Why Words Shout Out Loud In Street Photos

If words appear in a photo it’s impossible to ignore them. They shout at us loud and clear. Even when they’re in a foreign language we feel their power. We know they will speak immediately and directly to anyone who understands their language.

In a street photo, words can eclipse the rest of the content. Writ large or small they are the first objects to catch the eye. What’s more: they’re everywhere: on posters, on street furniture, on tee-shirts and newsstands. You can’t easily avoid words when you’re out on the street, so maybe it’s best to make good use of them.

Sometimes I try to combine words on a sign or poster with other parts of the image, making them seem to comment on the action. Words are static within a photo so it’s important to contrast them by showing activity as well, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing but a still life. The result may not be a bad picture, but in street photography we’re mostly trying to capture the actual life of the street.

In my featured image (from Singapore, above) there can be no doubt about the subject, which is labelled in letters writ large. Once you’ve been lured inside the restaurant you’ll be able to read the “small print,” including a warning sign (at the top of the picture) and the apologies for “inconvenience.”

Colours and Contrasts
I often talk in this blog about the deliberate use of colours and contrasting content to create a meaningful composition. Sometimes the meaning can be discovered later, once you’ve processed the image and examined it more closely.

When I took the following picture I was struck by a combination of blues and blacks, with only a hint of any other colour in the frame. The lady’s face reminded me of an elderly aunt from my childhood, while the dog offered a wonderful contrast in both age and colour. Likewise, the coffee in the advert looks warm and inviting, whereas the lady and the dog are well wrapped up against the cold.

Only when I looked at the image more objectively did I realise that the old lady was clearly not a customer of Caffé Nero and was unlikely to have been waiting for a skinny latte or cappuccino. I have to say I’m not happy with the dead space at the lower right, but I like the contrast between subject and setting.

Photographers tend to be more attuned to visual appearances than to the written or spoken word, making them less likely to pay attention to the effect of words on the viewer.

Anglo Saxon four-letter words are the most violent in the English language, but you often see them on tee-shirts or scrawled on walls as graffiti. For years, a disused cinema in my neighbourhood had the “C-word” etched back-to-front in dust on an inside, upper window. It gave a “too strong” flavouring to any street photo which included it in the background, rather as if a bitter spice were being added to the dish of the day.

Word On The Street
One photographer who notices words is Richard Nagler. He published a book called “Word On The Street” (Heyday, 2010) in which each photograph contains just a single word surrounded by other content. He describes how he was working on a different project in Oakland, California, when he saw an elderly woman looking of a window above a large (and unlit) neon sign saying TIME. On that occasion he failed to get the shot because the woman drew the curtains, but he went back (time and again!) until he saw her at the window once more and captured something similar.

You can find the image, among others in the series, on Richard Nagler’s website.

Gratuitous Language
In stores and malls you often see words that seem purely gratuitous and meaningless, although they later take on meaning when the rest of the advertising campaign comes along.

Here’s a family in Bangkok who are time-wasting, maybe hoping that “something exciting” is on its way. It probably isn’t.

For excitement you have to go out on the street. There, girls parade with highly provocative, and, it has to be said, very amusing words on their tee-shirts. I particularly liked the one below.

Today, words and photography are inextricably bound together. You can no longer prise them apart.

The Art of Colour Matching

If your street photography is entirely black and white, look away now. Little of what I’m going to say in this article has anything to do with taking pictures without colour. It’s all about the art of colour matching.

The idea of matching various components of the image is not, of course, limited to colour photography. For example, in the absence of colour you can match shapes — and this has long been a favourite ploy of street photographers shooting in black and white. A bent elbow here, another bent elbow there. Voila! You’ve found two matching shapes in otherwise unrelated subjects — and the picture looks more satisfying as a result.

Exactly why images look more satisfying when there are correspondences within them is not at all obvious. Is it because we like to be reminded of coincidence? When coincidence is evident — as when two people assume the same unusual stance, or when two matching colours establish a bizarre commonality between otherwise unrelated parts of the image — there’s a satisfying sense of connectedness. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on our part.

