Must Street Photos Always Be Imperfect?

We live in an imperfect world — photography records the world as it is — therefore photography is always imperfect.

Looking at the impeccably finished images of advertising, fashion, and landscape photography you could be forgiven for overlooking this fact. After all, creative people strive for perfection — or at least try to make their work as good as it can be. Only in the street or on the battlefield does reality successfully resist our natural urge to make it appear aesthetically perfect.

I have a measure of sympathy with the view expressed by Canadian photographer Patrick La Roque, who makes this philosophical comment in one of his YouTube videos:

“To my mind street photography is not so much about location as it is about a method. It’s a way to approach photography; it’s a way to accept randomness and chaos; a way of reacting to what’s going on around you. I think this can be applied to anything.”

I agree that it’s necessary to accept — and perhaps even revel in — the chaos of the street. However, I don’t think we should necessarily carry this chaos directly through to our finished work. Like all artists, the street photographer brings order to chaos. That, surely, is the fundamental process of artistic creation.

Order and Chaos
A while back I read Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae and have already quoted passages from it in Street Photography Is Cool. Paglia believes the opposition of order and chaos is what produces all great art and literature. She finds figures in Greek mythology to embody each concept: the god Apollo represents order and control, while Dionysus represents chaos and the dark forces of the underworld that drive the energies of nature.

Working quietly in a studio, a painter may struggle to find inspiration but has no such trouble in bringing order to a composition. Outside on the street, the photographer can tap into the energy that’s being expended everywhere, but finds it harder to impose order and control — especially with an instrument that records what it “sees.”

In my featured image (above) I’ve placed three versions of “Downhill Walker” next to each other with varying degrees of straightening. Individually, none of the images looks perfectly straight because the woman is walking down a hill on which both a litter bin and a tree are at a slight angle. Placing the three images together, with the litter bin upright in the centre, seems to be the only way of making it look satisfying.

Far from Perfect
Maybe “perfection” is too strong a word. Most street photos are so messy they’re a million miles away from being perfect. We have to look at street photography differently from the way we view any other photographic genre. We learn to tolerate seeing one figure partially occluded by another; a face or a limb cut in two by the edge of the frame; or out-of-focus areas in the foreground.

In fact, these are all visual clues that tell us we’re seeing a genuine street photo and not an artificially constructed scenario.

girls snacking, chickens strutting

For example, you can tell that the scene (above) is a real street photo and not a staged pastiche. I don’t think I’d exclude even Canadian artist Jeff Wall from this statement: he’d pay the girls, buy the chickens, and devise the scene – but would he think of including a McGraw Hill logo which appears in the top right corner of the interior? I’ve only just spotted it myself — and McGraw Hill once published one of my books!

The image is very natural, very imperfect. Nothing counteracts the slant to the left and the chickens are dying to walk out of frame. Nonetheless, I like the image despite its imperfection because it’s not entirely chaotic. It pivots around the central strut holding up a tarpaulin which is out of frame at the top.

When It’s All in the Right Place
That said, there’s huge satisfaction in viewing — and even more in making — a street photo in which everything seems to be in the right place.

In the shot below, everyone is in a straight line, more or less equidistant from the camera. No, it’s far from “perfect” but it has a higher degree of order than the picture above.

Street scene with six people, one on a motorbike

For example, you may notice that each person is a lone player, except for the two girls walking away from us, side-by-side.

It’s this discovered order, chosen from the chaos of the street, which gives it a distinctive look.

So yes, street photos are always imperfect, but the street photographer is always striving — in vain — for perfection.

How Fast Does the City Change When You Take Street Photos?

Before our great cities were locked down, making their streets deserted, they were places of swirling humanity. In fact, in the busiest areas the scene could change dramatically in a few seconds.

Here are my observations about this phenomenon, written before the world was paralysed by SARS-CoV-2 from Wuhan.

So Many Opportunities
Big cities offer far more opportunities for street photography than you’ll ever find in a small town. Why? Not necessarily because they’re bigger but because they contain huge crowds of people who gravitate towards the most popular areas.

