When Street Photography Is a Game of Two Halves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting with the Fuji X100V in the Age of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

I’ll take it to the local park.

swan on the boating lake

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

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

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


25 percent crop of man in red coat

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

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

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

lone photographer

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

two people and a dog

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

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

daffodils and an archaeological site

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

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

Roman Town Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castle Park bandstand

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

Humanist wedding in progress

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

Take care!

Birdwatching on the Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman watches an egret against a backdrop of the mighty river

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

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

Two large egrets, squabbling

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

What Can the Street Photographer Do About the London Bus?

One of the hazards of street photography in London is a bright red object constantly trundling down the street, photobombing your shots when you least expect it. I mean, of course, The London Bus.

Obviously, there’s more than one of them, but they all look very much alike and any double-decker will suggest “London tourist photo” rather than “street photo” unless you somehow manage to avoid it.

I’ve been thinking: how can we use the London bus to our advantage, bearing in mind that it’s bright red colour cries out for attention — a fact that tends to make it the subject of the photo even when it’s in the background.

Possible Answers
One answer is to hide most of it behind some railings, as I’ve done in my featured image (above). In this case it works very well because of the corresponding colour of the bottle between the man’s legs and the same colour in his shoes. There’s even a tiny speck of the identical red in the distant telephone kiosk which serves to fine-tune the balance of the image.

OK, so that’s one solution: hide the bus. Another solution might be to find a subject so compelling that it can hold its own against the onslaught of the bus’s redness. Maybe I could find a subject that seems to be deliberately drained of colour to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the surrounding objects — a statue, for example.

London has even more statues than buses, most of them traditional — such as generals on horseback from the Victorian era — but also an increasing number of contemporary works, some brilliant, some awful beyond words.

I rather like Allan Sly’s 1990 statue of a window cleaner, gazing up at the windows of Capital House near Edgware Road tube station. It has a wry sense of humour, depicting a typical Cockney cleaner of the “old school,” equipped with a tiny, old-fashioned ladder, facing the huge task of cleaning the windows of a modern office block.

Such a sculpture should make a fine photo, especially with a couple of passers-by and a traditional London bus in the background. Alas, the combination doesn’t work at all well in either colour or black-and-white, as you can see. For a start, you can’t really tell that this man is looking up at a building, nor that he’s a window cleaner. The bus does nothing except remind us of the smell of diesel fumes, despite its “CleanerAir” logo.

“Good luck with that,” a passing photographer commented as I was taking the shot. (There was a photo trade show in a hotel around the corner. I was going there myself). We chatted briefly about the impossibility of getting a decent photo of the sculpture, which probably needs to be taken with a large mirror placed behind it — putting it somewhat beyond the bounds of candid street photography.

In the end I decided to wait for the buses to go past. The statue looks a lot better in close-up, with the taller buildings in the background.

The Logical Solution
Having found the solution to the problem of The London Bus — leave it out of the photo — I’ve been wondering how this can be best accomplished. The answer is pretty obvious. Get on the bus and take your photos from there.

Several photographers have completed projects based on the vantage point of riding a London bus, Przemek Wajerowicz and George Georgiou to name but two. I enjoy viewing their photos which are truly street photography in its most exacting form, although in both cases I fear that the element of composition has disappeared entirely, leaving us with what my late friend Peter Turner (of Creative Camera magazine) would have called “snaps” — as opposed to photographs.

I don’t think you need to abandon composition in order to snatch a shot of the micro dramas which happen every day on London streets, even when travelling on a bus. On my way back from picking up some prints at The Print Space, in Shoreditch, the bus I was on stopped in front of a café where a blonde woman dressed in black seemed to be keeping out a sharp eye for one of her friends. Watching her, a real-life “madonna and child” were sitting on a leather sofa inside the café — sorry: “bar, café, lounge” (this is Shoreditch, after all!)

The composition works because it’s a study in red and black. The black door with the number 6 on it balances the woman on the right. Reflected in the glass of the window you can just make out the shape of a London bus. Its London Transport logo is fairly obvious — and if you look above it you can just make out my two hands holding a camera. Fortunately, you’d never notice them without my description.

I like to be “the invisible photographer,” on this occasion taking pictures from a bus in order to make it, too, invisible.

What’s the Best Aspect Ratio for Street Photography?

Aspect ratio is width to height, W:H.

