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.

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