Take My 5-Second Course in Landscape Photography

The other day I got to thinking: I’ve been writing this street photography blog for three years. There’s been so much to say! But maybe I should tackle a different subject.

How about landscape photography? I used to take landscape pictures, but these days the above shot — with trees — is the closest I get to it.

So I went on to think very carefully about the pros and cons of landscape photography and decided that the whole topic could be boiled down to a course lasting no more than 5 seconds (if you read quickly). Please take a little longer to mull it over.

Here it is:

A Complete Course in Landscape Photography: Success Guaranteed

  1. Take an expensive camera and tripod.
  2. Go to a really beautiful landscape.
  3. Find a pleasing viewpoint.
  4. Take a photo in good light at dawn or dusk.
  5. Enter photo competition; collect prize.
Framlingham Castle at Dawn

Please don’t think I’m deprecating the work of landscape photographers. I love the results they get — and even I got up before dawn to get the shot immediately above, so I know the huge amount of work and discomfort that’s involved in obtaining great landscape pictures. Gosh, Charlie Waite actually carries a pair of steps with him to get a higher viewpoint (I’ve omitted that in my tongue-in-cheek list of essentials).

The Ansel Adams Approach
Yet the most accomplished practitioners of landscape photography make their mark by refining what is, after all, the very simple process I’ve described. If you don’t believe me, just watch a video of Ansel Adams setting off on a photo expedition, laden with plate cameras and other apparatus.

Half the battle with landscape photography is finding the right landscape. Photographers travel far afield, but they often go to places where many others have gone before. Consequently, the images they get tend to be similar, especially when aspiring photographers embark on those special tours where the guide takes everyone to the same Icelandic glacier or the same bend in the Colorado River.

Landscapes do, of course, change with the changing light, but, as you may have noticed, mountains stay largely in the same place over quite extensive periods of time. The same can’t be said for the restless occupants of a city.

On the Street
The street photographer is grateful for places like bus stops where captive subjects have to pause for a few minutes before transport arrives to whisk them somewhere else. To take successful street shots you need to call upon techniques and strategies unknown to the landscape photographer. You need speed, stealth, cunning and subterfuge as well as persistence, patience and the ability to anticipate the immediate future.

Landscape photography may capture some of the grandeur of the Earth but for most of the time it completely ignores the drama. Its images often suggest eternal stability when quite the opposite is true. The Earth’s crust is constantly shifting from Pangaea to the five (six, seven?) continents we know today, throwing up mountains as one plate crashes into another.

What’s needed is not still photography to take scenes that move so slowly, but stop-frame photography to show the motion over geological time. That’s not very practical, but there have been some remarkable movies of great terrestrial events, such as the sudden breaking up of a glacier, or the invasion of a tsunami, destroying all in its path.

For me, street photography is the superior artform, although not often as easy on the eye. It’s more than a mere genre in a way that landscape photography is not. It contains the essence of photography: the ability to catch a moment of time in which the subjects in front of the lens will never again exist in those exact same positions.

The Grand Canyon will still be there next year, looking much the same as it did this year. It’s magnificent, I agree, and more uplifting to contemplate than a split second in the life of a shopper walking down Oxford Street. As a small boy I was profoundly impressed by a colour plate of the Grand Canyon and I used to examine it frequently. But if “the proper study of mankind is man,” as the poet (Alexander Pope) said, I know which one I find more interesting today. It’s the street photo that sets our imaginations rolling, rather than the landscape taken in “Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.”

What’s the Best Aspect Ratio for Street Photography?

Aspect ratio is width to height, W:H.

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

Simples!

Except for a dozen other factors.

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

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

Camera Sensor Sizes

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

When you process your images you have several options:

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

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

So which is the best ratio for street photography?

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

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

Ultra-wide screen image of people walking up steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

So have you made up your mind yet?

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

Except for the fact that technology moves on.

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

A Moment of Concentration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two women arranging flowers with great concentration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

detail of the featured image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When It’s All in the Gesture

In street photography, it’s great to see a demonstrative gesture, unless it’s an upraised finger telling you to shove off. I like gestures for one very good reason. They contain their own decisive moment.

Gestures are a form of visual language, perhaps without the syntax of signing (for people who cannot hear), but nonetheless a language which carries meaning — often aimed at those who certainly can hear but don’t want to listen.

Gestures have meanings such as: “Watch out!” “Isn’t it obvious!” or “I don’t care.”

