Do Cameras Impart Their Own “Look” to Street Photography?

If ever there was a “vexed question,” it’s this one. Time and again this subject comes up for discussion, not always in connection with street photography but with photography in general.

I’ve read hundreds of comments in forums and I’ve taken note of what technical experts have to tell us about the topic and to these (contradictory) chunks of information I can add my own experience.

A surprising number of people deny that cameras and lenses play any part in the “look” of a photo. They say, essentially: “It’s the photographer, stupid,” as if those who detect a characteristic look are deceiving themselves.

Expert Opinion
The experts, on the other hand, are cautious — and I don’t think any of them would be prepared to put their reputations on the line, and, without looking at the EXIF, say: “This shot was taken by a Canon 5DIV or Leica M10.”

A few people — they tend to be enthusiasts who pay a lot of attention to photo quality — insist there’s a recognisable look to images taken with certain camera/lens combinations. By this, they don’t simply mean sharpness and contrast, but something more: call it “personality,” for want of a better word. In digital photography this can be the result of in-camera JPEG processing but it goes further and seems to appear even when the photographer shoots in RAW.

Getting The Look
I bought my first digital camera on account of the “look” that was being achieved by users of the Fuji S5 Pro. Their shots seemed to have more appealing colours and a greater dynamic range while lacking any harshness in their overall image quality. Based on a Nikon body and hence able to accept Nikon lenses, the S5 Pro featured a sensor with two different sorts of photodiode (cells), one of which was specially designed to receive extremely bright light. Fuji marketed the camera to wedding photographers (think: white wedding dress; black suit) but people like me used it for landscapes and other types of photography as well.

I loved the dynamic range of the S5 Pro and I still take it out occasionally. My featured image (above) was taken with it — and it coped well with both the shade and the intensely lit areas in this Bangkok street scene. Its only drawback is its limited resolution: 6 megapixels devoted to each type of cell, yet not giving a true 12MP spatial resolution, just 6MP+.

The point I’m making is that my experience with the Fuji S5 Pro confirmed my suspicion that cameras can indeed produce images which have a unique look. If it was true for the Fuji, could it not also be true for other brands and models?

The Leica Look
The most talked about “look” is, of course, the Leica look. But is there really such a thing — and can it not be replicated by any quality camera with a great lens and appropriate processing?

For street photographers willing to splash the cash, Leica is often the brand of choice. These cameras are reasonably light to carry, with sturdy engineering and compact lenses of terrific quality. But I think they also get chosen because the “Leica Look” shows up particularly well in black and white. Their characteristic look is less noticeable in colour, which Leica photographers tend to use less, maybe for this very reason.

Let me try to analyse the Leica Look because I agree it’s real, but I don’t think it necessarily applies to all Leica cameras and lenses. The Leica Q in particular, with the strong corrections it makes to lens aberrations in software — even in RAW — give its output a “look” all of its own.

First, Leica images tend to be tack sharp across the whole photo, always a sign of a top quality lens. Second, the images have an appealing glow, especially in flesh tones. Third, even images taken with digital Leicas look a bit less “digital” than those taken with other cameras. Clearly, there is something going on that Leica have succeeded in making part of their brand — a bit like the fabled Scottish Highland water which is supposed to be a key factor in the unique quality of Scotch whisky. Funnily enough, both seem to have almost indefinable qualities like “depth” and “pop.”

Another parallel, somewhat closer than whisky, would be the violins made by Stradivarius at the end of the seventeenth century. Every musician admires the sound of a Strad and nearly all violinists would like one if they could afford it. Christian Tetzlaff is an exception in preferring a modern instrument, having switched from Strad to a 2002 violin made by Stefan-Peter Greiner (greinerviolins.com). Equally, few photographers give up their Leicas for other brands once they’ve made the initial investment.

Like or Leica?
You can find a really in-depth analysis of the Leica Look (and how to replicate it) on a website called Like-a-Look (but the URL is: www.leicalook.com). Today, there’s an app for everything, and in photography there’s a Photoshop plug-in or a Lightroom preset. Like-a-Look is a Lightroom preset. Its aim is to simulate the look of photos taken with classic rangefinders such as the Leica M.

The developer of Like-a-Look refers to Colour Rendering, Micro-Contrast, and Sharpness as being the three main factors involved in producing or reproducing the Leica Look. Unique colour rendering in certain cameras “may not be as technically accurate as other cameras when measured electronically, but they give a more realistic ‘feel’ according to many viewers.” As regards micro-contrast: “We use a method that enhances contrast without creating thick dark lines and unnatural shadows.” Sharpness also gets addressed by the preset: “A lot of the perceived sharpness is due to low noise, reduced flare and the colour shifts produced in-camera.”

Like-a-Look’s developer is firmly of the opinion that the Leica Look can be simulated, up to a point: “If you…have a good camera with a good sensor and a good lens, then it’s possible to get a similar ‘Leica Look’ without having a camera with a red dot.”

Substitute “outstanding” for “good” in the above paragraph and I’d tend to agree. Digital images are infinitely malleable. Their resolution now easily matches the resolution of 35mm film and you can, if you wish, use older lenses with their unique quirks and capabilities. It’s also possible to simulate the look of various types of film (and the processes used to develop them). Given all these tools at our disposal, the uniqueness of the Leica Look — and other “looks” — is gradually being eroded.

Back to Fuji
However, what remains is the ease with which you get The Look if you use the original camera that produces it. Fuji cameras, for example, are renowned for the appealing way in which they render colour. It is, say the experts, the result of Fuji’s long experience with colour film processing. It’s in the DNA of the company and its products. If you print the out-of-camera Fuji JPEG you’ll get proper Fuji colour.

