Working With Layers in Street Photography, Part Two

One of the keys to success in layering is to have meaningful correspondence between the different layers: between subjects in the foreground, middle-ground and background.

It’s not enough simply to fill up the image with layered content. There needs to be something more, such as capturing each element in an aesthetically pleasing position within the frame. You may need some luck to get it exactly right because you can’t control the subject. You can adjust only your viewpoint or the settings on your camera.

Three Steps

  1. The best way to capture a moment in time and preserve the various layers of interest is to use a wide-angle prime lens, such as 35mm or wider. You can still obtain a layers shot with 40mm or 50mm, but it becomes harder because you’ll lose focus in some of the planes.
  2. The next step is to start fishing in the right pool. Go somewhere that has an interesting background and plenty of action between you and it.
  3. Thirdly, you need to move in to get close to the action. While doing this, think about colour and form — the abstract elements that go into making the picture — as well as literal content, such as: what’s that guy doing? Will the kid jump? What are the words on that carrier bag?

If you’re lucky, you may achieve a composition in depth, especially if you get a clear view of distant action.

Easy? No, it’s like playing three-dimensional chess. But if you’re aware of any potential for these “layers of interest” then you are at least open to the possibility of achieving a good image.

I used these three steps in taking the featured shot (above), so let’s talk more about them:

One: Seriously, Which Lens?
It’s vital to keep foreground and background in reasonably sharp focus, a task that becomes harder with focal lengths longer than 35mm. However, if your lens has too wide an angle it will distort vertical lines at the edges: scarcely ideal if you’re shooting anywhere near buildings or street lamps.

Cameras with fixed 28mm lenses (Ricoh GR/GRII/GRIII; Leica Q/Q2) are clearly a great option, as are mirrorless cameras with lenses that give you 24mm or 28mm on full frame, or their close equivalent (such as 16mm or 18mm with the APS-C sensor format). I used 40mm on a full frame camera for the featured shot.

Two: Fishing In The Right Pool
The best kind of location for layers shots is one where there’s some open space in either the foreground or middle distance. With this feature you’re more likely to find “planes of interest” rather than a continuum of background objects. (Needless to say, you don’t have to feature anyone actually fishing, although I’ve done that, too, in the shot above!)

Three: How Close?
You need to be within a few feet of the closest object, otherwise you’ll not get the all-important foreground layer to offset — or perhaps even frame — the more distant elements. As a rule of thumb, six feet is about as close as you can go without blurring the foreground when your focus is on something just beyond it.

I hasten to add that with an ultra-wide angle lens, a narrow aperture (and hence a longer exposure) you can get closer than six feet, although this combination rarely works for handheld street photography in average light.

Experience gives you the confidence to find the best point on which to focus for each particular lens and setting. Always remember: stopping down the lens will greatly increase the depth of field. Never attempt to take a shot with layers in mind if you have a fast lens with its aperture fully open. You’ll simply get one layer in focus. It may still be a nice shot but it’s not what we’re discussing here.

Focus How?
Camera reviewers are keen on cameras that have a touchscreen enabling you to select a focus point simply by tapping it on the screen. These days they tend to bemoan any camera that lacks this facility.

However, in street photography you don’t often have time to fiddle with focus points. If you have a split second to spare you should pick up focus from the appropriate distance (10 metres in the example above) and then quickly recompose the image by framing the subject as you wish. Alternatively, if even a split second is too long a delay, pre-focus manually.

Is There an Easy Rule of Thumb?
If you insist! Roughly calculate where your layers of interest lie, then choose a focus point about a third of the way into them. You won’t be far out if you’ve stopped down your lens. For this reason, I think it’s convenient if you have your camera set to Aperture Priority. This means you can adjust the aperture before taking the shot — and the shutter speed will look after itself.

How Many Layers?
My personal view is that three layers are quite sufficient in street photography. Going beyond three layers introduces levels of complexity that are completely out of control, unless some of them have objects that are fixed. In landscape photography you often see wonderful shots of rolling hills in the mist, with five or six layers gradually receding into the distance. On the street you rarely find that kind of subject, unless it’s a slow-moving queue of people lining up in zigzag fashion for a popular event.

Avoid Overlapping Figures?
Some photographers recommend it, others disagree. As in so many aspects of photography there is no hard and fast rule. If you try to keep all the moving figures completely separate you may end up with a somewhat disjointed image in which every figure occupies an island of space. I prefer to see some overlap, while always keeping a clear view of heads and maybe a limb or two.

It’s really important to prevent the onlooker from thinking “What a pity we can’t see what that person looks like.” At the same time, you don’t want unintended effects, such as a street sign that appears to be sticking out of someone’s head. Much of the challenge in taking layered shots involves keeping the layers apart and keeping the various components firmly in their right place.

