Busy Foreground, Plain Background

I’m always keeping half an eye open for subjects framed against a plain background, although I don’t make it a firm stipulation. Usually, I let my creative impulse play with jumbled backgrounds, but sometimes a critical voice in my head says: “Go on, take those guys against the darkened doorway. They’ll look great.”

All photography experts say: “Simplify! simplify!” and the sensible person follows their advice. Ninety percent of “good photography” is uncluttered — the image paired down to essentials so that the main subject makes an uninterrupted statement. However, not wanting to follow all the rules I try to enlarge the scope of what seems possible in photographic composition. I like to include bits of chaos here and there.

The background in my featured image (above) is not, of course, entirely plain. It’s the back of a bus. It has rivets, tail lights and lettering; it even has two different colours. Yet compared to the normal cluttered background of the street it’s very plain indeed. I liked the fact that its prevailing colour is Girly Pink, whereas the two people on the scooter — trying to weave their way through the traffic — are tough-looking men who’ve clearly done a good day’s work.

I call the image “Hemmed In,” which sums up the situation of these two men, caught up in the Bangkok rush hour. It’s precisely the kind of image I like to get. Significant visual content fills the frame. There are details in all the corners — glimpses beyond the rectangle — a sense that life is going on all around, not just in front of the camera.

Finding plain backgrounds in a city like Bangkok is not easy. The Thai people love to decorate everything with elaborate carvings, quirky sculptures, intricate garlands, keepsakes and mementoes. Add to these the lush, dishevelled growth of tropical plants and the chaos of overhead cables and you get a background that’s not at all conducive to traditional, paired-down, western photography.

Blurring the Background
With close-up photography you can rely on “bokeh” to give the subject the prominence it needs, while still retaining a sense of context in the image. Personally, I don’t find this technique as rewarding as keeping the background in sharp focus — as in my featured image. We see portraits against out-of-focus backgrounds so often.

In the image below I’ve attempted a compromise between the two approaches. The tuk-tuk driver is in sharp focus, but so is the red light at the top right of the frame. The rest has varying degrees of blur and you can just make out a figure in blue, walking behind a tree.

I was lucky to get the shot, because drivers don’t often engage in such earnest conversation. This one was explaining to my partner how he would take us, free of charge, to our destination if only we would allow him to introduce us to a couple of jewelers and a tailor along the way. We agreed — and managed to survive the next half-hour without buying any jewels or suits. I even got a couple of other good shots during the trip.

Really Busy Foreground
I’m not entirely sure whether the subject of my next photo (below) is the decoration on the window bars or the drowsy man on the other side of them. Necessarily it’s a combination of the two, as both are in sharp focus. The background is a darkened interior with a hint of illumination on the left. It provides a good foil for the double subject in the foreground.

You’ll probably think the image is too relaxed for Bangkok — and you’d be right. I took it down south, half-way toward the equator in Phuket Town on a very hot day. No glass separates the man from the road, so there is clearly little pollution. I like the way the gilded leaf echoes the shape of the man’s ear. He grasps the window sill with a sense of rightful ownership. In this place he is very much at home.

When there is sufficient visual information you can tell a lot about the subject. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that the two men on the scooter are returning from work (the passenger’s hand is covered with dust, the sun is low in the sky), or that the drowsy man by the window takes great care of himself and his home (his freshly styled hair, the recently painted grille).

So it’s important to avoid eliminating too much detail from your image. You can achieve a balance between simplicity and detailed description by looking for plain backgrounds and using them when appropriate. Just don’t expect the background to be as plain as the paper roll in the studio. In street photography every subject needs context. I never like to lose it completely.

Take One Shot, Get Multiple Subjects

I read in the papers recently that a sniper, tasked with protecting the President of France, accidentally fired his rifle into a hospitality tent, injuring not only a waiter and but also one of the guests. His Inspecteur Clouseau-style achievement did not go unnoticed. Getting two people with one shot was remarkable — and hard to do, whether using a gun or a camera.

When I succeed in getting two or (even better) three or four subjects into the frame at the same time I feel very satisfied. It’s just what street photography needs: the sense that a lot of significant things are happening at the same time.

The word “significant” is important because it’s no use merely to include bystanders who contribute nothing to the picture. They have to be doing something recognisable, even if it’s only inspecting an artwork, like the man on the left of my featured image (above). By himself he would be of no account, but add the girl peeping out behind the taxi rider, together with the boy who is glancing back over his shoulder, and suddenly you get a complete scenario. It’s late afternoon on Charoen Krung, the oldest street in Bangkok.

Incidentally, don’t worry if my image looks a bit “Indian.” This area of Bangkok has long been an outpost of Indian culture, even though most people on the street are the usual mix of Thai and Chinese.

When you start getting multiple subjects in one shot you’re definitely on the final volume of the street photographer’s guidebook. I’d place it alongside concepts like “layers” and “multiple decisive moments,” both of which I cover or intend to cover in this blog. However, if you’re just starting to do street photography, please don’t look exclusively for this type of shot. Begin with one subject and build up from there.

Another Example

Here’s another example, one that’s more easily obtained because the subjects have not been caught in dramatic poses. The four figures are, however, nicely spaced — which separates them so that we can see each one has a distinctive personality of her own. The shopkeeper of the Chinese funerary goods store hovers discreetly in the background while the four customers respectfully browse the wares.

Had the customers been all bunched up and overlapping — as they usually are in photos — the image would be less successful. As it is, we can see unrelated strangers from three generations, all of them concerned about holding ceremonies for the wider family which includes those who have passed. The kaleidoscopic colours are every bit as solemn as the greys and blacks of European mourning — and so easily misinterpreted by westerners.