I hasten to add that you can take masterpieces of street photography in small towns. (The work of William Eggleston springs to mind.) But to make your task a little easier you really need the flow of the multitude, the variety of faces and physical types, the quirks and oddities you get when millions of people huddle together in a few square miles.

A Sudden Insight
When I was hunting for a photo to illustrate an article called “Does Street Photography Look Wrong If the Image Isn’t Straight?” (not yet posted) I discovered the image you see above. I looked at it closely and to my astonishment I noticed an extraordinary detail — one which is the inspiration for this article.

As a result, I can now prove that the modern city changes from minute to minute with such amazing rapidity you can take photos that differ radically from each other in both mood and visual content — even when taken just a few seconds apart.

The people in the photo above are waiting for traffic to clear before crossing a road near Piccadilly Circus in London. They seem to be mostly bored or agitated, impatient to resume their relentless flow after being put temporarily “on pause.”

Looking Closer
However, there’s one exception. If you look at the far left, arrowed in the version shown above, you’ll see a Chinese gentleman in a very cheerful mood, laughing and chatting with a woman in red. I’m not sure why he’s laughing. There’s a large bag of rubbish precariously suspended on the pigeon spikes immediately above his head. (London is full of lavish monuments, but it’s a bit untidy in unexpected places.)

I immediately recognised the man in question: he’s the person smoking a cigarette in another picture, one I’ve called (for want of a better title) “Checked Out.” I was intending to use this shot for an article called: “Does Street Photography Look Wrong If the Image Isn’t Straight?” (not yet posted).

couple with red suitcase, sitting on the rim of a fountain

Incidentally, I have no idea whether this couple were checking in, checking out, or just back from shopping. However, I can tell you that they were clearly “on pause” and enjoying it, having a break from the flow of the crowd.

But what crowd? There’s no sign of any crowd in my photo of the couple although they’re clearly in the same location. Can the city have changed so dramatically in such a short period of time?

Checking Out the Data
All these questions prompted me to look up the EXIF (detailed information which accompanies each image as a side file, accessible with a photo editor). What I found was amazing. I had taken the crowd photo at 16:55 and 20 seconds and the photo of the couple at 16:56 and 23 seconds. In other words, I’d taken the two images just 63 seconds apart!

Just think of all the changes that happened in that long minute. The crowd of people crossed the road. I must have walked a little way down Haymarket then doubled back to the Horses of Helios where I photographed the couple. By this time, the woman with the red coat has removed her shoulder bag (it’s on her shoulder in the first photo) and taken out her phone. The man has stopped laughing and has sat down and begun smoking a cigarette.

When I’m in reflective mood, like the man at 16:56 and 23 seconds, I try to figure out a mathmatical theory for estimating the number of street photography opportunities that occur each day in our major cities. I think the number just leapt from billions to trillions.

The mood and visual appearance of a city can change in the blink of an eye. Go with the flow, attune yourself to its rhythms, and try to grab at least one or two of the trillions of opportunities being offered to you.

Alas, all of those things will have to wait until our streets return to life.

When Street Photography Is a Game of Two Halves

There’s a “retro” feel to my featured image today although I took it only two or three years ago. It does, however, illustrate one important point: that street photography — like football — can be a game of two halves.

We are constantly told about the “Rule of Thirds” and how helpful it can be when we want to create a satisfying composition. The rule is even built into superimposed grids in photo editors, as if we’re incapable of dividing an image into three by the eye alone.

Divide by Two
I’m going to make it really easy. Stop dividing by three and divide by two! Have something going on in one half of the image and something else in the other half. It works, given the right subject.

I watched this little train go round and round for a couple of minutes at a Pre-Christmas Fayre (that’s how they spell Fair in this part of the world, no wonder my shot is retro!) The little boy looked good, like Harry Potter on his first day at primary school. I wanted to get a photo with both him and the man who was operating the ride.

Why It Works
The almost-vertical row of lights provided the perfect solution. It divides the image more or less exactly into two halves, while being strong enough to form a central, unifying feature.

Why was it good to make this a game of two halves? Well, look at the image.

