When Only Part of the Shot Has Visual Interest

All street photographers experience the moment when, having noticed a subject some distance away, they take the shot — only to find that three-quarters of the photo holds little or no visual interest.

One solution is to crop the image, reframing it exactly as you’d wish. Sure, that means throwing away several million pixels — maybe 31 million of them if you’re using a Sony A7RIII.

It sounds a bit extravagant, doesn’t it? Having bought a great camera you’re now reverting to the quality you were getting five years ago.

Maybe it’s time to re-think this problem. What can we do about it?

Possible Solutions
Frankly, if it’s happening to you frequently, you’re probably using the wrong lens. Instead of a wide-angle you may be better off with a medium telephoto, say 85mm. I love using my Canon 85mm for street photography, even though my standard lens is 40mm. It’s super-sharp, and it gives me the reach to shoot from the other side of the street when necessary. However, it’s not an easy lens to use in close situations because it isolates the subject (often just one part of the subject) and throws everything else out of focus.

But let’s say the problem of filling only a fraction of the image with visually interesting content happens only now and again. Is this because you can’t resist certain subjects, or because you were unable to get in close, or because, subconsciously, you think the blank area really ought to play a role in the image — but doesn’t live up to its promise?

Take my featured image (above), for example. This entrance to a narrow alleyway in Bangkok looks particularly forbidding because a graffiti artist has spray-painted a menacing, mouse-like face on the wall. The face is a cross between Mickey Mouse and The Scream. That can’t be good!

I wanted to show someone bravely entering the alley, but only motor-bikes ventured into it. I snapped one of them. Rather than walk, this guy took a “Bangkok rocket” (motor-bike taxi) to whisk him along the evil alley. On one side is an abandoned store, on the other a derelict building. I had no other way to frame the shot, except by standing back to feature the whole scene.

The result isn’t bad. I like the fact that over half the image shows plain corrugated iron. Its blankness enhances the slice of the photo that contains all the visual interest. At the same time, this plain area is not completely devoid of features. There are little details which break the monotony without spoiling the desolate effect: the log of wood and the lone plant springing up behind the barrier, the latter signifying a long-term closure of the site.

Did I overdo the shutter speed? The 1/800th second certainly froze the action — the bike looks as if it’s stationary, but I assure you it was nipping along quite briskly. I like this effect. It gives the photo a dreamlike quality that would otherwise be lacking. The riders look as if they are “stuck in time,” watched over by Menacing Mickey for eternity.

Menacing Mickey

That Mouse
Of course, I’d seen the evil mouse on other walls around the city and tried to make use of it in some candid portraits. Here’s one example (above). The man, the main subject of the photo, has such a pleasant face he erases the menace of the graffiti. His presence is strong and reassuring. You can see by his orange jacket that he, too, is a motor-cycle taxi driver. Could he be the same one who’s taking the boy down the narrow alley? No, that would be too great a coincidence. As I recall, the two scenes are several miles apart.

So that’s one way to deal with areas of little visual interest. Don’t just throw them away: use them constructively to enhance the main subject of your photograph. Of the two pictures I’ve shown to illustrate this point, I prefer the first one because it fulfils my original intention. The second image works, too, because it’s an “environmental portrait” — featuring a man-of-the-street in front of tough-looking graffiti — but the overall effect is not really menacing, despite the presence of the evil mouse.

Almost Rejected
Here’s another image (below) where more than half the frame is filled with grey or black. To make matters worse, the grey area has no direct light shining on it — and what’s more, it’s right in the centre of the picture! I puzzled about this for a while and was on the verge of rejecting it as unusable when something stopped me from throwing it away.

Sunlit plants

Of course! The man (in sunlight) is looking at the green vegetation (also in sunlight). Our eyes may very well be drawn down to the lower half of the image but the message is clear. This is fundamentally an upbeat, cheerful picture, even though the dull cardboard square and the grey grille behind it would have us think otherwise.