What Works Best?
My personal preference is for locations where the background is not too far away. If you can see boats floating on water or if you catch a glimpse of the infinite sky your attention tends to wander off into the distance. This is not the dynamic response the layers technique demands. You should keep the eye moving backwards and forwards between layers, not dwelling on distant things.

Fill the frame
Wherever possible I like to fill the frame from edge to edge and from corner to corner. That’s the secret of a great layers shot. You can’t do it if one corner has a chunk of sky in it because all the visual energy will simply leak through into the ether beyond. The very fact that the most distant layer is an integral part of the subject means that your image will have an intimacy which is normally missing from standard street photos.

A layered photo may even be slightly claustrophobic because you’ve compressed the spatial elements in front of you and hemmed them into the image rectangle. Personally I love this effect, but it works best when there’s a focal point of interest near the middle of the frame with other supporting elements at the edges.

Not Just the Squirrel
The above image fulfills most of the criteria for layers that I’ve outlined in this post. There are three planes: the flag, the boy plus the squirrel, then everyone else. Most notably they fill the frame from edge to edge.

But what exactly is going on here? For me, the picture is filled with menace. I snapped it during a troubled period of demonstrations in Bangkok in an area where legendary American photographer James Nachtway had already taken a bullet on the previous day.

Despite outward appearances, these events with their rabble-rousing speeches and numerous side-shows were decidedly unsafe. Just ask the squirrel! Dressed up, coaxed and tormented, he delights the children but he’s watched with an evil eye by the balding lady on the left. The bare legs on the right belong to a person of indeterminate sex, as indeed does the hand that holds the boy’s wrist (strong hand, man’s watch, high heels).

Several faces are partially hidden but in this instance it all seems to work aesthetically. The balance of the image would be upset if we could see the whole face of the little girl with the tee-shirt. Her pink message: “Cool! Cool!” and the squirrel’s anthropomorphically effeminate gesture complete the image.

Working With Layers in Street Photography, Part One

In street photography, layers are successive planes of interest and action, occupying the foreground, middle ground and background, each one holding information that captures the viewer’s attention.

Together, these layers form a complete, “symphonic” image, taken in a single capture.

I use the term symphonic in much the same way as E.M. Forster used it in Aspects of the Novel. The symphonic novel represents the pinnacle of a writer’s achievement, being the most difficult form to create successfully but also the most rewarding for the reader.

For example, the symphonic novel will have multiple themes, each of which brings contrast or reinforcement to the main thrust of the work. Instead of “symphonic” you could speak of a novel as having “layers”: as in, for example, D.H. Lawrence’s complex work The Rainbow rather than in Thomas Love Peacock’s amusing but essentially one-dimensional satire Headlong Hall.

Alas, layers of complexity are even harder for the street photographer than they are for the novelist. For that reason, it’s not a good idea to say: “Today I’ll concentrate on taking photos with layers” because opportunities for them are few and far between.

Not Too Blurred
A shot that exemplifies the layers technique is one that has each layer in reasonably sharp focus. If any layer is severely blurred then it is automatically seen by the onlooker to be less important.

For example, I think I can claim the shot (below) to contain layers, but the foreground is really very blurred. I don’t think it matters too much in this instance because it creates a sense of mystery. It also provides a foil for the main subject — the two figures — and beyond them the people looking towards us, and beyond them the diners, and beyond them the layer of columns.

Stopping Down
To banish a blurry foreground you have to forget about using ultra-fast lenses wide open and instead make sure your lens is stopped down to capture sufficient depth-of-field from foreground to background. Mobile phones fulfill this criterion very well, but the downside is their lack of image quality when you want to make a big enlargement. The good thing (there’s always an upside!) is that you can stop worrying about bokeh, that lovely creamy out-of-focus effect you get only from the most expensive lenses.

One of the best-known layers shots was taken by Alex Webb in Mexico, entitled Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985 (please Google it!) and shown in his La Calle exhibition. It depicts Mexican children playing in a courtyard with one boy at the front, in soft focus, spinning a blue ball on the tip of his finger. Behind him are successive layers of interest: more boys, passers-by, and some spectacular examples of blue and white ecclesiastical architecture, with striped columns and pilasters.

In an interview with The Guardian, Alex Webb said of his work in general: “The words ‘planning and forethought’ imply a level of rationality. Instead, I sense the possibility of a picture.” I know what he means because that’s exactly how I work myself.

Generations Through Time
In my featured image (above) I’ve deliberately used the layers technique to express the march of the generations through time. I took it at a local carnival, the sort of street event that offers plenty of good photo opportunities.

My point of focus is on the tall woman with the brown hair, hence both the girl nearest the camera and the elderly couple are in slightly soft focus. I think this is acceptable, even preferable, in this case. After all, it is the central figure who’s in the prime of life, surrounded by those much younger or older. She seems to take her responsibility very seriously, as if reflecting on the ephemerality of the event.

