Street Photography. Is It Too Tough for Seniors?

Deliveroo

The Japanese are discussing whether or not to raise the threshold of “elderly” from sixty-five to seventy-five. It will be a drastic leap but a highly popular one in a country where 7.3 million seniors are still in work.

Although I won’t qualify to be called “senior” under the new, eagerly-awaited Japanese definition, I cannot imagine giving up work even when I do actually cross the threshold into old age. I hope to find something to keep me fit and mentally alert, other than pumping iron and doing crossword puzzles.

Street photography springs to mind! I’ve done this part-time for many years (alongside other work) and I expect to continue well into the future.

On Friday last week I decided to test myself to see whether the demands of street photography would be too great in later life. Rather than stroll out in the afternoon, like the typical “flaneur,” I got up at six o’clock in the morning with the intention of taking an early train to London (50 minutes away) and spending the entire day on the street, followed by a brief visit to a photographic trade show.

Throwing open the curtains I couldn’t help but notice the first snow storm of the year, conveniently timed to arrive a few weeks after Christmas on the very day of my experiment.

Well, there’s no wussification over here, Mr. Rendell! (I refer to “The Wussification of America” by Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, who lamented the cancellation of an NFL football match merely because of heavy snowfall).

By mid-morning I was busily tramping the streets of a damp and windswept Covent Garden, getting pictures of people huddled against the below-zero (centigrade) cold. For some reason unknown, they seemed to be more inclined than usual to accept a photographer in their midst. Maybe freezing cold sleet and snow have the effect of condemning everyone alike to a common discomfiture. I don’t know. It was different, and, I have to admit, rather enjoyable.

However, I didn’t get any good pictures until the light improved later in the day. The entire mood of the city changed. People who’d been in bed until late morning suddenly emerged to go shopping. Workers relaxed for a break and I attempted to pay for lunch in a fast-food café, only to find that my right hand had become a frozen claw with only the forefinger (the one that presses the camera button) still working.

Do young people freeze? Yes, much more frequently — walking to school, on the sports field, messing around in the snow. It’s just a combination of experience and common sense that normally prevents older people from getting chilled to the bone.

Trying to manipulate camera settings while wearing gloves (even thin leather ones) is very frustrating. You really need one or two bare fingers to feel the position of each wheel and button. So if you’re thinking of taking street photos in very cold weather, I recommend using warm gloves with a finger-tip or two missing.

I took an umbrella because I’d seen the weather forecast and I knew it would get warmer later in the day. When snow turns to rain the camera gets wet. What’s more: it’s good to shoot from the cover of an umbrella. It makes you less conspicuous and helps protect the lens from the glare of the sky, enabling you to remove the lens hood.

By the time I was ready to grace the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers with my presence (I’m not actually a member, but I like their show) I’d taken a hundred shots, some of which I’ll show you over the coming weeks.

One of the better shots you see above. I walked past a couple of Deliveroo men loading up their trikes with pizzas, turned round, and took this shot in which the real subject is the guy in the middle. Sorry, Deliveroo. You became the supporting cast. That’s what what can happen in street photography.

Back home after a long day I had just enough remaining energy to watch an episode of “Hello, My Twenties,” a brilliant Korean drama series also called “Age of Youth” in some countries.

Did I prove that street photography under strenuous conditions is within the grasp of so-called “seniors”? I guess it all depends on the individual’s general health and levels of fitness and determination. You don’t need to be in peak condition but neither can you dodder or fumble your way to success.

If you’re in doubt, go for it! In Japan, “great old age” is being postponed to ninety-five. In Canada, Olga Kotelko took up athletics at seventy-seven (and has since won 750 gold medals). Even in the UK, one in five people are expected to live to see their 100th birthday. In fact, more people are living longer and remaining active than ever before.

I just hope they don’t all want to take up street photography.