Areas of little visual interest can be vital to the success of a photo, as long we don’t get mesmerised by their blank gaze.

That’s right. We can look at our photographs but our photographs can also look back at us: daring us to destroy them unnecessarily. Don’t do it! They may be better than you think.

Using Reflections in Street Photography

When I’m out taking street photos I often notice the reflection of something before seeing the object that’s being reflected. This is because I’m always on the lookout for elements that bring something extra to a composition.

Reflections usually bring symmetry: a quality that enhances photos by adding balance and harmony while helping to fill the frame with significant content. The downside is the danger of over-using reflections — to the point where they become a cliché in your work.

Two Roles for Reflection
Following on from this, there are, I suppose, two main types of photograph in which reflection plays a major role: those containing both the reflection and the reflected object itself, and those that contain the reflection alone.

Of the two, the latter is the more difficult to use successfully. After all, the viewer expects to see a representation of a real object and feels slightly cheated when presented with a mere reflection of it. This is an entirely natural reaction. The viewer has agreed to turn away momentarily from the real world to look at your two-dimensional version, only to find that there’s another step required: a step beyond the image into a world seen in reverse. It really is tiresome!

giraffe

You can usually choose which of the two roles you want reflections to perform in your image. For example, if you photograph a person who’s leaning up against a shiny wall you’ll get a reflection that creates a degree of symmetry; but if you point the camera directly at a shop window you’ll get a reflection of the street behind you that would otherwise be out of view.

With the second approach you’ll get much more because the reflection is superimposed on the contents of the window. This is great fun (see above photos) but it creates complex patterns that are almost impossible to decode at the time of taking the shot, especially when there’s movement both on the street and on the other side of the glass.

Technical Pitfalls
From a technical point of view there are only one or two pitfalls to avoid. Shop windows tend to glare, so you may find a polarising filter helpful if you have one with you. You can always run a polarising routine during processing, but that’s never quite as effective as using a real filter.

Equally, you need to watch your depth-of-field, as reflected objects are usually further away than objects seen directly. It’s good to keep them all in fairly sharp focus, but it’s up to you the photographer to choose what’s right for your style.

jewelry counter

Historical Precedents
Street photographers have always made use of reflections. Among the greats of the past, Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander spring to mind.

If you Google “Vivian Maier self portrait” you’ll find her favourite way of obtaining a “selfie,” by capturing her reflection in a mirror or practically any other reflective object. Everyone now tries this technique, but I doubt if anyone has done it better. In one famous image she appears as a towering, ghostly presence, her body reflected by the glass while at the same time shielding it from the light — enabling us to see two women sitting inside the shop, framed by the bottom of her coat.

Lee Friedlander used mirrors, glass windows and other objects to obtain reflections. Like Maier he sometimes made a self-portrait, either for fun or when the image needed the addition of a human face. His 1968 self portrait in a sepia coloured photo in New York City is one of his best, a magnificent semi-abstract composition of light and dark rectangles with great depth of perspective and passing figures: street photography at its best.

I was thinking about the potential of using light and shade, together with reflections, when I took the following shot. It’s essentially an abstract composition, but with an important human element.

reflected

Artistic Possibilities
Still water in puddles and pools is a great source of reflections and a very good reason why you should go out to take pictures on rainy days. Unfortunately, most streets are well drained, so you need to be in an area that tends to get waterlogged. Wait for the day to brighten; choose your angle carefully; and capture passing pedestrians as they step around the water or cycle through it.

If this sounds like the kind of advice one might give to a new photo club member, you’re right. It’s only a suggestion. The art of making really good pictures has little to do with simple strategies — they’re fairly obvious — but rather has everything to do with composition, timing, luck and intuition.

Being able to see the artistic possibilities of reflections in the particular enviroment where you are hunting for pictures is your most useful asset. It’s a talent you can acquire with practice, just as young guys learn to use charm and bravado to find a new girlfriend.

