Low Light And Low Life

If I were a press photographer, I’d hate digital cameras. Any newspaper snapper dreads the stake-out. The news desk has a story on a crooked landlord/ politician/ businessman, whatever. There is no legitimate way of getting a picture of the guy without warning him that someone is on his case. Enter the dreaded stake-out and the ‘snatch’ shot. That is, a shot that is taken on the fly without the knowledge of the subject.

Such assignments are as old as press photography itself and they are a great leveler. I might think of myself as a show biz photographer, studio man, all the glamour stuff, but when a reporter phones in with an urgent snatch pic to be done, it’s a matter of who is in the office, not who you are.

A mentor of mine as a young national newspaperman was a veteran staffer of the London Evening News, George Harris. He told me one day about a really nasty stake-out. The London Evening News were running a piece on Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, a London gangster who ran illegal betting operations. He was in Soho, so George drove up there and parked across the narrow road from the building where Spot was, to wait for him to come out. He’d been sitting there for a few hours (parking in Soho was a little different in those days) with his camera on his lap and the car window half-open ready to snatch a shot and drive off before Comer saw him.

Suddenly, he sees the door opposite start to open and raises his camera. And equally suddenly, night falls. The inside of the car goes dark. George takes his Rollei from his eye…to stare straight at the crutches of several very large mens’ trousers blocking the windows of his little car. At which a massive fist comes through the half-open window, grabs George’s camera and politely but firmly suggests to him that he “wouldn’t be wanting to take any pictures of Mr, Comer, would he?”. “I most certainly would not”, says George, equally firmly, at which the massive fist hands him back his camera, daylight re-enters the car and George drives off to the pub and a stiff whisky.

There was one saving grace to those stake-outs. The subject shouldn’t know a picture had been taken, so you couldn’t use flash, which meant that, given the film and lens speed available in the 50s, a stake-out had to finish when the light went. In the winter, late afternoon, even in the summer, by 9 or 10pm you’d be off the hook.

Nowadays, dial up ISO 3200, open up your zoom to f2.8 and with the image stabilization there are very few places so dark you won’t get a decent sharp exposure.

As an example, I went to Bruge, Belgium, for a couple of days this week. Going out for dinner in the evening, I took my Panasonic GH3 with 12-35 and 35-100 f2.8 Panasonic zooms in my bag. On the way, I passed a narrow, dimly lit street much like some of the alleyways of Soho (for my non-English readers, Soho was renowned as the red light and shady demi-monde area of London). I wondered, idly, what modern gear would be like on a stakeout so I just waited until someone came up the street an fired off a couple frames. This is a shot over which I took no trouble, just stood up the street and fired off hand held. The lens was set at 50mm, obviously I’d have used 100mm, 200mm equivalent, if I’d have been serious.

image-1Frankly, it’s appalling. Awful. A nightmare.
If I pull it up to show the person, it’s even worse!
image-1-2These results are, effortlessly, better than I used to get with my 300mm f2.8 multi thousand pound Nikkor with Tri-X black and white film pushed to 1600 ISO and a ‘full frame’ (by definition) Nikon camera.

It is utterly awful. I used to knock off when it got dark. Now I’d be sitting in my ****ing car all night.

And that’s why, If I were a press photographer today I’d hate digital cameras.

4 thoughts on “Low Light And Low Life

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      It s a nice story, isn’t it? George was a great raconteur. Taking zooms to dinner? Sad old ***, aren’t I? Having said that, I’d never have taken any of my DSLR zooms out for dinner but the MFT ones slot nicely into my shoulder bag and weigh very little, so it’s no hardship really. And you never know when a picture will appear. That’s the press man in me!

      1. John Kennan

        Yes, great story. I just had a flashback to taking my GF1 out to dinner in Bruges a couple of years ago as it’s so pocketable. I remember using the self timer to get a canalside shot in near total darkness.

        1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

          Self timer is so handy. I’d like to use the electronic shutter and shutter delay for those kind of shots but you can only use the ES it up to one second. It’s to do with heat generation on long exposures causing noise, I believe.


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