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Getting Boston into finer focus

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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The photo doesn’t do it justice.

It’s a mantra that many of us have uttered when showing off our vacation snapshots, perhaps in tribute to the majesty of the subject, but probably more as a wistful lament of our failure to capture its grandeur with our meager skills.

Bad travel photography plagues many of us. There are the blurry nighttime photos of the Eiffel Tower that look like they were shot after imbibing a bottle of Bordeaux, images so crooked that the Leaning Tower of Pisa comes out looking perfectly upright, and, worst of all, ho-hum shots of familiar landmarks.

In a quest to improve myself — and learn more about my hometown — I joined Saba Alhadi on her PhotoWalks tours of Boston. Alhadi’s expeditions in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the Freedom Trail, the Public Garden, and the waterfront are part history lesson, part photography workshop using the city as a classroom.

On a picture-perfect spring morning (we hoped), our camera-toting group of eight meets on the steps of the Boston Public Library to explore the Back Bay with our SLRs and point-and-shoots.

After telling us a little about the history and architecture of the library, Alhadi has us take some shots of the bronze statues of Science and Art that flank the Copley Square entrance. “Composition is the first step to good photography, and your shooting position is critical to the composition. Even a few inches can make a big difference,’’ she says. It’s a lesson we quickly learn as she shows us how a slight shift in our stance eliminates a distracting lantern from the background of our photographs.

Throughout the tour, Alhadi drives home the importance of positioning by instructing where to stand to capture the desired shot. “Stand right here on these three small leaves,’’ she tells us at one stop, like a director instructing an actor on where to hit a mark.

In order to be in an optimal position, you have to be prepared to do a little contorting. Alhadi often has us crouch to a low vantage point to eliminate distracting urban elements, such as street traffic, from the background. To snap a bronzed fireman’s hat at the Vendome Firefighters Memorial, we kneel down to replace a busy background of parked cars on Commonwealth Avenue with a verdant backdrop of leafy trees. To get a perfect silhouette of the “Boy and Bird’’ fountain in the Public Garden, Alhadi has me hop down into its partially dry bed.

“I want you to learn to shoot creatively,’’ Alhadi says. “You should always be asking yourselves, How can I take this shot as creatively as I can?’’

On all her PhotoWalks tours, Alhadi is constantly on the lookout for arches, windows, doorways, and trees that can frame subjects and add interest to our photos. In the Public Garden, she has me use overhanging branches to frame the top of a picture and draw attention to the Swan Boats that were the main subject of my photograph.

Alhadi also tells us how to properly set up a shot to give it some balance, which in some cases means breaking away from our conventional mindsets. As we size up the Old South Church from Copley Square, Alhadi tells us that we should leave its tower out of the shot or else we will be left with blue sky overwhelming the image.

We also learn how to position our cameras to make our photos more dynamic. When photographing the John Hancock Tower, Alhadi has us place the pinnacle of the building in the upper right hand corner of our vertical shot to add diagonals and movement.

Another secret Alhadi shares is to think beyond standard panoramic views of some subjects. “Sometimes it’s impossible to capture the entire subject in the photograph, so think about breaking it down into smaller parts,’’ she tells us.

It’s an approach that we take on numerous statues around the city. Rather than trying to get an overall shot, we zoom in on a statue’s individual elements such as the paintbrush in the right hand of John Singleton Copley in the square named after him, or a tight profile of a pensive Phillis Wheatley at the Boston Women’s Memorial.

To avert those boring travel snapshots, Alhadi emphasizes the importance of taking photographs at an angle. On her Freedom Trail tour, she demonstrates how a straight-on shot makes the soldiers in the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial appear simply two-dimensional, while photographing the sculpture from one side gives it depth and makes it appear as if the famed 54th Regiment is in motion. After telling us to always be looking for repetition, she has us take close-up pictures of the soldiers’ feet marching in unison and the parallel lines of their rifles.

Throughout her tours, Alhadi demonstrates her eye for detail and a knack for discovering great shots in unlikely places, such as reflections in puddles, windows, and even the chrome of motorcycle mirrors. Whenever she comes upon a shot she likes, she quickly whips out her compact point-and-shoot, extends her arm, and snaps away. After showing us the image on her digital camera screen, it’s our turn. But no matter how carefully I try to craft my shots, they always fall short of Alhadi’s.

Our photographic subjects are hardly restricted to famous landmarks. We snap flower boxes, brass doorknockers, and ornamentations on wrought iron fences. Alhadi points out colorful slices of urban life that make excellent subjects, such as a multi-hued row of Red Sox T-shirts on a vendor cart near the Old State House or a veritable rainbow of fruit in front of DeLuca’s Market.

Residents on a PhotoWalks tour will find that the camera lens acts like a microscope, illuminating small details of the cityscape that may have been overlooked in a lifetime of hustle and bustle. “Walking adds to your visual sense, and photography enhances your observation skills,’’ Alhadi says. “I can’t tell you how many times locals tell me, I walked by that a hundred times and never noticed it.’’

Even though I had walked the Freedom Trail on scores of occasions, it wasn’t until Alhadi pointed them out as photo subjects that I noticed the corner balcony of the Park Street Church that overlooks Boston Common or the engraving of an hourglass with wings — reminding us that “time flies’’ — on a granite column along the Granary Burying Ground gate.

Alhadi, a self-trained professional photographer, started PhotoWalks in 2002 after the idea struck on a picture-taking stroll around Boston Common. “I was thinking about what a beautiful place this is, but that people might not really know how to capture the city with their photographs, so I just suddenly had this inspiration.’’

Many photographers are thankful for that inspiration, and only hope their friends and family will notice after the next vacation.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

PhotoWalks

800-979-3370

www.photowalks.com

Year-round tours of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and the Freedom Trail and seasonal tours of the Public Garden and the waterfront. Adult $30, youth $15. Price includes a booklet that recaps tips shared on the tour.