Yet I think the single most telling element in the picture is the fact that the two tallest of the marching girls, both of whom are in sharp focus, are those furthest away from the camera. They, as well as their chaperone, tower with the vigour of youth above the old couple.

This is the point about layers: they help you communicate an idea. They’re not just a visual trick to add “eye candy” to your photo.

In Painting
You can find all the compositional tricks of layers in western art from the Renaissance onwards.

For example, take Raphael’s great mural The School of Athens (1510), a virtuoso performance of five or six layers including three occupied by human figures. You can examine this painting for hours and still find visual delight in it. With its complex arrangement of groups of figures, each with its own dynamic, plus the overall effect of recessional space and all its intriguing literary qualities (which philosopher? which mathematician?) The School of Athens keeps the onlooker’s eye questing and moving across the image plane.

It is precisely this reaction we seek when presenting a layered photograph to the onlooker. When the onlooker is compelled to “read” the photograph rather than merely glance at it, that’s when you can deepen the bond with your audience and earn more appreciation for your work.

I’ll post Part II of Working With Layers at a later date. I promise: this next part will be more practical, with tips and advice on how to take a layers shot!

Hacked Off

If you’ve visited this site during the past month or so, you’ll have noticed the lack of updates and the absence of featured pictures at the top of the posts.

Sorry! The site got hit by the dreaded “Japanese Keyword Virus,” one of the most difficult computer viruses to eradicate, even given the many helpful “10 step” processes that security bloggers have posted.

The Japanese Keyword Virus turns your keywords on Google into links to Japanese sites selling clothes and accessories. It’s a kind of SEO spam that hijacks legitimate sites (like this one!) and ruins your reputation on Google.

Moving On
My son transferred and rebuilt most of the site to a new server, and I added the missing pictures. It all seems to work now, but there’s the also the impact of the more serious Covid-19 virus which has prevented me from getting fresh photos on crowded city streets.

I can post a few more articles, but it’s likely that their appearance will be intermittent, rather than on a normal weekly basis. I want to continue to entertain everyone (like the guy below) but eventually I’ll run out of decent shots.

At that point I’ll just provide an index to the existing articles (currently buried deep in the blog) and then update only when I have something new.

Because of this, it’s best to sign up for the newsletter if you’ve not done so already.

May you all be virus-free!

Walking Around a Roman Wall

What did the Romans do for us? Well, here in my home town of Colchester (Essex, UK) they built a rather nice wall, much of which is still standing after nearly 2,000 years.

Not being able to venture too far afield during the recent (and seemingly endless) pandemic, I started to wonder whether the wall could serve as a backdrop for some street photos.

I took all of them with the new Fuji X100V, intermittently over a few days.

One Shot
On one day I took just one image (above).

Walking into Lower Castle Park, I was struck by the sudden appearance of yellow blossom in some shrubs near the railings.

There’s a great view of the wall from this viewpoint — and I noted the lone figure of a man in the distance. All it needed was something more… then the cyclist arrived with not one, but two bikes!

Changing the Direction of View
Here’s the same stretch of wall (above), looking back towards the gate through which the cyclist passed in the previous shot.

It was a lovely summer’s day in The Lockdown, with small family groups enjoying the sun. Recently, everyone had been “on tenterhooks,” waiting anxiously for the virus to disappear.

Oddly enough, I can say that the tenterhooks themselves have quite literally passed. For it was on this piece of land in the seventeenth century that Flemish weavers stretched their cloth – on devices known as “tenterhooks.”

The presence of the Roman wall makes the seventeenth century seem like modern history. Meanwhile, weeds constantly colonise the ancient structure, giving it a beauty never intended by the original builders.

Walking the Wall
One day I set out, with my partner, to walk around the wall in its entirety. It’s not a major trek, the wall being around 2,800 metres long, in the shape of a rectangle.

Today it varies slightly in height, according to its state of preservation, but much of it is 6 metres high and nearly two and a half metres thick. Its construction is said to have required 40,000 tonnes of building material.

Walking around it is far less onerous than building it, but don’t thank the Romans. They made the local Britons do most of the work.

The western stretch, running up Balkerne Hill, has little archways set within it, bricked up in the modern era to help preserve it.

One of the best preserved parts is the long stretch at the top of Balkerne Hill, past the huge gate (the Balkerne Gateway) which served as the main entrance to the town in Roman times.

Pressing On
OK, so this mini-project is degenerating into “wall photography” rather than street photography, so we’ll press on quickly to the far side of town where the wall is buttressed in Priory Street with huge bastions.

Another man walks past a wall! Oh dear!

I guess if I waited in a given position for a couple of hours, something more interesting might happen, but, remember, there were very few people around during this stage of the 2020 Lockdown.