When we’re cut loose from the world — when the doctor snips the umbilical cord and says: “That’s it, kid, you’re on your own now” — we start to grow as individuals. Some people lose any sense of connectedness to nature, to the world around them, and even to other people. Yet even they may respond to the “irony of correspondences” when a photo shows unlikely (and possibly misleading or even non-existent) “connections” between unrelated parts of the image.

Man on a Bicycle
Take my featured image (above), which shows a man on a bicycle, waiting for the traffic lights to change. His purple jacket matches the purple chairs and the purple lettering on the window. Purple is the dominant colour in the picture. There’s plenty of red (the bike, the backpack); there’s a solid rectangle of yellow — which fortunately is somewhere near the centre; and finally a touch of blue and a barely noticeable squiggle of green.

The picture “works” because of the colour matching and it would certainly look less interesting in black and white. Does the colour matching make it more meaningful? That depends on how you look at it. The cyclist is completely unaware that he shares the same colour as the table and chairs — and, in a further extension of the coincidence, his blue jeans match the half-concealed blue table as well. He has a double connection to the establishment where the managers are so proud of the price of their beer.

I think colour does add meaning to the picture. The subject looks like he knows his way around town. He’s dressed for the part: a real street warrior. That his surroundings should echo his personal colour preference seems perfectly natural. You could almost imagine the whole of London turning purple as he races through the streets ahead of him.

Man on a Tricycle
Here’s a completely different example of colour matching (below). In this image there’s no single outstanding colour which connects the man on the tricycle to his surroundings. They all do. All, that is, except for the garish advertising sign on the back of the man’s vehicle. It’s the one jarring note of modernity in a photo that otherwise makes you think nostalgically of a changing world.

man on rickshaw

First there were hand-pulled rickshaws, then there were tricycle rickshaws — like the one shown — to be followed by motorised vehicles like tuk-tuks and taxis. As a means of transport the tricycle rickshaw is a vehicle in transition, neither fully mechanised nor entirely unmechanical in the help it gives to the operator via gearing and braking. It spans two eras, belonging to both at the same time.

The pastel browns, blues and reds of the rickshaw tricyclist are echoed in the crates and awnings of the background. In fact, the background is so close to the street it’s almost foreground, with the passing vehicle just a metre or so in front of it.

Again, I ask whether the colour matching makes the image more meaningful? I think it does. Apart from the fact that the tricycle and background both have the “feel of the street” (perhaps from a patina of dust, or from the muted shades of old materials) they both make a perfect foil for the new, glossy advert which undoubtedly provides a bit of extra income for the rider.

The rickshaw rider is moving out of the frame rather than into it. I timed the shot so the vehicle and rider would be seen against the striped awning rather than the crates. I’m glad I did. This man is not cycling into the future so much as leaving the past behind. I hope he finds a passenger soon.

The Pilot
To complete my trio of colour-matched street warriors, here’s another image (below) which I’ve called “The Pilot.” He’s not, of course, the pilot of the aircraft behind him. He’s just a guy who happened to be standing in front of it at the time. Nonetheless, his blue shirt and (look carefully!) red belt match the colours of the airplane perfectly.

man in fron of possibly fake aircraft

I have no idea whether this plane (or glider?) is “for real” or whether it was once a funfair attraction. At any rate, it’s found a permanent — or at least immobile — home on the forecourt of a filling station to the north of Bangkok. The dude with sunglasses saw me taking his picture and gave me a Lewis Hamilton smile. He seems so connected to the plane in every possible way I could scarcely pass up the opportunity.

Whatever else it does, colour matching links together the various components of the image to create satisfying harmonies and correspondences. Like the Chancellor’s annual Budget it all adds up and I “commend it to the House.”

What Can the Street Photographer Do About the London Bus?

One of the hazards of street photography in London is a bright red object constantly trundling down the street, photobombing your shots when you least expect it. I mean, of course, The London Bus.