Using Contrasting Content in Street Photography

In these blog posts I’m often talking about form rather than content, that is to say: composition, shapes, colours, depth, and the overall look of the picture as opposed to what’s actually being represented. I truly believe that form is significantly more important than content in street photography, whereas the opposite is true in photojournalism.

However, if you concentrate too intently on form your work will tend towards abstraction and you’ll find yourself no longer the heir of Henri Cartier-Bresson but one of the distant followers of the painter Kandinsky. Pure abstraction, surely, is the province of painting rather than photography.

One way to approach street photography is to look for contrasting content. This is fairly simple to do, although personally I don’t hunt for contrasts, I just seem to stumble upon them. You can do the same.

Here’s one example (shown above). I was walking down a major thoroughfare in Bangkok called Yaowarat Road when I spotted these two tourists intently studying a map. Standing behind them was a man in uniform — who looks at first glance very like a policeman, but is, in fact, a security man who works for the hotel.

I like the stark contrast between the casually dressed tourists and the man in uniform. They differ in so many ways: male and female; Thai and western; sitting and standing; no visible tattoos versus lots of visible tattoos.

The contrast that I found most striking was in the general attitude of the people involved. Although the man was on duty, doing his job, he looks very relaxed and carefree. The two woman, on the other hand, are clearly on vacation, but seem to be making heavy work of it. They could be plotting an arduous journey in the sun, or perhaps they’re well and truly lost. Opting for the latter interpretation I’ve called the photo “Lost, Yaowarat Road, Bangkok.”

You’re probably going to ask me: “Was it really the contrasting subjects that prompted you to take the shot or the tattoos and bare legs of the tourists or the absurd pile of gift boxes in the background?” Well, I have to admit it was all of the above. I think psychologists call it “gestalt,” defined as: “the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world.” I’ll have more to say on this topic in later posts.

The fact is: when you go out on to the street you have to photo what’s there. You can’t rearrange reality to suit your photo or start placing friends and family in strategic positions within the frame. In this sense, your starting point has to be content rather than form.

It’s likely that you’ll be drawn to content with a singular characteristic: such as an appealing face, some outrageous clothes or someone making an unusual gesture. These singularities are fine; they can make a great photo. But when you find contrasts you’re adding a second, non-physical dimension to your work. You’re contributing your own content by inserting something dynamic: a wordless argument, a visual opposition, an unspoken dialogue. This can be much more effective than making a simple, singular statement.

From a formal viewpoint, when you introduce contrast you may (as in the example above) have the two contrasting subjects more or less side-by-side, or at least occupying separate parts of the image. This is not always necessary. The contrast can be between foreground and background subjects.

In this image, the teenagers sitting on the long bench in the background make a striking contrast to the hugging couple in the foreground. I happened to be walking past when the girl with the green backpack came bounding up to her friend and leapt on him to give him an impassioned embrace. In the photo it appears that theirs is the only act in town. The other kids sit passively in a line, mostly with their own hands clasped together, not speaking to each other (except for one who tries to chat but his friend pays him no attention).

Again, taking the photo was a gestalt experience: I was very much aware of the people in the background and somewhat thankful my camera settings — which I didn’t have time to change — did not make them too blurred. It was important to get the couple into sharp focus. They were in this position for only a split second, so timing was the key to getting the shot. I’ve called it “Pleased to See You, Colchester, UK.”

I think there were two elements of luck involved, but not in capturing the “decisive moment” which was entirely deliberate, or in seeing the contrast between the two major elements of the photo.

Once piece of luck was confining the background tree to what is probably its only proper position. If it has been directly behind the top of the man’s head it would have spoiled the shot. I lucked out again in capturing the wistful attitude of the man on the extreme left of the image. With his pale face and sunglasses he looks like he could be a fan of the late Roy Orbison (“Only the Lonely”), watching other people have fun.

