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.”

Why Kids Look Great in a Square Frame

Kids, or children, as I prefer to call them (only goats have kids) usually look great in a square format. But why?

I suppose it’s the usual story: if you’re shorter than the average adult you need the width to height ratio of the frame to be more evenly balanced. The standard 35mm portrait format seems much too high when you put a child into it.

Discovery
I discovered this effect when I was going through some miscellaneous shots of children whom I’ve photographed (with the parents’ permission) over the past year or two. They’re “impromptu shots,” not ones that have been arranged or specially lit. When I cut them down to size they all looked a lot better.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that children are so photogenic they seem to hypnotise the camera into making them the sole point of interest at the expense of everything else. As a consequence, they’re far from perfect for street photography, which is probably fortunate because people tend to be very sensitive about men with cameras who snap children in the street.

Three Square Examples
My featured image (above) actually works well in both square and portrait format, partly because there’s a pair of tall coloured lights in the background. However, making it square certainly gives the photo more punch. The boy’s Dad is teaching him to “wai” (put hands together in greeting) and the little chap seems happy to oblige. The photo is from my series on Thai religious and social customs.

Less serious, but no less charming, is the portrait (below) of a small boy with his big brother immediately behind him. They’re playing in a precarious position high above a canal (but watched anxiously, out of frame, by their parents). The little boy is well aware of the peril of venturing too far forward but he’s spotted something that clearly interests him. Can’t crawl towards it, though!

small boy with baby brother

Up-Country
Another shot that works really well in square format is this one in primary colours (below), of a little girl with a yellow toy. I was slightly “off the beaten track” when I took the photo, up in the hilly area of Khao Yai, north of Bangkok. (The Thais call it “mountainous,” but it’s certainly not the High Sierra). The girl’s father was showing our friends some building land and I could scarcely pass up the opportunity of photographing such a perfect model.

little girl in blue dress, with yellow toy, in front of red car

When Square Isn’t Right
Are there times when the square format is not appropriate? You bet! When I find some accompanying “props” which are strong enough to compete with the megawatt charm of small children I can shrink the kid (there, I’ve lapsed into kidspeak) and include a bit more of the world.

Here’s a good example. I think it’s one of the best of my more conventional travel photos: an entirely candid shot of a girl striking the bells at the famous Buddhist temple Wat Phra Phutthabat (“temple of Buddha’s footprint”). The girl is dwarfed by the gigantic bells and looks up at them, concentrating intently on her task. The bells remain perfectly vertical despite being struck sharply by the wand.

But Are They Really “Street”?
You could object to all the above images, saying they’re not really street photos — and in a sense you’d be right. They’re shots I take when I venture out of the city, in between my normal sessions of urban photography. When I’m in regular shooting mode I rarely photograph children, for the reasons I’ve stated.

To every rule there’s always an exception. The photo below is not square, neither is there very much context — other than a yellow railing and a column supporting some pedestrian crossing lights. I don’t think you need additional information to appreciate the image, but I can add that the girl was looking pensively across the street at Bangkok’s most famous Chinese temple. I include it here for contrast to the earlier pictures because it is a true street photograph.

pensive girl

Country and Urban
As well as their ages, there’s a world of difference between the images of the country girl with the toy and the city girl who is leaning on the railings. In the country, children have to create their own world of play and make believe. In the city, they are entertained with an onslaught of sights and sounds and are obliged to make sense of it all, piece by piece. The city accelerates their growing up, socialises them more quickly, and creates a craving for ever more excitement which seems unnecessary in the country.

I don’t write as an expert on childhood development — my comments are simply based on the personal experience of growing up in an isolated part of England then helping to bring up my son in the centre of London. If you’re still not convinced of the difference, you could read Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which evokes the Reverend Stephen Kumalo’s first experience of the city when he visits from Ndotsheni, his remote South African village in Natal. Although an adult, he becomes childlike with wonder and incomprehension on seeing Johannesburg for the first time.

The Eyes of a Child
I doubt if it’s possible, as an adult, to see the city with the eyes of a child if you’ve already become accustomed to it. But sometimes a photograph of a child looking at the world can make us aware of the power of reality to astonish, mystify and delight — all at the same time.

The lesson is: never become too accustomed to city life, because then you’ll stop seeing it with the clarity you need as a street photographer. Yes, children look great in a square frame, but don’t cut them down to size in your estimation. To them, everything is still extraordinary.