Perhaps you’re naturally gifted, in which case there’s not much more you need to know. Good luck!

When the Picture Makes No Sense At All

I have a feeling that most people only glance at a photo, then move on to the next one unless something in it catches their eye.

So what happens when the picture makes no sense? Will the onlooker be obliged to linger for a few seconds or turn away with a sigh of impatience? Either way, it’s an improvement. Confusing the onlooker is the artist’s revenge on those who don’t pay attention.

Forgive me if I sound a bit cross, but I’ve just read my Facebook comments, from which it’s clear that some people can be so impatient they’re prepared to condemn an article without actually clicking through to read it. You, dear reader, are not among them. Thank you for your indulgence.

The Crazy Café
In certain places it’s possible to take a representational picture and still leave the onlooker in total confusion. But first you have to find somewhere that’s visually disturbing on a grand scale.

My featured image (above) is an interior shot of a café in Bangkok, somewhat off the tourist trail. It will be familiar to the residents of the adjoining condo building and their guests, but I doubt if very many tourists will have seen it.

Dimly lit, the Bookshop Bar (at the Ashton Building, Sukhumvit Soi 38) is the sort of place where booklovers will be either delighted or appalled. Here, the designer Ashley Sutton — who’s well-known in Bangkok for restaurant interiors such as Mr Jones Orphanage at Siam Square, Maggie Choo’s, Iron Fairies and Fat Gut’z — has created the ultimate anti-book environment.

This is not a place where you’d actually want to read, unlike true bookshop cafés like the Elliott Bay Café in Seattle. Sutton’s Bookshop Bar is a surreal flight of fancy, a nightmarish vision of old, dusty volumes, twisted shelves, stairs that lead nowhere, feather quills on tables, and the pièce de résistance: books suspended from the ceiling on wires so they can be pulled up and down disconcertingly above the customers’ heads.

You can read long quotations from the books on the walls of the bar, but taken out of context they don’t make any sense. They seem to have been extracted from “penny dreadfuls” or old westerns, whereas the leather-bound (or faux leather-bound) volumes look as though they might be classics. The whole place makes you feel like Harry Potter having a nightmare before examination day.

Like the cakes in Mr Jones Orphanage, the Bookshop Bar is a visual feast — and where better to take a confusing photo? Any photo taken in this café would be puzzling. There are one or two on the Internet which do not include a blurred waiter, as mine does, but they’re still a jumble of nonsensical shapes.

In a still image, there’s no way to show the books going up and down on their wires, but by blurring the waiter I thought I could introduce a little movement into the shot. Frankly, I didn’t have much choice. I needed a long exposure in the dim light. Resting my elbows on a table I hand-held the camera, set it to ISO 1000 and took the shot at 1/20th second.

I think people will give this shot of the Bookshop Bar a second glance, if only to try and make sense of it. They will still continue to flick through other, more meaningful images without pausing, but at least I’ve stemmed the flow for now.

The Crazy Shop Window
Again, in the image below, a strong element of craziness intrudes, setting the onlooker an indecipherable puzzle. This time the designer is Issey Miyake, whose surrealistic clothes are visually striking even without the dramatic treatment they were given in the Selfridges window on London’s Oxford Street.

Selfridges window

I tried photographing the window directly, but as I was standing in sunlight (it was a July afternoon) my reflection was unavoidable. So I decided to take the window at an angle and capture someone else’s reflection instead.

I quite like the result. It looks as though the two female pedestrians are holding sunshades, but no, it’s the work of Issey Miyake again. There are some ghost images, too, which even I can’t quite fathom.

Never mind. It’s Oxford Street on a typical summer’s day. I’d just attended my son’s graduation and I was still tipsy from a few glasses of wine. The subject seemed perfectly natural at the time.