Can you get Fuji colour from a Canon? Yes, after fixing up the image in Photoshop. It will take you a while to get it just right, but you’ll be able to get very close to the look of Fuji output, providing you work with an image from a camera/lens of equivalent or superior quality. A friend who is a Photoshop expert helped me make the above photo of a lady with multi-coloured hair (who is probably NOT searching her phone for a Lightroom preset) into something resembling a Fuji X image (although not one from the S5 Pro).

In summary: I personally think you can recognise the characteristic look which certain cameras/lenses impart to an image, but it’s impossible to identify it every time. I also think it’s not especially important because (if the truth be told) you can take great street photos with any good quality camera.

So why not have a glass of Suntory Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky, check out the musicians who use a Greiner violin — and have a think about it?

Softcore Versus Hardcore Street Photography

Way back in December 1995 Bill Gates said Microsoft was “hardcore about the Internet.” He couldn’t have been blunter. Hardcore was the strongest word he could have used — and absolutely necessary in the circumstances as Microsoft’s entire business was threatened by the rise of Netscape and the prospect of its browser killing off the descendants of Windows 95.

When you juxtaposed the words “hardcore” and “Internet” in 1995 most people thought of pornography, which represented a larger proportion of Internet content than it does today. But the word had only recently become associated with sex and at one time had been two words, hard core, as in “there is always a hard core of trusty stalwarts…” (who are the most active, committed, or doctrinaire members of the group).

Today you can buy “hardcore” by the ton: bags of shingle to be used for building or ballast. Rarity is not a quality you can attach to anything hardcore, despite the implication that’s it’s somehow extreme or exceptional.

Hardcore Street Photography
All of which brings me to so-called “hardcore street photography,” a sub-genre of our art-form which, by virtue of its chosen epithet, claims to be the essence of street photography rather than a mere category of it.

If you’re a hardcore street photographer you don’t linger on the other side of the road with a 100mm lens, waiting for that woman in the black hat to drop her West Highland white terrier and pick a shopping bag. No, you’re right there in front of her with a 28mm lens, blinding her with flash, scaring the dog — and getting a dramatic image full of contrast, scowls and yelps.

Tough not gentle, gritty not smooth, urban not suburban (and definitely not country), threatening not inviting, unfussy not thoughtful, ugly not beautiful — those are adjectives that spring to mind when I think of hardcore street photography. There’s much to admire in it, but certainly not the Apollonian ideals of order, intellect and beauty. With hardcore street photography you’re getting down and dirty in the gutter, not looking up at the stars like Oscar Wilde but just looking at the gutter.

From what I’ve written you might think I don’t care for hardcore street photography, but that’s not so. For example, I have huge admiration for the work of Barry Talis whose pictures on the Flickr HCSP (Hardcore Street Photography) group are outstanding. Viewing his photos is like reading “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s tale of schoolboys stranded on a desert island without adult supervision. But there’s a difference. In Talis’s world, even the adults seem to behave as badly as Golding’s kids, displaying their own brand of sub-rational confusion beneath which lies violence, cruelty and despair.

I could write pages about Talis’s photographs: their portayal of religiosity, obsessiveness, angst, people looking guilty, dogs, raw meat, fire, water, hooks, chickens, dramatic incidents, arguments, accidents, threatening atmosphere and suggestions of cruelty and violence. But I mustn’t harp on about hardcore; I need to mention softcore street photography, as that’s more my scene.

Softcore Street Photography
The snag is: no one ever seems to use the expression “softcore street photography”. There was once a group on Flickr of that name, but “standards slipped,” according to the moderator, and the group was shut down. Photos are still online, but at last count it had 162 members and 4 discussions. By contrast, Flickr’s Hardcore group has 80,000 members and 3,107 discussions.

From these statistics you can deduce that viewers of street photography prefer to be shocked rather than titillated. They’re looking for extreme moments rather than decisive moments: for images can that take them to places they can’t reach by themselves.

In fact, as well as HCSP there’s an Extreme Street Photography group on Flickr (boasting 19,742 members) and, by serendipity, several Decisive Moments groups, most of them with fewer than a thousand members. One, called just Decisive Moment, does have 38,000 members — but that’s still less than half the size of the Hardcore crowd.

In street photography, the vast majority of participants want to be known as “hardcore” — not namby-pamby softies who are scared of getting their lenses dirty. However, I found one participant of HCSP who likes to take pictures of homeless and mentally ill people and who says: “I do drive by shootings from the comfort of my car, and I use a telephoto zoom lens 55-250[mm]….I could [sic] care less what the ‘purists’ have to say about my style.”

Well, what I can I say? He breaks every guideline. He comes nowhere near approaching the exuberance of a hardcore street photographer like Barry Talis or the formal perfection of David Solomons — but I wouldn’t dismiss his work out of hand. He has enthusiasm, an eye for an interesting face, a sense of humour and a recognition of absurdity. Unfortunately, he’s allowed the hardcore “rebel” streak in his personality to screw up his development as an artist and human being.

And so it goes with people who attempt street photography but don’t quite get there. The Flickr guy with the telephoto zoom isn’t hardcore at all. He’s not as hardcore as I am — and unlike him I don’t place my work into that category.

What About Me?
The featured image (above) is about as hardcore as I get. After all, there’s nothing more sinister than cuddly toys — unless you include clowns. The shot is in-your-face, the subject’s dismay at being photographed contrasts nicely with the total lack of concern shown by the toys, all of whom — along with the passers-by — are looking elsewhere. It’s a brutal image, but in a cuddly way.

Alternatively (see the image below), I’ve been known to intrude on people eating an uncomfortable lunch somewhere behind the London International Film School, where I once worked. The backstreet location in Covent Garden lacks any feminine charm of its own and here its toughness is augmented by the presence of a tattooed and heavily muscled man who hurries along the grey street past the doorway with its half-concealed red warning sign. It couldn’t be grittier or more urban, could it? But hardcore? Not really.