So to conclude: here, in rapid succession are shots I took to complete the journey. First, I asked my partner to walk on ahead.

Yes, I know it’s cheating, but the light was great and I could have waited here for hours before anyone else passed this way.

Next, I snapped a cyclist heading towards the wall.

I did, in fact, wait a couple of minutes for someone to provide a point of interest in this shot (below) near Duncan’s Gate. No, there wasn’t a Roman called Duncan! The gate was named after Dr P. M. Duncan who excavated it in 1853. The little boy in the picture probably doesn’t know that.

And finally here’s a closing shot of a girl hurrying through a small archway set within the wall on the northern stretch where we started.

At least the above shots have something in common, so I think the idea of walking the wall was valid in street photography terms. However, such a project needs more time. I’ll work on it some more.

After all, neither Rome nor Colchester was built in a day.

If you’re visiting Colchester and would like to know more about its Roman history, take a look at:

Friends of Colchester’s Roman Wall

Visit Colchester, Britain’s First City

The Colchester Archaeologist

When Your Street Photo Really Has to Be Square

Just before taking the above image I felt the familiar set of mental signals that tells me: “this is potentially a good shot.” The composition has all the elements I like: movement, purpose, engagement, colour matching (orange), colour distribution (blue), a curious object — no, two or three curious objects!

Yet even as I took it I had a sinking feeling that it didn’t quite work. There was a blank area at bottom left, too much car at top left and distracting detail on the other side of the pillar on the right.

I didn’t store the photo with the ones I like best until after I’d thought generally about the square format. I’d made several other images square by cropping them — and now I saw the potential for rescuing this one.

As a square image this photo works in a way it never could as a rectangle. I’d already tried it in portrait format, but that was even worse than landscape because it gave a distant view of the street beyond, distracting attention from the woman’s activity. Only a perfect square can counteract the diverging verticals, as long as one of them (I chose the grey pillar) is nearly upright.

Taking Another Look
If composition plays a major role in your street photography, as it does in mine, you’ll find that even slight adjustments can make a huge difference to the overall effect. Heavily cropping away two opposite sides is considerably more than a “slight adjustment,” so you need to know what you’re doing.

It helps if you go back to your work after a month or two and view it objectively. Once you’ve done so, try to recall what prompted you to take the shot and what you felt about it at the time. By cropping to a different format you can stay more true to your original intention than if you simply retain the entire image.

But be careful!

Cropping to square can lead you to places you’ve never been before. You’ll gradually start to see square compositions in reality. You’ll become a square street photographer. You’ll turn into Vivian Maier.

We readily accept Vivian Maier’s images because she shot with a square format Rolleiflex and saw a square image in her viewfinder. Today, the ubiquity of the 35mm format with its 3:2 ratio means that we’ve come to expect street images to be landscape or portrait, not something in between. Even the layout of web pages in WordPress (as here) makes the square image look slightly out of place, like an intruder in an otherwise well ordered world.

One Focal Length, One Aspect Ratio?
Nearly all good street photographers recommend the use of prime lenses rather than zooms. They do so because there’s no time in the heat of the action to mess around with changing focal lengths. Yet there’s also another reason: encouraging beginners to see subjects not only in terms of the subtended angle but also by the rectangle it creates.

Their advice is good. However, as you gain more experience you can start to become more adventurous and versatile. I’m not suggesting you mount a heavy zoom on your camera, but I do think you can start to vary the rectangle in your mind’s eye — changing occasionally from landscape/portrait options to seeing the composition as a square.

The Studio vs. The Street
Fitting people into a square format is easier in the studio. For example, in the days of Page Three glamour shots, photo editors on “The Sun” would urge photographers to use short models who could curl up into a compact shape to fit the tabloid page.

man on phone, squatting

In taking candid shots on the street we can’t be as deliberately selective as the pin-up photographer. Yet sometimes a person assumes a position that positively invites a square frame. Here’s one example (above). I took it from a boat on a canal with the camera in a portrait orientation.

Above the subject’s head to the left was a long fluorescent light which I’ve cropped out because it unbalances the composition. The result is a neatly composed and very candid portrait of a person in an everyday (if somewhat unusual) environment, taken from an angle that’s rarely possible on a normal street.

What’s Wrong With Square?
Finally, I think I should mention one problem I’m sure you’ve encountered with square photos: their static tendency. With all sides perfectly equal in length there’s no natural dynamic to encourage the onlooker’s eye to move from left to right or up and down. The invitation is just to stare at the centre because you can see the whole photo at one glance.

It’s because of the static nature of the square format that I’ve introduced diagonal lines in both of the images I’m showing here. The first one has the orange pipe on the left while the other has the foreground pole on the right. These two elements do much to enliven the images, making both of them more aesthetically satisfying than they would have been otherwise.