Taking Pictures From Across the Street

I try every possible strategy to take candid pictures in the street. Sometimes I “work the scene” by finding a subject and concentrating on it for while; at other times I keep walking and take the occasional shot here and there.

I’m always on the lookout, calculating the odds, trying to predict people’s movements, and thinking up new compositions which I hope will work. However, at some point during the day I’ll pause and hit the reset button. I banish all the fancy ideas and clever strategies! I tell myself: just do one thing. Go back to basics, keep it simple — take some shots from across the street.

When I say “take shots from across the street” I mean take them at precise right angles to the scene, so the kerb across the way makes a horizontal line near the bottom of the frame. I mean hold the camera without tilting it, so as to keep vertical lines precisely perpendicular to the horizontal. And I mean use a lens that will bring the subject reasonably close: not 28mm, but 50mm or 85mm.

Apart from anything else, changing your mode of operation is always beneficial. Don’t do it if you’re “on a roll,” with your current strategy working nicely. Do it when you feel you need to secure some reliable shots, rather than continuing to hope for that pot of gold (the one-in-a-thousand shot) which always seems to be just out of reach.

Squared Away
I find that by squaring up the scene into straight horizontals and verticals I’m already half-way to getting a reasonable photo. On a busy street in any major city someone interesting is bound to show up, sooner or later. Maybe the person is already standing there, like the well-dressed woman in my featured image (above).

I was looking for a shot which said “this is London” — and there she was. The poster indicates the area and lists some of the streets in its vicinity. The colour scheme is ready-made, with no intrusive or distracting hues. I particularly liked the different textures in the black wall: four shades of black, all underlined by the grey pavement at the bottom.

The image and the technique used for getting it are both very simple, but I think the result is pleasing. The shot is entirely candid: I’ve no idea who the subject is, or why she’s holding an unlit cigarette. Her appearance is so amazingly efficient: with headphones not only keeping her hair in place but which are also entirely cable-free, thus allowing her to avoid the geeky look that usually puts people at odds with their surroundings.

A Slice of Life
I’d only just switched to my “keep-it-simple” mode when I came across the above subject and the same is true of the one below. I don’t think this next shot is quite as simple, but it does carve out a typical slice of London life, on a certain day, in a specific year. In fifty years’ time any onlooker will be able to identify the fashions, together with the music and events mentioned on the posters, and say: “This was London in 2017.”

Before the Dawn

The photo exemplifies my point about horizontals and verticals. If I’d taken the shot at an angle it really wouldn’t have worked. Not everything would have been in sharp focus. The light was not especially bright, obliging me to work at ISO800 with a fairly wide aperture of f/3.2. In turn, the ISO and aperture settings enabled me to get a fast shutter speed of 1/800th of a second, necessary to freeze the movement of people walking slowly across the frame.

From a compositional point of view, the image is more complex than the technique I used for taking it. There’s an obvious directional movement from left to right, from the gesture of the boy in the poster, right the way through to the man with the shoulder bag who’s about to exit the frame. Normally, such a composition wouldn’t work at all, but here it does — because of several counteracting elements.

For a start, there’s a pause between the woman in the leather trousers on the left and the one with the red bag who is pointing to the right. In between them is the bus stop and the full, uninterrupted width of the Kate Bush poster. Kate, floating in the water, tends to make our gaze revert to the centre of the image, despite the left-to-right movement of the other figures.

I’ve never seen any studies about eye movement and how it relates to street photography, but it would seem to be a promising area of research.

In English, we read from left to right, so our eyes are already trained to perform this movement when we see any visual pattern or representation. Arabic is read from right to left, so we might expect arab street photographers to compose images with a natural right-left bias. Let me know if you think this occurs. I’ve looked — and I think I see it — but the western influence may be too strong for it to become dominant.

In my photo the bold symbols for music, movies and books also help to counteract the movement of the eye from left to right. But what really makes it work is the correspondence between the gesture of the woman on the left (reaching into her pocket) and the pointing gesture of the woman on the right. By contrast, Kate Bush seems at first glance to be making no gesture at all, until you notice that her arms are outstretched — spanning the gap between the two halves of the picture.