So if you’re asking for definitions, I’d say:

“Hardcore street photography is a style of candid photography that takes an uncompromising approach to depicting people in an urban environment, mainly by getting close to the subject to show action, interaction and raw emotion.”

“Softcore street photography is a style of candid photography that cannot be considered ‘hardcore’ because it places aesthetics above content and in so doing tends to dilute the rawness of the street.”

Or maybe softcore street photographers tend to gravitate towards the classier part of town, which, after all, is still a great working environment. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

 

Stolen Portraits

In a 2014 article, Business Insider noted: “Back in 2008, we uploaded very few photos to the internet.” How times have changed!

I don’t know exactly how many digital photos will be taken this year, but I suspect it will be squillions. One cleverly calculated estimate for last year (from Eric Perret) — based on 5 billion mobile phones, 80 percent of them with cameras, each taking 10 pictures a day — was 14,600,000,000,000 (over 14 trillion).

Only a relatively small percentage of these trillions of images found their way on to the Internet. Nonetheless, looking back a little further to 2016 (seems like a long time ago!) Google reported that over 200 million people a month uploaded images to its Google Photos application, posting (among other stuff) 24 billion selfies.

More Portraits
Do we really need any more casually taken portraits? I guess not, but I still occasionally like to grab what I call a “stolen portrait” — a sneaky shot of someone when he, she, or non-gender-specific person least suspects they’re being photographed. I think it helps to counterbalance those billions of posed shots, showing a different aspect to people’s lives which would otherwise remain hidden.

From waist height, I took the featured image (above) in Oxford Street. I think it turned out rather well. My camera (Canon 5DIII) lacks one of those nifty LCD screens you can tilt to help you take this kind of shot, so I always have to guess what I’m doing. Fortunately, I’ve avoided tilting the camera itself, keeping the verticals completely straight (without any later manipulation which always degrades the image).

Thanks to the bright but even light, both people in the shot look terrific. I hate “stolen portraits” that make people look bad. There are several street photographers who do this deliberately — in the Diane Arbus tradition. She, at least, created some truly compelling images as a result, but the vast majority of such photos are simply embarrassing for all concerned: for the photographer, onlooker, and (especially) the subject.

The Tour Leader
Here’s another stolen portrait: a photo of someone who seems to be in charge of a tour around the old flower market in Covent Garden. No one appears to be taking much notice of her, but she’s clearly visible with the brightly coloured parasol. I expect she’s waiting patiently for other members of the group to arrive.

I don’t offer this photo as one of my best examples of street photography, but I like it as stolen portrait. Everyone looks to be in good humour, but there’s also a slight hint of exasperation, of: “Where the hell have the others got to?” The leader is refusing to be moved and leans on the iron post for additional support.

If the image has any visual quality it’s in the contrast between the flimsiness of the parasol and the solidity of the post. This material contrast echoes the clash between “good humour” and “exasperation.” It’s a pity the crowd milling around are not in better positions, but maybe that, too, provides some contrast with the tour leader’s determination to be calm.

Pink Lunch
Finally, here a tough looking character grabbing a quick lunch at a high, pink table (above). You may thnk the image is a little bit intrusive, but remember, this is a tourist hot-spot where lots of people take photos — and the table’s location is scarcely discreet.

I don’t think the subject would mind. He’s not yet begun to jam the frankfurter into his mouth, in the style of one of those hapless politicians who’re always being caught off-guard by the paparazzi. This man is illuminated by some reflected light from the table. His gesture is poised in mid-air in perpetual anticipation of the food.

Stolen portrait? It’s a moment stolen from time. One of many trillions.

Keeping the City at a Distance

Like most street photographers I place people centre-stage. In musical terms, I give people the vocal role while the city provides the instrumental accompaniment.

I tend to keep the two components — subject and environment — in balance, without either of them dominating too greatly. Sometimes, however, I’m so struck by the beauty of one or the other that I depart from the score and make up the tune as I go along.

Tin Pan Alley
The musical metaphor fits my featured image (above) very neatly. It’s looking directly down London’s Denmark Street, otherwise known as “Tin Pan Alley” because this is where you can buy most types of instrument — from guitars to synthesizers — for playing popular music and jazz.

If you look carefully at the photo you can read the words “banjos,” “mandolins,” “acoustic guitars,” “sheet music,” “saxophone showroom,” “synths,” “keyboards,” “organs,” and “digital pianos.”

The shop in the foreground also says: “lapsteels” which had me searching Google to find out what they are. “Showing results for lap steels” came back the message, with an illustration of a guitar with a glass or metal bar instead of a fretboard. Ah! Thank you, Google. I’ll remind everyone that’s your colourful London headquarters in the background of the shot.

In this photo I was “keeping the city at a distance.” I was not expecting to get one of those cute combinations of tangled arms and legs, or any expressive faces or telling incidents. This time I was just struck by the beauty of London on a day in early Spring, when the sun comes out and people walk around in short sleeves, even though they’re still palid from the winter.

Positioned on the other side of Charing Cross Road, I waited for a big, shiny bus to stop at the lights and anchor the image firmly at the centre. The picture wouldn’t work if the stationary vehicle was a taxi or a small car. I needed colour and size at the centre as well as at the edges.

I also had to wait for the right assortment of people to cross the road. In the shot there’s a girl using crutches who has her leg in very colourful plaster. I was rather hoping she’d be more prominent in the image, but perhaps it’s for the best that she’s concealed by the woman at her side. If one of the pedestrians had become too prominent the balance of the image might have been upset.

As it is, I’m quite pleased with the result. Leaning on some street furniture I was able to get maximum sharpness — and the 1/1000th second speed of the shutter has frozen the movement of the pedestrians. As a result, there is charm is in the detail as well as in the whole. You can clearly see the orange cage of a lift, with a man in an orange uniform going up (or down). And a passenger in the bus is smiling broadly. It was that kind of day.

