Street photography is a genre that is uniquely demanding and rewarding in equal measure. The photographer must have a strong eye for composition, detail and light, hone the skills of intuition and patience and above all be willing to constantly keep shooting to master these skills. It also takes more than a little bravery to put yourself in the thick of those around us and to raise your camera to the eye.
It's pretty important to have a thorough knowledge of your craft, including camera use and the principles of photography such as exposure and focus. Having this will release your brain from the technical side of your art, allowing you to worry only about the scene unfolding in front of you.
Street photography is not my primary interest, but I'm going to outline some of my thoughts to consider if you're starting out.
One of the most important aspects of shooting on the street is to constantly keep an eye on what is happening around you (both in front and behind) and to anticipate when something of interest is playing out.
By pre-empting what might occur and placing yourself in the best position to capture it, you will get the shot that uniquely embodies the story that is unfolding. This needs you to consider a number of factors as the action proceeds: What background needs to be in the image? How can I position myself to create the most pleasing composition? When is the right time to fire the shutter? How can I introduce that little extra that adds to my work, something to make the viewer engage with my photograph for a second or two longer?
In the black and white image of the boy kicking the ball, I saw the man walking down the road to the right. I moved into a position that placed the wall in the centre of the frame and waited until the musician was in the position I wanted. Similarly with the children running in front of Starbucks in Melbourne. I saw them take off from their family to my left. Noticing that the static geometry of the building behind would add interest as they ran by, I placed the sandy-coloured foreground to fill 1/3 of the frame. And then waited for them to enter the scene, firing off a few shots. I also intentionally aligned the tree to completely block the 'C' in coffee. A large depth of field ensured that the foreground and background were both in focus.
People who are deeply engaged in an activity - or another person - are great subjects. But what story are you trying to tell? A commentary on a generation's use of mobile phone technology, the love story told by a simple gaze? In the former image, taken at Bourke St Mall in Melbourne, I chose a narrow depth of field to isolate my subjects. I chose black and white for the couple on the London Underground because I liked the journalistic feel it added to the capture.
In the image of the young woman and her mother I took a lower position to frame them, intentionally leaving some objects in the foreground. This gives an added depth to the image and emphasises the fact that the viewer is privy to something special between the two. I chose a wide aperture of the 35mm lens to ensure the background was out of focus too, adding an additional layer of depth to the portrait.
The usual way of street photography is to capture images of people interacting with their environment, without the photographer interfering with the scene before them. An alternative is to approach your subject and ask them for a portrait. Obviously this brings a whole new set of dynamics into the equation. One down side is they may decline, so you'll end up with no image at all. If they agree, the image will obviously be posed and so will be less about what they were engaged with in their environment, and more about them as an individual. On the positive side, you can frame the portrait as you like, the subject will be engaged with you and the viewer, and you have the added bonus of getting to meet someone new. For me this is the best part of photography - meeting new people, hearing their story, creating and sharing with them an image they enjoy.
This does add an additional pressure of course; both in gaining the courage needed for the approach and the confidence to position, frame and deal with the technical aspects of photography whilst engaging your subject.
For the man and his dog sitting in Central Park, New York, walking by I just said 'Your dog is so cool, can I please take a photo?' and he nodded. The hound wasn't paying attention so I whistled and took a single frame. I like how the dog has tones that match his shoes, as well as the dog's tilted gaze - and the man whom one suspects has a similar look in his eye.
In the shot of the guy in his shorts against the grey wall with his dog, I had already found the background before he came along. I waited for the right person to walk by and asked if he would let me take his portrait. Generally a good way to make the approach is to smile, introduce yourself and compliment your subject on whatever it was that drew your attention to them in the first place. I think I said to this guy that I had found this cool background for a shot and I think he and his dog would be perfect subjects for it.
Most people respond positively when you approach them in the street. Some say no, but that's ok. We photographers are sensitive folk and we tend to think that it's a reflection on ourselves if someone declines. But usually it's because they're short of time, don't like their hair that day, or are just private people. Thank them anyway, and wish them a good day. Maybe they'll say yes to the next photographer who approaches them. Always leave people feeling more positive than when you met them.
The black and white image of freckled Georgia was taken in Bourke St Mall in Melbourne. I used a standard portraiture technique of a wide aperture for shallow depth of field and black & white suited her perfectly.
Always give, or take from the subject, a contact email so they can get a copy of their photo, see it on your Instagram or wherever you post your pictures. I have a small business card made with my email and website listed. If you're serious about doing street portraits and are going to do a lot of them, this is a good idea to raise your credibility. I had mine made by Moo.
Waiting for the action
In the first section, I hinted at the idea of finding a scene and waiting for the action to unfold in front of you. This can be a good way to kick off, because it means you have the time to get your composition sorted, the exposure and light is done and all you are waiting for is the right person to walk into the frame.
I use this quite often where, for example, an archway or group of trees or some other background is very pleasing and the composition is completed when a cyclist comes along or the right person walks into the image to complete the story.