Study in Grey
My third shot (below) is a study in grey, in much the same way as the featured image was a study in black. Again, I find this a pleasing shot, despite it being not entirely “squared away” with true horizontals. Something in the window has caught the man’s eye. He pauses for a split second before continuing, one foot lifted an inch above the ground. His grey suit tones with the grey walls and the monochrome etchings. Clearly we’re in a very different part of London compared to the settings of the other two shots.

The Hesitant Buyer

Yet I think this image would be largely without merit if it were not for the subtle colours in the lower panes of opaque glass below the main window. Whereas there’s nothing to be seen behind the row of framed pictures, there’s clearly something interesting going on in the basement.

Pink and yellow light seems to emanate from these basement windows. Whatever can lie behind them? Is it a workshop? A gallery? A brothel? I didn’t investigate as there seemed to be no public entrance.

Like the man in the grey suit we must remain on the other side of the protective iron railings. Just watching. From the other side of the street.

Getting Good Colour in Street Photography

Colour is both the joy and bane of street photography. If you get it right you can make a great photo; get it wrong — which is all too easy — and your photo will be ruined. In that case your only option is to convert it to black and white.

Digital photographers are burdened with colour complexity. Instead of shooting, as film photographers once did, with a particular stock such as Velvia or Kodachrome which imparted a characteristic “colour look,” photographers now have limitless options. Yes, the camera’s sensor has a colour profile, but subsequent processing enables us change colours globally or individually. We’re spoiled for choice.

Problems are compounded by the way in which colours are displayed on various monitors, which may or may not have been optimised. Add to this the capacity of the human visual system to make its own counterbalancing corrections based on knowledge and memory — such as its determination to see white paper as pure white — and you have a cocktail of challenges hard to swallow.

So what’s the best method of tackling these challenges? I think most photographers attempt it by instinct, selecting colours that look right to their own eyes, working with well adjusted monitors — and sometimes by simply forgetting about colour altogether and letting it take care of itself. To use a slang expression with no visual connotations: they “play it by ear.”

The Non-Colour Option
Playing it by ear leads eventually to shooting in black and white. I don’t blame street photographers for taking this option because today’s streets are full of riotous colours that are hard to control.

Ironically, it was never this way in the days of black and white film. Cars were black, people were dressed in black or grey. No one had coloured hair except for redheads who probably wore hats. Even brown “raised a frown in town.” Essentially, the photographer was looking at a black and white scene, brightened only by the peach-coloured complexions of pretty women.

My point is: in the early twentieth century, a black and white photo was a reasonably accurate interpretation of a street scene. Today it isn’t. We have to come to terms with colour and master its complexities.

What Is “Good” Colour?
I’ve called this blog post “Getting Good Colour in Street Photography,” so I need to define what I mean by “good.” This is where my comments become subjective.

I appreciate a wide range of colour styles and combinations when I see them in other people’s photography. On the other hand, I have personal preferences as to what “looks right” in my own pictures. As far as these are concerned, I like colour palettes that are harmonious, perhaps with contrasting notes such as a patch of red in a sea of green.

In fact, green is the one colour that never looks right to me in a photograph. I grew up on a farm surrounded by trees, fields and such like, so I’m aware of the hundreds of shades of green which make up the English countryside. But whenever I see a photo of a closely-mown lawn I simply don’t believe the colour. Go to Google Images and search for “closely-mown lawn” and you’ll see what I mean.

Fortunately, lawns are rare in street photography. Brightly coloured clothes are not. Yesterday I saw a woman wearing a shade of pink I’d never seen before. Its intensity was unbelievable: well outside the gamut of Adobe RGB (along with sRGB, one of the two main colour “spaces” used in digital photography).