Useful tip: if you shoot in black and white it’s probably best to avoid this subject.

On a few occasions I’ve come across multiple subjects that were too far apart to get into the same shot. That can be very frustrating. For example, while taking pictures of a very small temple that was entirely enclosed by tree roots I suddenly noticed a man walking past with a large poodle in a shoulder bag — and beyond him a monk leading a water buffalo into the compound of another temple. I eventually got all the shots, but alas, each one is separate from the others.

Finding a Strategy

You’re probably going to ask me how to devise a strategy that will allow you to get several subjects into one shot. There no sure-fire way of doing it; you just have to be patient.

With the featured photo (at the top of this post) I always had in mind an image that included the piece of sculpture on the left. I was hoping to snap pedestrians as they drew level with it, thus getting them in sharp focus along with the sculpture. By chance, traffic emerged from the side street and one motor-bike was obliged to swerve around another, giving the impression of heading straight for the camera. In fact, I was standing safely on the sidewalk and the bike was obliged to turn on to the main road — or else leap the kerb and run me over (as the passenger seems to anticipate).

Here’s my final picture (below) to illustrate the topic of “multiple subjects with one shot.” I call it “Incident at the Flower Market.”

The man and woman on the left have a lively dispute or perhaps they’re sharing a joke. Whatever they’re doing is of no concern whatsoever to the woman sitting in the red chair. She’s calculating something, pen in hand, and looking out of the frame to the right. Her gaze helps to pull the viewer’s attention towards the centre, which is just what I wanted to achieve.

Although she’s not stepping forward and speaking (like the man) or reacting with incredulity (like the woman in the centre), the woman in the red chair with her intensely blue apron and wine-coloured cardigan is both the quietest and loudest figure in the photo. She sits silently but her clothes and chair shout out loud to us. In this sense, although she’s not part of the action, she’s one of the main subjects of the picture — perhaps the most important one. Fortunately, she doesn’t upset the composition, being within a brightly coloured context of dozens of flowers.

It Must Work As a Whole

When you succeed in getting several subjects into one shot you still have to make sure the picture works as a whole. Admittedly, our art form is very forgiving in the sense that people don’t expect compositions to have the monumentality of, say, a Raphael painting, where every figure is precisely positioned. It’s even OK to allow the frame to cut a figure in two if the rest of the composition hangs together. But a satisfying image can never be a jumble of activity, like a frame taken at random from Google Street View.

The task of the street photographer is to distill order from chaos, to make clear what may be unclear to the inattentive eye, and to preserve moments in time recorded from the photographer’s unique viewpoint.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your composition with multiple subjects depends on the balance you achieve between the separation of those subjects and the unity of the image.

I…hope…that’s…clear.

When Your Street Photo Has More Than One Decisive Moment

Forget the fuss about “layers” (receding planes with subjects of interest in them). If you want to engage in virtuoso street photography how about taking up “multiple decisive moments”?

As everyone knows, “The Decisive Moment” was the American title of the 1952 book by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The French title, “Images à la Sauvette,” means images taken hurriedly, or “on the sly” — candid images, if you will.

The book contained 126 photographs made between 1932 and 1952, among them some magnificent portraits and distant landscapes that could have been taken at another moment and still have been as good.

Yet it’s not Cartier-Bresson’s portraits that made the biggest impact on photography. It was his action shots, especially the iconic one of a man about to step into a large puddle of water behind Gare Saint Lazare.

The idea of freezing a moment and making it seem in some way significant brought out the best in photography. In fact, it’s what photography does better than any other art form. Painters may achieve a similar effect (like Titian with his “Bacchus and Ariadne“) but you know he’s had to do it laboriously by drawing an outline and filling it stroke by stroke with colour. By contrast, the camera’s shutter snatches the actual moment, tears it from the flux of time and enables it to live forever.

Now we come to the question, how long is a decisive moment?

In Cartier-Bresson’s most famous image it cannot be more than a tiny fraction of a second. His subject’s foot is barely a centimetre from the surface of the water. There’s quite a lot of motion blur in the figure, indicative of the briskness of the man’s movement. So let’s say the moment lasts for a hundredth of a second, maybe less.

I have a second question. What are the chances of taking a photograph in which there are not one but two or more decisive moments occurring at the same time? Will they still be decisive in the sense of seeming to be significant? Or will they confuse the eye and create a disturbing conflict within the image?

So many questions! I’m sorry about that, but we’re now veering towards the extreme edges of street photography where the entire process becomes a white knuckle ride.

For example, in my featured photo “Transaction” (above) I show some people buying food at a market stall. On a busy day, Bangkok street sellers behave like newsagents in New York — they serve more than one customer at a time. The woman in the yellow tee has just paid for her goods and the man is letting go of them (Decisive Moment One). As she begins to turn away she notices my camera and grimaces (Decisive Moment Two).

Meanwhile (there’s more!) the vendor is accepting notes from another customer at the bottom left of the frame (Decisive Moment Three) while the customer gestures with his forefinger and makes a comment (Decisive Moment Four). All these moments seem to combine into one decisive “super-moment” — a bit like those super-volcanoes with lots of vents, each capable of spewing out pure energy at the same time.

I’ve looked through my pictures to see if I can find some similar shots but there’s nothing that comes close. Maybe these multiple decisive moments are truly rare. I have plenty of crowd scenes, like the one below, in which various people are caught mid-gesture as they walk quite rapidly outside Charing Cross station in London. Yet their gestures are perhaps too subtle and too distant to be of real significance in the photo. Let me explain.