I could never make the square format my standard aspect ratio. Street photography cries out for dynamic rather than static treatment. But on some occasions there’s really no alternative to using the balanced, symmetrical, traditional, honest, totally conformist, hundred-percent kosher, strait-laced square.

BNE Was Here, There, and Everywhere

Going through my photos from Bangkok from last year, I came across the featured image (above).

It has the kind of juxtaposition I like: with the surfeit of visual messages on every object, including the woman’s body.

Most prominent of all the messages is one that says: “BNE Was Here.” It’s a message you’ll come across again and again if you take street photos in the cities of the Far East.

For example, here’s another one (below). I took it because of the distinct oddness of the couple: a girl with a big floppy ribbon in her hair and a boy furtively holding a cigarette while carrying in front of him a multi-coloured bag as though it contained something of especial value.

an awkward situation

The man, about to get in a pick-up truck, glares at me — perhaps worried lest I record some kind of illegal transaction.

Can you see the sticker in the background: “BNE Was Here”? I think this adds something extra to the image — not mystery, exactly, because these stickers are so ubiquitous — but a reassuring sense of familiarity when it’s most needed.

The BNE Affair
In case you missed the media coverage of BNE I suppose I should provide a brief explanation. BNE (or B.N.E.) is the logo used by a person who started scrawling traditional graffiti nearly thirty years ago. After a few years he turned to stickers, churning them out in their thousands and covering our cities with them: especially New York and Tokyo, but also Prague, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Especially Bangkok. Here’s another example:

prominent sticker on lamp-post

(I snapped this shot on the way to lunch: that’s my son in front with his arm on his mother’s shoulder.)

Of course, there’s so much graffiti and so many stickers in Bangkok you could be forgiven for not noticing them. However, the media did start to pay attention and articles about BNE appeared in The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

Journalists even succeeded in tracking BNE down and getting his comments, learning that he not only generated about 10,000 stickers a month but also had help from colleagues to put them in place. His presence on key websites, like Flickr and YouTube, was greater than that of many multinational corporations.

Man With a Brand
Having built a brand that sells nothing, “BNE” saw the light (so the story goes) and decided to donate it to a good cause. He explained to Forbes magazine that he was spray-painting a wall in Jakarta when a woman said it must be wonderful to be rich enough to use paint in this way. So he agreed to paint her fence as well, listened to her life story, and learned how people in her city had to go without food because they spent so much money on water. This was the beginning of the BNE Water Foundation.

“BNE is a global movement dedicated to helping people in need get access to clean, safe drinking water and basic sanitation. We raise funds + awareness with art and BNE products.”

Click on today and you get taken to a Water Damage Restoration Removal & Air Conditioning Repair service. Oh dear, whatever happened to all those donations?

Scandal Breaks
In 2014, scandal rocked the BNE venture when ANIMAL ( announced: “In a brazen act of chutzpah even by the standards of the graffiti world, where gaming each other is commonplace, pseudonymous global sticker-bomber, BNE, has fraudulently claimed to have collaborated on t-shirts with Banksy, the undisputed king of street-art, for the benefit of World Water Day.”

Apparently, BNE had falsely claimed to be collaborating with Banksy, whose work, unlike BNE’s ubiquitous stickers does at least have the combined virtues of invention, variation and humour.

Failing to receive any t-shirts — and aware that the product would not be authenticated by Banksy — donors started to ask for their money back. PayPal reversed all the payments and shut down BNE’s account. In a follow-up post on ANIMAL, BNE was described as “the sticker-bombing con artist BNE.”

The Unseen Tee-Shirt
This is a story of our times. Hundreds of people were prepared to believe an anonymous street artist when he said: “You do not get to see the artwork on this tee until it arrives at your door.”

Oh, that’s OK. Don’t bother to show us the product. Don’t tell us your name. We’ll just give you the money. And don’t tell us how you spend it.

BNE relied heavily on the power of photography to spread the word and establish a presence on the Internet, taking his “brand” beyond the city street and into the minds of people everywhere. I guess I’m continuing to promulgate the same virus with this article.

If it was genuine, I salute BNE’s intention to help solve the water crisis in the developing world. If it was not genuine, then I’d cry “Shame!” The message itself: “BNE Was Here” was certainly not always truthful. In many instances, “BNE Was NOT Here” would have been closer to the truth.

The BNE stickers will probably appear in future pictures, next time I walk around the streets of Bangkok. I’m not too worried. It’s unobtrusive compared to the Sainsbury’s bag in the UK. Its in-your-face colour ruined a lot of my local street photos, until I finally accepted it in the shot below. Thank heavens THAT’s gone.

Couple with four bright orange bags

Why Kids Look Great in a Square Frame

Kids, or children, as I prefer to call them (only goats have kids) usually look great in a square format. But why?

