Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery in Street Photography?

Like everyone else, photographers learn from other people’s experience.

If you want to succeed — at cooking, carpentry, or rattlesnake venom extraction — you need to bear in mind how people have done it before.

The real problem arises when an original idea is at stake, as it often is in the creative arts. So is it OK to nick it?

A Glorious Past
Great painters of the past had no qualms about borrowing ideas from their teachers and peers. A few of them, like Raphael, even borrowed from their own students when a particularly talented apprentice joined their studio. Nonetheless, the whole process of “invention followed by imitation” can be irritating, especially when you’ve not yet had time to exploit your original idea.

I remember toiling in the hot sun, walking around Thailand’s fabled “Ancient Siam” — a 200-acre tourist attraction otherwise known as “Ancient City” or “Muang Boran.” It’s a favourite place of mine for personal reasons rather than because it’s a good location for street photography.

On one occasion I found an unusual but effective angle for taking a shot, only to be interrupted by some tourists wielding DSLRs. They noticed my viewpoint and crouched down beside me to get similar pictures.

I know I can’t claim ownership of a camera angle, but, even so, such blatant imitation was annoying. Photography is all about “Look at this…look at this” — and even more about “This is how I see this…this is how I see this.” Yet even acquaintances who notice me take a picture, sometimes walk back to the same spot and snap it for themselves. That’s a good reason for working alone.

Inspiration or Imitation?
If you imitate a photographer who’s in the process of taking a picture you’re little better than a karaoke singer belting out “My Way” in the style of Frank Sinatra.

Don’t be silly: you’re doing it his way!

But what about someone who sees your work, becomes inspired by it, and then tries to make something similar? Do you complain about it in a vicious blog post, or do you blithely accept that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?

There are key differences between inspiration and imitation, the first of which is the time lag. It’s OK to be inspired by masters of the past. After all, they’ve had their day in the spotlight. They won’t mind if you learn from their work, or even if you copy some of their ideas. That said, it would be stupid of you to copy their style in its entirety as critics would soon point out your plagiarism. But you won’t mind if the critics say: “She was influenced by….” or “He built on the work of…”

A Transfer of Spirit
Inspiration is much less specific than imitation. It’s a transfer of spirit which leaves you free to express yourself, using the uniqueness of the moment to create something fresh and new. Imitation, on the other hand, is slavish copying, an attempt to reproduce an original effect by looking for the same composition and using an identical technique to record it.

Even so, there’s a thin dividing line between inspiration and imitation.

If you bop down and photograph a dog walking alongside its owner are you imitating Elliott Erwitt or being inspired by him? That’s a good question because you may never have heard of Elliott Erwitt yet you may have glanced at one of his most famous photos and entered that experience into your understanding of visual language. The entire process of “imitation” may happen below the level of your consciousness.

Such was not the case when I took the featured image (at the top of this post). Just before I took it I muttered under my breath: “I can’t resist it. Sorry Mr. Erwitt.” In fact, I didn’t think I was taking a serious shot which I could ever use. But then, looking at the photo on my computer I can’t help liking it.

Yes, I know it’s derivitive, but there are significant differences between it and Erwitt’s photos. For a start, it’s in colour. The dog looks more festive and jaunty than one of Erwitt’s sweatered chihuahuas. My dog is going places, not just hanging around looking snobbish-but-cute. Looking at the picture I can recognise my own style, not just a pale remnant of Erwitt’s style.

Territories of the Mind
Novelists have a habit of staking out certain “territories of the mind” that often correspond to territories in reality. Think: Thomas Hardy and Wessex or Emily Bronte and the Yorkshire Moors.

In this respect street photographers are no different.

Martin Parr began his career by making the English seaside resort his “territory of the mind,” later going on to colonise other places at home and abroad where he could photograph similar subjects with minor alterations to his style.

Even before looking it up for confirmation on his website I can detect that Martin Parr was heavily influenced — inspired — by the late Tony Ray-Jones. He, too, photographed the British on their days off at the seaside and did it so successfully that I would have been inclined to leave the subject alone, had I taken up street photography in the 1970s. It’s to Parr’s credit that he wasn’t deterred.

I hasten to add: I’ve never been inspired by either Tony Ray-Jones or Martin Parr.