At the centre of the image three people are walking in different directions. They are perilously close to each other yet none of them seems the least bit worried. They’ve already calculated each other’s speed and direction and have no fear of collision. The girl in the micro-shorts places a protective hand on the bag that hangs from her right shoulder. In exactly the same way, the man in the purple tee protects the Canon camera slung from his left shoulder. Meanwhile, a girl in a butch leather jacket puts her arm around her friend’s neck as the two of them head off towards the Strand.

In this picture everyone is caught mid-step, except for the man looking at the second-hand goods on the right. Again, the whole image is a super-moment, but, like so many others, composed of micro-decisive moments rather than any of real significance.

I think there is still potential for developing street photography, even though eighty years or more have elapsed since Cartier-Bresson was first experimenting with decisive moments. One way we can move forward is to put ourselves in situations where significant moments occur frequently. However, you need to be close enough to the action so that two or three instances will be prominently featured in the image.

One further word of explanation: it’s not sufficient to photograph, say, a football crowd in which everyone is cheering in a slightly different way. They’re all cheering for the same reason, so it’s essentially the same moment. What I have in mind is when people are on different trajectories, when each frozen movement seems unrelated to the others, despite their proximity in space and their sharing of the identical moment of time.

If my concept of “multiple decisive moments” taken with a single shot seems contradictory to you, I can only say it’s my recognition that everyone carries their own time with them. Sometimes, separate moments from separate lives occur simultaneously.

From now on, I’ll start looking out for them. When I get another one I’ll let you know.

Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?

I need to clarify some thoughts about the presence of people in street photos by asking: “Are people really necessary?”

I’m firmly of the belief that anyone embarking on the artform of street photography must concentrate on taking candid shots of people in public places. To do otherwise is to shun the basic principles of the genre and revert to being a general photographer whose portfolio includes flowers, trees, portraits, landscapes and more or less anything that makes a good picture.

However, I’m open to other ideas and I’ve recently been reading Michael Ernest Sweet’s admirable e-book “The Street Photography Bible.” In this he takes delight in quoting the Wikipedia definition of street photography, which includes the phrase: “The subject can even be absent of any people…”

The Wikipedia definition goes on to say that the image can depict a place “…where an object projects a human character or an environment is decidedly human.” In other words, the photo need only evoke a human presence; there is no need for the street photographer to include human beings in the image.

Maybe there’s no necessity for a street to be present, either.

The other day I was browsing some aerial shots of southern England with its manicured fields and network of roads and it occurred to me that nothing in the landscape looked natural. Over thousands of years the entire terrain has been carved up, worked and reworked, crops planted and harvested, houses constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed. Not a spare corner remains untouched or unmanaged.

An aerial picture of southern England is not a street photo, but it fulfills all the criteria of the Wikipedia definition.

I take Michael Ernest Sweet’s point that some photographers who are recognised specifically as “street photographers” — notably Daidō Moriyama — have shown images in which people are completely absent, but I’m still not persuaded by his arguments.

What Moriyama offers us is not individual photos but an entire experience: a vision of the teeming night life of Tokyo and Osaka. He collects his work into books and exhibits, into mixes and remixes. He leaves us with an abiding impression of life in the raw, of survival against the odds. In such an oeuvre, a few images need to be devoid of people, otherwise the cacophony of voices would be too exaggerated and would drown each other out.

So yes, Moriyama has photographed, as Michael Ernest Sweet says: “signs, posters, dogs, cats, mountains…” At this point I have to remind everyone that Moriyama is not a self-styled “street photographer.” It’s the world that has categorised him as such. A better epithet would be “artist” — an artist who reacts to the life around him and who finds ways of pinning it to the page.

Moriyama is closer in spirit to Japanese writers like Kafū Nagai than to many street photographers. Kafū wrote masterful descriptions of the same disreputable areas frequented by Moriyama. He was also responsible for my all-time favourite quotation: “…the world has become a most inconvenient place for people who walk in the shade.”

I certainly agree that many inanimate objects show an intimate relationship with human beings and can therefore become a subset of street photography. My featured image (at the top of the page) goes a little further in picturing some bar stools and an actual representation: a wooden figure of a human being.

Are inanimate objects the proper subject of street photography? Of course not. Like Moriyama’s signs and posters they may often be intrinsically interesting and could well form the material for a book or an exhibition, perhaps even without any pictures of human beings. I recommend (in my “100 Top Tips”) that street photographers turn their cameras on such objects from time to time. But our main focus has to be on people: their interactions, their emotions, their lives.

I once created a photographic project on religion as practised by ordinary people in Thailand. As you can imagine, it’s full of temples and worshippers, monks and supplicants. Yet one of my favourite images from it is this one (below) of the simplest possible shrine: a street vendor’s incense burner on top of a wooden stool. I saw it standing in a shaft of sunlight and felt moved to take the photo.

In a collection of other works — mainly photos of people but including some magnificent temples — the humble stool takes on a noble character. I suppose you could call it a “street photo in spirit,” and it was through taking this kind of shot that I decided to focus on the life of the street rather than on those more spectacular scenes which usually attract the photographer’s eye.

So in answer to the question: “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” I would have to say: “Yes, if you’re creating a body of work that needs inanimate detail to complete the story.” But please make people your main subject, otherwise you’ll merely be a still life photographer. You might as well stay indoors!

What Is Street Photography?

I have to begin by asking: what is a “street”?

Clearly, the sidewalks of New York, Chicago, Paris and Beijing are places where you can practice what everyone would agree is “street photography.”

If you visit London and walk down a covered street such as Burlington Arcade that, too, would be a place where classic street photography is possible.

If a covered street is OK, then how about a mall? And if a mall, then what about inside a shop or an underground train station?

