Rainha Santa - Shooting the procession with the Fuji X-Pro1
Rainha Santa Isabel, or simply the "Holy Queen", is known for the Miracle of the Roses. She is the patroness of the city of Coimbra and every two years, only in the even-numbered years, the processions are performed in her honor.
I had never seen it, but I had long thought to come and photograph. This year I had the chance and, on the 5th of July at the end of the afternoon, I went to the Church of the Holy Queen, from where the procession starts.
As several groups lined up to join the penitential procession, in which many people come to fulfill their promises, several professional photographers zigzag through the line to portray them, hoping to later sell some photographs. Times have changed and this market is about to disappear as people record those memories with their mobile phones. Still, with their large, flash-equipped DSLRs, they keep shooting. The sun is still high and the light not very flattering, so I keep my camera in the messenger bag.
The procession is already long, reaching the Santa Clara bridge, and I'm still up here without having advanced more than 10 meters. I noticed that there were only two speeds available:
Static, like all those who are watching on the sidewalks, some even with benches and camping chairs;
Walking, in the procession.
Faced with these options, if I really want to photograph I have only one solution, which is to get into the procession and follow the groups that go down the Calçada de Santa Isabel toward the bridge.
Speaking of Photography, I now take the opportunity to make a short break to say a few words about the subject. As I slowly walk down the road and think about the kind of photography I'm going to do, I watch along the way several people with cameras in their hands, seizing the last minutes of light before the sunset. The typical casual photographers who went to see their relatives. Those who go in the procession itself, and most of the photographs they take are "selfies" with their mobile phones. And, of course, those advanced enthusiasts who invested a good money in equipment and, with their long telephoto lenses, are capturing some close-up shots of people in the procession. In my case, I am here because this is a subject that I was particularly interested in photographing, a personal project, such as 90% of the photography I do. And this year I was fortunate enough to come here. But I'm not really interested to capture the typical cliché that has been done thousands of times. Looking at the kind of images that most here are doing, the subject, the framing, the light, everything that composes a photograph, I realized that those are exactly the ones I don't want to do. If I take any photo of this sort, I'm sure there will be at least a hundred identical, most likely far better than mine. Currently, this is probably the greatest challenge in photography. And those who regularly visit blogs and social networks know exactly what I mean. The same images are captured nonstop by different photographers, leaving a continued feeling of déjà vu.
Whatever the theme, portrait, fashion, cooking or travel for example, success is measured by the amount of followers and likes. More than success, quality. A photographer with tens of thousands of followers is clearly good. But does he shoot the subjects he really appreciates? Or does he simply follows a recipe that, at the moment, leads to success? But the problem becomes more complex when one realizes that this formula is changing from time to time. Those who closely follow photography groups and social media are well aware of the current trend. Portfolios under the theme of Outdoor / Adventure / Travel, images processed with presets that are copy of each other. Desaturated colours, a tent on the mountain, a person on the edge of a cliff, a campfire with a magnificent mountain landscape in the background, the front of a canoe in a lake, a young woman with a hat turned on her back and with her hair blowing in the wind, a silhouette in the night with a flashlight pointed to the Milky Way, a person wearing a yellow raincoat at the base of a waterfall. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. This is the current trend, that replaced the previous one, the one of the portraits processed with the supposedly "analog" presets, with unrealistic skin tones, faded colours, images without contrast. Having shot a few hundred rolls in the past, I have never seen film doing that to a portrait. But plenty of these presets were sold with the promise of bringing the charm of film back.
Now that this short break begins to get too long, it's best to return to the procession. But deep down I wanted to point out that it's important to photograph what we really enjoy, what interests and motivates us. Whether it is for some particular reason or because it's a challenge that we want to overcome.