Obviously, there’s more than one of them, but they all look very much alike and any double-decker will suggest “London tourist photo” rather than “street photo” unless you somehow manage to avoid it.

I’ve been thinking: how can we use the London bus to our advantage, bearing in mind that it’s bright red colour cries out for attention — a fact that tends to make it the subject of the photo even when it’s in the background.

Possible Answers
One answer is to hide most of it behind some railings, as I’ve done in my featured image (above). In this case it works very well because of the corresponding colour of the bottle between the man’s legs and the same colour in his shoes. There’s even a tiny speck of the identical red in the distant telephone kiosk which serves to fine-tune the balance of the image.

OK, so that’s one solution: hide the bus. Another solution might be to find a subject so compelling that it can hold its own against the onslaught of the bus’s redness. Maybe I could find a subject that seems to be deliberately drained of colour to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the surrounding objects — a statue, for example.

London has even more statues than buses, most of them traditional — such as generals on horseback from the Victorian era — but also an increasing number of contemporary works, some brilliant, some awful beyond words.

I rather like Allan Sly’s 1990 statue of a window cleaner, gazing up at the windows of Capital House near Edgware Road tube station. It has a wry sense of humour, depicting a typical Cockney cleaner of the “old school,” equipped with a tiny, old-fashioned ladder, facing the huge task of cleaning the windows of a modern office block.

Such a sculpture should make a fine photo, especially with a couple of passers-by and a traditional London bus in the background. Alas, the combination doesn’t work at all well in either colour or black-and-white, as you can see. For a start, you can’t really tell that this man is looking up at a building, nor that he’s a window cleaner. The bus does nothing except remind us of the smell of diesel fumes, despite its “CleanerAir” logo.

“Good luck with that,” a passing photographer commented as I was taking the shot. (There was a photo trade show in a hotel around the corner. I was going there myself). We chatted briefly about the impossibility of getting a decent photo of the sculpture, which probably needs to be taken with a large mirror placed behind it — putting it somewhat beyond the bounds of candid street photography.

In the end I decided to wait for the buses to go past. The statue looks a lot better in close-up, with the taller buildings in the background.

The Logical Solution
Having found the solution to the problem of The London Bus — leave it out of the photo — I’ve been wondering how this can be best accomplished. The answer is pretty obvious. Get on the bus and take your photos from there.

Several photographers have completed projects based on the vantage point of riding a London bus, Przemek Wajerowicz and George Georgiou to name but two. I enjoy viewing their photos which are truly street photography in its most exacting form, although in both cases I fear that the element of composition has disappeared entirely, leaving us with what my late friend Peter Turner (of Creative Camera magazine) would have called “snaps” — as opposed to photographs.

I don’t think you need to abandon composition in order to snatch a shot of the micro dramas which happen every day on London streets, even when travelling on a bus. On my way back from picking up some prints at The Print Space, in Shoreditch, the bus I was on stopped in front of a café where a blonde woman dressed in black seemed to be keeping out a sharp eye for one of her friends. Watching her, a real-life “madonna and child” were sitting on a leather sofa inside the café — sorry: “bar, café, lounge” (this is Shoreditch, after all!)

The composition works because it’s a study in red and black. The black door with the number 6 on it balances the woman on the right. Reflected in the glass of the window you can just make out the shape of a London bus. Its London Transport logo is fairly obvious — and if you look above it you can just make out my two hands holding a camera. Fortunately, you’d never notice them without my description.

I like to be “the invisible photographer,” on this occasion taking pictures from a bus in order to make it, too, invisible.

Take My 5-Second Course in Landscape Photography

The other day I got to thinking: I’ve been writing this street photography blog for three years. There’s been so much to say! But maybe I should tackle a different subject.

How about landscape photography? I used to take landscape pictures, but these days the above shot — with trees — is the closest I get to it.

So I went on to think very carefully about the pros and cons of landscape photography and decided that the whole topic could be boiled down to a course lasting no more than 5 seconds (if you read quickly). Please take a little longer to mull it over.