Everything points towards the boy. The man is gazing in his direction, although not directly at him. The coloured lights illuminate the boy, as does the bright floodlight at the top of the pole. Another set of lights can be seen behind the boy, whereas the man’s half of the image is dimly lit by natural light.

The boy’s train even “steals” a reflection of the railings! This little guy has it all!

A Study of Contrasts
I could have used this image to illustrate the idea of using contrasts in street photography because it is essentially a study of contrasts: age and infancy; experience and innocence; past and future.

I could even have used it to illustrate the concept of “layers of time.” The background is a medieval castle wall, built on the site of a Roman temple using many Roman bricks. The train appears to be an antique from the early twentieth century (but probably isn’t). The people are two generations apart.

A Balancing Act
However, the image is essentially a balancing act between two worlds. Each of the human figures occupies a world of his own and seems to be very happy with it. The little boy is in the first half of life, the man is in the second. Both halves have their challenges and difficulties, but for a moment the two people are united in time and space, if largely unaware of each other’s presence.

Group of people walking down an urban street past a realistic photo of a park

A Walk in the Park
My second image (above) is entirely different. It’s just a curiosity: almost an optical illusion.

At first glance it looks like two pictures juxtaposed, without any separating gap. But if you look closely you’ll see that it’s a regular street shot of people walking past a hoarding covered with a very realistic photograph. There’s even some graffiti at the bottom.

I like pictures that demand a second (and third and fourth) glance before you can figure them out. This one is slightly understated because its half-and-half composition suggests deliberate juxtaposition rather than optical puzzlement.

Alas, I don’t think many people give it a second glance, a fact that doesn’t upset me.

It just gives me an insight into the way in which an onlooker “reads” an image, jumping to conclusions before scanning the bottom of the page. It makes me careful to avoid doing it myself.

In the meantime I’ll continue, intermittently, to enjoy the “game of two halves.”

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.

Do Masks Really Help?

Taking street photos in Bangkok last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic started, I wore a mask because of the high air pollution levels. That’s me in the brown hat on the left, reflected in a large mirror. If I look a little wasted it’s because I’d just been discharged from hospital after a month of measles.

A few people giggled at the unusual sight of a masked Westerner — normally seen in movies robbing a bank — but they didn’t make me feel out-of-place. In fact, I started to enjoy this way of blending in with the community, crossing over from being a devil-take-the-hindmost “farang” (foreigner) to socially responsible Bangkok native.

Please note: I took all these pictures last year. Anyone featured in them without a mask has certainly been wearing one recently.

two health workers in masks, walking past a massive fire hydrant

Getting Serious
Mask-wearing in public has become one of the world’s most controversial issues. It raises a huge number of questions, two of which I’ll try to answer in this article:

First: Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
Second: Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?

Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
At the onset of the epidemic in the UK, health experts were scornful of the supposed effectivess of masks in preventing people from contracting the virus. They even warned against using them because of the danger of touching the mask, then touching your eyes or spreading the virus via surfaces. (Good point!)

three young women in blue and white uniforms, one with mask

There were also other aspects worrying the authorities. For example, many types of mask offer no protection against viruses.

At the very minimum you need an N95 mask with a respirator because it filters out 95% of airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns. Even then, many small “virions” (infective virus particles) can squeeze through.

Many lower-rated anti-pollution masks designated “PM2.5” (Particulate Matter, 2.5 microns across) are ineffective against viruses, although they’re useful for keeping dust, pollen and other airborne particles at bay. Here’s why:

Size Matters
Virions range in size from 20 nanometres to 400 nanometres, with the virion that infects you with Covid-19 being in the middle of that range, at 120 nanometres (or 0.0000048 inches). By contrast, a 2.5 micron particle (against which the standard anti-pollution mask is effective) has a diameter of 2,500 nanometres (there are 1,000 nanometres in a micron). Clearly, a coronavirus could pass right through a PM2.5 mask very easily, floating with others 20 abreast!

Social Acceptance
At the beginning last year, the mask as a fashion statement had not yet caught on in the west, but it was already tending that way in Bangkok, such was the level of acceptance.

two women, one dwith animal mask

In the west, it was thought that there would be panic-buying on a grand scale, diverting masks away from health professionals, care workers, shop staff, and others who need them most.

The UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty went so far as to say that wearing a mask “reduces the risk almost not at all.” The standard line was “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “keep two metres apart” — simple advice that helped, even if it did not go far enough.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave similar advice at first, but has modified it in the light of new research. It now appears that coughs can reach 6 metres and sneezes even further: up to 8 metres.

Perhaps, all along, the Eastern approach to wearing masks has been right, having been rooted in a tradition of covering part of the face whenever you have a cold.

man in red tee-shirt with yellow under-vest in a teddy-bear pattern, wearing a mask over his mount only

Unfortunately, even Bangkok natives don’t always wear them correctly. A mask needs to fit precisely over the nose, around the sides and under the chin. The delivery guy in my photo (above) has not covered his nose, which makes mask-wearing rather pointless.

Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?
The answer to this is a heavily qualified “yes,” but only if you don’t cough or sneeze while coming into close proximity with anyone else.

Coughing into a mask creates an aura of infective particles around your head, extending up to a metre — and liable to float in the direction of anyone nearby.

Theoretically, you need breathe in only a single, fully-fledged virion to become infected, although in practice (for many reasons) that number is very much higher.

In cold weather (almost never experienced in Bangkok) it’s easy to see people’s breath and avoid it. At other times, you can see only the exhalations of smokers and vapers. Obviously, this easily identifiable cloud will have just emerged from deep inside a pair of lungs — and is not the kind of “air” you need to be breathing during a viral pandemic, mask or no mask.

Good Reasons for Wearing a Mask
I’ve already mentioned the new research on the reach of coughs and sneezes, but there are other reasons, too, for wearing a mask during the pandemic.

When people go out for brief exercise or trips to the pharmacy, they may very well encounter others, who — while showing no symptoms whatsoever — may possibly be “silent carriers” of the virus. You can still catch a virus from a silent carrier.

A third reason is the way in which wearing a mask — or seeing others wear them — reminds us of ever-present danger. Of course, it would be a relief if we could stop thinking (and writing!) about this subject, but it’s better to seek escape by watching a movie in the safety of home rather than behave as normal outside.

In pre- and post-pandemic times we can — like the person below — occasionally let down our guard when off-duty, but, in the Age of Coronavirus (as I called it last week), those times seem very distant.

young woman with mask under chin, standing in front of an illuminated underwear mannequin

(All photos taken pre-pandemic!)

Shooting with the Fuji X100V in the Age of Coronavirus

Several weeks ago I ordered the all-black version of the new Fuji X100V, having talked myself into it while updating my article: “The Best Camera for Street Photography 2020.”

The coronavirus crisis escalated, and then, just as The Lockdown in the UK began, the camera arrived. So I have what is arguably “the world’s best street photography camera” but no streets with any people on them. So can I find another use for this wonderful little device?

In fact, the camera was always destined for a number of uses, indoors and out: such as general travel photography and product photography snaps on location. The X100V has the same X-Trans 26.1MP BSI CMOS 4 sensor as the Fuji X-T3 and X-T4, hence I knew the output was sufficient for these applications.

I figure: people will return eventually to the streets of London where I normally take pictures, so maybe I can learn exactly how the camera behaves before that happens.

I’ll take it to the local park.

swan on the boating lake

At the time of writing (March 29), the Government permits us one period of exercise per day, so this sort of activity is socially acceptable, as long as I stay at least a couple of metres away from anyone else. Frankly, I think I’ll make it 5 metres, given the fact that last year’s bout of measles has knocked out a chunk of my immune system.

Beginner’s Luck
One of my first shots is at the top of this article. I suppose it was beginner’s luck because I was intending to show the emptiness of the park when the man in red suddenly emerged from the Sunken Garden. A patch of red in the centre of an image is always a cheerful touch.

Incidentally, this shot is an out-of-camera JPEG, with no post-processing whatsoever — not even straightening. Here (below) is a 25 percent crop to give you some idea of the camera’s capability to resolve detail.