Another example is the American photographer Berenice Abbott who took her lifelong inspiration from Eugène Atget. You can see his influence in her compositions, for example, in the way in which she would photograph a shop front, not head on but slightly to one side. (I’m always doing that — see below — but not because of Berenice Abbott or her mentor).

mannequin peeps out of shop door

A Transference of Culture
I don’t think you could accuse either Parr or Abbott of imitating the photographers who inspired them. They were simply participating in the transference of culture, a phenomenon in which we all take part.

Yet there are obvious dangers if you visit a place where an accomplished photographer has taken shots that have already brought him attention and critical acclaim. If the place and its inhabitants haven’t changed very much, you’ll find it hard to photograph them in a style of your own.

It’s easier in prose. Writing allows you to dig below the surface of things beyond which the camera cannot venture. In his book “Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words,” Charles Caleb Colton — the 18th century English writer who incidentally coined the phrase “imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” — wrote: “Nothing is more common than to hear directly opposite accounts of the same countries. The difference lies not in the reported, but the reporter.”

We can take heart from the Reverend Colton: there’s no permanent ownership of territory, whether of the mind or place. You can be inspired by others but look with fresh eyes and trust your own judgement.

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.

Elephants Part II, At the Erawan Shrine

In Part I of this short series I paid a visit to the Erawan Museum in Samat Prakan, a few miles south of Bangkok. This time we’re in the very heart of the city, at the Erawan Shrine. It’s important not to confuse the two. They couldn’t be more different!

The Erawan Shrine, located alongside the Skytrain track between Siam and Chit Lom, is a popular destination for people who wish to pray for health, wealth and happiness. It had curious beginnings.

The Two Hotels
Construction of a hotel on the site in 1956 was delayed by a series of accidents, so the authorities took the advice of an astrologer and ordered the construction of a shrine. They wanted it to exorcise the presence of bad spirits, the area having been used, many years previously, to display and shame criminals in public.

The decision proved to be very wise, because, from then on, construction progressed without incident. However, the Erawan Hotel was later pulled down and rebuilt as the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in 1987. This time the shrine was expanded to make more room for the increasing number of devotees and it’s now one of the busiest places in Bangkok.

People washing themselves

A Great Place for Street Photography
Wherever crowds gather, there you’ll find a great place for street photography. The Erawan Shrine is particularly good because people are concentrating on their religious devotions. I’m always discreet and respectful on these occasions — and now and then I’m rewarded by a shot that pleases me.

There are several ways of approaching the subject: by entering the shrine and mingling with the devotees (great for close-ups — see featured photo at the top); by lingering just outside the railings in the neutral territory of the street (photo immediately above); or by going up to the walkway that connects the various malls (image below). I’ve tried all these strategies and found the second one works best for my style of photo. It allows me to include a group of people and to see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting.

View from above

Tragic Events
Alas, the recent history of the Erawan Shrine has shown that the bad spirits are fighting back, despite all the supplications. In 2006 a man with a hammer destroyed the sacred statue of Brahma. The incident took place in the early hours of the morning and was witnessed by two street cleaners who promptly beat the man to death.

Again in 2015 the shrine was struck by tragedy when a terrorist detonated a bomb next to the railings (those you see in the bottom left of the photo above). Three kilograms of TNT killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Suspects were eventually arrested but the court case, at the time of writing, is still in progress several years after the incident.

View from outside the railings

Life Continues
I took some pictures in 2016, not long after the site had been restored. There was still a sombre mood, but it was already getting back to normal (above).

People lighting incense sticks

Today, the life of the Erawan Shrine continues much as before, with people attending for private reasons: praying for family, friends and self. They light incense sticks (above and below), cleanse themselves with holy water, and make offerings at the shrine.

A haze of smoke from the incense

Tourists visit the Erawan Shrine from all over the world and it continues to be one of Bangkok’s most popular destinations. Moreover, it’s attended by people of different religions. Even atheists can acknowledge its beauty, or admire the demonstrations of traditional dancing which often take place there.

The many faces of the devotees are a gift to the street photographer, as are the dappled sunlight and incense smoke which add to the atmosphere of the venue (below).

People with serious expressions

A Decade of Images
I’ve taken pictures at the Erawan Shrine on many occasions over the past decade. Those at the top of the article and the one below were made in 2011, four years before the bomb.

I wonder, has awareness of the event changed my photographs? I don’t really think so, but it does make me see the earlier pictures in a different way.