Sometimes it’s essential to see the movement of a gesture to understand it fully. When you ask if a person is feeling better you may get a silent wave of the hand in a seesaw motion which means “So-so,” (neither better nor worse). That’s not a great reply from the street photographer’s point of view.

Over in a Flash
It’s not easy to photograph gestures. They last only a split second and they’re very hard to anticipate.

The best way to get them is to find someone who chatting with a friend and making constant gestures to illustrate their conversation. You’re guaranteed to get a result if you time the shot perfectly.

My featured image at the top of this post shows two young men making playful grabs at some passing girls. Neither of the girls shows any interest whatsoever, which is rather the point of the photo. They even ignore the camera.

young woman in cap, pointing and shouting

Warning Gestures
This is the “Watch out!” moment, as demonstrated by a young woman who’s in charge of the ferry boats as they pull in to dock on the Chao Praya in Bangkok. I wanted to take a picture of her because I love the jacket.

Looking at the shot closely on my return to base I could see that her outstretched arm is greatly lengthened by extra-long fingernails. That was a “plus” I hadn’t expected.

Subtle Gestures
Sometimes gestures are much more subtle and therefore harder to interpret. My last shot falls into this category.

Woman in animated conversation. In a window behind her is a poster of person with shaven head being massaged by strong hands

Here, the subject is in animated conversation with someone off-camera. I happen to know the other person was a male who seemed to be trying to chat-up two girls at once, outside a beauty salon.

He was making progress, but there was some verbal sparring and the members of the group soon went their separate ways. This time, the subject’s hesitant gesture was reinforced by the seemingly brutal manoeuvre demonstrated in the poster.

Two gestures for the price of one.

What ARE They Looking At?

When you photograph people in close-up on the street the result can fall into one of two categories: the subjects are doing something, or they’re doing nothing.

Yet there’s probably a third category which I might call “just looking.” In this case, the subjects are not doing anything in particular, they’re just staring at something outside of the frame.

In other words, they’re not absorbed in “doing” but in “looking” — which is a state of absorption that requires no action.

woman with hand over her mouth, wondering where to go

The Fake and the Real
The American art critic Michael Fried talks a lot about the virtues of depicting absorption in photography and I agree with him. In his great book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (Yale University Press, 2008) he argues that the act of absorption is key to creating the impression that the figures within an image really do exist in a world of their own. If they acknowledge the camera, or appear to pose for it, they become actors in a theatrical world — and the picture loses its authenticity as an art object.

Michael Fried doesn’t discuss street photography, as such, but he does give detailed analyses of those constructed imitations of street photography made separately by Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I think many street photographers will be dismayed that the art world, as represented by Fried, chooses to accept fake street photos instead of real ones — when the two are utterly indistinguishable, except in technical image quality.

In fact, I would go further. I think Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia do indeed fall into the theatricality trap, by using actors to recreate street photography scenes. Surely this is the very definition of theatricality: the imitation of real life by people who normally enjoy a very different existence of their own.

Show Us Reality
In Four Quartets the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Maybe that’s why we tolerate the fake and reject what’s real.

I insist on showing real people leading real lives; I photograph them in candid moments when they’re unaware of the camera; and I like them to be absorbed in some activity because, as Fried says, it places them in their world without intruding into ours.

Is this the only way of doing photography? No. It’s what I feel is the right way to take pictures on the street. After all, back in the day (the 1960s) everyone said: “Keep it real.” No one said: “Keep it fake”.

Two women, looking out of frame

Street Photography on a Rainy Day

It’s a question of feeling. Rainy days nearly always evoke a bittersweet emotion in people who venture outside. On such a day you can capture this feeling and preserve it for the future.

I think the emotion people feel is modified or exaggerated by the amount of rain that falls. So in this article I’m talking exclusively about days in which the rain is light or moderate, not ones where there’s a torrential downpour with claps of thunder overhead.

The pictures you can get during extreme weather conditions are much more dramatic and the emotion is likely to be one of steely resolve rather than wistful melancholy.

I do, occasionally, take my camera out in a thunderstorm and I always get some pleasing shots. I’ll make these the subject of a separate post. This time, it’s light rain only.

Pretend It’s Not There
Maybe the best conditions are when the day is beginning to brighten but the rain keeps falling intermittently. At those times, many people will just pretend it’s not raining at all (as in the featured image above).

