The Perfect Picture: An evening with the National View team

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Last week saw the launch of our reader event series, A Night with The National. We invited a group of participants to join members of our photo department for an evening of street photography. The resulting photographs did a stunning job of capturing Abu Dhabi's nightlife.

Brian Kerrigan takes us through his thoughts on the evening's events.

Within 48 hours of attending a launch of the Fujifilm X100 in Dubai, our Managing Editor, Laura Koot, called me into her office. She asked if I thought we could get an event together, on a tight timeline, based around taking readers on a ‘photo walk’ of the capital. Now, as journalists, tight timelines are the name of the game; it is part of why one goes into newspapers. But the logistics of putting together an event for readers took me into uncharted territory.

My first thought was that it would be good if there was an extra element to the evening, at least to make it more special than just hanging out with me and my staff.  A quick phone call later and we were on our way, with the help of Fujifilm Middle East.

When we put out the original call for applications – requiring people to submit three of their best photos for review – I felt we would be doing very well if we received 30 applicants. Very quickly I realised I had underestimated the response. By deadline at 5pm on March 24 we had 91 applicants  – with at least a dozen more arriving in past deadline. (Sorry, folks, this is the news business – a deadline is a deadline)  The quality of the submissions was as striking and diverse as the applicants. At this point I started to feel good about the potential of the evening.

On Wednesday, March 27, we gathered at a hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi and waited the arrival of our guests. I had two staff photographers and three assistant photo editors with me for help, plus Fatima Helal Al Baloushi from our promotions department, and Laura, together with Manjeet  Varekar of McCollins Media who handles FujiFilm Middle East, and Keitaro So, General Manager of Fujifilm Electronics Imaging Division Middle East and North Africa.

Before I go any further about the evenings events, I should step back a bit and speak personally about my experiences with Fuji's X-Series cameras and specifically the X100s. Now, I won't bother repeating myself about how I came to love the X-series cameras and how they changed my life; if you want to read that it can be found on my previous post here. However, having the new X100s in my hand did take me back to my first few days of shooting with the original.

I’d been removed a little from the X100 as I’d been shooting primarily with my X-Pro1 since its release last year and also a Leica Monochrom. The X100s has a near-identical form factor to the original, so it was instantly familiar, but I was struck by how compact it was compared to the X-Pro1 or a digital Leica body.

The addition of the “Q” button (quick menu) which first showed up on the X-Pro1 was a welcome addition, putting on screen every shooting option I might want to change on the fly.

Some of the other improvements were so good they were actually causing me problems. Most notable was the vastly improved autofocus. The X100 has always been a near-silent camera, but the new AF system is in some situations nearly imperceivable, not just to the ear but in that sensation you get transmitted to your hand, the little vibration in the camera that tells you something has happened, that the lens has focused.

A few times I thought the camera hadn’t grabbed focus when in reality it had done it so quickly and with so little drama I didn’t realise.

I had a similar experience with using the six-frames-per-second drive setting. In normal street photography conditions, the drive is so quiet I couldn’t tell it was shooting at first. You get used to both, but if you’ve been away from the camera for a bit, it catches you out. The electronic view finder was also a surprise, finally being a feature I’d use regularly rather than only when doing critical edge to edge composition.

That’s not to say the camera is perfect, it still has a couple of points of frustration for me, such as how long it takes to wake up from sleep. Here you have two options:  you can turn off all the power-save features and carry a load of batteries with you, or, as I quickly trained myself to do with the original X100 and X-Pro1, switch the camera off when it is by your side. The cameras boot so fast that by the time it’s to your eye, it’s ready to shoot.

That brings me to another point about the camera, or more specifically, the company that makes it. Fujifilm has been impressive in how it listens and reacts to feedback. It seems proactive in tracking user comments and regularly puts out firmware updates to fix problems and improve performance. It’s a refreshing change from the big two DSLR producers who seem very distant from their respective users.

Back to Wednesday night.

Our guests started to flow in and socialise with my staff. Keitaro-san put X100s into their hands and after a short presentation by me of some of my own street photography, primarily shot around Abu Dhabi, and some tips using the techniques to express your creative side, we sent them out for an hour of shooting.

The hour on the street was nothing short of amazing. When I first stepped out of the hotel I could see at least six members of the group. After only about five minutes of trying to film a to-camera piece for our multimedia video, I looked around and they were gone.

I started to track around the neighborhood looking for our guests or my staff. When I did finally find people, the energy I witnessed was mind blowing.

People were really working everything they saw, and by luck it was one of the busiest nights I’d ever seen in that city block, so there was no shortage of subject matter. There were also some wonderfully comic moments, like a slightly panicked SMS from one of my editors, Rob: “I’ve lost Chad!!!”. By luck, I found him a few minutes later moving like an Olympic athlete through the crowds. When he stopped for a few seconds to work a photo, I grabbed my phone to text Rob a reassuring: “I found him”. However, in the time it took to do that, Chad was gone again. Man, he moves fast.

There were other great scenes, such as Phil Burgess working hard to get the perfect photo of a boy on a bike with a cap gun. A huge crowd had formed around the boy who was loving the attention. I saw two members of my staff join games of street football, with varying degrees of ability. And I had some great fun with folks in the neighbourhood while trying to do my on-camera work. I’m about as uncomfortable as one can be in front of a camera, so letting the kids steal the show was a relief to me.

Returning to the hotel my team jumped into action, processing cards and editing the photographers’ work down to three best photos each. When we presented the images for critique I must admit, I had a little bit of a ‘lump-in-the-throat’ moment.

The quality of the work produced by this group was outstanding. I was the guest speaker, I was the one who was meant to inspire but at the end of the night, I was the one inspired. The camera seemed to live up to the billing I gave it, but we should not forget every camera is only as good as the person using it.

These images, presented here, speak of the level of talent in the photo community in the UAE, particularly when keeping in mind many of our guests, while passionate about photography, are not working professionals.

A Case in point is the photographer behind our winning image. Niharika Patel is a lawyer, having worked in New York, London and Paris before moving to Dubai four years ago. I was lucky enough to chat with her a few times during the evening and it was clear she was very dialed in to all things photographic. Frankly, I assumed she was a freelance photographer I hadn’t somehow met yet.

Niharika’s winning image was also a surprise, mostly for my staff. I was tasked with selecting the winning frame and it wasn’t easy. I narrowed the selections down to a top five or six, then a final three. My staff know I always try to push for real moments and keeping portraits as a fall back. However, this portrait of a man was so well composed, so striking, and had so much depth I really fell in love with it instantly.

The man is looking straight at me, straight into my soul. The image has wonderful depth due to the near perfect lighting and a wonderful wisp of lens flare from the background lights. For me, a basic measure of a really great photo is if I could picture having a huge print of it hanging in my living-room, something that would create conversation when guests came round, something I wouldn’t tire of looking, something that wouldn’t feel dated as time passed. This image ticks all of those boxes and so many more.

Again, the quality of the images from the evening as a whole was outstanding. The event could not have happened without support from the people at Fujifilm Middle East, The National and my wonderful team.

Perhaps this is the first of many photo walks, perhaps it was a one-off, but either way it was really one of the best nights I’ve had in many years.

Thank you to everyone involved.