Arriving at the Santa Clara bridge, and having the sun already disappeared on the horizon, now I take my camera from the bag. At home I had many doubts about what to bring, but finally I decided to come as light as possible, just one camera and lens, in this case the Fuji X-Pro1 and the XF 35mm f/1.4, some spare batteries and nothing else. Being a camera with an APS-C sensor this lens has an equivalent field of view of a 53mm in full frame, which limits the options a bit. It’s not wide enough to shoot some wider plans of the procession, nor long enough to capture close-up portraits. So what is it good for? This body and lens make a very compact and discreet camera that doesn't draw attention like a DSLR with a 70-200mm and allows me a great mobility among people, to shoot close enough without being noticed. Allows shooting in very low light, almost in the dark. In fact, when the sun went down and everyone started to put away their cameras that suddenly became useless, that's when I took mine from the bag. The X-Pro1 has also plenty of drawbacks. Being from the first generation of the Fuji X-system cameras, it presents a series of shortcomings that were later corrected by the second and third generations, such as the X-Pro2, X-T2 and X-H1. The focus is awfully slow, in any lighting situation, not just in the dark. When you need to focus manually, the assist system is not as easy and quick as Sony's for example. The rear screen does not tilt to allow shooting at those higher or lower angles. After capturing each image it's necessary to wait a brief period until the camera is ready for another, which means that when the shutter button is pressed, we must be sure that it's the right moment. This just to name a few less positive details. But, by recognizing its limitations and knowing how the camera reacts, we must learn to anticipate in order to make the best use of it.
The light was interesting, though difficult. A mix of several types of artificial light with the last trace of light in the sky. Correcting all this in post-processing on the computer would be a tremendous mess. But why fix it in the first place? That was the light that actually was there at that moment, so it's best to assume it, just as it is. So I decide to shoot only in Jpeg and give up the flexibility of Raw files.
The image of the Holy Queen left Santa Clara well after me, so I wait near the river for its passage. While waiting I start photographing the people who, like me, are waiting for the Queen to arrive. Candlelight is something that fascinates me. The way it illuminates faces in contrast to the surrounding dark environment, its warm tone, the way people keep them protected, close to their bodies. The fireworks begin and I think of how to photograph it. But photographing the fireworks framing only the explosions of light... I could do it in any place, they're all the same. So how can I make this firework tell a story? How can it stop being any other firework and become the one from the Holy Queen festivities? And the answer is actually quite simple: putting it inside the city, on the location, with people watching, reflected in the windows of the Astoria Hotel.
And finally comes the Holy Queen. The framing is not the best and I change my position several times. In the background there are traffic signs, electric cables, a bus stop. But then I think, why want to change reality, if this is the one that exists? It is in fact the place where the procession will take place, whatever comes up in the background, it's really there, so why change it? To make the photos look prettier, aesthetically more pleasing, but that don't represent reality?
Besides showing the procession of the Holy Queen and addressing an invitation to everyone who want to visit Coimbra in 2020 to attend the festivities, in this article I also wanted to express my point of view on the current state of Photography. Obviously one can not generalize, because I have seen absolutely brilliant pieces of work in many areas of Photography, with immense creativity and originality. In the present times, so much and so good work has been produced like never before, carried out by all age groups and with the most diverse tools, even smartphones.
So, to conclude, I would like to leave the following advices, or better yet, my views and opinions:
We must try to capture what we really enjoy, what we're really interested in. Often photography involves traveling, spending time away from home, getting up early, getting to know the subjects deeply, purchasing specific equipment. It would be a waste of resources if it were not to do something that truly gives us pleasure, right?
If we shoot in order to follow trends, to create images from the most popular genres at the moment, this may result in the short term. But if the goal is only achieving immediate success, that will soon become demotivating. In addition, those trends are changing all the time.
Social networks and blogs are great to see the work that others are doing. Some really inspire us to get out and shoot. And sometimes that is just what we need. But much as we admire the work of some photographers, we should avoid the temptation to imitate them, photographing the same subjects, with the same equipment and the same editing work. The results will be no more than copies of a work that already exists. And often copies of lower quality, because many photos were the result of months of preparation and frequent visits to the places. Is that what we really want?
If a particular location or event is very popular to photographers, we should think twice about whether we want to spend resources and time to go there. But if we really want to photograph it, we must pay attention to the work that others are doing. Those places where most photographers are concentrated, the most popular angles of view, those that we know are a guaranteed recipe for a successful photo... are exactly the ones we should avoid. If everyone is in a certain place in large groups and waiting their turn to take a picture, it's to the opposite side that we must go, the one from which no one has yet photographed.
When starting a new project, all the preparation work is important, but we must leave room for some improvisation and embrace the unknown. Sometimes the results are surprising.