How about on board an ocean-going cruise ship? Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas has shops, cafés and bars, not to mention a “Coney Island-style boardwalk” and an area called Central Park with 12,000 real shrubs.

You see, the terms and definitions of street photography are not as obvious as they first appear, even when they relate only to the possible locations where this kind of photography can be conducted. When we start to consider the style and content of the resulting photographs, the definitions become even more blurred.

The Impromptu Portrait
Let’s say you’re walking down the street, camera in hand, when you spot someone sitting against a wall. The light is great, the colours perfect — say, multiple shades of brown — and you take a shot.

The trouble is: the guy is looking down and you can’t see his face. What do you do? You can walk past and find another shot. Alternatively, you can speak to the subject (as I did, for the photo below) and say: “Hi, the light is so good here I just have to take a picture.” He beams at you and you get a beautiful street portrait that’s perfectly composed because you had time to do it.

But is the posed street portrait really an example of genuine street photography?

What about all those shots that people take during “Fashion Week” in London, New York or Paris. Amateur and professional photographers alike find rich pickings when they take pictures of stylish visitors going to and from these events. Extrovert fashionistas are willing participants and the photographs in which they appear look all the more cool for showing them out on the street rather than at some indoor event where outrageous dressing is commonplace.

You can take a narrow view of street photography by insisting that it has to be done outside on the street, with people who are unaware of your presence and therefore unable to adjust their appearance to suit the camera. Or you can take a broad view and allow everything: including interior locations and posed shots.

A Personal View
I like to photograph in malls, shops, stations, or any place where people go about their business, but in my serious work (not impromptu portraits like I’ve just discussed) I’m strictly kosher when it comes to candid versus posed.

I share the aesthetic of art critic Michael Fried who emphasises the tradition in Western art of depicting people who are absorbed in what they’re doing. As soon as the presence of the photographer disengages the subject from his or her ongoing activity the result is a fake, theatrical image. It’s an image in which the subject plays to the camera, destroying that instrument’s unique capacity for objectivity.

A Broader View
Do I enjoy looking at other people’s impromptu street portraits? Yes, I do. I wouldn’t necessarily exclude them from an exhibition of street photography. The genre needs to be as broad as possible, but not so broad as to be meaningless.

For example, take the work of Anders Petersen, a photographer who talks and interacts with his subjects to achieve work that has a remarkable intimacy and impact. His approach has to be valid in a broad context, but it’s not one I personally wish to pursue. It invites the viewer to collaborate in the invasion of the subject’s privacy. I think it lies on one of the extreme boundaries of street photography: the one where content dominates form, perhaps to the detriment of both.

With or Without People?
Can we say that a photograph of a deserted street really belongs to the genre of street photography? Surely not. It’s just a street. If it has a distant figure or two…well, maybe.

In its most concentrated form — in what I might call “hardcore street photography” — our art form is all about getting pictures of people as they walk, run, chat, scream, snarl, fight, linger or hurry along the city streets.

Without people you’re left with nothing but their ghostly traces: posters, cigarette ends, discarded packaging, street furniture and the built environment.

Arriving at a Definition
Are we there yet? No, I don’t think anyone will ever define street photography with perfect precision, certainly not without taking a narrow view of it.

Here’s the closest I can get. It’s photographing strangers in a public environment in order to create meaningful or aesthetically pleasing images.

Even this broadly inclusive definition has its faults. What about images taken from the street that peep into people’s private homes (Arne Svenson)? What about your own reflection (Vivian Maier)? Or your own shadow (Lee Friedlander)? What about taking people in their cars (Óscar Monzón)? What about photographing strangers at a pre-appointed time (Shizuka Yokomizo)?

Here’s another definition. It’s just candid photography! That’s not too scary, is it?

How Do You Choose the Right Camera for Street Photography?

I’ve recently been working on a guide called “The 10 Best Cameras for Street Photography — and Why,” trying to reduce quite a long list of excellent cameras to a manageable number. The task has reminded me of the difficulty everyone experiences when trying to decide on the “next purchase.”

Do you choose using gut feel and intuition, or do you opt for scientific investigation and set about researching the subject more fully? A lot of people do the latter, then revert to the former option and go with their initial choice.

Here’s what I do. I use a text editor to create a single page called (unsurprisingly) “Next Purchase.” On it I type (or cut and paste) all the relevant details of each camera and lens I’m considering. When I check prices I make a note of them together the name of the retailer and the date.

Everything goes on to this page: notes about lenses and useful accessories; little quotes from reviewers; weight comparisons; even a list of my criteria, which tend to change over time, depending on the kind of photography I wish to do.

Here’s my three-step strategy for finding the camera that will best suit your needs:

* Make a list of your criteria
* Prioritise the items on the list
* Find the camera that best matches them

Step One
You may discover that you have a very long list of criteria, raising the possibility that you’ll need to compromise eventually. Here’s my full list. You may have other items to add to it:

* (Great) image quality
* (Large) sensor size
* (Light) weight of camera
* (Small) size of camera
* (Comfortable) grip
* (Robust) build quality
* (Preferred) focal length of fixed/interchangeable lens
* (Light) weight of interchangeable lenses
* (Wide) aperture of lens
* (Responsive) autofocus capabilities
* (Superior) colour handling
* (Well organised) ergonomics and menu structures
* (Included) image stabilization (in body or lens)
* (High) LCD quality
* (Included) environmental sealing
* (Good) resistance to flare
* (Rapid) start-up time
* (Acceptable) price

Some of the above criteria, like “resistance to flare,” apply to the lens rather than the camera. I’m assuming that you may be considering cameras with interchangeable lenses as well as those with fixed lenses.

Because it’s such a long list you could give numerical values to the criteria: such as using a scale of 1-10. This way you’ll end up with a more accurate result than if you simply assume a similar gap between each criterion.