Rather than take out an umbrella the lady on the left pulls her coat over her head while the other, younger people just splash around as best they can. Those who are standing in the back of the mini-bus are probably wearing damp tee-shirts, but they’ll soon dry out with the whoosh of air swirling around them.

Do you see what I mean about the wistful emotion? No one’s laughing or smiling, but neither does anyone seem really unhappy. It’s just one of those days: and it’s not all bad. When rain falls in Bangkok, the air pollution is lowered. The dust settles into a muddy residue on the street. People can breathe more easily.

Huddle Together
When the rain intensifies, people’s mood becomes bleaker. Now’s the time to get serious about protecting each other from the hostile elements. Out come the umbrellas (always a favourite with street photographers) and it’s time to start trudging home.

In my shot (above), two couples are crossing the road in the rain, huddled together. The man in front seems to have loaned his jacket to his partner. It’s much too big for her and she looks a little embarrassed to be wearing it, a fact that adds to the feeling of the photo. The couple behind are bedecked with duck motifs, which seems appropriate.

Checking for Rain
Strangely enough, rainy day emotion can prevail even when it’s dry. Emerging from a small covered market, the man in my photo (below) checks to see if rain is falling. Everything appears fine, except that another man in the background is wiping his face as if he’s just been out in the rain.

I like this photo. It has a contradiction at its heart, but everything is in the right place. As in the other shots the tones are soft and pleasant, just the way I like them. I don’t know what I’d do without rainy days.

Is It Still Candid If Just One Person Sees You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Missing Author

Street photography would be so much easier if we could simply imagine a perfect scene and have it appear magically in front of the camera. I’m jealous of the novelist who is unconstrained by reality, allowing pure imagination to make invented characters perform to order. I’ve a good mind to borrow a couple of them.

Let’s pretend that Hercule Poirot and his friend and narrator Captain Hastings have retired from solving mysteries and have taken up photography. What would they want to photograph on the streets of London?

Poirot: “Ah, Hastings, mon ami, let us create the perfect photograph today. I want us to find a subject that will set my little grey cells working. It must be mysterious! Where, oh where, can we find such a mystery in London?”

Hastings: “Well, personally I think we should pay homage to our beloved creator. Now don’t look aghast, Poirot old chap. I don’t mean the good Lord above, I mean Agatha Christie. There’s a splendid memorial to her in front of where the Photographers Gallery used to be.”

Poirot: “What an excellent idea, Hastings. A memorial, yes. We could pretend to be photographing it while in actual fact waiting for something a little more interesting to come along, perhaps?”

Hastings: “Such as?”

Poirot: “Whatever you like. You really should have learned how to do this from our dear creator.”

Hastings: “Alright. What would I most desire? I don’t suppose, Poirot, that a beautiful woman would be out of the question?”

Poirot: “Not at all. You may have anyone you like. It’s purely fiction, after all.”

Hastings (giving his imagination free rein): “As it’s winter, I think a tall Russian model wearing tight leggings would be acceptable. And for you?”

Poirot: “Someone a little bit shorter. Maybe an elegant brunette holding a red rose. But that’s not enough, Hastings, there has to be a mystery. Perhaps they could both be carrying a body in a bag.”

Hastings: “Outrageous, Poirot! But yes, I see what you mean. It’s midday in Covent Garden, but here are two women, beautifully dressed as if for a special occasion — and accompanied by…a third person, a man holding two red roses, one for himself and one for my tall Russian model who needs both hands free to carry the body.”

Poirot: “Now we are making progress, Hastings. The third man must also be impeccably dressed in something spectacular and colourful.”

Hastings: “A red jacket?”

Poirot: “Be precise, Hastings. You can’t just say ‘red.’ It has to be scarlet, or crimson, or cherry, or wine, or ruby, or something like that.”

Hastings: “Candy?”

Poirot: “Indeed, Hastings, that colour must be specified as #D21502 if my memory serves me correctly.”

Hastings: “Let me recap, Poirot. Our perfect photograph would include the memorial to our beloved creator Agatha, together with a mysterious and somewhat theatrical scenario…”

Poirot (interrupting): “There’s nothing wrong with a little theatre, Hastings. We’re just round the corner from where The Mousetrap has been played for the last sixty-seven years.”

three women, outside theatre with The Mousetrap plaque

Hastings: “Don’t remind me, Poirot. She didn’t put the two of us in The Mousetrap! I’m beginning to have my doubts about this picture. Shall we see what we’ve got so far?”