I’m not suggesting you should search actively for contrasts, because you may miss plenty of other opportunities if you do so. It’s better to come across them naturally but then to react with the instantaneous response demanded by street photography. To do this you have to be prepared for them. You have to recognise them immediately and have your camera set to cope with this kind of eventuality (1/250th or 1/500th second, ISO 400 or 800, and aperture slightly stopped down — all depending on the lighting conditions).

The world is full of contrasts: rich/poor, fat/thin, dark/light, tall/short and so on. You can’t really fail to notice the obvious pairs. The art of street photography involves finding what’s not so obvious, yet is, perhaps for that very reason, more revealing and more likely to make a compelling image.

Why It’s Good to Fill the Frame in Street Photography

Frame Fill

So, Mr. Lewell, what first attracted you to a shop window full of bare legs?

That’s a bit like asking a young woman who’s just married a wealthy old man: what first attracted you to the billionaire Rupert XXXX (or whoever)? The question contains its own answer, but in both cases it may actually be wrong, or at least only partially true.

Speaking for myself, I was attracted by the way the various elements of the scene filled the picture frame right to the edges. True, the legs caught my eye, but so did the girl squatting down at the bottom left and the more distant view to the interior of the store where more people were moving around.

Far too many street photographs have dead space in the corners of their pictures.

Why am I not surprised? Because, for much of the time, the road and the sky have little visual interest. If you simply point your camera at an interesting subject, the chances are that you’ll end up taking lots of sky and lots of road. Please remember: they’re part of the picture, too.

If I get bare space (as opposed to bare legs) in the corners of the frame I have a nagging feeling that’s something’s not quite right.

Of course, like many street photographers, I have this feeling nearly every time — when one or another irritating imperfection reveals itself on close examination of the image. For example, there may be a lack of sharpness where sharpness would have been desirable. Or perhaps one part of the subject is hidden that would have looked better had it been revealed.

Yet the worst irritation is the appearance of dead space in areas surrounding the subject. I’ll do anything to avoid it.

I’m particularly fascinated by the concept of “layers,” on which I’ll have more to say as this blog develops. The above photo is a good demonstration of layers (or “planes of visual interest,” as I like to call them). In the foremost plane, the image is anchored by the curious double advert in which, hypnotically, the model’s face is repeated so that she gazes at us with four eyes instead of two.

As the image recedes, other layers cause the onlooker’s eye to “read” the photo by exploring it from one side to another. The girl with the shoulder bag is level with the point-of-sale display, so she is part of foreground and helps to balance the image. Beyond her are other women who are slightly foreshortened by the 85mm lens I was using. Black-belted sales assistants in turquoise uniforms fill the upper left of the image. There is no dead space.

The growing popularity of using layers in street photography is leading us towards more satisfying images. I am far from being their only exponent. I’m also exploring other techniques to fill the frame, not always successfully.

For example, there are many things wrong with this shot of a girl promoting a flavoured drink. For a start, it’s one of those quasi-street photographs I call “impromptu street portraits.” In other words, it’s not street photography at all, but a form of improvised portrait photography, undertaken without either the time or equipment to get it right. And I didn’t get it right.

Sun Promo

I deliberately focused on her hand, expecting her face to be in acceptably sharp “soft” focus. I think I overdid it. In any case, there’s a suspicion of dead space at the bottom right which cannot be cropped without destroying the composition. I like the fact that the woman in red is glancing in our direction; that there are some products bottom left; that the blossom takes care of the top edge and corners. But the occluded face of the man in black and the obvious difference in sharpness between the subject’s hand and her face are aspects which ruin the image.

Typically, street photographers fill dead space in the foreground with out-of-focus figures and they fill similar space in the background with buildings and street furniture. Working with wide-angle lenses they keep much of the scene in sharp focus, thus avoiding the problems of bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus areas).

Bringing every part of the frame into play tends to create a myriad of challenges for the street photographer. But surely that’s half the fun! It’s too easy to snap isolated subjects and ignore everything around them. In the same way, if you listen only to the violin in a violin concerto you’re not really hearing the whole work. It’s more difficult to follow several musical lines at once, but also more rewarding once you’ve learned how to do it.