Here it is:

A Complete Course in Landscape Photography: Success Guaranteed

  1. Take an expensive camera and tripod.
  2. Go to a really beautiful landscape.
  3. Find a pleasing viewpoint.
  4. Take a photo in good light at dawn or dusk.
  5. Enter photo competition; collect prize.
Framlingham Castle at Dawn

Please don’t think I’m deprecating the work of landscape photographers. I love the results they get — and even I got up before dawn to get the shot immediately above, so I know the huge amount of work and discomfort that’s involved in obtaining great landscape pictures. Gosh, Charlie Waite actually carries a pair of steps with him to get a higher viewpoint (I’ve omitted that in my tongue-in-cheek list of essentials).

The Ansel Adams Approach
Yet the most accomplished practitioners of landscape photography make their mark by refining what is, after all, the very simple process I’ve described. If you don’t believe me, just watch a video of Ansel Adams setting off on a photo expedition, laden with plate cameras and other apparatus.

Half the battle with landscape photography is finding the right landscape. Photographers travel far afield, but they often go to places where many others have gone before. Consequently, the images they get tend to be similar, especially when aspiring photographers embark on those special tours where the guide takes everyone to the same Icelandic glacier or the same bend in the Colorado River.

Landscapes do, of course, change with the changing light, but, as you may have noticed, mountains stay largely in the same place over quite extensive periods of time. The same can’t be said for the restless occupants of a city.

On the Street
The street photographer is grateful for places like bus stops where captive subjects have to pause for a few minutes before transport arrives to whisk them somewhere else. To take successful street shots you need to call upon techniques and strategies unknown to the landscape photographer. You need speed, stealth, cunning and subterfuge as well as persistence, patience and the ability to anticipate the immediate future.

Landscape photography may capture some of the grandeur of the Earth but for most of the time it completely ignores the drama. Its images often suggest eternal stability when quite the opposite is true. The Earth’s crust is constantly shifting from Pangaea to the five (six, seven?) continents we know today, throwing up mountains as one plate crashes into another.

What’s needed is not still photography to take scenes that move so slowly, but stop-frame photography to show the motion over geological time. That’s not very practical, but there have been some remarkable movies of great terrestrial events, such as the sudden breaking up of a glacier, or the invasion of a tsunami, destroying all in its path.

For me, street photography is the superior artform, although not often as easy on the eye. It’s more than a mere genre in a way that landscape photography is not. It contains the essence of photography: the ability to catch a moment of time in which the subjects in front of the lens will never again exist in those exact same positions.

The Grand Canyon will still be there next year, looking much the same as it did this year. It’s magnificent, I agree, and more uplifting to contemplate than a split second in the life of a shopper walking down Oxford Street. As a small boy I was profoundly impressed by a colour plate of the Grand Canyon and I used to examine it frequently. But if “the proper study of mankind is man,” as the poet (Alexander Pope) said, I know which one I find more interesting today. It’s the street photo that sets our imaginations rolling, rather than the landscape taken in “Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.”

What’s the Best Aspect Ratio for Street Photography?

Aspect ratio is width to height, W:H.

On a full frame 35mm camera the frame size is 3:2 because the actual size of the frame — the exposed area of film or the size of the sensor — is 36mm x 24mm.


Except for a dozen other factors.

Cameras with APS-C sensors have the same ratio although their overall image size is smaller. Other cameras may vary, such as 4:3 for Micro Four-Thirds systems, or 54:42 for film cameras that purport to be 4×5. Film cameras using 6×7 film have an 11:9 ratio.

Don’t even get me started on mobile phones! Here, the most popular ratios are 4:3, 3:2, 1:1, 8:5, 5:3, and 16:9. Remember: the sensor size remains the same, so you “lose” pixels if you choose something non-standard.

Camera Sensor Sizes

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

When you process your images you have several options:

  1. Saving the whole image in the original aspect ratio.
  2. Cropping to the original ratio, then saving.
  3. Cropping and saving to a preset image size, such as 4×5/8×10; 5×7; 4×3; 16×9; 16×10; or square. Note that some software (Lightroom, for example) may offer to reduce the size of the image on selected ratios in one operation.
  4. Cropping to any ratio by dragging the sides of the crop frame to any position, then saving.
  5. Stitching images together in panoramas, or even 360-degree virtual reality presentations, then saving.