Hong Kong Break
There are two smiling girls near the centre of this next picture (below), taken in Hong Kong, but everyone else looks tired. Most of the workers are on a break, too exhausted to do anything except stare listlessly into the distance before starting their afternoon shift.

The gaze of the two figures at the front is of great help to the composition. Their positions lead the eye into the picture. Again, here I’m keeping the city at arm’s length, not getting too close to anyone in particular, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t see their faces.

There are two exceptions: the man sitting down at the bottom right and the tall man on the left. Of the two, the latter — in yellow boots and smoking a cigarette — is the more important. He stops the eye from wandering off down the steps on the left. In this he’s helped by the photographic artwork which forms two different images depending on your viewpoint. You can just make out the lettering: “Cochrane Street 1959” in each of the versions.

Like my Tin Pan Alley shot, there’s a wide variation in light and shade which I’ve chosen not to correct too heavily in Photoshop. Both images are tending towards over-exposed bright areas and underexposed shadows. For the sake of the detail I’ve deliberately erred on the side of the shadows, here allowing the sunny area to wash out some of the 1959 photograph, without destroying it completely.

Does it work as a composition? Yes, I think it almost does. It would be perfect if the man in the yellow boots were slightly closer to the camera, but there was no guarantee he’d retain his pose if I’d waited. As it is, he’s clearly moving towards the perfect position — and that’s sufficient for me. As Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

A Distant View of the River
After the intensity of Hong Kong it’s good to return to the serenity of Bangkok. I say that with a sense or irony because much of Bangkok is no less frenetic than Hong Kong. Only in certain places, like here (below) beside the Chao Praya, does the pace of life dwindle to a standstill. Once more, the focus is on the distance, looking towards the far bank of the river where the Chinese pagoda of the Chee Chin Khor temple seems like an ancient feature of the cityscape. (More irony: it dates from the year 2001).

Of the three images I’m showing here I like this one the best. I was lucky that the reflection of light from the river was enough to illuminate the underside of the structure on the right. The variation in the tiles helps to rescue the blankness of the foreground. I particularly wanted to get in the backlit canopy with the smiling couple on it. They seem to face the camera, despite being shown from the back — which again is somewhat ironic.

I didn’t intend this to be an ironic picture, and it’s not. I just stumbled across a quiet scene, way off the tourist trail, in a place where the fish don’t seem to be biting. Or maybe they are. Bright light has driven up my shutter speed to 1/6400th of a second. The man on the right is reaching forward. He’s frozen mid-air in a decisive moment.

Maybe this is street photography after all.

Allow Themes to Emerge

This blog post is all about one single tip for the aspiring street photographer. It’s this: don’t set yourself specific tasks or place yourself in the straitjacket of a “concept.” Just take pictures and allow themes to emerge.

You may not recognise them at first. You’ll see various subjects in the street — shoppers, workers, entertainers, people making deliveries, others standing around in groups — and occasionally you’ll make your selection and take a picture. You’ll probably think your choice is governed almost entirely by other factors, such as expression, gesture, dress, lighting and background. But it’s not.

There’s always an original motivation which propels you towards one subject rather than another. Clearly, this motivation lies within the photographer and doesn’t form part of the outside world.

For example, if you frequently take photos of people in groups, does each particular group have some unique quality that deserves your attention? Of course not! You’re attracted by many different groups, for reasons of your own.

Maybe you have a deep tribal instinct, one that’s normally hidden but which emerges when you look at the world through your camera. Or maybe groups disturb you and you want to come to terms with them.

Whatever it is, you choose to take pictures of people in groups — perhaps without being fully aware of it. The photos get mixed in with all the others you take: of people by themselves, small details, crowds, dogs…

The Emerging Theme
After working at street photography for a year or two you’ll see themes emerging naturally. Going back through your pictures you’ll notice the subjects which have held your interest. Perhaps you’ll even be able to assemble a few collections: galleries in which there’s some commonality between shots.

The process I’ve described is one I’ve noticed in my own street photography. First and foremost I’m attracted by contrasts. I like to see one idea (or shape, or colour, or an entire culture) pitted against another. Yet I’d been taking street pictures for a year or two before I realised how endemic the process had become. Now, I don’t think I could stop myself seeing peculiar contrasts even if I tried.

For example, take my featured image (above). Taken outside a Chinese temple in Thailand, it’s a nice jumble of colours, with an emphasis on the lady in pink who wears an inappropriate tee-shirt proclaiming “Playgirl Requested.” You can see immediately the clash of cultures and languages, but the contrast also extends to the two tourists at the temple entrance. They’re dressed in primary colours unlike the other women — and they face in the opposite direction.

You could argue that contrasts do not in themselves constitute a theme. Their inclusion in street photography is like adding seasoning to a meal. Perhaps you’d be right, but it’s not only contrast that attracts me to certain subjects rather than others. I also like pairs.

The Joy of Pairs
You’ve probably noticed there are two pairs of people in the featured photo. Communication passes between the members of each pair. That’s the joy of being in a group of two: you can be mutally supportive, whether you’re sightseeing or working seriously.

Here (above) are two cyclists who share the same uniform — passing under a bougainvillea bush (fuengfa in Thai) of much the same colour. It’s good when the pair of subjects share something in common with their surroundings.

Fortunately for me the world is full of pairs: lovers, brothers, sisters, married couples or just-good-friends. I spotted the scene below from the top of a bridge and hurried downstairs to take it.

The two young women with a similar taste in clothes and accessories were still in animated conversation, so I wasn’t disappointed. Moreover, I found a striking contrast with the (married?) couple on the right and the man sitting by himself on the left.

In a sense, the two pairs of people and the man in black form three distinct subjects in the above image. Their respective states of mind are entirely different: reflective (man in black), upbeat (cartoon couple), and somewhat concerned (married couple). Meanwhile, life goes on all around them.