I suppose it’s the usual story: if you’re shorter than the average adult you need the width to height ratio of the frame to be more evenly balanced. The standard 35mm portrait format seems much too high when you put a child into it.

I discovered this effect when I was going through some miscellaneous shots of children whom I’ve photographed (with the parents’ permission) over the past year or two. They’re “impromptu shots,” not ones that have been arranged or specially lit. When I cut them down to size they all looked a lot better.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that children are so photogenic they seem to hypnotise the camera into making them the sole point of interest at the expense of everything else. As a consequence, they’re far from perfect for street photography, which is probably fortunate because people tend to be very sensitive about men with cameras who snap children in the street.

Three Square Examples
My featured image (above) actually works well in both square and portrait format, partly because there’s a pair of tall coloured lights in the background. However, making it square certainly gives the photo more punch. The boy’s Dad is teaching him to “wai” (put hands together in greeting) and the little chap seems happy to oblige. The photo is from my series on Thai religious and social customs.

Less serious, but no less charming, is the portrait (below) of a small boy with his big brother immediately behind him. They’re playing in a precarious position high above a canal (but watched anxiously, out of frame, by their parents). The little boy is well aware of the peril of venturing too far forward but he’s spotted something that clearly interests him. Can’t crawl towards it, though!

small boy with baby brother

Another shot that works really well in square format is this one in primary colours (below), of a little girl with a yellow toy. I was slightly “off the beaten track” when I took the photo, up in the hilly area of Khao Yai, north of Bangkok. (The Thais call it “mountainous,” but it’s certainly not the High Sierra). The girl’s father was showing our friends some building land and I could scarcely pass up the opportunity of photographing such a perfect model.

little girl in blue dress, with yellow toy, in front of red car

When Square Isn’t Right
Are there times when the square format is not appropriate? You bet! When I find some accompanying “props” which are strong enough to compete with the megawatt charm of small children I can shrink the kid (there, I’ve lapsed into kidspeak) and include a bit more of the world.

Here’s a good example. I think it’s one of the best of my more conventional travel photos: an entirely candid shot of a girl striking the bells at the famous Buddhist temple Wat Phra Phutthabat (“temple of Buddha’s footprint”). The girl is dwarfed by the gigantic bells and looks up at them, concentrating intently on her task. The bells remain perfectly vertical despite being struck sharply by the wand.

But Are They Really “Street”?
You could object to all the above images, saying they’re not really street photos — and in a sense you’d be right. They’re shots I take when I venture out of the city, in between my normal sessions of urban photography. When I’m in regular shooting mode I rarely photograph children, for the reasons I’ve stated.

To every rule there’s always an exception. The photo below is not square, neither is there very much context — other than a yellow railing and a column supporting some pedestrian crossing lights. I don’t think you need additional information to appreciate the image, but I can add that the girl was looking pensively across the street at Bangkok’s most famous Chinese temple. I include it here for contrast to the earlier pictures because it is a true street photograph.

pensive girl

Country and Urban
As well as their ages, there’s a world of difference between the images of the country girl with the toy and the city girl who is leaning on the railings. In the country, children have to create their own world of play and make believe. In the city, they are entertained with an onslaught of sights and sounds and are obliged to make sense of it all, piece by piece. The city accelerates their growing up, socialises them more quickly, and creates a craving for ever more excitement which seems unnecessary in the country.

I don’t write as an expert on childhood development — my comments are simply based on the personal experience of growing up in an isolated part of England then helping to bring up my son in the centre of London. If you’re still not convinced of the difference, you could read Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which evokes the Reverend Stephen Kumalo’s first experience of the city when he visits from Ndotsheni, his remote South African village in Natal. Although an adult, he becomes childlike with wonder and incomprehension on seeing Johannesburg for the first time.

The Eyes of a Child
I doubt if it’s possible, as an adult, to see the city with the eyes of a child if you’ve already become accustomed to it. But sometimes a photograph of a child looking at the world can make us aware of the power of reality to astonish, mystify and delight — all at the same time.

The lesson is: never become too accustomed to city life, because then you’ll stop seeing it with the clarity you need as a street photographer. Yes, children look great in a square frame, but don’t cut them down to size in your estimation. To them, everything is still extraordinary.

What Is It With Bicycles?

I’m putting this question to myself because I often take a photo with a bicycle in it. Quite unintentionally I’m beginning to build a collection of images themed around the bicycle, although I don’t yet have enough for an exhibition.

I hasten to add: I’m not obsessed with pedal bikes. In fact, I’m not sure I entirely approve of them, especially when trying to cross the road in London.

Several times, a guy on a bike has come round the corner at breakneck speed, missed me narrowly, then shouted a string of abuse as he disappeared into the distance. Cyclists in London have killed pedestrians in this way, so it pays to be alert to the danger.

Previous Form
I’ve already written about using bicycles as a subject for street photography in an article called “The Charm of Pedal Power” (February 18, 2018).