There’s no escaping the fact that life is sometimes cut brutally short, whether through ignorance or evil intent. Yet it always regenerates and over time that in itself becomes a cause for reflective celebration.

woman placing candle

Finding a Frame Within the Scene

When the scene you’re taking is surrounded by a natural frame, composed of objects such as doorways, windows, openings in walls, and so on… well, that’s a good start. However, it’s not enough to have a frame. You need to have something within the frame to make it all worthwhile.

The featured image (above) fills all the criteria. The frame is not too regular, only approximating to a rectangle. Fortunately it’s visually interesting, being composed of several types of vegetation together with other elements. When I took the shot I liked the way the grey planter underlined the scene and anchored it firmly to the ground.

In this case, the composition works because the frame is mostly green, brown or grey, whereas the subjects are brightly dressed. When you look at these figures and try to see what exactly they’re doing, you are still aware of the natural frame which isolates them into an almost-secret world of their own.

Street art of boy with keyboard, glaring at the onlooker

Why Are Frames Satisfying?
We take physical picture frames very much for granted and rarely does anyone display a painting in a gallery without first placing it into frame. But why?

The frame exists on the periphery of our gaze, meaning that we are only aware of it subconsciously (unless we start to examine it). In nearly every case, it improves the picture. When we use a better quality frame, we add even more more aesthetic value. Nothing detracts from an image more than a cheap frame.

A frame helps the onlooker to concentrate on the image, yet increasingly we view photographs on digital displays without any surrounding barrier to stop the eye from wandering off the edge of the picture. I’ve never liked the idea of placing digital images into “faux frames,” in imitation of a gallery painting. After all, you need to choose a frame carefully. But it’s great when you can view photos surrounded by a plain, preferably dark frame – even if it’s the monitor’s bezel (although photo and screen proportions rarely match).

Literally Finding a Frame
It’s not often you find an actual frame in the scene, through which is a glimpse of reality rather than a picture. However, some recent renovation work in a nearly town gave me what is, in effect, a ready-framed image.

Workman, seen through a picture frame, courtesy of the town council

The work was taking place in the Suffolk town of Ipswich (about which I have an ongoing series of posts). The heart of the town is Cornhill, with the Town Hall and Corn Exchange buildings dominating the square. The Council had placed a giant hoarding around the work, interspersed here and there with peepholes surrounded by picture frames.

I like the irony of showing a ornate picture frame, with real workmen beyond it, right next to a photograph of the Town Hall which occupies a thin and barely noticeable frame. Once again, I’ve included some prominent colours in the scene, for which I had to wait a few minutes until the man with the orange jacket came into view.

Yellow walls of restaurant, at end of white passageway

The Joy of Passageways
One place to find a frame within the scene is to visit a passageway and stand a few yards back from the end of it.

The photo (above) is one of the entrances to Neal’s Court, in London. There’s contrast between the plain white walls and the brightly coloured buildings beyond them. We can see enticing menus and puffs of steam, both of which indicate the presence of food. We are drawn towards them, yet, in the still image, a woman remains rooted to the spot, examining her phone.

I wonder, does she counterbalance the tension? Does she hold back the onlooker from plunging into the picture? Or does she merely provide temporary relief, and in so doing actually exaggerate the feeling of movement towards the distant scene?

I think it’s the latter. When I took the shot I was worried unless she suddenly decided to move rapidly. Even one step would have ruined the photo. So the tension remains. Even though the scene has its own, built-in frame, it’s by no means a static shot.

The Joy of Entrances
Here (below) is another entrance, this time to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. When I’m in Bangkok I often pop in to the BACC to view the photographic exhibitions. There’s always something of interest!

The BACC has a splendid entrance, accessed by walkways which connect it to various shopping malls. However, it’s tricky to get a balanced composition because of the thin white pole on the right.

I solved the problem by waiting until more people were going in and out of the left hand side than the side nearer the pole.

Elegant modern entrance, people coming and going

Three of the images above involved a brief wait and one of them needed rapid action to get the shot. Only “Keyboard Graffiti” was independent of any constraint on my personal time. The boy with the keyboard even has two frames of his own: the frame of the sarcophagus and another through which he is sticking his head.

A frame within a frame! I think I’ll print and frame it.

Tricks and Gimmicks, Are They Valid?

I guess it all depends on what you mean by “tricks and gimmicks,” because both of those words are loaded with negative connotations.