Here’s one last pair: two girls in Singapore taking a selfie. What motivated me to take the shot? Their matching flip-flops, of course!

Other Themes
I think I have around a dozen other themes which have emerged naturally during the course of taking street photos. I’ll be talking about them in future blog posts and I’ve already mentioned one or two — such as “The Face in the Crowd” — in articles I’ve posted recently.

Off the top of my head, without thinking too deeply about it, here are some of the subjects to which I’m drawn:

People eating; shoppers going in an out of a mall; people playing with water; men working; women standing around “looking good”; people looking bored and anxious; anyone carrying something unusual; people who are extremely ordinary yet somehow beautiful.

I remain open to other ideas, but these will keep me going for a while.

Colourful Arguments

As I’ve said approximately twenty times in these blog posts, “contrast” — in the broadest sense — lies at the heart of street photography. So here’s a potential theme with built-in contrast: domestic disputes set against a background of cheerful colours. Ironic, huh?

Psychologists often talk about the influence of colour on our daily lives. It plays an active role; it’s not just a passive backdrop to be enjoyed or reviled. Colour affects our moods and behaviour for reasons that are still unknown but which probably date back to humanity’s distant past.

Because colour seems to affect us emotionally, people develop preferences for one colour over another. There may even be a gender-based bias, with women preferring warm colours while men — most men, not all men — have a preference for cool colours. There’s even some academic research to support this generalisation (Whitfield, T. W. A., & Wiltshire, T. J. 1990).

Domestic Dispute
Is it possible that both men and women find a clashing mixture of colours to be sufficiently irritating to provoke a domestic argument? In my featured image (above) it looks like these two people have a strong difference of opinion. In fact, a dispute with recriminations seems to have broken out while standing in front of a colourful array of chiffon scarves.

I’m not suggesting that the scarves are in any way responsible, but I’m struck by the difference in appearance between the man and the woman. She’s dressed in neutral colours: black skirt, white shirt, and carries a white shoulder bag. She’s also clearly cross about something and has put the man on the defensive. He in turn wears a turquoise tee-shirt, a jacket with bright orange flashes, and rides a bright red scooter with a red, but not-quite-matching helmet.

No wonder she’s upset! Happy couples tend to wear colours that complement each other. These two — if they are indeed a couple — don’t dress harmoniously, although the woman may have restricted herself deliberately to neutral shades because her man has no colour sense whatsoever. In these circumstances, the only way a woman can express herself is to raise objections.

Chromotherapy
The science (or pseudo-science) of curing people of ailments by using colour to correct the imbalance which is supposedly the cause of the problem is called “chromotherapy.”

Chromotherapy seems to me to be a colourful version of homeopathy. It has a huge following. It’s used successfully in many instances — and it has a large supporting literature which explains it in scientific language without necessarily winning the support of the scientific community at large.

Modern chromotherapy dates back to the work of Edwin Dwight Babbitt (1828-1905), an American spiritualist and physician who established his own college — the New York College of Magnetics — which issued degrees to students qualifying them to administer colour-based treatments. He even invented a device called a “thermolume” which was able to concentrate light in various colours on to different parts of the body. In another approach, he irradiated water with colour-filtered sunlight, claiming that water retained the unique energy of each particular colour.

Is there any truth in chromotherapy? I’d be surprised if it were completely devoid of truth, but reading about it is like wading through treacle. Its exponents elaborate on it with smatterings of quantum theory, possibly in an attempt to bring it up-to-date and make it seem respectably scientific. But I can’t bring myself to believe a word of it. Frankly, it’s only a matter of time before someone invents a comprehensive, colour-based religion in which every colour represents a pathway to God.

Colours in a Lower Key
Coming back down to Earth — and to street photography — here’s a more harmonious image (below).

In a sense, this photo is the reverse of the other one. This time the man wears neutral colours whereas the woman is dressed in tasteful pink. The goods on display show a marked preference for warm colours, with pinks and reds predominating.

As you can see, the woman is looking off to the left, away from the man. For whatever reason, her expression is a bit grumpy, as though she’s either bored — for lack of customers — or waiting impatiently to be served.

There’s another possible scenario in which the woman is the customer, waiting for her husband to show up with some cash, while the man in the picture waits patiently with the two rolls of material she’s trying to purchase.

There can be no wholly accurate interpretation of the photo. Viewers will have to create their own narrative to explain it. To me, it looks like the man with the cigarette dangling from his lips is trying to woo the girl by showing off two massive rolls of material in her favourite colour — but she’s refusing to be impressed.

In Pursuit of Ambiguity
The photo is impenetrable and therefore ambiguous, once we’ve imposed our own narrative on it. In street photography, ambiguity is a virtue, but science can’t tolerate conflicting explanations.

I doubt if any science is more complex than the theory of colour — so inextricably linked to human perception. Perhaps, in our observations of colour, we should think more about relationships than about the specifics of red, white or blue. Here’s what the master of abstraction Piet Mondrian had to say about it:

“Everything is expressed through relationship. Colour can exist only through other colours, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.”

He was right. Spread the word.

The Urge to Simplify in Street Photography

Can you resist it? Should you resist it? I’m talking about the urge to simplify your street photos in order to make them more striking, giving them more instant appeal.

The compulsion to simplify is universal in the accepted canons of good photography, whether portraiture, landscape or fashion. Very few subjects look good against a busy background — yet photography, in reducing the world from three to two dimensions, turns depth into flatness whatever the background. It squeezes space together so that objects in the distance collide with those closer to the camera. Our eyes don’t really like this effect. It creates too much ambiguity.

If you browse the sort of photos that often win prizes you’ll find plenty of good work that observes the canons of good photographic taste. People have taken to heart the exhortation to simplify their images — to such an extent that many photographers have embraced abstraction as a natural culmination of this line of thought.

