The plan, as it stood, was not exactly complex. Walk to square as dusk falls and the lights come on, shoot, and return; that was about it. The Pelourinho in the old town of Salvador was only a ten minute walk from my hotel, this should have been as simple a shoot as there was to plan for and execute, but there were certain local circumstances that added a few complications; namely other people, and the perceived threat that implied. Just a week previously I’d been mugged in Rio de Janeiro and I wasn’t that keen to go through the experience again. The intervening week at Argentina’s Iguazu Falls had provided much needed photographic therapy, but now back in an earthy Brazilian city with a reputation for violent crime even worse than Rio’s I was not exactly in the laid back mental space that normally comes about towards the end of a trip. In fact to be honest I was decidedly twitchy, and constantly looking over my shoulder.
The previous day walking down the street just outside my hotel two local ladies had cautioned me about having a camera on me, then last night in the bar I watched with grim fascination a documentary on the Policia Militar, Brazil’s beleaguered police force who seem to have a reputation only slightly more reputable than the favella crime gangs they’re locked in armed conflict with. There was no getting away from it; this was a risky place to be for a solitary photographer laden with expensive equipment. But if I was just going to skulk about in the hotel I might as well have gone straight home. That was an option I seriously considered, but the professional travel photographer in me baulked. I was there to do a job, so somehow I had to come up with a plan that minimised the risks of a night shoot yet enabled me to make the images I needed to make the trip worthwhile.
I’d scouted the location; the brightly coloured facades of the colonial architecture which made Salvador a UNESCO World Heritage city clustered around the steep cobbled square were just too tantalising to miss out on. But even there in the square I wouldn’t feel safe stood by my tripod, bag at my feet, an all too temptingly static sitting target, and just getting there and back through the mean streets fully equipped was something I couldn’t take for granted. More than ever the plan was crucial, not just for the success of the shoot but for my own safety. I’d narrowly escaped a rusty blade in the gut in Rio; tempting fate again wasn’t an appealing option.
More than anything else the tripod seemed the problem. It would make me stand out like a beacon to any passing thug and rob me of all mobility once erected. So I took a radical step and decided to dispense with it. That went against the grain, but I knew my camera was capable of impressive low light performance; now was the time to rely on it. I also knew the exact composition of the shot I wanted; my fast 35mm prime lens would be perfect. I could strip the gear I needed down to just the body without battery grip and the one lens; that was it. My Manfrotto Brio 30 Sling would be perfect for this shoot, as it had been shooting the street life in the Old Town the previous day. Hopefully I’d look just like any other tourist; not that that was any security, but at least I’d minimise my losses. After the shoot I’d hide the memory card where the sun doesn’t shine (don’t ask) for the walk back through the streets in the darkness. At least if I were robbed then I’d have my RAWs. As I set out at the end of the day laden with just a pouch I felt trepidation but also a sense of determination. I had a plan.
It worked. I’m not going to make a habit of leaving the tripod behind and shooting night scenes hand held, but in this case it was the best option. In fact using an ISO of 1600 with a relatively fast exposure of 1/30 sec @ f3.5 allowed me to include a cyclist in the frame which lifted the shot nicely; had I been working on the tripod he would have just been a blur. In this case coming up with a workable plan stiffened my resolve to make the most of being there and enabled me to finish the trip on a positive note.
We always need a plan. Walking out the door hoping to stumble randomly over photographic opportunities never works. Of course few plans work out quite as they are envisaged, but a starting point is always needed, even if we end up subsequently veering off piste. A plan to be ignored or revised at will is a far far better thing that I do than none at all.
There’s a viewpoint of Carcassone from a vineyard to the south. No one has yet seemed to mind me driving my Land Rover Discovery around the dirt track at the edge to park right by where I plan to shoot. Its a neat way of working with all my stuff from long lenses to multiple bodies handy and a baguette, cheese and wine arrayed on the tailgate while we wait for the light. Sadly such locations are a rarity, so most of the time we need to lug what we need, often up very steep hills. Tough choices have to be made; I have far more photographic equipment than I am able to carry on my back at once. So compromises are inevitable. Most of the time I will have a firm idea of what I’m shooting and what lens I’ll need, so working as I did in Salvador with just one body and lens using the Brio 30 Sling is often the way forward.
I need to be flexible, yet as mobile as possible. Taking too much is always a mistake, particularly when on foot. I can after all only use one camera and lens at a time, and when the walk in becomes a feat of endurance the experience is robbed of all enjoyment. On balance it’s probably better to pack too light then too heavy. Better to Be There with a camera and lens that may not have been your preferred choice than not at all, and sometimes working light with just one or two lenses can open up a way of looking and working that has a distinct creative appeal. I will in crowded environments such as markets routinely work with just two primes; my 35mm/f1.4 and the 85mm/f1.4. For such shoots the Brio 30 Sling is ideal.
Hopefully you’re getting my point by now; we may all be precious creative types, but there’s no room for arty insouciance when planning a shoot. The preparation needs be military in its precision; in my book at least. Have you ever swapped camera bags only to discover as the light fleetingly beams through the only gap in the clouds you’ve left your filter holder in the other? Or realised you’d neglected to fit the quick release plate to the camera? Or run out of battery power with no spare? Or realised your memory cards have not been formatted in readiness and still hold precious images from previous shoots which may or may not have been backed up? Or done a whole shoot with the ISO still inadvertently set to 3200? Or attempted a perceptive portrait with a subject who’s relaxed expression is destined not to last only to realise mirror-lock or the self-timer is still activated? Or shot on the wrong exposure mode with a shutter speed too slow for hand-held captures? Or shot assuming AF is off when it is not, or vice versa? We all have, but hopefully only once. Learning from past mistakes is what makes us better quicker. There is so much that can and will go wrong, but virtually all eventualities can be avoided with proper preparation.
All images copyright David Noton Photography