Since then I’ve come across several more scenes in which a bicycle plays an important role, so I guess it’s time to revisit the subject. Consider this to be “The Charm of Pedal Power, Part II,” so please read the previous article to see my four original variations on the theme.

small girl riding behind her Dad, playing shadow puppets

A Personal Note
I suppose, like all photographers, I’m influenced by memories and feelings when I choose a subject for a picture. I think, maybe, I often take the bicycle as a subject because I have such happy memories of riding around the Suffolk countryside as a boy.

On my earliest trips I would be accompanied by my mother riding alongside. I was reminded of these trips when I took the shot (above) of a little girl in Bangkok playing shadow puppets on her dad’s back while riding pillion.

However, as I grew older, cycling became more of a chore than a pleasure. I was obliged to ride four miles to school every day, quite an arduous journey in bad weather, or when late. To speed up the trip I’d sometimes travel part-way by holding on to the shoulder of a friend who rode to school on a motorbike. My parents found out, so when I turned sixteen they allowed me to buy a motorbike of my own, considering it to be the less dangerous option. I ditched the pedal bike and haven’t ridden one since!

Ambivalent Feelings
As you’ll gather from what I’ve written above, my feelings towards bicycles are ambivalent, as in “love them/hate them.” Now, here is the crux of the matter: this is precisely the kind of attitude you need for creative work!

By taking pictures which feature bicycles I’m trying subconsciously to resolve my ambivalent feelings, sometimes making the subject look good whilst at other times allowing it show its ugliness.

The Ugly Side
Have you seen those reports of bicycle dumps in China? It’s really difficult to regard pedal bikes in exactly the same way after viewing them en masse, especially when they’ve been discarded. Suddenly they’re not fighting pollution. They ARE pollution!

I haven’t been to see the Chinese dumps, but most towns in England have a bicycle park near the railway station. These are repositories, not for discarded bikes but for working ones, and they still look pretty (as in “to a moderately high degree”) ugly. Here’s the one in Chelmsford:

The Charming Side
For me, bicycles are at their most charming when ridden by attractive women in shorts. However, having already illustrated that subject in Part I, I’ll close with an alternative.

With a little ingenuity you can turn a bicycle into an art gallery. I doubt if the example in my picture (below) belongs to any of the ladies sitting on the bench, but at least they’re being entertained by a bikeful of celebrity caricatures while eating lunch.

Becoming an art gallery seems to be an excellent application for a discarded bicycle. Now we need to think up a few more uses for all those bikes in China.

Street Photography in a Country Town, Part Three

I promised to show cheerful pictures from my Ipswich folder and here they are. If you’re read parts One and Two you will have seen some cheerful pictures already, but they’ve been interspersed with lurid images as well, together with references to dark episodes in the town’s history.

Let’s do this cheerful thing by taking a quick walk around the town.

Emerging from the station and still blinking in the bright sunlight I cross the road and take my first shot. It’s a group of three people enjoying a drink together (featured image, above).

I immediately doubt if I’ll get a better shot all day. There’s a big green tree in the centre of the picture; the man in profile is shown against a plain background; the other man turns to pick up his drink and the woman smiles. There are no jarring colours: just mainly greys and blues. Sure, you can take a happy picture in grey and blue!

Moving On
Approaching the town centre I walk past the enormous Willis Building, the exterior of which is covered in 890 smoked glass panels. Effectively the building is black from the outside, just the way Foster Associates wanted it. Modern architects can be so perverse!

At least Norman Foster provided a nice big swimming pool inside for use by the staff at lunchtime. Oh no! It’s been covered up so the space can be used for more offices. Big corporations can be so perverse!

colourful woman, monochrome bird

Anyway, I spot a double-whammy coming up: a gigantic seagull eating the remains of an ice cream while a colourful woman approaches, trundling blue and purple suitcases and carrying red green and orange bags. I hold my breath, hoping that a) the seagull won’t fly away, and b) that my reflection in the glass will be obscured by the passing figure. Thanks to luck I tick both boxes.

Only later do I learn that the underlying net income for Willis Towers Watson went up by 21% (hurray! that’s cheerful). But, oh dear, they still decided to fire 200 people from the Ipswich office. Result: Greedy Seagull 2, Cheerful Colourful Woman 1.

Market Day
It’s Market Day and the sign (below) tells us where to go. If you’re viewing this blog on a smartphone, you probably can’t read the small-print. In between Ipswich and Market it says: Est. 1317. That’s not a misprint. The market has been here since the Middle Ages.

three women walk past market sign

Recently, the renovation of Cornhill has greatly inconvenienced market traders, forcing them into side streets while the work continues. But customers, including these three women with their collective red, white and blue headscarves (a show of patriotism?) soon find their way there.