A Free-for-All
Basically, it’s a free-for-all! You can have any aspect ratio you like. There are no limits, no rules. You’re adrift in a sea of creative possibilities.

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

Let me pose the question a different way. Which is the best aspect ratio for YOUR street photography? That’s the question you need to ask.

One option is take the pragmatic route and make the aspect ratio fit the subject. This means cropping each time, often to a different ratio. Is that what you want?

Ultra-wide screen image of people walking up steps

Without some standardisation, a selection of your images will have no commonality of shape. This may not matter in an exhibition if you can afford the customised frames, but in many online galleries it looks a bit haphazard. A little variety of shape is visually interesting; too much is just plain fussy.

Nothing beats display monitors for variety of shape. If you want to get totally confused, try shopping for a new monitor on the Dell website. Here you get a huge choice of monitors with various resolutions and aspect ratios. 1280×1024 (5:4), 1366×768 (16:9), 1440×900 (16:10), 1600×900 (16:9), 1920×1080 (16:9), 1920×1200 (16:10), 2560×1440 (16:9), 3440×1440 (21:9), 3840×2160 (16:9), etc.

I’ll leave you to do the math, but the above aspect ratios are sometimes only an approximation.

Essentially, you should think of your display merely as a desktop — not as some kind of perfect device to which you should tailor your images. That’s a myth that was once encouraged by the perfectionists at Apple Computer who listed “crop to display ratio” as an option in Aperture (remember Aperture?)

Filling the Screen
Of course, it’s great to see your images filling the whole screen, especially if you want to show them on television. If you don’t fill the TV screen you get black bars at the top and bottom or on either side of the picture.

But even TVs are not totally standardised. Older TVs have an aspect ratio of 4:3; whereas high definition (HD) is 16:9. To accommodate movies, some TVs now have a wider screen: 21:9.

So have you made up your mind yet?

It’s tempting to shoot in 3:2 and crop to 16:9, isn’t it?

Except for the fact that technology moves on.

Street photography is for eternity, not for tomorrow’s technological fashion.

A Moment of Concentration

Whenever I see people concentrating on an activity — any activity — I start to think of the photographic possibilities. It’s the very act of concentration that interests me.

Why? Because it’s inherently photographic. Concentration is focus — and focus is one of the main components of photography.

In optics, focus is all about bringing light rays as close together as possible. The pinhole in a pinhole camera does it — and so does the lens in a normal camera. A lens concentrates light rays into a tiny “circle of confusion” which always has a diameter, just as a pinhole does, so the focus is never perfect mathmatically. However, with a quality lens the focus is good enough to fool the eye, even when you enlarge the image.

Focus as Metaphor
We use the metaphor of “focus” all the time in daily life. The present moment is usually the focal point of human consciousness, even though memory can take us back a few moments, hours or even years, while our expectations can project us forward into the future. Most of the time, however, we’re aware of the “here and now,” even when “here” is somewhere in cyberspace and “now” has disappeared before we’ve had time to appreciate it.

By deliberately concentrating, we’re trying to reduce the circle of confusion, thereby bringing something into sharper focus in order to better understand or manipulate it. Think of the seamstress, concentrating on some intricate stitching; or think of the surgeon, reconnecting a nerve.

Every art, science, trade and profession requires concentration and focus. Without this deliberate narrowing of attention, nothing of value can be created.

Two women arranging flowers with great concentration.

Why Does It Work in Street Photography?
Images of people concentrating on a task in front of them can be as compelling as those which portray strong emotions. In fact, I’d go further and say they’re often better. By showing the act of concentration they also help onlooker to concentrate on the image. In photography — where sharpness directs the onlooker’s attention — concentration is contagious.

