Vacation Street Photography Challenge

(Come Towards the Light by Christopher Parsons)

This year I took a very late vacation while Toronto was returning to its new normal. I’ve been capturing the city throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and I wanted to focus in on how the streets felt.

During the pandemic we’ve all been attached to our devices, and our phones in particular, and thus decided to document the city through the lens of our ever-present screen: the smartphone. I exclusively shot with my iPhone 12 Pro using the Noir filter. This filter created a strong black and white contrast, with the effect of deepening shadows and blacks and lifting highlights and whites. I choose this, over a monotone, as I wanted to emphasize that while the city was waking up there were still stark divides between the lived experiences of the pandemic and a continuation of strong social distancing from one another.

95% of my photos were captured using ProRaw with the exception of those where I wanted to utilize Apple’s long exposure functionality in the Photos application.

Darkroom Settings

In excess of the default Noir filter, I also created a secondary filter in Darkroom that adjusted what came off the iPhone just a bit to establish tones that were to my liking. My intent was to make the Noir that much punchier, while also trying to reduce a bit of the sharpness/clarity that I associate with Apple’s smartphone cameras. This adjustment reflected, I think, that digital communications themselves are often blurrier or more confused than our face-to-face interactions. Even that which seems clear, when communicated over digital systems, often carries with it a misrepresentation of meaning or intent.

I also added artificial grain to the photos. This was meant, in part, to link this series of photos with the thematics I try and bring into my other black and white photography and, also, to emphasize how the imperfections of both digital technologies (the sensor) and communications can lead to something that is both more opaque, and more beautiful, than a perfect representation of our perceived reality.

The specific Darkroom filter settings were:

  • Contrast: 10
  • Clarity: -10
  • Highlights: -15
  • Shadows: 6
  • Whites: 7
  • Blacks: -5
  • Grain: 15

I found myself sometimes deepening shadows and blacks from the preset, and increasing the whites slightly from time to time. Nonetheless, the above recipe combined with the Noir filter brought almost all my images to about 97% completion.

Traversing Toronto

Over the few weeks that I had off I walked 195 kilometres throughout Toronto’s downtown area. Walking has been my principle method of getting around through the pandemic; it both restricted the geographical distances I could visit for the past 19 months while, also, deepening my familiarity with some of Toronto’s empty streets.

I was blessed with a good mix of weather situations that ranged from overcast, to slightly rainy, to sunny. Save for one day I was able to get out and wander the city every day without risk of getting soaked.

Generally the photographic situation was routinely like shooting with a giant soft box diffusing the natural light. This softened the strong blacks and whites I’d planned to use throughout the two week project, and also resonated in some ways with how, at this stage of the pandemic, those strong contrasts are fading in some people’s memories. Streets are starting to fill up and things and slowly getting back to normal. The black and white that many people faced, or saw others facing, is slowly fading into a multitude of greys.