On a full frame 35mm camera the frame size is 3:2 because the actual size of the frame — the exposed area of film or the size of the sensor — is 36mm x 24mm.


Except for a dozen other factors.

Cameras with APS-C sensors have the same ratio although their overall image size is smaller. Other cameras may vary, such as 4:3 for Micro Four-Thirds systems, or 54:42 for film cameras that purport to be 4×5. Film cameras using 6×7 film have an 11:9 ratio.

Don’t even get me started on mobile phones! Here, the most popular ratios are 4:3, 3:2, 1:1, 8:5, 5:3, and 16:9. Remember: the sensor size remains the same, so you “lose” pixels if you choose something non-standard.

Camera Sensor Sizes

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

When you process your images you have several options:

  1. Saving the whole image in the original aspect ratio.
  2. Cropping to the original ratio, then saving.
  3. Cropping and saving to a preset image size, such as 4×5/8×10; 5×7; 4×3; 16×9; 16×10; or square. Note that some software (Lightroom, for example) may offer to reduce the size of the image on selected ratios in one operation.
  4. Cropping to any ratio by dragging the sides of the crop frame to any position, then saving.
  5. Stitching images together in panoramas, or even 360-degree virtual reality presentations, then saving.

A Free-for-All
Basically, it’s a free-for-all! You can have any aspect ratio you like. There are no limits, no rules. You’re adrift in a sea of creative possibilities.

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

Let me pose the question a different way. Which is the best aspect ratio for YOUR street photography? That’s the question you need to ask.

One option is take the pragmatic route and make the aspect ratio fit the subject. This means cropping each time, often to a different ratio. Is that what you want?

Ultra-wide screen image of people walking up steps

Without some standardisation, a selection of your images will have no commonality of shape. This may not matter in an exhibition if you can afford the customised frames, but in many online galleries it looks a bit haphazard. A little variety of shape is visually interesting; too much is just plain fussy.

Nothing beats display monitors for variety of shape. If you want to get totally confused, try shopping for a new monitor on the Dell website. Here you get a huge choice of monitors with various resolutions and aspect ratios. 1280×1024 (5:4), 1366×768 (16:9), 1440×900 (16:10), 1600×900 (16:9), 1920×1080 (16:9), 1920×1200 (16:10), 2560×1440 (16:9), 3440×1440 (21:9), 3840×2160 (16:9), etc.

I’ll leave you to do the math, but the above aspect ratios are sometimes only an approximation.

Essentially, you should think of your display merely as a desktop — not as some kind of perfect device to which you should tailor your images. That’s a myth that was once encouraged by the perfectionists at Apple Computer who listed “crop to display ratio” as an option in Aperture (remember Aperture?)

Filling the Screen
Of course, it’s great to see your images filling the whole screen, especially if you want to show them on television. If you don’t fill the TV screen you get black bars at the top and bottom or on either side of the picture.

But even TVs are not totally standardised. Older TVs have an aspect ratio of 4:3; whereas high definition (HD) is 16:9. To accommodate movies, some TVs now have a wider screen: 21:9.

So have you made up your mind yet?

It’s tempting to shoot in 3:2 and crop to 16:9, isn’t it?

Except for the fact that technology moves on.

Street photography is for eternity, not for tomorrow’s technological fashion.

A Moment of Concentration

Whenever I see people concentrating on an activity — any activity — I start to think of the photographic possibilities. It’s the very act of concentration that interests me.

Why? Because it’s inherently photographic. Concentration is focus — and focus is one of the main components of photography.

In optics, focus is all about bringing light rays as close together as possible. The pinhole in a pinhole camera does it — and so does the lens in a normal camera. A lens concentrates light rays into a tiny “circle of confusion” which always has a diameter, just as a pinhole does, so the focus is never perfect mathmatically. However, with a quality lens the focus is good enough to fool the eye, even when you enlarge the image.

Focus as Metaphor
We use the metaphor of “focus” all the time in daily life. The present moment is usually the focal point of human consciousness, even though memory can take us back a few moments, hours or even years, while our expectations can project us forward into the future. Most of the time, however, we’re aware of the “here and now,” even when “here” is somewhere in cyberspace and “now” has disappeared before we’ve had time to appreciate it.

By deliberately concentrating, we’re trying to reduce the circle of confusion, thereby bringing something into sharper focus in order to better understand or manipulate it. Think of the seamstress, concentrating on some intricate stitching; or think of the surgeon, reconnecting a nerve.