I like the colour in my featured image (above), where the storekeeper in Camden Market, London, has cleverly selected an harmonious range of leather coats and displays them proudly on the sidewalk. You could argue that the brilliant yellow of the sports vests on the right tends to upset the colour scheme, but I think they enliven it and make the photo less “tasteful.” After all, the Rolling Stones’ “distressed tongue” tee-shirt indicates taste in a big way, although it may not be to everyone’s taste.

Here’s another shot from Camden, taken shortly afterwards. I like the way the storeman handles the dresses with thick gloves (which would have stood out better in a contrasting colour).

Factors Affecting Colour
In no specific order, the chief factors affecting digital colour are: light, exposure, distance, sensor, and processing.

1. Light is by far the most important factor because it’s the source of all colour. Pigmented objects merely hold back certain wavelengths of light and reflect the rest.

I was tempted to add “time of day” to the five factors, but the change in light’s colour temperature from cool to warm as the evening progresses is (in a sense) a function of sunlight itself: the angle at which it passes through the atmosphere.

2. Exposure makes a huge difference to colour shades, lightening them or making them darker depending on whether you increase or decrease the exposure.

3. Distance reduces colour saturation, the atmosphere eventually adding a blue cast to the image, even on a clear day.

4. Sensor types, as I’ve mentioned, have unique colour responses, some of them favouring green at the expense of red and blue. A photographer’s choice of camera is often strongly influenced by the appeal of certain colour sensors when compared to others.

5. Processing introduces the Joker in the pack: the one factor which can change all the others. If someone’s cyan-coloured bag is ruining the shot you can easily tone it down in your photo editor. In fact, you can alter the hue, saturation and brilliance of any colour individually, or apply either global routines or customised presets to the whole image.

To the above list you need to add all the subjective factors affecting colour vision, such as age, colour memory, retinal fatigue and the way in which background colours strongly influence the perception of colours in front of them.

Subjective factors play a huge role in colour photography. On the xRite Colour Challenge I scored 4 points — pretty good, considering the worst score for my gender is 16,021,602 (low scores are better, zero is perfect).

Colour Affects the Choice of Subject
Inevitably, when I see a colour combination that looks right, I’m always tempted to take a shot, even if the subject doesn’t meet all the other criteria of a street photo: contrast, form, decisive moment, and so on. My solution is often to find the right colours in a scene then wait for a neutral-coloured subject to join them.

Sometimes a scene is readymade. Here, for example, is a woman in a multi-coloured dress, sitting in a huge window on a sunny day in central London above a costume jewellery store.

There’s hardly any colour in the picture except for her dress, so I can get away with placing her at the top of the image. The eye is drawn naturally towards her, while first reading the name of the store below.

Behind tinted glass the woman’s dress cannot be depicted with accuracy. Does its colour have the freshness of Spring? Not quite, but I’m prepared to compromise — unlike the designer of those viciously uncomfortable chairs.

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?

Dressing Windows

A sheet of plate glass less than an inch thick separates the life of the street from the life of the shop window. When window dressers change their display, they — and their display — become a potential subject for street photographers. Should we accept the challenge? You bet!

Window dressing is a great subject, but it’s also an extremely difficult one. However, for the moment, let’s forget about all the difficulties and look at why it’s so great.

The world of the street and that of the store are entirely separate, with their own conventions and environmental conditions. Unlike stores in the mall, which blend into the walkways with open entrances, high street stores put up a barrier against the street while inviting the onlooker to step, imaginatively, into the window.

The shop window is therefore a stage with props and actors, a theatrical showcase where the performance is often stationary and always silent.

During the changeover, when window dressers move in to change the display, the goods are replaced by a real theatrical performance: men and women at work, struggling to manipulate awkward mannequins in a confined space.

Yes, it’s a great subject because it’s literally a window into another world, but you need to be there when it happens.

The Difficulties
So many! Where do I start?