25 percent crop of man in red coat

I now have to ask myself is that as good as I can get with my full-frame Canon 5D3 and a 40mm lens? Well, it’s not far off. It’s good to know that I can still get an acceptable image, 15 inches wide, after cropping by 25 percent.

Here’s a second cropped image, this time of another lone photographer who is taking a picture of the River Colne that winds through Lower Castle Park.

With this shot I discovered that the Fuji’s out-of-camera JPEGs tend to render silhouetted branches by filling in the gaps between small twigs with a pale shade of blue. This cannot be remedied by adjusting for chromatic aberration but disappears (as shown) if you reduce both the blue and cyan channels with an image editor such as Photoshop. There’s always a solution, isn’t there?

lone photographer

Castle Park
At this point I should mention that I’ve long felt privileged to have this beautiful park a short walk away, along the river path. It has one of the finest collections of exotic trees in the UK. A few years ago I strolled around it with tree expert Christopher Howard who thoughtfully provides a detailed guide that identifies and describes the most notable of them. (Seems to be no hot linking to it — so please Google for “Colchester Castle Park Tree Trail.”)

two people and a dog

In the shot above I think I can just see the Caucasian Wingnut Gingko in the distance, but I’m not sure. It’s around here somewhere.

Roman Town Houses
Among the key features of Castle Park are the Roman Town Houses, of which little remains other than the foundations that were revealed and excavated in the 1920’s by the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976). You can glimpse them in the shot below, to the right of the flowers.

daffodils and an archaeological site

These town houses are among the earliest domestic dwellings in the UK. They certainly pre-date mine.

Below is another view which shows several adjoining houses in outline, with their mosaic floor tiles.

Roman Town Houses

In the Roman era, what is now Castle Park was truly urban, so I think I’m nearly 2,000 years too late to get a decent street photo in this location.

No, It’s Not Really Street Photography
At this point I realise that street photography is pretty much impossible in the Age of Coronavirus. There are very few people about and I can’t use any of my normal strategies for getting the kind of shots I like to take.

Here, for example, is what happens when I venture out of the park on to the street. Nothing! It’s a lovely cobbled path — a great background — but not much chance of anyone walking along it.

Verdict on the X100V
The light weight yet solid construction of the X100V make it a joy to use, quite apart from any other considerations. I love the flip-up screen. On the other hand, I’m still trying to get used to the optical viewfinder with its slightly disturbing view of the lens ring.

It’s clearly going to be a great camera for the street, especially when I add a lens hood (not shipping at the moment).

I doubt if I’ll have the opportunity to take truly urban street shots for several weeks. Maybe I can get a few if I visit the pharmacy next week, with the X100V concealed inside my coat.

Sadness and Joy
In the meantime, the following two images demonstrate the difference between NOW (virus) and THEN (pre-virus).

First is the Bandstand, a few yards away from the Town Houses, taken with the X100V during the lockdown. Like the “Man in the Red Coat” this shot is an out-of-camera JPEG with no processing except, this time, for a tiny bit of straightening.

Castle Park bandstand

And here below is the same location during summer, a year or two back, of a Humanist wedding (taken with my Canon 5D3).

Humanist wedding in progress

I wish I were using the X100V under happier circumstances like those above, but normality WILL return. Until then, I’ll have to dig out some pictures from my archive to continue this blog.

Take care!

Birdwatching on the Street

What? No people in the street? Don’t worry, you can always find a feathered friend, or two.

Somewhile back I wrote a blog post called “Street Photographer Goes Birding.” It was a bit “tongue-in-cheek” because it featured a tiny Goldcrest sitting outside my window, to which I subjected my standard street photography technique: taking a candid shot with a 40mm lens. Being only a few inches away, this — the tiniest bird in the British Isles (barely an inch long) — filled the frame very nicely.

I can understand the allure of bird photography. Because birds flit from one position to another so quickly, photography enables us to study them more closely. We get to see them mid-movement, perhaps when they pause for a split second and seem to be considering their options.