Click through the 4 images in the gallery here. In the first one, I stood leaning against the window, observing the image in my viewfinder of the reflections of people as they pass by. Once you have the camera to your face, you become almost invisible - on the street people tend to notice more the moment of a camera toward your face. The masked lady entered the frame, I took 3 shots and this was the best composition.
I lined up the coloured wall in the underpass and waited for a cyclist to be positioned exactly where i wanted him. The light outside meant that they would be silhouetted within the half frame on the right of the image.
I was drawn to the cars in the car park below me at Crowne Promenade. Normally bright sunlight is a less good time to photograph because it makes images too contrasty, and certainly for portraits is usually unacceptable. The long shadows helped with the composition, as did the diagonals and the yellows in the frame. The gesture of the porter at the last minute was all I needed to hit the shutter release.
Finally, the writing on the grey door provides a contrast to old lady passing by with her trolley. I probably hit the shutter just a bit too soon - it would have been nice to have framed her in the middle of the blue window.
Often it only takes something a little different to make a photograph and if you have your eye open to these opportunities, they crop up more than you might expect. It could be something as simple as a red jacket in a sea of dark clothing, the textures around you or contrasts of colour.
Look for juxtapositions that tell an interesting story - especially if there's something still left untold for the viewer to ponder over.
Shapes and patterns
As you wander the street, keep your eye out for scenes that can be reduced to interesting shapes. The geometry of architecture and the shadows the buildings cast can make interesting images. Black and white is particularly suited to this genre, where removing the distraction of colour will further emphasise the pattern that is present.
Often you'll find that things appear in front of you when you least expect it. Or the scene that you have been watching unfolds more quickly than you thought. For this reason it's important to be constantly aware of the light in front of you. As the light and the situation alters, think to yourself about the changes you need to make in your camera settings to adjust accordingly.
It's getting darker in this scene, so I've bumped up the ISO. There is strong backlight from the window reflection of the sun, so exposure compensation +2. I'm going to need a shallow depth of field so my aperture is already set to f2. There are 2 people in this group, so I need at least f4.5 to ensure both their eyes are in focus. You might use the technique of choosing a very wide depth of field so that everything is in focus and then just shoot from the hip to be super unobtrusive.
All these thoughts & considerations need to be happening constantly, so that when Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment appears, you're prepared and capture the shot.
And if you're not getting the shots that you want, if it's not coming easy, if you're experiencing failure. What then? Well as Ira Glass said 'The most important possible thing you can do is a lot of work'. And that's true for all our creative pursuits.
Good luck & enjoy the streets :)
Beautiful little Darcey, here 2 days old with Mum Emily and the family. Emily has kindly told her story for Our Motherhood so look out for the full details there.
The first of many babies for Emily.
Images and story shared with permission
So the first 'cool' day for months. From almost 90% humidity 2 days ago, it's now down to 35%. Feeling very lucky to have missed Cyclone Debbie and now this. Long may it last 😊
We had breakfast in this quaint place this morning. On Gertrude St, just off Brunswick in Fitzroy. Very nice range of Breton style crêpes, both sweet and savoury. Patrick has worked in the store for 16 years and now is joint owner. The crêperie has been open since 1999. Oh and the coffee is awesome too.
Definitely worth a visit if you can't make it to Brittany this week. Map on the front page of their website here.
And my shortlist is below. Every one of these 16 images is a story of love, emotion and connection. It's what life is about in the end, and I want to be there to experience and capture the moment. Happy New Year!
So in love. Bourke St, Melbourne.
Just chillin' out enjoying the Melbourne street music.
Really not sure with this one. Nikon D750 Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art. Natural light
A few shots from the studio shoot I did with Elise recently. The technique involved using the camera on a tripod, opening the shutter for approximately 2 seconds and varying the balance of ambient/strobe lighting.
I used a Elinchrom RX500 fired through a gridded beauty dish camera right, with a gelled & gridded reflector providing the rim light from behind left. Camera settings ISO 125 @f16. I fired the flash manually a second time with the remote trigger to get the double exposure. The amount of ambient determined the movement flow between the two.
Well, a night with Nikon at the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Interesting evening with a talk by pro commercial photographer Michael Cranfield. Great work by Garricks Camera House and Nikon for organising the evening and tomorrow's event. Garricks are actually quite awesome - such a helpful team. I would seriously rather pay more for a local service and to support them, but these guys always hit the right price as well.
This evening Michael told us about his career and some good advice on building a successful photography business. Nikon showcased their camera and lens range and we got to play with them afterwards, including some astrophotography and the ridiculous monster Nikon 400mm f2.8 which will set you back about $13k and I could barely hold for more than a few minutes (pic below).
Some pics below. Tomorrow morning is an early start at 7am for another talk and a walk along the Strand to capture the Strand Ephemera.
This is a call out to everyone that I give photos to - please take a moment to make sure that when you share our pictures, that the great care and attention that went into them is preserved.