I take a few market shots, but not too many because it’s a subject I’m trying to avoid. Why? Because other street photographers tend to gravitate to markets, resulting in a surfeit of images of people buying flowers and fresh vegetables. Photographers are not just attracted by the colours but also by the feeling that markets are within a comfort zone where picture-taking seems legit, unlike the open street.

happy shoppers

A Field Day
On the other side of the temporary Cornhill hoarding there are plenty of happy faces. I have a “field day” snapping people as they walk into the sunlight. I particularly like the shot (above), with five cheerful faces and only one quizzical expression.

Perhaps for economic reasons, many people in Ipswich favour vintage clothing. There’s certainly no shortage of stores selling it. Whether you need it for normal streetwear or for special occasions, you can find a decent vintage outfit at shops like Twist ‘n’ Shout (below), mostly from the Beatles era.

couple walking past vintage store

Closing Time
In late afternoon the shops start to close, including Coe’s Newsagents, which (in my shot below) seems to have shut out a couple of last-minute customers. Were they hoping to buy cigarettes? A cool-looking dude in sunglasses strolls past, drawing deeply on his own cigarette.

The customers weren’t disappointed, however, because the proprietor spotted them and reopened the store. That’s the joy of a country town. I can’t image such a thing happening in London.

On that cheerful note, we’ll say goodbye to Ipswich for a while.

corner shop

City of Masks — Pollution and the Street Photographer

As a street photographer I’ve become very conscious of “particulate matter” (PM) in the atmosphere of our major cities. You can call it “pollution” but PM refers specifically to the microscopic particles that float in the air — and which we breathe into our lungs unless we wear a mask.

A few months ago Bangkok became a “City of Masks” when a cloud of pollution lingered over the city for several weeks, making the atmosphere even worse than usual. If you think pollution is bad in London or Los Angeles, then Bangkok in these conditions is terrible, but even then, far surpassed by Indian cities such as Mumbai or Delhi.

I ventured out on to the streets day after day, gulping down bad air while photographing people in masks. I got a few OK shots, including this one on Christmas Day:

The poster says “MadeinTYO” (TYO=Tokyo), which may remind us that the ubiquitous wearing of respiratory masks in the street is a practice that started in Japan. Yet back in Europe, people began to notice that Japanese tourists would often wear masks on the street even on a clear day. Whatever was going on?

In fact, the Japanese nearly always wear a mask if they have a cold. Out of concern for others they keep the cold to themselves: a laudable practice — and quite the opposite of what we often experience in the west. Here it’s not uncommon to be blasted with a sneeze aimed straight at one’s head. I’ve come close to punching someone who does that!

Alas, there’s another reason to wear a mask and it’s called PM2.5. This is particulate matter with an individual particle size of 2.5 micrometres (microns) or less (which is about 3% the width of a human hair). You can’t see these particles with the naked eye, but you can certainly sense their presence.

PM2.5 particles are much smaller than such pollutants as dust, mould or pollen. They come from vehicle exhausts, wood burning, forest fires, airplanes and power plants. They penetrate deep into the lungs, reaching the circulatory system itself and causing heart and lung disease.

Here’s the Rap
NOTE: Yes, I know, “MadeinTYO” is actually the name of an American rap artist, in fact the brother of “Rolls Royce Ritzy” who changed his name recently to “24hrs.” I don’t know if either of them sing about air pollution, but it’s only a matter of time before a rap artist adopts the name “PM2.5.” ZebraX already sings about it.

Post Measles
To continue the narrative: my Bangkok street photography came to a grinding halt at the beginning of the year when I caught measles. Maybe someone sneezed on me! Anyway, the resulting pulmonary wheeziness which hung around for a few weeks after I recovered made me very aware of the polluted atmosphere.

I started wearing a mask.

Interestingly (and despite a few people cackling with laughter at the unusual sight of a westerner with a mask) I found street photography easier to do, especially when the subject was also wearing one. There seemed to be a confederacy of mask-wearers of which I was previously unaware.

Looking for Variations
I started looking for variations on the theme of masks, first by seeing how many mask-wearers I could get into the frame. My featured image (at the top of the article) shows no fewer than five people in masks, two of whom are probably Japanese.

Next, I tried to find correspondences between a mask and a nearby object:

In the above shot the bicycle wheel looks like it’s wearing a mask, but that’s a bit ironic as it’s supposedly a non-polluting form of transport. It’s certainly eye-catching in its (high polluting) plastic wrapper.

There’s a kind of visual correspondence in the next shot, too. I’m not sure if the lady was wearing a mask or a “burqa lite,” but she happened to be passing a coil of black cables… then there’s the red and white cones… plus the red and black coach… It all comes together, and no, the shot wouldn’t be better in black and white.

I think I’d rather breathe in PM2.5 than shoot with a dedicated B&W camera.