Do Masks Really Help?

Taking street photos in Bangkok last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic started, I wore a mask because of the high air pollution levels. That’s me in the brown hat on the left, reflected in a large mirror. If I look a little wasted it’s because I’d just been discharged from hospital after a month of measles.

A few people giggled at the unusual sight of a masked Westerner — normally seen in movies robbing a bank — but they didn’t make me feel out-of-place. In fact, I started to enjoy this way of blending in with the community, crossing over from being a devil-take-the-hindmost “farang” (foreigner) to socially responsible Bangkok native.

Please note: I took all these pictures last year. Anyone featured in them without a mask has certainly been wearing one recently.

two health workers in masks, walking past a massive fire hydrant

Getting Serious
Mask-wearing in public has become one of the world’s most controversial issues. It raises a huge number of questions, two of which I’ll try to answer in this article:

First: Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
Second: Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?

Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
At the onset of the epidemic in the UK, health experts were scornful of the supposed effectivess of masks in preventing people from contracting the virus. They even warned against using them because of the danger of touching the mask, then touching your eyes or spreading the virus via surfaces. (Good point!)

three young women in blue and white uniforms, one with mask

There were also other aspects worrying the authorities. For example, many types of mask offer no protection against viruses.

At the very minimum you need an N95 mask with a respirator because it filters out 95% of airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns. Even then, many small “virions” (infective virus particles) can squeeze through.

Many lower-rated anti-pollution masks designated “PM2.5” (Particulate Matter, 2.5 microns across) are ineffective against viruses, although they’re useful for keeping dust, pollen and other airborne particles at bay. Here’s why:

Size Matters
Virions range in size from 20 nanometres to 400 nanometres, with the virion that infects you with Covid-19 being in the middle of that range, at 120 nanometres (or 0.0000048 inches). By contrast, a 2.5 micron particle (against which the standard anti-pollution mask is effective) has a diameter of 2,500 nanometres (there are 1,000 nanometres in a micron). Clearly, a coronavirus could pass right through a PM2.5 mask very easily, floating with others 20 abreast!

Social Acceptance
At the beginning last year, the mask as a fashion statement had not yet caught on in the west, but it was already tending that way in Bangkok, such was the level of acceptance.

two women, one dwith animal mask

In the west, it was thought that there would be panic-buying on a grand scale, diverting masks away from health professionals, care workers, shop staff, and others who need them most.

The UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty went so far as to say that wearing a mask “reduces the risk almost not at all.” The standard line was “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “keep two metres apart” — simple advice that helped, even if it did not go far enough.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave similar advice at first, but has modified it in the light of new research. It now appears that coughs can reach 6 metres and sneezes even further: up to 8 metres.

Perhaps, all along, the Eastern approach to wearing masks has been right, having been rooted in a tradition of covering part of the face whenever you have a cold.

man in red tee-shirt with yellow under-vest in a teddy-bear pattern, wearing a mask over his mount only

Unfortunately, even Bangkok natives don’t always wear them correctly. A mask needs to fit precisely over the nose, around the sides and under the chin. The delivery guy in my photo (above) has not covered his nose, which makes mask-wearing rather pointless.

Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?
The answer to this is a heavily qualified “yes,” but only if you don’t cough or sneeze while coming into close proximity with anyone else.

Coughing into a mask creates an aura of infective particles around your head, extending up to a metre — and liable to float in the direction of anyone nearby.

Theoretically, you need breathe in only a single, fully-fledged virion to become infected, although in practice (for many reasons) that number is very much higher.

In cold weather (almost never experienced in Bangkok) it’s easy to see people’s breath and avoid it. At other times, you can see only the exhalations of smokers and vapers. Obviously, this easily identifiable cloud will have just emerged from deep inside a pair of lungs — and is not the kind of “air” you need to be breathing during a viral pandemic, mask or no mask.

Good Reasons for Wearing a Mask
I’ve already mentioned the new research on the reach of coughs and sneezes, but there are other reasons, too, for wearing a mask during the pandemic.

When people go out for brief exercise or trips to the pharmacy, they may very well encounter others, who — while showing no symptoms whatsoever — may possibly be “silent carriers” of the virus. You can still catch a virus from a silent carrier.

A third reason is the way in which wearing a mask — or seeing others wear them — reminds us of ever-present danger. Of course, it would be a relief if we could stop thinking (and writing!) about this subject, but it’s better to seek escape by watching a movie in the safety of home rather than behave as normal outside.

