Thursday, August 20, 2009


© David Toczko

Sometimes the less said about a photograph, the better. Such is the case with this image I call "Homer" and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions. I will, however, give you the back story on how I came to capture this image.
I was in New York City a couple years ago and went to Washington Square Park for a day of recreational photography. While I was photographing the fountain at the center of the park, a homeless gentleman approached me and said, "Hey man, it's my birthday...take my picture". Not really knowing what to do and not wanting any trouble, I turned towards him and fired off a quick shot. As I started to turn back towards the fountain, he thanked me, saying he didn't know if he would live to see his next birthday. Well, I was overcome. I do not carry cash on the streets of New York but had stashed five dollars in my pocket in case I wanted a cup of coffee or the like while I was out. I dug into my pocket, handed him the five dollars and told him that was all the cash I had. He thanked me and walked away. I didn't get a chance to hear his story or even get his name. I resumed photographing the park and didn't give the matter any more thought.
Once I returned home, I started sorting through the hundreds of images I had taken during that week in New York and came across this photo and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I just stared at the computer screen with his image on it for what must have been a half an hour. I had to give him a name...but what? Since he was homeless on his birthday, I decided on Homer.
I have been back to New York several times since my chance encounter and have gone to that park in the hopes of seeing him. If nothing else to make sure he is alright, to tell him what an impact his photograph has had on me and others who have seen it and to hopefully learn his name and his story. So far, I have not seen him there. I will be back in New York in October and will once again go to Washington Square Park to look for Homer.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pictures vs. Photographs (Part 2)

Now that I have you rolling around on the ground, it is time to talk about backgrounds. While a close-up always makes a nice photograph, having something in the background of the main subject can add interest and a sense of time and place to an image. Think about that family vacation. A tight head shot would look the same at Disney World as one taken at the Grand Canyon. Have the Magic Kingdom in the background and even Aunt Maude will know where it was taken. How much detail that can be discerned in the background is a function of depth of field which is a topic we can tackle in a future entry. The mantra here is that the background should compliment, not distract from, the subject.

© David Toczko

Take a moment before firing off that shot to scan the background. Is there an unsightly sign you really don't want in the shot? Are there strangers wandering about nearby that could distract the viewer? The photo above is a good example. I wanted the view through the window included to give a sense of place to the image. Scanning the background just before I released the shutter, I noticed a man and woman walking down the road. Having them in the image would pull the viewer's attention away from the chairs and the cascading sunlight to what was going on in the background. My solution? Stop...take a breath and just wait for them to walk out of the shot. Five seconds of waiting saved me untold work on the computer later.

Try to move the objects out of the shot if possible. Have your subject move slightly or you can reposition yourself to avoid getting that trash can in the family reunion photo. In a more kinetic environment, such as a wedding where you are so focused on "getting the shot", it is nice to have an assistant literally looking over your shoulder with the expressed purpose of being on the lookout for such things. Those flowers on the altar are beautiful, but pose a bride in front of them and they will appear to be growing out of her head in the final image.
Don't rely on post-production editing to do this for you unless absolutely unavoidable. How many times have you heard, "Oh, you can just Photoshop that out."? Editing background clutter takes time, a lot of time and in more cases than not, creates its own set of problems with the image. Take the before and after comparison below as an example. (You can click on the images for a larger version) There are a host of problems related to background and foreground with the first image. A woman is in the window across the street, a car is passing out of view on the street, an ashtray and traffic cone are in the foreground. What a mess! After about an hour of work in Photoshop, those issues were resolved in the second image. Take the few extra seconds when you are framing the shot and do "Pre-Production Editing".

In the real-time world, our mind focuses on the point of interest and we don't often see what may be in front of or behind that point. In the split second timelessness of a photograph, those items can ruin an otherwise wonderful image. We are working against human nature, but with time, patience and practice, this simple step can become second nature and will help create memorable photographs.