In candid street photography, fakery is definitely unacceptable, so “tricks” — in that sense — are out. So too are gimmicks, if by gimmicks we mean those all-too-easy, “look-at-me” photos which are based on simple visual tricks.

Oh dear, we’re back at tricks again.

Take the photo above, for example. It’s quite fun, visually interesting…and nice and sharp. In fact, there’s quite a lot of positive things about it, but it makes the viewer puzzle for a moment to see why everything is skewed.

Walking down Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden I came across the parking sign which had been uprooted and tossed at a crazy angle by workmen repairing the road. Normal, horizontal pictures looked every bit as absurd as the crooked sign, so I tilted the camera until the sign was upright.

Was that a trick or a gimmick, or both? Either way, I don’t think I can look at the image too seriously. It’s not really my style of picture.

large, mirrored sign, with lights attached

Reflections Are Slightly Gimmicky
I’ve written elsewhere about using reflections in street photography, and I still think they can contribute to a good image. Yet they are a bit gimmicky, despite their visual appeal.

The big “W” in the shot above is the logo of a company, somewhere near Leicester Square. It makes pleasing shadows and allows you to glimpse some of the people who are waiting near the door.

I took a few shots to see if I could find a reasonable composition and you can see the result. There’s plenty of visual interest: the curious white and magenta dots (lights?) and the wiggly reflected sunlight on the paving slabs. But it’s impossible to be entirely happy about it. After all, it doesn’t say anything about the two people in the photo.

Here’s another — and I think, better — shot with a reflected image. There’s tons more visual interest here, including the crowds of people walking down Oxford Street and their reflections superimposed on the objects behind the glass window.

Pedestrians reflected in plate glass window

I prefer this one to similar shots I’ve taken because it’s not too symmetrical (there’s more on the right than the left). And as for the people, well, the main figure seems to be checking her appearance rather than looking at the goods for sale.

When There’s No Trick or Gimmick
Finally, here’s an unusual shot (below) in which one of the figures is in such deep shadow that she appears to be headless. Technically, this is simply because of the black hoarding across the street, draining light from the scene despite the intensity of the sun.

I like the weirdness of the shot: the two friendly coffee cups on the steps, the billowing black overcoat, and the unnatural height of the female figure (she’s standing on the bottom step).

Rather than use light and dark areas of the frame as abstract components, I’ve made them accentuate the oddness of the scene. In this, I think the shot is far superior to the ones above. There are no tricks or gimmicks involved: just natural light and an encounter between two native Londoners.

well-illuminated man appears to be chatting to a headless woman

Limber Up Before You Take Street Photos

In my eBook “100 Top Street Photography Tips” there is Number 81 and it’s called “Limber Up.”

I don’t think anyone will misunderstand it to the extent of physically stretching and bending before taking their camera equipment out on to the street. That’s because it’s one of several “Psychological Tips,” mental insights, tricks, approaches to the task — call them what you will — intended to help readers unlock their creative potential.

The Sports Comparison
Sports people limber up with gentle exercise before beginning the more strenuous tasks of running, jumping, skating, cycling (or whatever). In the same way, street photographers should make a deliberate effort to “get in the zone” by taking one or two easy shots before they attempt any serious photography.

Why? There are several reasons, the first of which is the very simple fact that you have to start somewhere. The old saying that the “longest journey starts with a single step” is profound. Writers know their task becomes easier once they’ve constructed just one sentence that measures up to their expectations. To switch metaphors: it gets the ball rolling. It gets rid of what the poet Dylan Thomas called “the terror of the virgin page.”

In the supporting text to my tip I say: “Take some “warm up” shots on your way to your chosen location. You’ll be surprised how quickly this gets you in the mood for serious street photography, even if the shots aren’t that great.”

I don’t just mean shoot at random, but try to take the best photos you can achieve in the unpromising area between you and your destination.

A Lucky Hit
I think I was lucky with the featured image (above). Emerging from London Bridge tube station and heading across to Borough Market I took a quick shot of a “red devil” figure on a stall. I’d would have been pleased with it even later in the day.

Here (below) is another example of what I mean, although, as this one also turned out reasonably well, it’s as untypical as the one above.

This time I emerged from Holborn tube station, crossed the road, and looked for something easy to photograph. It was my intention to walk to Covent Garden, a few hundred yards away, but first I needed to “limber up.”