In pre- and post-pandemic times we can — like the person below — occasionally let down our guard when off-duty, but, in the Age of Coronavirus (as I called it last week), those times seem very distant.

young woman with mask under chin, standing in front of an illuminated underwear mannequin

(All photos taken pre-pandemic!)

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.

Cropped

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.

Similarities
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!

Candid Dogs

“You cannot be serious!” Surely, there are plenty of dog photos on the Internet. Why add to their number?

I confess, although I like most of the dogs I meet I’m not a dog lover, as such. I don’t enough rapport with them, and, big dogs in particular make me wary. I’ve read too many reports in the news about children and sheep being savaged and killed by them.

As a consequence dogs rarely feature in my street photography. The featured image, above, is an exception. It’s a street photo I was pleased to take.

Moriyama Dog
The other shots I’m showing here are not really serious, except for next one, which doesn’t fully live up to my technical expectations. I call this photo “Moriyama Dog,” because the subject reminds me of the famous shot by Daido Moriyama — the one with which he is forever identified.

Moriyama was the most prominent exponent of the photograpic style known as “areh-bureh-bokeh” (“grainy, blurry, out-of-focus”), so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that my own shot is all of these things, and more.

stray dog, in headlamps

I love Moriyama’s work and regard him as one of the five (or so) greatest street photographers, but I’d never attempt to borrow his ideas. The picture above is just a one-off snap, taken in a traffic jam at night on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Art Dog
I found the Winged Dog (below) in a Bangkok art gallery, in a curious exhibition which resembled a storeroom of discarded works. The image you see is actually the official display, complete with stacked pictures and packing cases. Somehow, the dog ended up as “top dog,” as in “every dog has its day.”

dog with wings, amid other artworks

If you look up “winged dog” on Google Images you’ll find all manner of strange creatures, including many ancient and modern gargoyles such as those mythical beasts which grace gothic cathedrals.

On PicClick (“Search eBay Faster”) I discovered an entire industry devoted to winged dog gargoyles. Well, that was a surprise!

Dog with Hat
Intrigued by the PicClick result, I tried searching for “dog with hat” and was presented with “Dog Hat in dog supplies” (i.e., to be worn by a dog) or “dog hat in men’s accessories” (to be worn by men). I don’t think I’ll be getting either of those!

The best I can do is to lend my own silly hat to a dog, as below. He looks equally stupid in it.

artificial dog sculpture, wearing my hat

Two More Dogs
Sometimes I chance upon a dog that’s dressed outrageously and I ask the owner if I can take a shot. I found the splendid creature below in a trendy restaurant (The Commons, in Thonglor, Bangkok), dressed in a black suit with a red kerchief around its neck.

white dog in restaurant

Naturally, other elements sometimes appear in my infrequent pictures of dogs, such as the next one which I’ve called “Cute, and the Dog’s Nice Too.”

poodle being admired; young female owner in shorts

I still think two legs are better than four, George Orwell notwithstanding. (The sheep, in Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm,” are persuaded to bleat the opposite — “Four legs good, two legs bad” — in order to drown out dissenting opinion during the farm animal revolution.)

Pensive Dog
I’m not sure if the next animal is “owned” or “abandoned,” but it looks in reasonable shape, if not as pampered as the two creatures above. Behind it, someone (the owner?) is donning a motorcycle helmet. Maybe the dog knows it’ll be on its own for a while.

Dog looks forlorn as person behind him puts on a crash helmet

Poodle in a Bag
Finally, here’s the ultimate in man’s determination to remain united with his pet at all times: the doggy bag. Looking closely at the image I can see the poodle is clawing at the man’s back pocket. I hope his wallet wasn’t in there! Dogs can be VERY expensive, can’t they?

poodle carried as if it were a shoulder bag

What Is It With Bicycles?

I’m putting this question to myself because I often take a photo with a bicycle in it. Quite unintentionally I’m beginning to build a collection of images themed around the bicycle, although I don’t yet have enough for an exhibition.

I hasten to add: I’m not obsessed with pedal bikes. In fact, I’m not sure I entirely approve of them, especially when trying to cross the road in London.

Several times, a guy on a bike has come round the corner at breakneck speed, missed me narrowly, then shouted a string of abuse as he disappeared into the distance. Cyclists in London have killed pedestrians in this way, so it pays to be alert to the danger.