First, is the problem of reflected light. The street will almost certainly reflect in the window, making the subject the brightly lit people on the sidewalk rather than those inside the store. For this reason, nine out of ten windows are not fit for the street photographer’s purpose.

Second, is the difficulty of framing the shot. If you step back you’ll interfere with the flow of pedestrians, one or two of whom will huff and puff and walk in front of the camera. I can’t say I blame them. They worry me less than those who patiently try to stay out of the way.

Third is the problem of finding a good angle. You can walk left or right, but that’s about the extent of it. The subject is already elevated (in all likelihood) and so there’s no point in stooping down.

Fourth, is the problem of focus. If you rely on autofocus you’ll find that any marks or stickers on the glass will force the AF to focus a foot or two in front of the people in the window.

Fifth (I’ll call a halt to the difficulties after this one) is the fact that window dressers spend a lot of time pondering, looking, and evaluating — more than the time they spend lifting, pinning, and arranging. If you wait for them to do something interesting, they’ll wait for you to go away. This is the trickiest problem of all.

Solving the Difficulties
1. You can reduce the problems caused by reflected light if you use a polarising filter, either on the camera or later in software.

2. A wide angle lens lets you get as much of the window into the frame as possible.

3. Holding the camera high up allows you to include most of the action from a good vantage point.

4. Focus on the figures and not on the glass. Use manual focus if necessary.

5. Stand well away from the window to observe what’s going on, then move in when there’s some significant action.

Moaning About the Results
As you can see, I’ve never solved all the difficulties, but I’ve done my best — and one day I’ll get the all-time classic shot of window dressing (or so I tell myself).

My featured image (above) was taken in sun-drenched Singapore, so reflections were always going to be the major snag. Nonetheless, the shot has good focus and resolution and the original would print at 32 x 40 inches. Alas, at that size you’d see the spots on the window, caused by rain or splashes from passing traffic. I’d remove them if I printed the image.

I applied a software polarising routine to the shot below, which makes it just about usable. But the framing was almost impossible, forcing me to crop the image at either side. I took focus from the shark — which is obviously correct, as nobody wants to see blurred shark teeth.

As a consequence, the figures are in soft focus. Although I rather expected this effect, I think perhaps I’ve overdone it. What do you think?

As you can see, the mannequin is missing a hand, which, together with the shark, is the point of the image.

I have no idea whether the window dressers eventually attached the hand before they finished. I hope so, because “wear this swimsuit, get mutilated by a shark” doesn’t seem to be great advertising.

Still, it’s eye-catching, both as a window and as a not-exactly-what-I’m-after photo.

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.

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.

 

See the Whole Shot, Not Just the Subject

I’ve already written about the desirability of filling the frame in street photography (“Why It’s Good to Fill the Frame in Street Photography“) but on rereading the post I realise I didn’t explain how to do it. You can guess why.

The reason is it’s really hard to fill the frame deliberately, and even harder to explain. However, I’ll do my best to say how, on quite a few occasions, I’ve achieved it.

Here’s the secret: don’t just look for a lone subject — such as a person, a figure, an incident — look for multiple subjects adjacent to each other.

My featured image (above) is a good example. I was attracted to the scene because there was plenty of activity and it all seemed to say “green!” I’ve always liked the way the ubiquity of a single colour can unite a scene, pulling together parts that would otherwise be unrelated. Here they do exactly that.

To the male eye, the girl’s brown legs make a natural focus of interest, but they also form a pyramid that leads the eye away from them (well, momentarily at least) to the guy taking a photo and the head of the woman with the garrulous tee-shirt who is watching him. If your eye strays back to the girl’s legs you’ll see the huge pair of roller skates being worn by the man with long hair who’s checking his phone. From him, it’s a short jump to the other side of the picture where another man is writing notes on a pad. His reversed baseball cap fills the top right of the frame; the green scooter fills the bottom right.