Say, for example, image quality is by far the most important factor in your choice. If it’s way out in front it needs to be weighted to show that it’s far ahead of the one you’ve listed as being the second most important.

Step Two
Your next step is to reduce this list to manageable proportions. Think about it carefully then choose the top five criteria you consider to be the most important.

Here are my key criteria for street photography:

1. Great image quality
2. Very light weight
3. Resistance to flare
4. Superior colour handling
5. Responsive autofocus

How did I arrive at this shortlist? I did it mainly by seeing if there were any workarounds or other factors that would allow me to eliminate any of the criteria. For example, the absence of a comfortable grip on the Leica Q would not put me off buying the camera because you can add a grip to it. Likewise, rapid start-up time may be desirable but it’s not essential if, as I do, you always have your camera switched on when working.

Alas, there are no workarounds for the basics: the quality of the sensor and the weight of the camera plus lens: the two criteria which, for me, are the most important.

Step Three
You now have to read lots of reviews and find out which camera most closely matches your final set of criteria. That can take a while, but it’s well worth the effort because you can learn such a lot from reading informed opinion together with technical specs.

Eventually you can start to make a shortlist of the cameras under serious consideration. Again, I think it’s a good idea to take notes. The human mind keeps only seven or eight facts under simultaneous consideration, but we’re dealing with too many in this instance.

Here’s another suggestion. Write down what you think are the two best qualities of each camera on your shortlist and the two worst. Can you live with the worst?

I wrote down the best/worst qualities a while back (2016), adding a fifth line: a note of any outstanding comment by reviewers. Here’s what I compiled for two of the cameras I had under consideration.

Leica Q — 640g
1. Best thing about it: It’s a photographer’s camera and great fun to use. Lightweight AND full frame.
2. Next best thing about it: Great fixed 28mm lens.
3. Worst thing about it: It’s a bit cumbersome/hard to hold; rocks forward when trying to stand upright.
4. Next worst thing about it: Can I live with a fixed 28mm lens?
5. What they say about it: Image quality doesn’t match the Sony cameras, but ergonomics are way better.

Fuji X-100F — 469 g
1. Best thing about it: Super compact and lightweight.
2. Next best thing about it: Well engineered.
3. Worst thing about it: Has the same lens as the much cheaper X-100T, X-100S and X-100. (But it’s a good lens).
4. Next worst thing about it: The so-called X-Trans “problem” – waxy faces if you boost shadows, etc.
5. What they say about it: Very highly rated; a bit “niche”; for pro’s on their day off.

 

After all my efforts to find a street camera to replace my Canon 5DIII and pancake lens (a hard-to-beat combination!) I decided to wait a bit longer. It was the right decision.

So if you’re tormenting yourself by trying to evaluate hundreds of scraps of information about the latest cameras, try to bring some order to the task. Think it through along the lines I suggest. I hope you make the right decision.

[Note about the featured image: I was using my Canon 5DIII on this trip to Paris. Disconcertingly, the reflection of the burglar-proof grille from across the road looks like banding in the shadows. It’s not! But I love those rabbits.]

 

Will Anyone Want to Look At Our Street Photos 500 Years From Now?

I like to think that people will still want to look at our street photos in the distant future, say, 500 years from now.

Why would they want to do that? For the same reasons we look at paintings from 500 years ago: chiefly for their artistic quality but also for what they tell us about the past.

Take, for example, the sublime “Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam” painted by Quentin Matsys in 1517. So that’s what the best-selling author of the early 16th century looked like! Erasmus wrote “In Praise of Folly” and numerous other works, capitalising on the invention of the printing press to such an extent that he’d written most of the printed books in circulation. We can be confident his likeness is accurate because he looks much the same in a portrait by Hans Holbein.

1517 was the very height of the High Renaissance and you don’t need to look far to find dozens of masterpieces created in that year: Raphael’s “Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary;” Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies;” Lorenzo Lotto’s “Susanna and the Elders.” Even Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was finished in 1517 after nearly fifteen years of intermittent work.

So, how many people look at the Mona Lisa today? Well, just about everyone — although most visitors to the Louvre seem to snap it with their cellphones. Wasn’t it Erasmus who said: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”? With our cameras we’re all a bit one-eyed today!

Pessimists will predict that if there’s anyone left on Earth in 2517 they’ll probably have more pressing things to do than look at street photography from 500 years ago. Will our descendents be huddling in underground shelters, taking refuge from nuclear fallout? Or will they be preparing for a voyage to the stars? Maybe they’ll all be in prison, locked up there by a small clique of uber-rich who own 100 per cent of the world’s resources.

Whatever they doing, I’m wondering what they’ll make of today’s street photos — our images taken in public spaces of people in their everyday clothes, pursuing pleasure and business. I like to think they’ll get some insight into what it’s like to be alive today. They’ll see wealth and poverty, often side by side. They’ll notice what we eat, how we travel, how we dress.

If anyone looks at my own pictures they’ll see we often go shopping, although they’ll probably be puzzled by the extraordinary difference between shopping in a street market and being welcomed to an upmarket department store with full ceremonial honours (see my featured image, above). Perhaps they’ll think the girls in my picture are religious supplicants entering a temple of worship. They won’t be very far wrong.

Personally, I’m not a pessimist. I tend towards being a “rational optimist” in the Matt Ridley sense (Google his book), despite there being so many setbacks as time moves on. In fact, I rather think that people in 2517 will be far more interested in our street photography than in most of the artworks with which our contemporary galleries are stuffed. In 500 years time, Matt Stuart’s pigeons will make more sense than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

In 2517 there could be an enthusiasm for period drama, just as we enjoy Elizabethan drama today. When Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was adapted for television the production team researched surviving visual material from the era in which it is set (1500-1535). I’m sure this task will become a lot easier in 2517 when our photographs will be instantly available to those who need the information they contain. Immersive movies could have sets made from our street photos, digitally reconstructed from the millions of images we bequeath to posterity.