In fact, bird photography is very similar to street photography in all but subject matter and the type of equipment you need to do it. Birds go about their daily business such as shopping (catching worms), working (building a nest) and chasing the opposite sex (chasing the opposite sex). There’s really not that much difference between them and us.

They’re also similar to us in the fact that photography can make them feel uncomfortable. For this reason, the bird photographer often builds a hide (a bit like a bird building a nest!) and uses a telephoto lens on a tripod. This is not a good practice for street photography, so taking “ad hoc” photos of birds in the street has to be done with a standard lens — and the subject’s forbearance.

The Chinese Winter Heron
Having made a complicated artwork from this particular subject I’ll not easily forget the obliging bird that posed for me one lunchtime in Ayutthaya. (There’s a single frame from the series at the top of this article).

My objective was simply to take some shots of a passing barge-train, slowly making its way towards Bangkok. In the foreground there was some rusty hauling gear which I thought would add something to the image. Then, as luck would have it, a large heron, disturbed by the barges, flew into the frame and settled on the foreground object.

Over the next minute or two, the bird hopped around, sometimes looking directly at the camera with an old-fashioned Jack Benny stare, before flying off into the distance.

Woman watches an egret against a backdrop of the mighty river

More River Birds
I took these next two shots (above and below) on the east bank of the Chao Phraya near Wat Rakhang Kositaram (Temple of the Bells). In amongst the thousands of pigeons flocking around the waterside, are several scrawny white birds which squabble among themselves, seizing any opportunity to gain a favourable perch.

I’m not a birdwatcher but I guess they must be egrets of some kind. Looking them up online I’m grateful to for identifying them as Great Egrets (black feet) and Little Egrets (yellow feet), rather than Intermediate, or Cattle Egrets. Please tell me if I’ve got this wrong!

Two large egrets, squabbling

Keeping it “Street”
There are human figures in the first two images but not in the third one. Maybe it’s time to call a halt to discussing birds otherwise they’ll edge out the human species altogether. If you look at this same location on Google Street View you’ll see they already have!

Candid Dogs

“You cannot be serious!” Surely, there are plenty of dog photos on the Internet. Why add to their number?

I confess, although I like most of the dogs I meet I’m not a dog lover, as such. I don’t enough rapport with them, and, big dogs in particular make me wary. I’ve read too many reports in the news about children and sheep being savaged and killed by them.

As a consequence dogs rarely feature in my street photography. The featured image, above, is an exception. It’s a street photo I was pleased to take.

Moriyama Dog
The other shots I’m showing here are not really serious, except for next one, which doesn’t fully live up to my technical expectations. I call this photo “Moriyama Dog,” because the subject reminds me of the famous shot by Daido Moriyama — the one with which he is forever identified.

Moriyama was the most prominent exponent of the photograpic style known as “areh-bureh-bokeh” (“grainy, blurry, out-of-focus”), so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that my own shot is all of these things, and more.

stray dog, in headlamps

I love Moriyama’s work and regard him as one of the five (or so) greatest street photographers, but I’d never attempt to borrow his ideas. The picture above is just a one-off snap, taken in a traffic jam at night on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Art Dog
I found the Winged Dog (below) in a Bangkok art gallery, in a curious exhibition which resembled a storeroom of discarded works. The image you see is actually the official display, complete with stacked pictures and packing cases. Somehow, the dog ended up as “top dog,” as in “every dog has its day.”

dog with wings, amid other artworks

If you look up “winged dog” on Google Images you’ll find all manner of strange creatures, including many ancient and modern gargoyles such as those mythical beasts which grace gothic cathedrals.

On PicClick (“Search eBay Faster”) I discovered an entire industry devoted to winged dog gargoyles. Well, that was a surprise!

Dog with Hat
Intrigued by the PicClick result, I tried searching for “dog with hat” and was presented with “Dog Hat in dog supplies” (i.e., to be worn by a dog) or “dog hat in men’s accessories” (to be worn by men). I don’t think I’ll be getting either of those!