Every art, science, trade and profession requires concentration and focus. Without this deliberate narrowing of attention, nothing of value can be created.

Two women arranging flowers with great concentration.

Why Does It Work in Street Photography?
Images of people concentrating on a task in front of them can be as compelling as those which portray strong emotions. In fact, I’d go further and say they’re often better. By showing the act of concentration they also help onlooker to concentrate on the image. In photography — where sharpness directs the onlooker’s attention — concentration is contagious.

The principle at work here is the well-known one of “ideated sensations,” described succinctly by Bernard Berenson in his works on the visual arts. For Berenson, a person looking at a great Italian painting would be able to imagine the physical sensations felt by the subjects — particularly the stretching of muscles, an action which communicates a sense of energy and vitality. Not only that, in our minds we “feel” the weight of objects in the image and feel the textures of different materials, almost as if we were there in reality.

These ideated sensations of tactile values and movement are so powerful, Berenson believed, that they had the effect of being “life enhancing.” It’s a process by which onlookers recreate the image in their own living consciousness, aided by the skill of the artist (deceased long ago) who made this apparently magical transference possible.

Where Can You Place the Point of Concentration?
Conventionally, most photographers tend to place the focal point of concentration somethere fairly close to the centre of the image. For example, a photograph of a watchmaker works best if the subject’s face and the watch he’s working on are close together. This is because the idea of concentration is shown by the face as well as by the intricate task being performed.

The Featured Image
I’ve tried to be more adventurious in my featured image (above). Here’s a man who’s battling to concentrate on his mobile phone, despite all the distractions of real life.

I think it works very well as a whole frame, with the blurred background and the sharp point of focus at the top left. You may think otherwise, so here, for comparison, is a crop which places the point of concentration closer to the centre of the image.

detail of the featured image

Well, that’s not bad either, but it changes the meaning of the photo. While it increases our “ideated sensation” — because the man’s concentration now fills the image and we’re inclined to feel it more intensely — we’re missing the surrounding context. It’s this huge out-of-focus area that is every bit as important.

In my photo, the man’s view of reality has narrowed to a point which is far outside the picture frame. Perhaps he is taking a photo of a tall building, or else he may be trying to read the football scores or take a selfie. We don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but this doesn’t matter. He’s mentally focusing. In turn, I’ve focused my camera on him and thrown the rest of the scene out-of-focus, echoing the subject’s experience of the same moment.

Is It Really So Bad to Use a Zoom in Street Photography?

Almost universally, experienced street photographers advise beginners to use a prime lens rather than a zoom. But are they right? Zoom lenses are great for travel photography — flexible, convenient, single-lens solutions that allow you to vary the focal length without any danger of letting dust into the camera. What’s not to like?

Plenty. Let me say straight away that I’m with the majority view on this issue. In most situations, zoom lenses are quite unsuitable for street photography. Here’s why.

The art of street photography relies on split-second timing. If you have time to zoom in and out to find the best focal length than you’re probably not taking a real street photo. You’re being indecisive at the very point in time when you should be getting the “decisive moment.”

Beware the Travel Zoom
I sometimes meet keen travel photographers who become serious about street photography when they discover the joy of turning their cameras away from landmarks and on to the inhabitants of the cities they visit. Typically, their equipment includes a standard zoom lens or even an expensive zoom that delivers near-prime quality throughout its range.

“What do you think of this?” they ask. “This man is looking towards that girl on the park bench, but the woman with him has her hand raised in disapproval. Maybe I could have zoomed in a bit more but I think I’ve taken a real street photo with this shot.”

What can I say? I feel like cupping my head in my hands, rolling my eyes — and doing all those things that destroyed the career of TV chef Fanny Craddock when she disparaged a beginner’s attempt to make a complicated dish.

The photo taken by the travel photographer with his zoom may be classified as a street photo, but the method he used to achieve it is unlikely to yield many other successful results, for the following reasons:

  • Zoom lenses place you too far away from the action.
  • Lightweight “kit zooms” are poor quality.
  • Expensive zooms are big and heavy — and make you very noticeable.
  • All zooms encourage indecision, causing you to miss the shot.
  • Their variable focal length stops you from “seeing” in terms of a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm (etc.) frame.
  • By making you prioritise the task of choosing a focal length, they downgrade the more important tasks of focus and timing.