Poirot: “But this is terrible, Hastings. It’s not what we wanted at all. Look, there’s another figure on the left — you can just see his arm. We’ll have to get rid of him.”

Hastings: “And the memorial. It’s awfully ugly, isn’t it? Whatever were they thinking?”

Poirot: “Lamentable, I agree, Hastings. And if you examine it closely you can just see the outline of that dreadfully amateur Miss Marple — looking for all the world like Vivian Maier on a bad day — both of them our chief competitors. We have no choice but to crop the whole memorial from our perfect image.”

the featured shot, cropped

Hastings (in dismay): “But if we erase our own creator we’ll be lost.”

Poirot (raising his finger): “No, mon ami, we shall not be lost. We shall be free.”

NOTE: It was so nearly the perfect shot: I was waiting for someone interesting to pass the Agatha Christie memorial at the corner of Cranbourn Street and St Martin’s Lane when this group of people crossed in front of me. They were mysterious for sure! Alas, the book-shaped monument is so ponderous I tried to crop it from the image (as above), thereby removing the one element that gave it an extra twist.

Elephants Part II, At the Erawan Shrine

In Part I of this short series I paid a visit to the Erawan Museum in Samat Prakan, a few miles south of Bangkok. This time we’re in the very heart of the city, at the Erawan Shrine. It’s important not to confuse the two. They couldn’t be more different!

The Erawan Shrine, located alongside the Skytrain track between Siam and Chit Lom, is a popular destination for people who wish to pray for health, wealth and happiness. It had curious beginnings.

The Two Hotels
Construction of a hotel on the site in 1956 was delayed by a series of accidents, so the authorities took the advice of an astrologer and ordered the construction of a shrine. They wanted it to exorcise the presence of bad spirits, the area having been used, many years previously, to display and shame criminals in public.

The decision proved to be very wise, because, from then on, construction progressed without incident. However, the Erawan Hotel was later pulled down and rebuilt as the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in 1987. This time the shrine was expanded to make more room for the increasing number of devotees and it’s now one of the busiest places in Bangkok.

People washing themselves

A Great Place for Street Photography
Wherever crowds gather, there you’ll find a great place for street photography. The Erawan Shrine is particularly good because people are concentrating on their religious devotions. I’m always discreet and respectful on these occasions — and now and then I’m rewarded by a shot that pleases me.

There are several ways of approaching the subject: by entering the shrine and mingling with the devotees (great for close-ups — see featured photo at the top); by lingering just outside the railings in the neutral territory of the street (photo immediately above); or by going up to the walkway that connects the various malls (image below). I’ve tried all these strategies and found the second one works best for my style of photo. It allows me to include a group of people and to see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting.

View from above

Tragic Events
Alas, the recent history of the Erawan Shrine has shown that the bad spirits are fighting back, despite all the supplications. In 2006 a man with a hammer destroyed the sacred statue of Brahma. The incident took place in the early hours of the morning and was witnessed by two street cleaners who promptly beat the man to death.

Again in 2015 the shrine was struck by tragedy when a terrorist detonated a bomb next to the railings (those you see in the bottom left of the photo above). Three kilograms of TNT killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Suspects were eventually arrested but the court case, at the time of writing, is still in progress several years after the incident.

View from outside the railings

Life Continues
I took some pictures in 2016, not long after the site had been restored. There was still a sombre mood, but it was already getting back to normal (above).

People lighting incense sticks

Today, the life of the Erawan Shrine continues much as before, with people attending for private reasons: praying for family, friends and self. They light incense sticks (above and below), cleanse themselves with holy water, and make offerings at the shrine.

A haze of smoke from the incense

Tourists visit the Erawan Shrine from all over the world and it continues to be one of Bangkok’s most popular destinations. Moreover, it’s attended by people of different religions. Even atheists can acknowledge its beauty, or admire the demonstrations of traditional dancing which often take place there.

The many faces of the devotees are a gift to the street photographer, as are the dappled sunlight and incense smoke which add to the atmosphere of the venue (below).

People with serious expressions

A Decade of Images
I’ve taken pictures at the Erawan Shrine on many occasions over the past decade. Those at the top of the article and the one below were made in 2011, four years before the bomb.

I wonder, has awareness of the event changed my photographs? I don’t really think so, but it does make me see the earlier pictures in a different way.

There’s no escaping the fact that life is sometimes cut brutally short, whether through ignorance or evil intent. Yet it always regenerates and over time that in itself becomes a cause for reflective celebration.

woman placing candle