The principle at work here is the well-known one of “ideated sensations,” described succinctly by Bernard Berenson in his works on the visual arts. For Berenson, a person looking at a great Italian painting would be able to imagine the physical sensations felt by the subjects — particularly the stretching of muscles, an action which communicates a sense of energy and vitality. Not only that, in our minds we “feel” the weight of objects in the image and feel the textures of different materials, almost as if we were there in reality.

These ideated sensations of tactile values and movement are so powerful, Berenson believed, that they had the effect of being “life enhancing.” It’s a process by which onlookers recreate the image in their own living consciousness, aided by the skill of the artist (deceased long ago) who made this apparently magical transference possible.

Where Can You Place the Point of Concentration?
Conventionally, most photographers tend to place the focal point of concentration somethere fairly close to the centre of the image. For example, a photograph of a watchmaker works best if the subject’s face and the watch he’s working on are close together. This is because the idea of concentration is shown by the face as well as by the intricate task being performed.

The Featured Image
I’ve tried to be more adventurious in my featured image (above). Here’s a man who’s battling to concentrate on his mobile phone, despite all the distractions of real life.

I think it works very well as a whole frame, with the blurred background and the sharp point of focus at the top left. You may think otherwise, so here, for comparison, is a crop which places the point of concentration closer to the centre of the image.

detail of the featured image

Well, that’s not bad either, but it changes the meaning of the photo. While it increases our “ideated sensation” — because the man’s concentration now fills the image and we’re inclined to feel it more intensely — we’re missing the surrounding context. It’s this huge out-of-focus area that is every bit as important.

In my photo, the man’s view of reality has narrowed to a point which is far outside the picture frame. Perhaps he is taking a photo of a tall building, or else he may be trying to read the football scores or take a selfie. We don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but this doesn’t matter. He’s mentally focusing. In turn, I’ve focused my camera on him and thrown the rest of the scene out-of-focus, echoing the subject’s experience of the same moment.

Is It Really So Bad to Use a Zoom in Street Photography?

Almost universally, experienced street photographers advise beginners to use a prime lens rather than a zoom. But are they right? Zoom lenses are great for travel photography — flexible, convenient, single-lens solutions that allow you to vary the focal length without any danger of letting dust into the camera. What’s not to like?

Plenty. Let me say straight away that I’m with the majority view on this issue. In most situations, zoom lenses are quite unsuitable for street photography. Here’s why.

The art of street photography relies on split-second timing. If you have time to zoom in and out to find the best focal length than you’re probably not taking a real street photo. You’re being indecisive at the very point in time when you should be getting the “decisive moment.”

Beware the Travel Zoom
I sometimes meet keen travel photographers who become serious about street photography when they discover the joy of turning their cameras away from landmarks and on to the inhabitants of the cities they visit. Typically, their equipment includes a standard zoom lens or even an expensive zoom that delivers near-prime quality throughout its range.

“What do you think of this?” they ask. “This man is looking towards that girl on the park bench, but the woman with him has her hand raised in disapproval. Maybe I could have zoomed in a bit more but I think I’ve taken a real street photo with this shot.”

What can I say? I feel like cupping my head in my hands, rolling my eyes — and doing all those things that destroyed the career of TV chef Fanny Craddock when she disparaged a beginner’s attempt to make a complicated dish.

The photo taken by the travel photographer with his zoom may be classified as a street photo, but the method he used to achieve it is unlikely to yield many other successful results, for the following reasons:

  • Zoom lenses place you too far away from the action.
  • Lightweight “kit zooms” are poor quality.
  • Expensive zooms are big and heavy — and make you very noticeable.
  • All zooms encourage indecision, causing you to miss the shot.
  • Their variable focal length stops you from “seeing” in terms of a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm (etc.) frame.
  • By making you prioritise the task of choosing a focal length, they downgrade the more important tasks of focus and timing.

If you’d like to see my recommendations for great street photography lenses (three of which are shown above), please check out the article on PhotoStartSheet.com – “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?

Back in the Day
Years ago, street photographers who shot on film always looked as if they were zooming, but they weren’t. They were using manual focus, desperately trying to make the subject sharp in the split second available to them. Today we have auto-focus, but there’s no advantage if we burden ourselves with zooming instead.