The world in 2517 will be unimaginably different from what it is today. In the worst-case scenario (asteroid hit, nuclear war, uncontrollable climate change, virulent disease, or robotic takeover) our street photos may exist only in digital form, streaming their way across the vast expanses of space, to be seen eventually in a distant galaxy by bug-eyed aliens who will puzzle over the way we travel, the way we dress — and our strange head gear.

Can You Smell the Street in a Street Photograph?

In an interview with vice.com, Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden said: “To me, street photography is where you can smell the street, feel the dirt. Maybe that’s a bit of an unfair definition, but that’s what I feel.”

I think he may have spoken about this before, as there is a similar comment on photoquotes.com (and on many photo blogs), to the effect: “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”

Photographs enter our consciousness via the eye. Can we really smell them, too?

I know what Gilden means. There’s a connection between the senses, such that if the appeal to one sense is strong enough it will overlap to one or more of the other senses.

What actually happens is this: the visual cue triggers our “involuntary memory” which contains experiences laid down by all the five senses, including the sense of smell. No conscious effort is involved.

The classic example is where Charles Swann dips a madeleine cake into a cup of tea at the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. In this case, it’s not the smell of the cake or the tea — although that would have been part of it — but rather the sense of taste which suddenly enables Swann to recall a vast tract of memory.

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea…”

I’ve spent many months shooting in the Far East, where, to the Western nose, the cities have a mixture of unfamiliar aromas. There are strange fruits, herbs and spices which blend together and mingle with the smells of decaying vegetables and scraps of meat discarded by street vendors. If you’ve not been to the Far East you may have encountered these aromas in the Chinatowns of London, New York or San Francisco. If not there, then you will have only your imagination left to fill the gap — and it will struggle to conjure up the smell in the absence of actual memory.

Does my featured image (above) have the “smell of the street”? It’s a hot day in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There’s the masculine smell of sweat from the bodies of hard-working men, one of whom has a strong visual cue of a tattooed catfish on his back.

If sweat and fish were not enough, there’s a durian stall in the foreground.

Durian? It’s the world’s smelliest fruit. Airlines strictly forbid passengers from carrying it onboard, neither can you take it on a train in Singapore. Food writer Richard Sterling describes its smell as “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” adding: “it can be smelled from yards away.”

I doubt if Bruce Gilden means anything quite as specific as my example. By “smell the street” he probably means what happens when you view a photo taken by someone who “gets down and dirty” right there on the sidewalk, along with everyone else who’s breathing in the diesel fumes of the traffic and choking on the accumulated dust and grime of the last fifty years.

“Smell the street” is Bruce Gilden’s metaphor for getting in close to the subject, close enough to see and feel the anguish or joy of the man and woman in the street, close enough to share a moment in their lives.

In other words, we shouldn’t take “smell” too literally. Here (below), for example, is a picture I took of a man frying vegetable chips in the street. It’s a pleasing composition and definitely an aromatic street photo. But the man’s back is turned to us, so we have no idea whether he was happy or sad, absorbed in his task or performing it by rote. It doesn’t really have the “smell of the street” in the Gilden sense.

 

For all its ordinariness and lack of cooking smells, my shot of Haiphong Road in Hong Kong (below) is closer to Gilden’s idea. Workers are returning home past the closed market. They display various emotions: determination (man with the cap), satisfaction (man with the shopping), happiness (man with a phone under his chin), anxiety (purple shirt), and possibly even remorse (man in green, in the centre of the image).

I took the shot in Haiphong Road for two reasons: the light was good and I liked the row of coloured graphics: “chicken,” “lemonade,” “lobster,” etc., which have a strong period feel. The orange litter bin and all the coloured shirts made it possible to compose the image successfully in colour.

Colour provides more visual cues than black and white, so it should communicate the smell (or shall we say the “presence” or closeness) of the street more effectively than black and white. Yet in fact the opposite may be true. Sidewalks, paving stones and road surfaces are usually neutral in colour. The monochrome image reduces everything else — including people — to the same hue, painting passers-by with the grey colours of the street.

Undeterred, I shall persevere with photography in full colour, even if it tones down the “smell of the street,” obliging me to work harder to achieve the same effect. Besides sight and smell, I still have the other three senses to trigger the viewer’s involuntary memory. Sound, taste and touch can all be present in a street photograph, provoking virtual or imagined sensations that augment our experience of the visual image.

One day I’ll get all five senses into a single picture. But not today.

How Important Is Image Stabilisation in Street Photography?

Most photographers pride themselves on their ability to hold the camera steady. It’s a prerequisite of the job, just like getting the subject in focus and using a suitable exposure time.

However, the shooting style of the street photographer is very different from those of the portrait, landscape, fashion, sports or travel photographer. Sometimes you need to get a shot “on the hoof” because stopping would attract the attention of the subject and ruin the composition.

Even using a wide angle lens and making a perilous semi-pause to minimise the movement of the camera, I find it all too easy to blur the image in normal light. Whereas, on an intensely sunny day I can set the shutter speed to 1/1,000th sec., I have to work at slower speeds in overcast conditions. Failure to do so reduces the depth of field. All those trade-offs! They’re the bane of photography, even though figuring them out successfully can be a joy.