The best I can do is to lend my own silly hat to a dog, as below. He looks equally stupid in it.

artificial dog sculpture, wearing my hat

Two More Dogs
Sometimes I chance upon a dog that’s dressed outrageously and I ask the owner if I can take a shot. I found the splendid creature below in a trendy restaurant (The Commons, in Thonglor, Bangkok), dressed in a black suit with a red kerchief around its neck.

white dog in restaurant

Naturally, other elements sometimes appear in my infrequent pictures of dogs, such as the next one which I’ve called “Cute, and the Dog’s Nice Too.”

poodle being admired; young female owner in shorts

I still think two legs are better than four, George Orwell notwithstanding. (The sheep, in Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm,” are persuaded to bleat the opposite — “Four legs good, two legs bad” — in order to drown out dissenting opinion during the farm animal revolution.)

Pensive Dog
I’m not sure if the next animal is “owned” or “abandoned,” but it looks in reasonable shape, if not as pampered as the two creatures above. Behind it, someone (the owner?) is donning a motorcycle helmet. Maybe the dog knows it’ll be on its own for a while.

Dog looks forlorn as person behind him puts on a crash helmet

Poodle in a Bag
Finally, here’s the ultimate in man’s determination to remain united with his pet at all times: the doggy bag. Looking closely at the image I can see the poodle is clawing at the man’s back pocket. I hope his wallet wasn’t in there! Dogs can be VERY expensive, can’t they?

poodle carried as if it were a shoulder bag

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.

Showing the Abundance of the Earth

Whenever I see examples of Earth’s abundance I feel mixed emotions. First, I feel joy and I want to celebrate and give thanks, but I also feel a sadness: a sense that we are simply exploiting the Earth, always taking but rarely giving anything back.

Whether it’s agricultural products from renewable resources or fish from the wild, seeing the sheer quantity of them “en masse” can be truly shocking.

Pile ’em High
Retailers love to “pile ’em high” to attract attention and sell more items. The sales technique works every time, whether you’re selling books, beans, or, as above in the featured image, mangoes. And again, below:

The mango shop in Bangkok’s Thonglor district is one of those delightful stores that specialises in a particular type of fruit of the very highest quality. They’re doing it right. They care greatly for each mango, handle it gently and reverently, and source it responsibly. I think we can celebrate such a business and feel positive emotion, as long as they don’t use too many plastic foam sleeves.

More Worrying
I’m more worried about the packaging of strawberries and cherries, as seen in the image below. Of course, these products look even more magnificent. They’re beautifully presented and appear utterly beguiling when a shaft of sunlight illuminates them, bringing out their brilliant colour.

But if all the strawberries (and other fruits) in the world start being packaged like this, I think it would terminate our planet very quickly. We’d become buried in a mountain of plastic.

Is there anything particularly poignant contained within the image? I’m not sure. I guess it depends on your attitude towards elaborately packaged products. The stallholder is checking her phone and doesn’t seem too concerned. I think she completes the image and the message it contains.

Yes, We Have Bananas
On Bangkok’s abundant food stalls you can find up to 27 different types of banana, often in two different shades: green and yellow. I think they’re wonderful to see when there’s no sign of packaging. Maybe no one’s invented individual sleeves for bananas.

I wish I could say the same for cantaloupes. At New Year’s, my partner’s father was given three cantaloupes by three different people and each one came in its own elaborate gift box. It’s becoming impossible to give fruit as a present without ensuring that it meets prevailing standards of gift-wrapping. You get plenty of gratitude, but it comes with more fill for the dumpster.

Pomelo Mania
One of my favourite fruits is the pomelo (above), the ancestor of the grapefruit. Driving through the salt flats near Bangkok, motorists come eventually to dozens of stalls selling pomelos and young coconuts at wholesale prices.

Again, in these places there’s the expression of abundance which I find so poignant, obliging me to ask the driver to stop so I can take some pictures. Here’s one with a scrawny cat passing a red bin. I don’t think the animal is greatly impressed with all the fruit. You can starve amid plenty.

Funeral Wreath
If you do happen to starve you’ll be needing a funeral wreath, the bigger the better. Here’s one, about to cross the road on its way to the temple. I wonder what sort of wreath we can give the Earth when we’ve finally killed it?