Previous Form
I’ve already written about using bicycles as a subject for street photography in an article called “The Charm of Pedal Power” (February 18, 2018).

Since then I’ve come across several more scenes in which a bicycle plays an important role, so I guess it’s time to revisit the subject. Consider this to be “The Charm of Pedal Power, Part II,” so please read the previous article to see my four original variations on the theme.

small girl riding behind her Dad, playing shadow puppets

A Personal Note
I suppose, like all photographers, I’m influenced by memories and feelings when I choose a subject for a picture. I think, maybe, I often take the bicycle as a subject because I have such happy memories of riding around the Suffolk countryside as a boy.

On my earliest trips I would be accompanied by my mother riding alongside. I was reminded of these trips when I took the shot (above) of a little girl in Bangkok playing shadow puppets on her dad’s back while riding pillion.

However, as I grew older, cycling became more of a chore than a pleasure. I was obliged to ride four miles to school every day, quite an arduous journey in bad weather, or when late. To speed up the trip I’d sometimes travel part-way by holding on to the shoulder of a friend who rode to school on a motorbike. My parents found out, so when I turned sixteen they allowed me to buy a motorbike of my own, considering it to be the less dangerous option. I ditched the pedal bike and haven’t ridden one since!

Ambivalent Feelings
As you’ll gather from what I’ve written above, my feelings towards bicycles are ambivalent, as in “love them/hate them.” Now, here is the crux of the matter: this is precisely the kind of attitude you need for creative work!

By taking pictures which feature bicycles I’m trying subconsciously to resolve my ambivalent feelings, sometimes making the subject look good whilst at other times allowing it show its ugliness.

The Ugly Side
Have you seen those reports of bicycle dumps in China? It’s really difficult to regard pedal bikes in exactly the same way after viewing them en masse, especially when they’ve been discarded. Suddenly they’re not fighting pollution. They ARE pollution!

I haven’t been to see the Chinese dumps, but most towns in England have a bicycle park near the railway station. These are repositories, not for discarded bikes but for working ones, and they still look pretty (as in “to a moderately high degree”) ugly. Here’s the one in Chelmsford:

The Charming Side
For me, bicycles are at their most charming when ridden by attractive women in shorts. However, having already illustrated that subject in Part I, I’ll close with an alternative.

With a little ingenuity you can turn a bicycle into an art gallery. I doubt if the example in my picture (below) belongs to any of the ladies sitting on the bench, but at least they’re being entertained by a bikeful of celebrity caricatures while eating lunch.

Becoming an art gallery seems to be an excellent application for a discarded bicycle. Now we need to think up a few more uses for all those bikes in China.

Showing the Abundance of the Earth

Whenever I see examples of Earth’s abundance I feel mixed emotions. First, I feel joy and I want to celebrate and give thanks, but I also feel a sadness: a sense that we are simply exploiting the Earth, always taking but rarely giving anything back.

Whether it’s agricultural products from renewable resources or fish from the wild, seeing the sheer quantity of them “en masse” can be truly shocking.

Pile ’em High
Retailers love to “pile ’em high” to attract attention and sell more items. The sales technique works every time, whether you’re selling books, beans, or, as above in the featured image, mangoes. And again, below:

The mango shop in Bangkok’s Thonglor district is one of those delightful stores that specialises in a particular type of fruit of the very highest quality. They’re doing it right. They care greatly for each mango, handle it gently and reverently, and source it responsibly. I think we can celebrate such a business and feel positive emotion, as long as they don’t use too many plastic foam sleeves.

More Worrying
I’m more worried about the packaging of strawberries and cherries, as seen in the image below. Of course, these products look even more magnificent. They’re beautifully presented and appear utterly beguiling when a shaft of sunlight illuminates them, bringing out their brilliant colour.

But if all the strawberries (and other fruits) in the world start being packaged like this, I think it would terminate our planet very quickly. We’d become buried in a mountain of plastic.

Is there anything particularly poignant contained within the image? I’m not sure. I guess it depends on your attitude towards elaborately packaged products. The stallholder is checking her phone and doesn’t seem too concerned. I think she completes the image and the message it contains.

Yes, We Have Bananas
On Bangkok’s abundant food stalls you can find up to 27 different types of banana, often in two different shades: green and yellow. I think they’re wonderful to see when there’s no sign of packaging. Maybe no one’s invented individual sleeves for bananas.