I took the photo quickly, from the middle of a busy side street with motor bikes and taxis whizzing back and forth. In this kind of situation you need to have all your senses on full alert. The threat of being run over tends to open the “doors of perception” so you can see an entire composition in one glance. Incidentally, I don’t recommend you try this technique because there are other, safer ways of achieving it. I’m just saying…

Did I “work the scene?” No, I took a single shot and moved on. That wasn’t solely because I was confident I’d taken a successful photo. I had to get out of traffic, the bus was waiting and my partner was calling.

How to Practice
OK, so now you’re wondering about the “safer ways” of achieving the state of mind that enables the street photographer to see an entire frame-filling composition. The best way — the way I recommend — can be summarised in one word: practice. I practice a lot, but not in the way you might expect.

Because I’ve been shooting with a heavy Canon 5DIII I spend a lot of time walking around without it. I’m not a person who obsessively carries a camera with me at all times. What’s the point? It’s no good having a camera with you unless it’s switched on and you’re already holding it with one hand and pointing it towards potential subjects. I can’t spend my entire life in that mode of operation. That’s work! I can’t work when I’m doing something else, such as buying a newspaper or going out for lunch. Street photography needs one hundred per cent concentration.

So how do I practice finding compositions? Whenever I walk in the street I compose images in my mind’s eye. I practice with multiple subjects, saying to myself: “Now this sort of composition would be good. What camera setting and lens would I need to achieve it?”

In this way, I assemble a small catalogue of potential compositions in my head, together with notes of what I might need to record them. When I go out with the camera I’m ready for most eventualities. I can recognise those frame-filling moments when they happen in front of me.

The Old Flower Market
Here’s another example (below). I was walking through the old flower market in Bangkok (sorry, they’ve moved it!) when I saw this lady with a black and grey hat talking on the phone. I probably wouldn’t have taken a shot had it not been for the vertical arrangement of bins, decorative birch twigs and bright plastic stools immediately behind her. Thank heavens I was not using my 85mm lens (with which I took the featured image above). Even wide open, the brilliant Canon 40mm could get the background into reasonably sharp focus so that the composition — of five equal parts — would make sense.

At this point I should note that when you go out with a lens of fixed focal length you must look at everything with that focal length in mind. It’s no good saying: “Oh, I wish I had an ultra wide angle to get the whole of that elephant in the frame!” You shouldn’t be looking at the world with ultra-wides in mind, even when confronted with an elephant. Mentally frame the scene exactly as your chosen lens does, making sure you don’t leave out any essential elements. As a last resort, stand further back. You shouldn’t get too close to an elephant anyway.

The original of the lady in the flower market measures 5460 x 3640 pixels, so you can see there was virtually no cropping involved (just minor straightening/trimming). Here, I’ve reduced it to my standard 1600-pixel width as I never release my full size images into the wild!

Make Composition a Priority
I can’t help but notice that a lot of street photographers pay very little attention to composition, let alone make an effort to fill the frame. This is a pity because they could take their work to the next level if they made composition a priority.

The informal, almost casual and throwaway “look” of street photography is, of course, one of its charms. The genre offers us quick glimpses, stolen moments, photos taken “on the sly,” images à la sauvette — to use Cartier-Bresson’s expression. Yet the photographer has already made a selection, chosen to show us a particular scene at a given moment. Why not go further and be even more selective, showing only those subjects which have an inherent aesthetic appeal on account of their arrangement of shapes and colours?

If you’re coming to street photography from portraiture, landscape, wedding, or some other branch of photography, you’ll already have a number of compositional patterns in your head. Glamour and fashion photographers know a hundred different ways their models can pose, but even that’s not sufficient for the street.

I rather think that many professionals regard street photography as an opportunity to “go slumming,” and free themselves from the shackles of conventional composition. That’s OK, but actually, taking shots in the street can be a step up, not a step down on the ladder of potential merit. It can be both more challenging and more rewarding than you expect.