Image stabilisation made its first appearance in 1995 and found a ready market in camcorders where it was needed most. From the start it was a hugely promising technology, solving the problem of camera movement by providing an opposing movement inside the lens. It smoothed out the jerkiness from one frame to the next, even though it didn’t quite get rid of all the micro-movements which plague the stills photographer.

Putting image stabilisation (IS) into the lenses of stills cameras became high priority at Canon, where the development team produced a special IS lens module controlled by an on-board microcomputer that could be fitted to the longer, telephoto lenses.

Partially pressing the shutter button starts up two gyro sensors (one for yaw and one for pitch) which detect the speed and angle of camera movement. The on-board microcomputer analyses the data, calculates the degree of correction required, and sends a command to the lens group to make the opposing movement. The system repeats this entire sequence continuously, giving you constant protection against camera shake.

As you can guess, the IS module is quite large and there’s not much room for it on wide angle lenses. Users like street photographers had to wait for the technology to be developed further. Today, Canon offer IS on wide angle lenses, including the EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM; EF28mm f/2.8 IS USM; and the EF35mm f/2 IS USM.

There was another giant step taken when in-body image stabilisation came along. Today, many up-market cameras, like the Sony A7RII, have sensor-shift stabilisation which can be applied at any time, regardless of the lens being used. Sensor-shift IS has also become a “must have” feature on mobile phone cameras, where is relatively easy to implement on account of the tiny size of the sensor.

What’s the Difference?
Personally I find IS a real benefit when shooting with my Canon f/4 24-70 zoom. I don’t normally use this lens for street photography on account of its slowness, size and weight, but the quality is so good I can’t resist it for set-piece events (like parades and carnivals) where photography is expected.

My featured shot (above) was taken at f/16, 1/160th sec., ISO 800, and I was thankful for the IS which allowed me to work with a small aperture and fairly slow shutter speed. I needed all the depth of field I could muster as the subjects were standing at an angle to the camera.

The IS compensates very well for the slowness of the lens, although it brings its own kind of slowness to the job. IS is not instantaneous. The delay, after you press the shutter button, was once a full second but has now been reduced to around half a second. If a week is a long time in politics (as the saying goes), a half second is a long time in street photography. I hope this delay can be reduced further.

As regards it effectiveness, the official Canon documentation states: “Image stabilisation is effective with movement from 0.5Hz to 20Hz (1Hz is one movement cycle per second). This will cope not only with situations from simple camera shake (0.5Hz to 3Hz), but also the engine vibrations encountered when shooting from a moving vehicle or helicopter (10Hz to 20Hz).”

Manufacturers measure IS performance in “shutter steps” (the shutter equivalent of aperture stops). A typical 4-step gain means you can obtain the sharpness expected at 1/250th of a second (without IS) while using a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second (with IS). The three wide angle Canon lenses mentioned above all have a 4-step gain.

Canon no longer has a monopoly on IS as other manufacturers have recognised its importance and have developed their own versions. Nikon has installed it many lenses while others have concentrated on in-body stabilisation.

One of the most remarkable examples of in-body stabilisation can be found in the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. The 5-axis Olympus IS system enables you to take hand-held photographs with exposures as long as one or two seconds. When you switch the camera to video the results are even more spectacular. For example, it virtually eliminates the typical up-down camera movement caused when you walk. The IS is so efficient many viewers may think you were wearing a complete rig to achieve such a smooth effect.

Should you rush out to buy the E-M1 Mark II on account of its stunning image stabilisation? It depends how high you place IS in your list of priorities.

I think some form of IS is necessary if you have difficulty keeping the camera steady, otherwise you’re limited to shooting on bright days. It’s a boon if you have a shakey hand or if you want to take pictures without breaking stride.

Just remember: it only counteracts your own movements, not those of the subject!

Can You Reduce Street Photography to a Few Rules of Thumb?

Everybody loves a “rule of thumb” that turns a difficult task into an easy one. There are lots of rules of thumb in photography, some good, most of them awful.

An example of a good rule of thumb is the old “Sunny f/16” rule. While it’s rarely used today, on account of in-camera metering, it was very helpful to film photographers who’d forgotten to bring a light meter. To know that you needed to set your camera to f/16 on a sunny day with a shutter speed of 1/ISO (eg. 1/100 second at ISO 100; 1/200 second at ISO 200) was a life-saver, especially as you couldn’t check the result on a digital screen. Even then, it only worked for frontlit subjects.

If a rule of thumb can encapsulate a piece of good advice in such a way that we can easily recall it when we need it: that’s fine. The trouble with rules of thumb — and with all rules in general — is that there are lots of provisos and exceptions which reduce their value. The old maxim: “Learn the rules before you break them” is itself a contentious rule of thumb and certainly one which should not be applied universally.

Here are my 10 Rules of Thumb for Street Photography

1. Shoot in good light
2. Go where the people are
3. Be patient
4. Use multiple strategies
5. Avoid zooming
6. Use standard/wide angle primes
7. Control the depth of field
8. Be discreet
9. Travel light
10. Fish in the right pool

Are these good rules of thumb – or are they contentious?

Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. Shoot in good light
Light is the basis of all photography. Saying “shoot in good light” is a bit like advising someone to “eat nutritious food.” It’s pretty obvious. Some years ago I took to heart the contents of the “Light and Film” volume in the Time/Life Photography series and I’ve found nothing in digital photography to contradict the information.

However, in practical terms, it’s not always possible to find good light when you’re out on the street. The solution is to work around its absence, making compositions that work in poor light.

I should add that by “poor light” I don’t necessarily mean weak light, because digital cameras have very sensitive sensors that work very effectively at low levels of illumination. I mean light such as you get with the overhead noon-day sun, top-lighting the subject, creating hot-spots in the image and draining the subject of its subtle tones.