As Walter Pater (1839–1894), essayist and art critic, said: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” It follows that there can be more than one instrument playing in a street photo.

Should We Pimp Our Street Portraits?

If you become a regular reader of this blog will know that I’m not a great fan of posed street portraits, the sort of picture you get when you say: “Wow, you’ve got such a great face! Do you mind if I take your photo?”

Yes, I take them sometimes when I can’t resist it, but I always think I’m wasting my time.

At the back of my mind is the feeling that maybe one day I’ll think of a use for this or that portrait of a grinning man, woman, or person in transition. Maybe I could build a collection? Men with green hair? Women with blue hair?

But alas, it just isn’t my style. I don’t want to go in that direction. I’ve given up arranging my photos into collections because there seem to be too many people doing it.

Given the right subject, perhaps there’s an alternative way. Perhaps I could take a single image, then slice and dice it various ways to make it more interesting. Let’s give that a try.

One day a friend and I exchanged pleasantries on the street with a man who was wearing a terrific, skull-patterned tee-shirt. He knew he looked good and because he’d cast an eye on my camera he seemed open to having his picture taken. Did I mention his beard? Well, you could scarcely miss it. The tee-shirt, the beard, and his fine set of pearly white teeth were likely to make a good photo, so I took a couple of quick shots.

At the height of summer in a cloudless sky the sun can be quite intense in England. For this reason I don’t really like the resulting photo, although the “model” looks fine. I wondered what would happen if I cropped it heavily, effectively deleting the man’s companion — who didn’t seem inclined to move out of the way — while leaving just the subject’s smile, beard and tee-shirt.

I like this version a lot better. But I think I can go a step further.

Why not process the images (there were two of them) to emphasise the effect of sun rather than attempt to hide it? Then, why not select certain parts of the image and crop/save accordingly? Finally, why not put the pieces back together again in a row, separated by thin dividers?

I would argue that the end result is visually more compelling than any standard street portrait, taken under similar conditions. (Please see the image at the top of this post).

What do you think? Is this a proper extension of street photography, or a wrong turning on the road to nowhere?

Personally I’m not worried either way. Today we have wonderful tools for manipulating images and it’s fun to take a vacation from purely kosher street photography once in a while. I don’t like messing with photos I think are fully achieved, but when they don’t come into this top category I’m willing to experiment.

“Hey! You’ve got such a great face! Do you mind if I snap you and chop you up in post-production?”

Please don’t tell anyone I’m doing this.

10 Insights from One Hour’s Street Photography at Night

I love looking at other people’s night photos but I rarely take them myself. The night does not fit the style of photography I’ve been using for the past few years.

However, if you bear with me, I think I can still shed some light on street photography at night. It’s not rocket science. Apart from the darkness it’s essentially the same as street photography during the day.

The idea for this one-hour project came to me suddenly. Yesterday, I was drinking a cup of coffee when I noticed the rain had stopped. I’d been writing for most of the day and suddenly felt in the mood to go out and get some shots. But darkness was falling and I am ill equipped for night photography.

The High Street of this ancient town is only three hundred yards away from my house, so getting there was no problem. The Christmas lights were still on and there were plenty of people on the street. I wondered, could I really get any decent shots with my relatively slow (f/2.8) lens in the single hour at my disposal before dinner-time?

Before I left home I set the camera to ISO 1000, which I think is as high as I care to go on my system without encountering too much noise. So that’s my first tip:

Insight One: Set the ISO as high as your camera can cope.

If I were to take up night photography in earnest I’d buy a suitable camera system for the purpose. My Canon 5D3 and 40mm lens are far from ideal for night shooting. At the end of 2016 (the time of writing) the best option would be the Sony a7SII with a Batis 25mm, although there are many other cameras and lenses that would be better than what I’m using.