I can’t bring myself to say they’re totally wrong. Abstraction is indeed the end to which all photography tends — but I think we should resist it. In the photographic arts, abstraction is like entropy in reverse. Instead of being “a gradual decline into disorder” (one of the definitions of entropy) it’s a gradual decline into order – a superficial kind of order which the photographer imposes on the world by studiously ignoring ninety-nine percent of it.

It you listen to the advice photographers are giving to each other, you’ll find that “Simplify! Simplify!” is the universal cry. Once they’ve made this point, their next advice is usually: “Get closer! Get closer!”

Here, for example, is photographer Ron Craig writing on picturecorrect.com: “In most cases, the power of a photo is inversely proportional to how many different elements it has. A close crop on a quarterback is much more powerful than a wide angle shot of the full field of players…an isolated tree is more compelling than a busy forest view.” And what is the photographer meant to do about it? Craig says: “The first way to simplify an image is to…get closer to your subject.”

Begging the Question
Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the above, except to say that it begs a lot of questions. Are people who look at photos incapable of “reading” an image by enjoying detail and seeing how it contributes to the composition? What’s the real subject? Is it the landscape/cityscape or an object within it, or both? Why must the photographer make everything so easy for the eye of the beholder? After all, as mobile beings we can see 360 degrees by moving our heads, taking in all around us.

For too long, so-called photography experts have been fobbing off their readers by calling for greater simplicity as if it’s the only true way to forge a photographic style. Surely, the notorious Ken Rockwell, with whom I rarely agree, goes miles too far in saying: “Simplicity is the most important concept in photography… Simple ideas are stronger. Expressing them more simply makes them clearer.”

Ken, you sound like a meerkat: “Simples!”

If we reduce every idea to its most simple form we end up with slogans, propaganda, sound-bites, and all the other snippets of nonsense that serve as substitutes for thought, communication, art, and understanding. Complex ideas that have been reduced to a point at which they become nonsensical clich├ęs include: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” “Shoot from your heart,” “Zoom with your feet,” “The camera is only a tool.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words?” Really? Which thousand words? Would a photograph have been better than the 272-word Gettysburg Address?

“Shoot from your heart.” Are you kidding? Your emotions on their own will not automatically enable you to take a great or even a competent photograph.

“Zoom with your feet.” Impossible! If you walk towards the subject you’re changing the whole perspective, not just the focal length.

“The camera is only a tool.” What!! You mean like a chisel? Or maybe a hammer? To say that the camera is only a tool is a bit like saying the Palace of Versailles is only a house.

All of the examples, above, are the result of reductive thinking where the thought has become so cryptically expressed it’s now essentially meaningless. I suppose it’s happened because we’ve had a century or more of advertising slogans which encapsulate a sales message to make it memorable.

“Good to the last drop.” (Maxwell House, 1915)
“The pause that refreshes.” (Coca-Cola, 1929)
“Look, Ma, no cavities!” (Crest, 1958)

Flick, and Move On
On the Internet, most photography is normally presented for instant appreciation and consumption. Users of Instagram, WhatsApp or Line are accustomed to flicking through images, spending about a second on each one before either moving on to the next or becoming “engaged” by clicking through to related content.

Did I say one second? That’s how long users seem to take when I look over their shoulders on the train. But photos have captions, don’t they? According to AdWeek, writing about Instagram: “Brief copy is popular. The average caption is 138 characters long, but Simply Measured [social analytics solution] found no significant correlation between text length and engagement rate.” I’m not surprised. I doubt if anyone pauses to read the captions.

The trend is towards ever-shorter expression of ideas and towards photography that can be appreciated in a single glance.

The very fact that still photography survives in a world where movies are every bit as easy to create should give us pause for thought. Movies require more than a single glance. They chew up time whereas a photo “embalms time” and makes it instantaneous.

I’d love to reverse this trend in my own street photography. I’m working on it. It may be a quixotic enterprise that’s doomed to failure, but I think it’s possible — just possible — to grab viewers’ attention on one level and encourage them to linger for a minute or two or longer in order to reach a deeper level of understanding.

If you can’t keep the viewer’s attention for more than a second, what’s the point of street photography? It would simply be another meaningless activity in a throwaway world where everyone seems to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

My images tend, therefore, to be quite detailed, a bit cluttered but certainly never disordered. Sometimes I isolate a subject, such as the Woman In Red (the featured image, at top). Sometimes I take a subject that’s partially concealed (The Hidden Chef, above). You can take in these images at a single glance, but even these images — among my most simple — contain essential details which I think add to their meaning.

Fortunately, street photography is an art form that can accommodate complexity with relative ease in comparison to most other forms of photography. Elsewhere on this blog I discuss the use of layers and other techniques that bring complexity under control. We expect there to be complexity on the street and we miss it if the photographer consistently excludes it. You can’t show people interacting in an urban environment if you’re always cutting out the detail and replacing it with blank walls and negative space.

A virtue in life, simplicity can be an encumbrance in art.

 

Using Posters and Graffiti in Street Photography

If you’re a street photographer it’s almost impossible to resist taking full advantage of posters and graffiti: readymade artworks that provide a colouful and sometimes meaningful backdrop to your pictures.

Do we overuse them? Probably. But I think street photography would lose a vital element if everyone decided to ignore the posters, scrawls and daubings which either enhance or spoil the urban environment, depending on your point of view.

The Big Con
Using posters and graffiti in street photos has its pros and cons, and I’d like to start with the cons. The big con (in two senses of the word) is when the photographer simply steals the artwork and adds very little value to it. The end result is then little more than a reproduction of the poster or graffito, with maybe the inclusion of a random passer-by to give the photo a touch of credibility.

Frankly, that kind of street photo is no longer good enough. If the subject is the poster or graffito rather than people in the street you’re not creating anything new. The original artist should get all the credit, along with the brilliant technicians who designed and built your camera.