I spotted the placard for the “London Evening Standard” newspaper: “Chinese Flock to London in Brexit Bonanza” on the side of a closed newsstand and thought: “Here’s potential shot. All I need is a family of Chinese tourists to walk past.”

In the event, these two gentlemen came along almost immediately. They’re clearly not Chinese, but the contrast is interesting. They’re probably here to work rather than to indulge themselves in a shopping spree, courtesy of the cheaper pound.

In fact, the downward fluctuation in the UK’s currency was not to their advantage because it meant that money earned here was less valuable overseas. They look very uncomfortable, which fits the image. Of course, their discomfort is caused by the weather, not the exchange rate. Sleet was falling and the temperature was hovering around zero.

I think this is one of the better limbering up shots I’ve taken and it had a very positive effect on me as I marched towards Covent Garden. I thought: “If I get nothing else today, at least I have one reasonably good shot. I’m ahead of the game after one minute on the street!”

Timing Is Key
Another reason why limbering up in this way is essential is because it helps you get your timing right. Timing is a key part of street photography. A split second too early or too late can ruin the image.

At this point I hope American readers will forgive me for referring to the English game of cricket (I’m sure the same applies to baseball) but players speak of “getting your eye in” — which means getting up to speed with seeing the ball as it hurtles down the pitch towards you, then timing your stroke to perfection. When players have put a few runs on the scorecard they’re much more difficult to dismiss thereafter.

The ultimate reason for limbering up is to protect you from fluffing your first real chance of taking a good picture. If you’re not “in the zone,” where you’re working at a high level of awareness, there’s always a chance you’ll miss a great opportunity when it comes along.

Not So Calm
From what I’ve said, above, you may think that limbering up has a calming effect: putting you in a relaxed state of mind in which the day’s street photography will be free from all worries. Not so! It will raise your anxiety level. And that’s good.

Your psychology may be different from mine, but personally I find that my anxiety level increases with the first shot or two, then it gradually subsides as my confidence builds and I get a few decent shots on the card. I can’t sustain the higher level for longer than two or three hours. Lunch or coffee takes me out of the groove and I have to limber up all over again before I restart.

So there you have it. I think it’s an insight you can apply to many creative tasks and much else besides. If “to be limber” is to be “lithe, supple, nimble, lissome, flexible, fit, agile, and acrobatic” (mentally or physically) it can’t be bad, can it?

Why I Wrote “100 Top Street Photography Tips”

It seems like only five minutes since I was explaining Why I Wrote Street Photography Is Cool — which has now become the first book in a series of two.

The main reason was to issue some helpful advice to people who are just getting started with street photography. Although they can glean a lot from Street Photography Is Cool, that previous book is really an in-depth analysis of the medium rather than a practical guide.

By contrast, 100 Top Street Photography Tips is full of practical advice about cameras, lenses, strategies, exposure, focusing, and so on. I’ve subdivided the tips into ten sections, from “Getting Equipped” to “Developing a Personal Style.”

It’s Very Much Shorter
The new book contains relatively little text. Why?

As Wiktionary explains: “Conciseness of expression is an essential characteristic of astute, perceptive, or witty remarks.” Or as Shakespeare put it: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

I’ve sided with Shakespeare in this instance.

My primary market is aspiring street photographers, many of whom shy away from lengthy texts. They prefer to be out on the street, taking pictures instead of curled up at home with a good book. Personally, I enjoy both activities, but I have to acknowledge that others are different.

It’s Less Expensive
Despite having 100+ illustrations, 100 Top Street Photography Tips is just a fraction of the price of the previous book. In fact, it’s about the same price as a coffee shop cappuccino: US $3.95/UK £2.95.

It’s Got Hidden Depths
Thanks to the miracle of eBook technology, 100 Top Street Photography Tips contains links which automatically launch a web browser — which in turn takes the reader to sources of further information.

Anyway, it’s out there, in the market, ready to be enjoyed, another eBook from Grey Lady Publishing.

lady with grey hair

100 Top Street Photography Tips is available only from Amazon.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

One of the “rules of thumb” in movie editing is to “cut on action” in order to achieve a natural transition to the next scene. The movement within the action has the effect of preparing the eye for a new camera set-up, whether it’s a close-up or just an alternative view.

Can this idea be translated to street photography? I think it can, although, unless you’re working in video, there is clearly no “next scene” to cut to — and therefore no need to worry about transitions.