Insight Two: If you can, use the right gear!

My first subject (above) is the composition I had in mind when I set out. I’d noticed that buses sometimes have a light in the driver’s cab when people get on board. If I could combine this with one or two passengers, a foreground object, the Town Hall in the background and some people walking towards me on the right of the frame then I’d have a good shot.

Yes, it would have been easier to get this shot with a Leica Q or the above-mentioned Sony, but I did my best — squatting down and resting my elbows on my knees to eliminate camera movement.

Insight Three: If possible, rest the camera on something steady.

I couldn’t avoid blowing a highlight in the Town Hall clock (it’s just been cleaned!) but I’m not entirely unhappy with the photo. I’m glad I caught the last vestiges of daylight disappearing in the western sky.

Insight Four: Shoot at dusk, don’t wait for full darkness.

Finding other subjects was more of a challenge. It was getting darker and there were fewer illuminations in the back streets of town.

I waited for these three young women to step into the small area lit by a shop window before pressing the shutter button.

Insight Five: Use all available lights, especially shop windows which tend to have the brightest side-lighting.

Looking at the image I’m now struck by the fact that at night-time the digital camera sees much more clearly than the photographer. I was only dimly aware of the gesture made by the person on the left. Was she telling her friends: “I think we’re being photographed?” They didn’t seem to mind if they were.

Insight Six: The photographer needs to get accustomed to working in deep shadow. It’s harder to see moving subjects.

As night progresses, colours all but disappear from the shadows, leaving the street photographer with colour only in pools of light from windows or directly from neon lighting. Because my town is not particularly well lit, owing to the council’s reluctance to spend tax-payers’ money (which it prefers to squander elsewhere) I had trouble finding places where I could use colour, without which I’m somewhat lost. I don’t see the world in black-and-white.

Rebelling against the lack of colour I sneaked a shot through the window of a “party store” where the proprietor seemed to be preparing for an onslaught of five-year-old artists. There were so many stickers on the window I had difficulty in taking a (fairly) clean shot, but I quite like the crazy effect of: “This is all getting on top of me.”

Insight Seven: If you want colour at night, you can still find it! (Note: this is not a serious photo. I’m just illustrating the point!)

I took much the same approach with this photo of a Turkish barber’s shop. Yes, I know many heads of the customers and the barbers are partially hidden — but my intention was to allow them their privacy rather than wait for them to show their faces.

Insight Eight: Brilliantly lit shops can offer glowing colours with good white balance; but be respectful. Shooting into shop windows is more intrusive at night.

In some ways I prefer this shot to the last one I’m showing, which is in black and white out of necessity rather than choice. I hasten to add that none of the shots, except possibly the first, would be ones that I’d normally place in an online gallery. I’m just using them as illustrations for this article.

Outside the closed Apple store I found a man selling hamburgers from a stall. The subject has little intrinsic interest, but one customer was turning her face in my direction without looking directly at the camera and so I took I took the shot.

It’s a curious composition, along a diagonal line from the little girl with the defiant stance on the left, through the face of the central figure to the stall-holder who is looking back in that direction. Unfortunately, there’s no corresponding diagonal from top left to bottom right, but at least the image has a little bit of coherence in black and white. It doesn’t work at all in colour.

Insight Nine: Night photography is tailor-made for black-and-white. Patches of light and deep shadow cry out for monochrome treatment.

So how can I summarise my one-hour experience of night shooting? In a word: enlightening! I think I gained enough insights (some of which I’ve shared with you) to take me further in this style of shooting.

Big cities, where I normally take street photos, are so intensely illuminated I don’t often encounter all the difficulties of shooting in semi-darkness. Coping with a new set of challenges was fun. With this in mind, here’s my final insight:

Insight Ten: Even if you’re happy with the style you’re gradually evolving, don’t be afraid to step away from it now and again. The experience may surprise you.