If you’d like to see my recommendations for great street photography lenses (three of which are shown above), please check out the article on PhotoStartSheet.com – “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?

Back in the Day
Years ago, street photographers who shot on film always looked as if they were zooming, but they weren’t. They were using manual focus, desperately trying to make the subject sharp in the split second available to them. Today we have auto-focus, but there’s no advantage if we burden ourselves with zooming instead.

Zooms have added a level of complexity to photo technology which, in many ways, is a retrograde step. Just consider the number of elements in a typical zoom lens. There’s likely to be twenty or more pieces of glass, each one adding to the bulk and weight of the lens. What’s more, each element has its own imperfections, making the purchase of a zoom very difficult because each copy has its own unique characteristics.

Roger Cicala, the founder of Lens Rentals, described this very well in a widely read and highly technical article called “Things You Didn’t Want to Know About Zoom Lenses.” In summary he wrote: “Put more variables into a lens, and the lens varies more. Can they still be very good? Absolutely. Can they be as good as the best primes? Nope.”

Upping the Quality
Some years ago I extolled the virtues of the Nikon/Canon “Nifty Fifties” (50mm lenses) as offering a huge leap beyond the quality of standard “kit zooms” and many people got in touch to say the image quality of their photography had vastly improved as a result. That made me very happy. A 50mm lens is usually the best value in a manufacturer’s whole range, unless you opt for ultra-high speed, like f/1.2. (Please don’t use one of those for street photography: they’re far too unwieldy).

The argument for using primes instead of zooms is compelling. I can think of only one occasion when it may not apply. If you’re going to a public event, like a carnival or festival where everyone will have a camera, you can use a zoom with impunity.

Perhaps you have an expensive zoom that can (almost) match the quality of a prime. I took my featured image (at the top of this article) with my Canon 24-70mm f/4 zoom, pretending it was a prime by not changing the focal length too frequently. There was an event in progress in the High Street (people abseiling down the Town Hall!) and the lady had no idea I was taking her photo. However, I think the rest of the crowd knew. I got very few other good shots that day.

Is It Still Candid If Just One Person Sees You?

At its best, street photography is one hundred percent candid. When the subject is completely unaware of the camera, you place viewers in the privileged position of being able to scrutinise life on the street entirely objectively — without receiving accusatory stares from someone unknown to them.

Often, however, the subject of the image is more than one person: it’s a couple, or a group of people who’ve caught the eye of the street photographer. Unless all the people in the group are totally absorbed in their activity it’s more than likely that one of them will spot the camera and look quizzically at it. Sometimes this can ruin the image; on other occasions it can “make” it.

The Acceptables
I have a stack of images of both sorts: rejects and acceptables. My featured image (above) I count as one of the acceptables. I still feel a bit guilty about taking it because I probably ruined the guy’s shot. Or maybe he got an heroic portrait of the woman gazing and smiling into the distance. Let’s hope so. I like the image because the woman is central to it — and clearly enjoying being the centre of attention. By contrast, the man on the right seems to be totally unaffected by her charms, and, in a non-committal way, is checking out the menu immediately behind her.

The image works because it’s clearly been taken without permission being sought and granted. It has an air of spontaneity — and the woman’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day. It also works because it contains a complete scenario. Instead of being an impromptu shot of a friend or relative outside a tourist venue it’s an incident, a unique moment in which various elements come together to form the whole picture. Even the Honda scooter leans obligingly towards the young woman — and as if in response she leans back slightly, setting up a subtle dynamic within the frame.

Does the image have any faults? Yes. But I’ve only ever seen a dozen or so street photographs that could be described as “faultless” in all respects. In fact, those that seem to be perfect — in composition and photographic quality — can sometimes appear too staid, lacking the vitality we’ve come to expect in street photography.

And Again
Here’s another shot (immediately above) when the subject notices the camera. Thank heavens she did! Everyone else is shown in back view, so without the subject looking towards me the picture would have no focal point. As it is, the image springs to life, making it more interesting than a mere “study in blue and green.”

Not So Good
I can make no excuses for the following image. OK, it’s a decisive moment, and the girl who’s feeding the fish is unaware that I’m taking a picture of her. However, this time I’ve been spotted by another person in the image, not the central figure but the young man on the left. He looks straight at the camera and doesn’t seem entirely pleased about it.