Finding action, such as someone gesticulating or moving rapidly, gives you the opportunity of freezing it into a dramatic pose. It also brings the image to life!

The story encapsulated by my featured image (above) is plain to see. The lady wants a low price; the driver is asking for more. I guess they’ll meet in the middle, with four fingers each.

Most street photos are devoid of action. I see far too many in which pedestrians seem to be idly standing around, like sheep. Yet what I see in the city is constant movement, gestures, and action. When you find action and freeze it at the right moment you’re giving the picture a vital meaning by introducing a narrative element.

No, We’re Not Sheep
Certainly, crowds of people who are united in common belief can appear, from a distance, to be sheep-like — as in a church congregation. In fact, people are often delighted to become one of “the flock” because of the religious connotations this idea carries.

man in front of graffiti wall, looking anxious

Up close, however, it’s a different matter. People are individuals, each with his or her own story: a story from which the camera records just one moment. When someone makes a gesture we often get an additional insight into that person’s character and we see them “doing” rather than just “being.”

I wouldn’t say the man in the photo (immediately above) is “doing” very much, but because of actions (grimacing, scratching his ear) he demonstrates a little bit more about his state of mind.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Demonstrative
In English, when a trivial action or incident is revealing of character, we often say it’s very “telling.” I guess this is an abbreviation of the word “storytelling” and it describes exactly what I mean.

The actions we freeze in street photos don’t have to be demonstrative. In fact, they can be very subtle. The onlooker has plenty of time to study the image and will certainly notice a trivial action, but only if it’s telling.

At first glance, the woman in pink (below) seems to be holding an umbrella, but actually her raised hand is shielding her eyes from the sun. Her other hand is entwined with that of her partner.

It’s now obvious that the “phantom umbrella” belongs to the woman walking behind them. Like you, I know nothing about the main actors in this photo, although the couple and the guy with his hand in his shorts all display distinctive personalities.

Ironically, it’s the demure woman with the umbrella, she with the downcast eyes (probably checking her phone) who reveals nothing at all in the photo. Yes, it’s cookery writer Oi Cheepchaiissara, my partner of thirty years, who was with me on this occasion. I’ve no idea how she got into the picture!

pedestrian in Bangkok on a sunny day

An Evening Walk Down Oxford Street

I’m going to tell you a secret. I have a habit of stockpiling these blog posts, writing several of them in advance, then sometimes scheduling them to appear, automatically, on successive weekends.

But habits are meant to be broken, especially if you’re a street photographer, and today I’m bringing you the latest crop of images. They’re not, I hasten to say, the entire set from a day’s shooting in London, but an extra… an afterthought, a mini half-hour project on which I embarked, a bit reluctantly, at the end of the day.

Catching Up
During late afternoon in a café near The Photographers’ Gallery I enjoyed a cup of coffee with an old friend whom I’d not seen in many years. She didn’t mind missing the Roger/Rafa semi-final to chat with a dishevelled photographer who’d been tramping the streets for hours. Afterwards, feeling rested, I was supposed to head for home, but something stopped me. It was the light!

The light was so good I was tempted into walking again, so I set off down Oxford Street towards Tottenham Court Road and then on to Holborn.

The ten pictures you see here are the ones I took on my 30-minute stroll, in order of their taking.

The featured image, at the top, was a good start, although I had to “unprocess” it by removing some sharpening I added in Photoshop. When sunlight is direct and flat (coming from behind the camera) you don’t always need to sharpen the image if you’ve used a high shutter speed.

The Other Nine
I tend to look for compositions where colourful dresses and backgrounds can play their part, so the next shot is mainly a combination of blacks, greys, and some prominent red.

people walking past red sale sign

I saw quite a few people in almost-primary colours: such as the two ladies in the shot below. I like the way the woman in the background is removing her sunglasses. Or is she putting them on?

two women, one in red, one in green

Here (next) is a shot that conveys some of the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street in the rush-hour. At this point, I was quite a long way from Savile Row, as indeed was the guy in the snazzy suit. I’m not sure where one acquires such a suit, but it looks kinda neat on a Friday evening! Clearly, he’s already in a party mood.

man in bizarre suit with cartoon exclamations all over it

Although there are lots (lots!) of tourists in London right now, I think most of the people in my shots are Londoners returning home after work or shopping. Let me take this opportunity to say “thank you” to everyone for letting me take a picture (whether or not they/you noticed me doing it).

two women of striking appearance

Now here (below) is a shot I really like. Not only does this lady have fantastic hair she seems to have attracted the attention of the person behind her — who is pointing at it! Unusually, everyone else in this shot has great hair, too, if not quite as spectacular as that possessed by the main character.

woman with braided hair

I love to get shots with high notes of deep red, as below — where a London bus matches the red in the tee-shirt, with little bits of red in the shop sign and the Tesco bag. Of course, at the time I saw only a courteous-looking man wearing an in-your-face tee, but the rest of the shot turned out well.