Theatre Posters
The featured image (above) is a shot I took recently of a woman walking past a theatre bookings office in London. As you can imagine, I was attracted by the vivid colours of the posters and so I hung around for a few minutes to see if I could get a valid shot. I was looking for something more than just a snapshot of the posters, although I think I could be forgiven for selecting the location: a lovely corner building with fabulous architecture, covered in posters that are reflected in the wet paving.

One or two people walked past, but I selected this cheerful pedestrian whose blonde hair stands out against the black window frame and whose scarf matches the deep red of the posters. It’s a decisive moment owing to her exact positioning and the fact that her arm is precisely vertical. I was lucky that her trailing foot is right next to the word “Stomp,” and that the “School of Rock” poster is so lively.

Looking at the posters in the photo I realise now that they’re mostly very masculine images. The word “Boys” appears prominently inside the shop and there are several hyperactive males depicted in the posters. The pedestrian seems aware of having entered a male domain and she keeps her eyes looking firmly towards the ground.

Fly Postings
In the image below, taken in Hong Kong, a man walks past a wall covered in repetitions of the same delightfully sleazy Uptown Rockers poster, indicating that we may actually be in a bad part of town. Fortunately, the man looks pretty cool with his reversed sunglasses reflecting his yellow backpack. Is he heading uptown or downtown? We’ll never know.

You may have noticed one interesting element in the Hong Kong image: the date. It’s very specific, March 11, 2016. In fact you could be sure that these posters would soon be replaced by others, not long after the stated date. Wall space is valuable in a city like Hong Kong, especially if it’s free.

I notice how quickly posters change in the city, sometimes through being defaced or else by having others pasted on top of them. This is not so true of my first image where the changing elements are the pedestrian and the rain. But in the second image we’re more conscious of the temporary nature of the posters. They’re here today and gone tomorrow — yet preserved forever by photography.

Everything Is Changing
When we take pictures in the street it’s a good idea to consider the different speeds at which the various parts of the environment are changing. People, animals, birds and traffic are obviously changing their position quickly because we have to raise our shutter speed to freeze their movement. Objects such as parked cars come and go after an hour or two, while the same news-stands and hamburger stalls open and close every day.

Posters like those in the Hong Kong photo are around for a week or two, while those in the London photo can be with us for as long as the show remains open. Yet please remember that everything in the environment — even the oh-so-solid buildings — are only temporary. In a century or two, most of them will be transformed out of all recognition. Your street photo will then have a different appeal for the viewer: it will be a record of life and the city as they existed at a certain time long ago.

I’m suggesting that we may not fully appreciate the street photos we take today because we don’t yet have the perspective of time to see them afresh. The photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the streets of New York in the 1930s would have looked very different to her contemporaries than they do to us today. We see a particular time. They saw only a particular place.

It’s really only in posters that we can capture a feeling of nostalgia without having to wait for the decades to pass. Their short life-span is just what we need to signify the passing of time, which is, after all, part of the very essence of photography because photography defies time.

What’s On
So here’s my parting shot. I call it “What’s On.” The EXIF tells me I took it on May 23, 2012, which surprises me because it seems like yesterday. The couple are checking out the entertainment events in London, the man looking towards “The Vocal Orchestra,” his partner checking out “Havana Rumba!” Clearly, opposites attract, a fact confirmed by his black “Tough Mudder” tee-shirt with its various pledges in contrast to her plain, silent white vest.

The photo suggests romantic summer evenings in a big city where there is more than enough to do. A person looking at this image in fifty years time might be reminded of actual events they attended during May/June that year. “Did we see The Girl with the Iron Claws? Or was it The Boy with Tape on His Face?”

Already, I can look at this picture and appreciate how everything has changed in the interim. It delivers the bittersweet feeling of ephemerality, the sense of “…Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu…” It suggests that there, in London “…in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” (Keats).

In Street Photography, Let the Viewer’s Imagination Go to Work

Cameras are magical instruments because of their potential. When you look at a brand new camera, just out of its box, you can imagine all the wonderful photos it may eventually take. You mind completes the equation. That’s why we’re all suckers for a new camera.

Now here’s the thing: why not use this extraordinary function of the human mind when you’re actually taking pictures? In street photography it isn’t necessary to spell out every visual word. You can let the viewer’s imagination go to work.

Look at the image above, for example. These guys are not going to work, they’re coming home. At least, that’s my interpretation, the viewer may wish to interpret it differently.

The photograph can stand on its own without commentary, but the viewer is obliged to pause and think about it. Why is everyone huddled together? Ah, yes, they’re on the back of a pick-up truck. What time of day is it? Early evening, surely, given the warm rays of the sun.

Having come to the conclusion that these are workers on their way home, you can reasonably say that it’s been a tough day for them. They’re probably tired, but they’re young and strong. They’ve survived and they’re looking forward to an evening meal and a rest.

I took the image at Kata Beach on the island of Phuket in the early evening. Naturally I was drawn to the colours — blues and blacks — and the fact that the people were huddled together in a cohesive group. The only problem was the speed of the truck, which was going fast enough to miss if I hadn’t been prepared with appropriate settings. In fact, the truck’s movement was fortuitous because, despite noticing me, the subjects didn’t have time to make a strong reaction before I got the shot.

In my normal style of shooting I like to introduce mysterious elements while still keeping to a representational mode. These elements are sufficient to set the viewer’s imagination working, but there are also other ways of doing it. For example, you may wish to make the image ambiguous by blurring it.

In her book, “Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained” (Thames and Hudson, 2013), Jackie Higgins gives reasons why fine art photographers often blur the image or do other things to it that sometimes go beyond the realm of both everyday reality and even photography itself. You needn’t go that far. To generate ambiguity and mystery you don’t have to jettison the conventions which make street photography both accessible and compelling.