Whether or not you think this image works depends entirely on the story you make up to understand what’s going on.

For example, you could interpret the young man’s gaze as showing a measure of guilt. In some parts of Thailand, feeding the fish is illegal — and people are prosecuted for it — whereas in other parts it’s an accepted part of tradition. Some people even feed wild catfish which they later catch for food.

I don’t think there’s any legal problem here, neither do I think the young man is worried about it. I also doubt if he’s a catfish farmer. Perhaps he’s thinking I’m taking a cheap shot of his attractive girlfriend, in which case he’s partially right, but I wouldn’t have done so if she’d simply been standing there. No, I think he’s on a date, and somewhat embarrassed to be seen taking part in the “girly” activity of fish-feeding in order to please his friend.

Do you see what a difference the story makes to the way we see the image? If the stare is accusatory rather than guilty or embarrassed, it becomes the main message of the image — completely unrelated to the activities taking place. But if, as the viewer, you can set your mind at ease and tell yourself that his stare is part of the picture’s internal narrative, all is well. You can then see the picture as a balanced composition.

So Many Interpretations
It’s good when a photograph enables various interpretations, each one dependent on the reaction of the viewer. We make up stories to explain the situation depicted in much the same way as, in our minds, we complete the actions of subjects when they are caught mid-movement. By adding our own idea of movement — or by adding an imagined narrative — we bring the image to life and make it memorable.

One More
The final image (below) I took more recently. The light had faded on the streets of London’s West End, so I walked across the river to the South Bank which is more open to the evening light.

There, I spotted these two people sitting in a composition that could not have been better had I tried to organise it. However, I had to double back to take the shot because other passers-by were getting in the way. On my second run the young man noticed me although his friend remained oblivious. Afterwards, I said “hi” and explained why I took the shot, but I didn’t take another.

The large scarlet portfolio indicates that the two subjects are creative people, taking samples of their work with them. The young guy’s knowing look suggests he’s probably aware of serious street photography and he has the presence of mind to remain cool about it. I’m reluctant to remove the only blemish: the distant figures which get entangled in the woman’s hair. Apart from that, it’s a shot I like.

As I suspected, half a candid photo — when only one person is looking at you — can be better than a posed shot in which both are gazing into the lens.

Is Street Photography Harder or Easier Than It Was 50 Years Ago?

I’m sure most street photographers would love to step back in time to a past era and take some shots, always on two conditions: a) they could use their current equipment, and b) they could return to the present day with the results.

Given the forward-only movement of time, that scenario is not going to happen, unless someone stages a re-enactment specially for the purpose. We can only consider the differences between subject matter (then and now) and equipment (then and now).

So let’s go back a mere fifty years, still well within human memory for millions of people.

Subject Matter
In the UK, Europe and the U.S.A. everyone dressed more neatly, often wearing jackets or long overcoats, ties and hats, usually in subdued colours. Automobiles had more interesting shapes, not being subjected to the same design rules dictated by the need for low fuel consumption. Nobody was using a mobile phone.

Just these three factors, quite apart from any others, make the street photography of 1969 entirely different to what we see in 2019.

Today, everything is more colourful and theatrical — and not only in Chinatown (see featured image above). People everywhere like to dress outrageously, proclaiming various messages via tee-shirts or accessories (even when they wear black, like the lady below). What’s more there’s no longer a single prevailing fashion: with people now preferring to dress in order to identify with their chosen group.

Tee-shirt says You're The First

What goes for dress, also goes for other visible forms such as posters, adverts, graffiti, and even shop window displays. As a result, the visual scene from the sidewalk has become more chaotic and more in need of being bullied into shape by how-and-where we point the camera.

Although some people are still using 35mm film cameras and black and white film, just as Henri Cartier-Bresson did years ago, the preference now is to originate the images in colour, using a digital camera. In itself, this change may not seem enough to revolutionise street photography, but that’s not the point. It’s the new facilities both on the camera and within the workflow which dramatically change the final image.

For example, take composition. “Back in the day,” Cartier-Bresson refused to crop any of his images, preferring to maximise the use of the 35mm rectangle with its 3:2 ratio. In fact, when making enlargements he even filed down the negative carrier in order to show the edges of the frame. War photographer Don McCullin commented: “I think I speak for every photographer and especially Magnum photographers, when I say that Henri really introduced the concept of perfect composition into our thinking.”