You can make a virtue out of poor light if you don’t feel inclined to wait (see rule of thumb no.3). Hard, intense, overhead light may even be appropriate to your style. So this rule of thumb does not hold true for everyone.

2. Go where the people are
A photograph without people is not street photography it’s just a photograph of a street. You need to go where people gather, move, meet each other, argue and gesticulate. In such places you’ll get more good photographs than if you stand on a quiet street where only the occasional passer-by is a potential target.

Garry Winogrand advised young street photographers to go where the people are — advice that seems somewhat redundant in his native New York City where it’s quite hard to get away from people. (When I lived in NYC the only time I found it empty was when I encountered a shooter on East 43rd Street. Everyone else had fled.)

Yet you only need find a single figure in the right place at the right time to make a terrific street photo. If you always obey this rule of thumb you’ll never get that sort of picture.

3. Be patient
German street photographer Andreas Ott describes walking past a window in Voorburg (Netherlands) every day and admiring the light shining through it. He thought it would be great if someone appeared in it. He writes: “Almost half a year later, I got my shot. What should I say, patience in Street Photography pays off!”

I’m not a patient person. Sometimes I find a great background on a busy street, then suddenly everyone seems to disappear. I wait. Nothing. I go somewhere else. This is the Way of the Street Photographer.

4. Use multiple strategies
In street photography you need to improvise constantly, sometimes moving around, at other times anchoring yourself to a single position. If you always shoot with a 35mm lens, try using 50mm or 28mm for a change. Look for different patterns, gatherings, groupings of people. Let yourself be drawn to certain subjects without quite understanding why. Or set yourself a goal by looking for something specific: people using their cellphones (shouldn’t be too hard to find!) or girls on bicycles (easy in a college town).

Only by using multiple strategies can you hope to make best use of the time available. Remember what the economists say: you need to bear in mind the concept of “opportunity cost,”  the loss of potential gain from possible alternative choices.

At any moment the aforementioned “patterns, gatherings, groupings” are happening all over the city, so you don’t want to be wasting your time pursuing the wrong strategies for finding them.

The downside — as with all these rules of thumb there’s a downside — is the tendency to chop and change, never developing a coherent and distinctive style.

5. Avoid zooming
I include this for two reasons: first, because high-quality zoom lenses tend to be large, heavy and bulky. They’re a real pain to carry around and they tend to attract attention, which is the last thing you need.

The second reason — the impracticality of zooming — I shall be discussing elsewhere (in “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?”). I guarantee you’ll lose many opportunities to get a great shot if you have to zoom, focus, click.

On the other hand, if all you have is a zoom lens, you’ll still be able to get great shots, but it’s not the ideal lens for the job.

6. Use standard/wide angle primes
Don’t got too long or too wide. Among experienced street photographers the most popular lenses are 28mm, 35mm and 50mm.

If you go too long you’ll get camera shake. Street photography is all about taking hand-held photos, except on those delightful occasions when you can jam the camera against a lamp post or rest your elbow on a mailbox.

If you go too wide you’ll distort vertical lines at the edges of the frame. The subject will often be too small. Figures near the sides of the image will be stretched unnaturally.

Can you get a great street shot with a 16mm lens or a 100mm lens? Yes, of course. But I wouldn’t try to make it a habit.

7. Control the depth of field
Don’t let depth of field take care of itself. You really need to know which parts of the image will be in focus and which are not in focus. This is good photographic practice and not limited to street photography.

Depth of field is the effective focus range: the distance between the nearest and farthest objects where everything will appear acceptably sharp in the final image.

I control depth of field by shooting consistently in Aperture Priority mode. It allows me to choose the aperture and let the shutter speed change automatically to the right setting. However, you need to keep a close eye on your settings to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze action (if that’s your intention). If it’s not, raise the ISO.

Personally I think this rule of thumb is the exception that proves the rule. Unlike the others it’s totally true!

8. Be discreet
To avoid unnecessary confrontations it’s sensible to be discreet when you take street photographs. You’ll also get better pictures if people don’t stare at you with eyes like deer caught in the headlamps of a car.

Today, street photographers are an integral part of urban life, going about their work in much the same way as all the other occupants of the city. If we start to become a nuisance the other workers will make our job more difficult than it is already.

Is there a place for cheeky, flash-gun wielding street photographers who chat to their subjects and make a spectacle of themselves? Yes, as long as they’re nowhere near me.

9. Travel light
On fine days, all you need for street photography is a lightweight camera and lens, a bottle of water, sensible clothes and comfortable shoes. Anything more (apart from a spare battery or two) is probably unnecessary and will hinder your ability to move around and react to the changing scenes of the city. On rainy days, hook an umbrella over one arm and take weather protection for the camera.

I feel sorry for landscape photographers with their huge back-packs laden with heavy lenses, filters, tripods, and the like. If you’re carrying all that superfluous equipment, don’t even think of taking a street photo on your way to the waterfall. You’re not dressed for the occasion.

10. Fish in the right pool
I think it’s important to take street photos in places where you stand a good chance of getting decent shots — but also where you feel reasonably at ease. If you’re lurking awkwardly outside a terrorist target with a policemen glaring in your direction there’s every chance you’ll fluff your lines.

Yet it’s also good to move out of your comfort zone into the unknown, exploring parts of the city you’ve never visited before. I like to take the SkyTrain in Bangkok and jump out at stations I’ve never previously used into neighbourhoods utterly unfamiliar to me.

So there are my ten “Rules of Thumb.” I’ve left out other frequently mentioned “rules,” like “move in close,” because they’re too prescriptive.

As Pablo Picasso probably didn’t say (there’s no citation for it): “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”