Zooms have added a level of complexity to photo technology which, in many ways, is a retrograde step. Just consider the number of elements in a typical zoom lens. There’s likely to be twenty or more pieces of glass, each one adding to the bulk and weight of the lens. What’s more, each element has its own imperfections, making the purchase of a zoom very difficult because each copy has its own unique characteristics.

Roger Cicala, the founder of Lens Rentals, described this very well in a widely read and highly technical article called “Things You Didn’t Want to Know About Zoom Lenses.” In summary he wrote: “Put more variables into a lens, and the lens varies more. Can they still be very good? Absolutely. Can they be as good as the best primes? Nope.”

Upping the Quality
Some years ago I extolled the virtues of the Nikon/Canon “Nifty Fifties” (50mm lenses) as offering a huge leap beyond the quality of standard “kit zooms” and many people got in touch to say the image quality of their photography had vastly improved as a result. That made me very happy. A 50mm lens is usually the best value in a manufacturer’s whole range, unless you opt for ultra-high speed, like f/1.2. (Please don’t use one of those for street photography: they’re far too unwieldy).

The argument for using primes instead of zooms is compelling. I can think of only one occasion when it may not apply. If you’re going to a public event, like a carnival or festival where everyone will have a camera, you can use a zoom with impunity.

Perhaps you have an expensive zoom that can (almost) match the quality of a prime. I took my featured image (at the top of this article) with my Canon 24-70mm f/4 zoom, pretending it was a prime by not changing the focal length too frequently. There was an event in progress in the High Street (people abseiling down the Town Hall!) and the lady had no idea I was taking her photo. However, I think the rest of the crowd knew. I got very few other good shots that day.

When It’s All in the Gesture

In street photography, it’s great to see a demonstrative gesture, unless it’s an upraised finger telling you to shove off. I like gestures for one very good reason. They contain their own decisive moment.

Gestures are a form of visual language, perhaps without the syntax of signing (for people who cannot hear), but nonetheless a language which carries meaning — often aimed at those who certainly can hear but don’t want to listen.

Gestures have meanings such as: “Watch out!” “Isn’t it obvious!” or “I don’t care.”

Sometimes it’s essential to see the movement of a gesture to understand it fully. When you ask if a person is feeling better you may get a silent wave of the hand in a seesaw motion which means “So-so,” (neither better nor worse). That’s not a great reply from the street photographer’s point of view.

Over in a Flash
It’s not easy to photograph gestures. They last only a split second and they’re very hard to anticipate.

The best way to get them is to find someone who chatting with a friend and making constant gestures to illustrate their conversation. You’re guaranteed to get a result if you time the shot perfectly.

My featured image at the top of this post shows two young men making playful grabs at some passing girls. Neither of the girls shows any interest whatsoever, which is rather the point of the photo. They even ignore the camera.

young woman in cap, pointing and shouting

Warning Gestures
This is the “Watch out!” moment, as demonstrated by a young woman who’s in charge of the ferry boats as they pull in to dock on the Chao Praya in Bangkok. I wanted to take a picture of her because I love the jacket.

Looking at the shot closely on my return to base I could see that her outstretched arm is greatly lengthened by extra-long fingernails. That was a “plus” I hadn’t expected.

Subtle Gestures
Sometimes gestures are much more subtle and therefore harder to interpret. My last shot falls into this category.

Woman in animated conversation. In a window behind her is a poster of person with shaven head being massaged by strong hands

Here, the subject is in animated conversation with someone off-camera. I happen to know the other person was a male who seemed to be trying to chat-up two girls at once, outside a beauty salon.

He was making progress, but there was some verbal sparring and the members of the group soon went their separate ways. This time, the subject’s hesitant gesture was reinforced by the seemingly brutal manoeuvre demonstrated in the poster.

Two gestures for the price of one.

What ARE They Looking At?

When you photograph people in close-up on the street the result can fall into one of two categories: the subjects are doing something, or they’re doing nothing.

