash in the hot shoe and dragged the shutter to 1/5s panning the camera and using rear curtain flash. It was a bit of guesswork at times with the flash exposures as I don’t trust TTL mode (not because it doesn’t work - I just don’t use it). I had a lot of fun - riding a motorcyle through traffic in the rain in Saigon is awful but shooting out of the back of a moving tuk-tuk is brilliant.

Scanning: for some reason some of the scans came out with a crazy amount of colour noise in the shadows. I haven’t asked the lab as I assume my metering was off on those frames (maybe a stop or two underexposed?) but thankfully the whole roll wasn’t affected.

Editing: again I only used a tone curve but I brought down the shadows and blacks way way down.

Overall: I absolutely love the colours that I got from the city lights and the rainy reflections at night. I was pleasantly surprised that using the flash turned out so well: the tuk-tuk’s look like they are approaching warp-speed. This was my first experience with a Tungsten film and it didn’t disappoint. I will definitely be on the hunt for more.

Walking around San Francisco

I dedicated two full days to walking this amazing city from the Wharf to the Mission District and back. Taking a different route each time.

I regret not photographing more people on the street, but i thoroughly enjoyed making these and experiencing life in this vibrant place.

The idea was to photograph anything I saw that caught my eye. The compositions are all intentional and I almost always took a few moments to position the sun or wait for pedestrians to pass dark doorways or appear in window reflections.

The pride photographs were made on a different day - a family walkabout day.