I wish I could say the same for cantaloupes. At New Year’s, my partner’s father was given three cantaloupes by three different people and each one came in its own elaborate gift box. It’s becoming impossible to give fruit as a present without ensuring that it meets prevailing standards of gift-wrapping. You get plenty of gratitude, but it comes with more fill for the dumpster.

Pomelo Mania
One of my favourite fruits is the pomelo (above), the ancestor of the grapefruit. Driving through the salt flats near Bangkok, motorists come eventually to dozens of stalls selling pomelos and young coconuts at wholesale prices.

Again, in these places there’s the expression of abundance which I find so poignant, obliging me to ask the driver to stop so I can take some pictures. Here’s one with a scrawny cat passing a red bin. I don’t think the animal is greatly impressed with all the fruit. You can starve amid plenty.

Funeral Wreath
If you do happen to starve you’ll be needing a funeral wreath, the bigger the better. Here’s one, about to cross the road on its way to the temple. I wonder what sort of wreath we can give the Earth when we’ve finally killed it?

Why Words Shout Out Loud In Street Photos

If words appear in a photo it’s impossible to ignore them. They shout at us loud and clear. Even when they’re in a foreign language we feel their power. We know they will speak immediately and directly to anyone who understands their language.

In a street photo, words can eclipse the rest of the content. Writ large or small they are the first objects to catch the eye. What’s more: they’re everywhere: on posters, on street furniture, on tee-shirts and newsstands. You can’t easily avoid words when you’re out on the street, so maybe it’s best to make good use of them.

Sometimes I try to combine words on a sign or poster with other parts of the image, making them seem to comment on the action. Words are static within a photo so it’s important to contrast them by showing activity as well, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing but a still life. The result may not be a bad picture, but in street photography we’re mostly trying to capture the actual life of the street.

In my featured image (from Singapore, above) there can be no doubt about the subject, which is labelled in letters writ large. Once you’ve been lured inside the restaurant you’ll be able to read the “small print,” including a warning sign (at the top of the picture) and the apologies for “inconvenience.”

Colours and Contrasts
I often talk in this blog about the deliberate use of colours and contrasting content to create a meaningful composition. Sometimes the meaning can be discovered later, once you’ve processed the image and examined it more closely.

When I took the following picture I was struck by a combination of blues and blacks, with only a hint of any other colour in the frame. The lady’s face reminded me of an elderly aunt from my childhood, while the dog offered a wonderful contrast in both age and colour. Likewise, the coffee in the advert looks warm and inviting, whereas the lady and the dog are well wrapped up against the cold.

Only when I looked at the image more objectively did I realise that the old lady was clearly not a customer of Caffé Nero and was unlikely to have been waiting for a skinny latte or cappuccino. I have to say I’m not happy with the dead space at the lower right, but I like the contrast between subject and setting.

Photographers tend to be more attuned to visual appearances than to the written or spoken word, making them less likely to pay attention to the effect of words on the viewer.

Anglo Saxon four-letter words are the most violent in the English language, but you often see them on tee-shirts or scrawled on walls as graffiti. For years, a disused cinema in my neighbourhood had the “C-word” etched back-to-front in dust on an inside, upper window. It gave a “too strong” flavouring to any street photo which included it in the background, rather as if a bitter spice were being added to the dish of the day.

Word On The Street
One photographer who notices words is Richard Nagler. He published a book called “Word On The Street” (Heyday, 2010) in which each photograph contains just a single word surrounded by other content. He describes how he was working on a different project in Oakland, California, when he saw an elderly woman looking of a window above a large (and unlit) neon sign saying TIME. On that occasion he failed to get the shot because the woman drew the curtains, but he went back (time and again!) until he saw her at the window once more and captured something similar.

You can find the image, among others in the series, on Richard Nagler’s website.

Gratuitous Language
In stores and malls you often see words that seem purely gratuitous and meaningless, although they later take on meaning when the rest of the advertising campaign comes along.

Here’s a family in Bangkok who are time-wasting, maybe hoping that “something exciting” is on its way. It probably isn’t.

For excitement you have to go out on the street. There, girls parade with highly provocative, and, it has to be said, very amusing words on their tee-shirts. I particularly liked the one below.

Today, words and photography are inextricably bound together. You can no longer prise them apart.

The Art of Colour Matching

If your street photography is entirely black and white, look away now. Little of what I’m going to say in this article has anything to do with taking pictures without colour. It’s all about the art of colour matching.