Yet there’s probably a third category which I might call “just looking.” In this case, the subjects are not doing anything in particular, they’re just staring at something outside of the frame.

In other words, they’re not absorbed in “doing” but in “looking” — which is a state of absorption that requires no action.

woman with hand over her mouth, wondering where to go

The Fake and the Real
The American art critic Michael Fried talks a lot about the virtues of depicting absorption in photography and I agree with him. In his great book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (Yale University Press, 2008) he argues that the act of absorption is key to creating the impression that the figures within an image really do exist in a world of their own. If they acknowledge the camera, or appear to pose for it, they become actors in a theatrical world — and the picture loses its authenticity as an art object.

Michael Fried doesn’t discuss street photography, as such, but he does give detailed analyses of those constructed imitations of street photography made separately by Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I think many street photographers will be dismayed that the art world, as represented by Fried, chooses to accept fake street photos instead of real ones — when the two are utterly indistinguishable, except in technical image quality.

In fact, I would go further. I think Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia do indeed fall into the theatricality trap, by using actors to recreate street photography scenes. Surely this is the very definition of theatricality: the imitation of real life by people who normally enjoy a very different existence of their own.

Show Us Reality
In Four Quartets the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Maybe that’s why we tolerate the fake and reject what’s real.

I insist on showing real people leading real lives; I photograph them in candid moments when they’re unaware of the camera; and I like them to be absorbed in some activity because, as Fried says, it places them in their world without intruding into ours.

Is this the only way of doing photography? No. It’s what I feel is the right way to take pictures on the street. After all, back in the day (the 1960s) everyone said: “Keep it real.” No one said: “Keep it fake”.

Two women, looking out of frame

Street Photography on a Rainy Day

It’s a question of feeling. Rainy days nearly always evoke a bittersweet emotion in people who venture outside. On such a day you can capture this feeling and preserve it for the future.

I think the emotion people feel is modified or exaggerated by the amount of rain that falls. So in this article I’m talking exclusively about days in which the rain is light or moderate, not ones where there’s a torrential downpour with claps of thunder overhead.

The pictures you can get during extreme weather conditions are much more dramatic and the emotion is likely to be one of steely resolve rather than wistful melancholy.

I do, occasionally, take my camera out in a thunderstorm and I always get some pleasing shots. I’ll make these the subject of a separate post. This time, it’s light rain only.

Pretend It’s Not There
Maybe the best conditions are when the day is beginning to brighten but the rain keeps falling intermittently. At those times, many people will just pretend it’s not raining at all (as in the featured image above).

Rather than take out an umbrella the lady on the left pulls her coat over her head while the other, younger people just splash around as best they can. Those who are standing in the back of the mini-bus are probably wearing damp tee-shirts, but they’ll soon dry out with the whoosh of air swirling around them.

Do you see what I mean about the wistful emotion? No one’s laughing or smiling, but neither does anyone seem really unhappy. It’s just one of those days: and it’s not all bad. When rain falls in Bangkok, the air pollution is lowered. The dust settles into a muddy residue on the street. People can breathe more easily.

Huddle Together
When the rain intensifies, people’s mood becomes bleaker. Now’s the time to get serious about protecting each other from the hostile elements. Out come the umbrellas (always a favourite with street photographers) and it’s time to start trudging home.

In my shot (above), two couples are crossing the road in the rain, huddled together. The man in front seems to have loaned his jacket to his partner. It’s much too big for her and she looks a little embarrassed to be wearing it, a fact that adds to the feeling of the photo. The couple behind are bedecked with duck motifs, which seems appropriate.

Checking for Rain
Strangely enough, rainy day emotion can prevail even when it’s dry. Emerging from a small covered market, the man in my photo (below) checks to see if rain is falling. Everything appears fine, except that another man in the background is wiping his face as if he’s just been out in the rain.

I like this photo. It has a contradiction at its heart, but everything is in the right place. As in the other shots the tones are soft and pleasant, just the way I like them. I don’t know what I’d do without rainy days.