Today it’s much easier to improve composition by cropping the image. I think it’s fair to say that Photoshop has liberated us from the given rectangle, enabling any format we choose. Even so, many photographers (myself included) like to retain the 35mm shape whenever possible because of its inherent “Golden Rectangle” aesthetic.

Ironically, Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” went out of fashion, right around the time when the burst rate of digital cameras made it hard to miss.

If you shoot off a dozen frames in the space of a second or two you’re much more likely to get the perfect shot than if you wait for the right moment.

Personally, I still prefer to wait for the moment with anticipation and record it with a single shot. I think it sharpens my ability to see the moving scene in front of me. Here’s an example. If the camera had been in burst mode I would probably have selected a frame matching the one below.

woman walks past a poster featuring a gigantic hand holding a lipstick as if it were a gun

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
With digital photography we can try out more ideas, more quickly, and make improvements to our technique more readily. Yet there are drawbacks, too. Such a large number of people are taking photos, using excellent equipment, it’s hard to make any impact because everything’s been seen before.

Or has it?

If you develop an appealing personal style, you’re on the right track. When street photography with your favourite camera becomes akin to handwriting with your favourite pen, that’s when you’re beginning to speak directly to the onlooker. The same process will be valid fifty years from now, just as it was fifty, or even seventy-five years ago.

Jolly Good Boating Weather

There’s marine photography and there’s street photography. And never the twain shall meet?

Boats and ships have featured in art for at least 6,000 years, the earliest dating from around 4,000 BCE in rock carvings on the Aegean Islands. You can see why. Isolated in a seascape, a boat is the only object in view when you look beyond the shore.

Today, the shore is cluttered with all kinds of objects — piers, buoys, lighthouses, wind farms, oil rigs – and all kinds of boats and ships. The presence of a vessel is no longer remarkable, unless there is something particularly unusual about it.

Nonetheless, marine artists and photographers continue to create masterpieces of their chosen artform by keeping their focus on boats and ships, in all weathers. There’s drama aplenty on the high seas. It’s enough to make a street photographer envious!

Street Photography Fights Back
Yet I think it’s possible for the street photographer to make a challenge by observing boats on urban canals and rivers. You don’t even need to go down the port to find potential subjects.

My featured image (above) shows a boatload of cleaners whose job is to fish rubbish and weeds from the canals of Bangkok. When a rapidly moving passenger boat passes them they bob up and down in the water, doing their best to remain upright.

We’re close enough to see the actions of the figures and even one or two of their expressions. Such a picture, I contend, carries the spirit of street photography, despite featuring a boat.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the person at the front of the boat has a chair which is fastened securely to the deck. Yet apart from the skipper at the wheel he seems to be the only one without a pole and basket. It’s this kind of detail I love to find in a street photo, even when it’s not on the street.

Two officials from the marine department on a jet ski

In the Spirit of Street Photography
Here’s another candid shot (above) which in even closer to the spirit of street photography. This time I’m quite near to the subject, being on a passenger boat that’s going in the opposite direction. We can see the expressions of both men very clearly. Those guys in the Marine Department really enjoy their work!

As always, the street photographer needs a little bit of luck: in this case provided by an attractive background of trailing flowers. The jet of water from the back of the vessel gives the image an exhuberant touch.

The two images I’ve shown so far make a curious juxtaposition. The heavily masked figures of the cleaners, cloaked in green, betray the fact that they’re definitely lower down the pecking order in canal maintenance, compared to those impeccably dressed men on the jetfoil.

That’s the great advantage of street photography: we get to examine images at our leisure, all the time extracting additional information as we compare and contrast one picture with another.

Muddy Waters
Back in the UK I rarely get access to canals, although the River Colne flows past my window, just a few feet away. Further downstream it opens up into a large estuary and mixes with the sea surrounding Mersea Island.

Alas, it’s hard to get close enough to anyone enjoying “Jolly Good Boating Weather,” and frankly the weather isn’t always jolly good.

Wind surfers (below) protect themselves with wetsuits while they ply the muddy waters off Mersea Island. Before they stand upright they look like a giant dragonfly struggling to take off.

wind surfers starting to sail

In this shot I’ve included just a hint of the horizon to contrast with the extreme angles of the wind surfers and their sails. Does the shot please me? Not like the others. It makes me feel I’m drifting out to sea, away from those comforting but unforgiving city streets.