The idea of matching various components of the image is not, of course, limited to colour photography. For example, in the absence of colour you can match shapes — and this has long been a favourite ploy of street photographers shooting in black and white. A bent elbow here, another bent elbow there. Voila! You’ve found two matching shapes in otherwise unrelated subjects — and the picture looks more satisfying as a result.

Exactly why images look more satisfying when there are correspondences within them is not at all obvious. Is it because we like to be reminded of coincidence? When coincidence is evident — as when two people assume the same unusual stance, or when two matching colours establish a bizarre commonality between otherwise unrelated parts of the image — there’s a satisfying sense of connectedness. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on our part.

When we’re cut loose from the world — when the doctor snips the umbilical cord and says: “That’s it, kid, you’re on your own now” — we start to grow as individuals. Some people lose any sense of connectedness to nature, to the world around them, and even to other people. Yet even they may respond to the “irony of correspondences” when a photo shows unlikely (and possibly misleading or even non-existent) “connections” between unrelated parts of the image.

Man on a Bicycle
Take my featured image (above), which shows a man on a bicycle, waiting for the traffic lights to change. His purple jacket matches the purple chairs and the purple lettering on the window. Purple is the dominant colour in the picture. There’s plenty of red (the bike, the backpack); there’s a solid rectangle of yellow — which fortunately is somewhere near the centre; and finally a touch of blue and a barely noticeable squiggle of green.

The picture “works” because of the colour matching and it would certainly look less interesting in black and white. Does the colour matching make it more meaningful? That depends on how you look at it. The cyclist is completely unaware that he shares the same colour as the table and chairs — and, in a further extension of the coincidence, his blue jeans match the half-concealed blue table as well. He has a double connection to the establishment where the managers are so proud of the price of their beer.

I think colour does add meaning to the picture. The subject looks like he knows his way around town. He’s dressed for the part: a real street warrior. That his surroundings should echo his personal colour preference seems perfectly natural. You could almost imagine the whole of London turning purple as he races through the streets ahead of him.

Man on a Tricycle
Here’s a completely different example of colour matching (below). In this image there’s no single outstanding colour which connects the man on the tricycle to his surroundings. They all do. All, that is, except for the garish advertising sign on the back of the man’s vehicle. It’s the one jarring note of modernity in a photo that otherwise makes you think nostalgically of a changing world.

man on rickshaw

First there were hand-pulled rickshaws, then there were tricycle rickshaws — like the one shown — to be followed by motorised vehicles like tuk-tuks and taxis. As a means of transport the tricycle rickshaw is a vehicle in transition, neither fully mechanised nor entirely unmechanical in the help it gives to the operator via gearing and braking. It spans two eras, belonging to both at the same time.

The pastel browns, blues and reds of the rickshaw tricyclist are echoed in the crates and awnings of the background. In fact, the background is so close to the street it’s almost foreground, with the passing vehicle just a metre or so in front of it.

Again, I ask whether the colour matching makes the image more meaningful? I think it does. Apart from the fact that the tricycle and background both have the “feel of the street” (perhaps from a patina of dust, or from the muted shades of old materials) they both make a perfect foil for the new, glossy advert which undoubtedly provides a bit of extra income for the rider.

The rickshaw rider is moving out of the frame rather than into it. I timed the shot so the vehicle and rider would be seen against the striped awning rather than the crates. I’m glad I did. This man is not cycling into the future so much as leaving the past behind. I hope he finds a passenger soon.

The Pilot
To complete my trio of colour-matched street warriors, here’s another image (below) which I’ve called “The Pilot.” He’s not, of course, the pilot of the aircraft behind him. He’s just a guy who happened to be standing in front of it at the time. Nonetheless, his blue shirt and (look carefully!) red belt match the colours of the airplane perfectly.

man in fron of possibly fake aircraft

I have no idea whether this plane (or glider?) is “for real” or whether it was once a funfair attraction. At any rate, it’s found a permanent — or at least immobile — home on the forecourt of a filling station to the north of Bangkok. The dude with sunglasses saw me taking his picture and gave me a Lewis Hamilton smile. He seems so connected to the plane in every possible way I could scarcely pass up the opportunity.

Whatever else it does, colour matching links together the various components of the image to create satisfying harmonies and correspondences. Like the Chancellor’s annual Budget it all adds up and I “commend it to the House.”