Something In the Shadow
In certain situations, such as shooting at night, you can scarcely avoid ambiguity and mystery. Yet it’s not enough simply to show areas of deep shadow to trigger the viewer’s imagination. There has to be something in the shadow — a half-seen figure, a hint of a gesture, an object partially occluded — for the technique to work properly.

I’m a great believer in allowing viewers to continue the action, explore the image or complete the composition in their imagination. When you look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous shot of a man about to step into a puddle you mentally continue the action — then you draw back from it because he’s frozen in time. In this way the photo comes alive with cerebral motion.

A similar process takes place when you read a novel and imagine the personalities of the characters portrayed. I’ve explained this fully in my book “Modern Japanese Novelists” where I discuss how Japanese writers are more inclined than western writers to use an impressionistic technique. An example I give is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters,” a long novel devoid of detailed descriptions and explanations. In fact, it’s full of contradictions, with characters acting “out of character” — just as human beings sometimes do in real life.

In street photography we can follow the way of the Japanese writer and give free rein to the viewer’s imagination. Here, for example, is a street portrait taken from behind the “sitter.”

In my blog post “Why Don’t Some People ‘Get’ Street Photography?” I list photographing the backs of people as being one the most despised aspects of street photography. This is understandable because there are far too many “easy” images of subjects scurrying away from photographers who have not risked confronting them for a head-on shot.

Understandable or not, I don’t agree with the prejudice of those who hate back shots. Not only does the human back tell us a lot about the person who owns it, it stops just short of telling us all we wish to know.

The woman in my picture may or may not be pretty. She certainly looks sexy while diligently selling her wares in the market. The way she sits on the chair, the shape of her body, the relaxed pose which is so difficult to get from a model in the studio — I like all those aspects of the image. I also like the fact that we don’t see her face. After all, it might be a disappointment! Instead, we can just imagine that she’s a vision of loveliness (which she probably is).

There are dozens of ways of triggering the imagination of the viewer. I’ve mentioned only a few of them. You can do it with shadow, empty space, occlusion, blurring and other forms of indistinctness. You can do it with ambiguity, mystery, or incompleteness of movement. You can even do it with discordant elements, touches of surrealism, anything to make the viewer pause and wonder what’s happening.

Don’t worry! You may have left something unexplained, but the human mind always finds a way of completing the image.

 

The Trailing Street

I wish I had the perfect shot with which to illustrate this concept, but I’m still waiting for the right opportunity. Let me explain what I have in mind.

I imagine a scene in which the camera viewpoint is slightly higher than usual, looking down on the subject from a height of around eight or nine feet. The subject itself — well, that could be anything: two people in conversation, four men in dinner jackets, someone wearing outrageous dress. It doesn’t matter too much, because even if the subject is really striking I intend the eye to be drawn to the background.

In this shot the background would be the real subject of the image. I want it to be the entire world!

Failing that, I hope to find a street that’s teeming with people and traffic, its figures foreshortened by the lens, but still in sharp focus so you can see them clearly.

Oh yes, and there’s another thing. I’d prefer to have a street that twists and turns, “curling up like smoke” beyond the foreground subjects. Wouldn’t that be great? It would be like an endless trail of people, trudging their way through an Eisenstein film. The background of my image would become a stand-in for the whole of humanity — the perfect contrast to the individuals seen in close-up near the camera.

Concept Versus Reality
I like this approach of applying conceptual art to street photography, but the two art forms don’t easily mix. Conceptual art requires you to organise the subject with meticulous care, precisely following the blueprint of your concept. Street photography, on the other hand, waits for the world to present a combination of forms for capture in the way you see fit. But you can’t start telling reality to be different from what it is.

My featured image (above) takes me some way towards fulfilling my concept, although it falls short in several respects. Yes, I have two people in conversation, one of whom is hitching her backpack to a more comfortable position. Yes, Wellington Street snakes in at an angle to London’s Waterloo Bridge which is clogged with people and traffic. And yes, everything’s in sharp focus in the original photo (heaven only knows what WordPress does to it when delivering it to screen sizes).

So the picture gets three yesses, but for me it still doesn’t quite capture the full strength of my concept. Although there’s a sense of life buzzing all around the two subjects, the image doesn’t distill the essence of individual life versus collective living. There are too many distractions: the tall surveillance camera, the workers and road signs, The Lion King banner.

Fortunately, I have a solution. I just stop looking at the image as an illustration of a concept and start enjoying it as a street photo with plenty of context. That’s makes me feel a whole lot better.

Another Example
Having taken the above photo I walked around London’s West End finding several more subjects — but my concept was already beginning to nag away at me. I even gave it a name: “the trailing street.” I wondered whether to go to one end of Oxford Street, but finding elevation there would be a problem.

Four hours later with the rush hour beginning, I found the following scene outside Embarkment tube station. Villiers Street doesn’t “curl like smoke” but it does bend sharply into the foreground and has the advantage of a gentle incline. At this time of day it was packed with people.

“Was Life Created?” The lady with the religious pamplets seems to be qualifying her remarks to the lady in azure blue. Everyone else is hurriedly getting on with the more immediate tasks of commuting or shopping.

I think this image comes closer to my concept, but I’ll keep the idea in mind for future work. Meanwhile I can enjoy the Villiers Street photo as an example of simple, colour-dependent street photography. I like the way the Jehovah’s Witness placard contains several shade of blue — and how this is repeated in the clashing coats of the two women. The light was fading at this point and I changed my camera setting to ISO 1600 before turning around to take the shot.

Fully Intended
Academic critics of photography still complain bitterly that our medium lacks intentionality, unlike painting where every brushstoke can be placed with precision. I hope these images can help to prove otherwise. It’s possible to look for photos in the street that correspond to existing ideas for meaningful compositions.

Sometimes you find them and sometimes you don’t. That’s the joy of street photography!