Man with "Deadpool" tee-shirt. Speech bubble says "Outta the way Nerd"

Whenever I walk down Oxford Street there’s always some kind of incident: an outburst, a scuffle, or a little petty larceny. I’m not sure what was happening in the shot below, but the gesture of the man on the left seems to be saying “Cool it!” whereas his friend is making his feelings known. I’m glad to say it all calmed down very quickly.

Young men gesticulating

Unfortunately, these “incident shots” are rarely well-composed, so I just snap them and hope for the best. Better by far, from a photographic point of view, is the following shot, taken when I was getting close to Holborn Tube Station.

Of the Asadal restaurant, The Guardian’s food critic Jay Rayner wrote: “If Kim Jong-un is determined to press the button and take the rest of us with him, I want to go with the flavours of his food on my lips.” I don’t know if the people in my photo are talking about world politics (or food), but they’re certainly in serious discussion. Again, for me it’s reds and blacks and whites, and the lovely evening sun I’ll soon have to leave behind.

Walking past a news stand, men talking

Finally, outside the station, I took one last shot, this time of a tall man holding forth while the others paused for reflection and refreshment.

It was time to leave. In another post I’ll show you the shots I took earlier in the day. Maybe I’ll schedule those in advance.

Man holding unlit, rolled up cigarette, talking to a male friend; two, much shorter women beside him

I Love It When People Stoop

When people bend down in the street there’s usually a good reason for it. They’re picking up something important, or attending to an urgent task. No one “stoops in the street” (that sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?) without good reason. In public it’s far more comfortable and dignified to remain vertical.

As a street photographer I love it when people stoop. It means I can catch one of those elusive but “decisive moments,” giving the image a justification for its existence. Every picture needs to justify itself by its inherent qualities.

When Stooping Reveals
Sometimes the photograph can benefit, not by showing the purpose of the figure’s bending action, but by revealing something significant in the space where the figure was standing. This is true of my featured image (above).

In this shot the subject is stooping very low and is looking out of the frame at the bottom. Despite his red shirt we therefore have to discount him as the main subject of the picture. Instead, he has been replaced by the dead birds with their yellow feet in the air. These feet seem to be pleading in supplication for second thoughts: “Don’t eat me yet…”

When Stooping Reveals Nothing
At other times we may come across an incident where the act of stooping reveals nothing whatsoever. For example, in the second picture (immediately above) we can’t see what the man is picking up. It’s clearly something fairly important because the lady with the scarf is watching intently. She “makes” the photo by displaying concentration on something which appears utterly trivial to the viewer of the image.

Street photography is often “about nothing,” in the classic Seinfeld sense. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld famously pitched their series to NBC executives as being “about nothing,” (whereas, in fact, it was about everything: about the hassles of real life as experienced by city dwellers).

When Stooping Is Upstaged
In a good street photo there’s usually more than a single point of visual interest. But when a woman in shorts decides to bend, revealing a couple of shapely legs, then it’s difficult to provide anything more interesting (certainly to a heterosexual male).

In the shot (below) I’ve solved this delightful “problem” by including a carved figure of a demure woman in a full length costume. I chanced upon the scene in question while walking along a Bangkok street in the early evening. In a sense, it was a readymade image of “the sacred and the profane” with some of my regular motifs: clocks, legs, and faded colours.

Speed Is Essential
I’ll end this short post with a tip. If you see someone stooping in the street, be quick if you feel like taking the shot! I had just a split second to get each of these three pictures, meaning that there was no time to make adjustments to the settings. Fortunately, I’d already set them for just this kind of eventuality.

I have to add one proviso: yes, be quick, but also be deliberate. You mustn’t snatch the shot, because there’s not going to be a second opportunity to obtain it.

I’m sorry if the proviso makes the tip more complicated but it would be wrong for me to leave it out. I wouldn’t stoop so low!