Before the shoot, you spent a while getting your look just right, choosing the outfit, doing your hair & make up. My lighting was arranged to make you look wonderful, I toiled over a computer editing the colours, tones & sharpness (and maybe a zit removal or two) to finalise it and make it look completely awesome.
Please, please take some care when you transfer the pics that I send you on Dropbox to your Facebook feed. Because if you do it wrong, you're going to undo all the great things we just did.
The wrong way
Get the image on your screen, take a screen shot on your iphone 4 and then re-upload to FB.
The right way
If possible, do your uploading to Facebook from a computer. I know this isn't always possible or convenient, so I'll run through the steps below to get the best results on your phone. On your computer, use the download link on the Dropbox page and then upload the pics in their mid-resolution glory. Use the 'high resolution' option on Facebook. For the techies, I usually save our pics as .png files rather than .jpg because FB doesn't apply it's own disaster-shrinking techniques to PNG files like it does to run-of-the-mill JPGs.
If you must do it on your phone, you need to find a way to 'Save' the picture to the phone, not screen shot it. NEVER ever screen shot it...! Unfortunately, it's not always intuitive how to do that, which can be super annoying.
By the way, if you're reading this on your phone and both the pics above look OK, zoom in or check again when you get home. The bottom one looks awful on a computer (which is how more than half of your friends will see it)!
'Save Image' is your friend!
If you're looking at the Dropbox pics from a Messenger or Facebook link, the best way to get access to it, is to choose the square with an upward-facing arrow, and open in Safari. Once you are in Safari viewing the pic, you can tap the screen, hold your finger down and a 'Save Image' option will appear. 'Save Image' is your friend. Always look for 'Save Image'. This will get your beautiful new profile pic onto the Camera Roll and you're home and dry from there. Upload to Facey and all will be good.
'Why don't you just Facebook message it to me from the start?', you might ask. Even pics sent through Messenger are down-scaled in quality, so it will still undo our good work. Instagram is less of an issue, because the standard size is still 640 pixels square, so even a nasty iPhone 3 screen shot will not look too bad. But it will look shocking on FB - and you won't notice it until you're back home on your computer. Then, who wants to throw away all the 'likes' and do a re-upload... :)
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my rant, and for helping us show our work in the best way possible.
Shannon dropped by to have some portraits done and I took the opportunity to use a technique that I've been wanting to try for a while.
One of the usual limitations of working with studio lights is that sometimes they are a bit overpowering - as in there is a lot of light there, even on the lowest power setting. This means that we're typically working at quite narrow apertures - f7-f11 or so. Downside is that the depth of field is huge at those settings, so everything is in focus and you lose that smooth blur or 'bokeh' that gives portraits the dreamy look we love.
Just push up your shutter speed to 1/2000 sec or higher you might say? Unfortunately - for most cameras - strobes can only work (i.e. 'sync' with the strobe) at shutter speeds of lower than 1/250th sec. Our ISO is already down to 50, so we have no way of further limiting the light. Or do we....
A neutral density filter screws onto the front of the lens and essentially blocks out light in a controlled way. An ND2 filter will allow only half the light through, ND4 one quarter, etc. The high quality filters will block all colours of light equally with high optical accuracy, so no colour shifts or unwanted loss of sharpness.
A while back I bought a Hoya 3-400 Variable Density filter. As the name suggests, you can vary the density by twisting the end of the filter. Using the filter in the studio meant that I could drop my aperture from f8 down to f2.8 giving the result above.
It's going to take a bit of practice to use it, because at such shallow depth of field, the subject's eyes have to be on the same plane of distance from the camera to keep both in focus. On the other hand, you do want some of your subject to be in front and some behind of the in focus area to emphasise that effect. Sometimes I'll accept the eye farther away from the camera being a bit soft, but it's a balance. Just the same as it is using wide apertures in natural light. The same ND filter can be used outside of the studio when trying to balance flash and ambient light and maintain a shallow depth of field.
A different use of the ND filter altogether is when photographing landscapes with moving water. The ND will allow you to use very long shutter speeds (on a tripod of course) to get the soft, blurry 'candy floss' effect that the moving water leaves on a long exposure, whilst the environment is pin sharp.
The shallow depth of field in Shannon's portrait isn't that impressive but it's definitely better than at f8 for sure. Remember, the other two factors that determine depth of field are focal length of the lens and distance from photographer to subject. So to further emphasise I could have used a longer lens (this was at the 60mm length of my 24-70mm) and moved closer to the subject. Note that I also moved her away from the background to further ensure it would be out of focus. One final practical point is that if your studio isn't well lit, you might find it challenging to focus on your subject with the ND attached - it can be very dark through the viewfinder!
As a side note, moving her away from the background when using single flash source is a technique to change the background from white to grey. If you have enough room, a white background can be made to appear anything from pure white to black depending on how you light your subject.
Anna moved away a while ago, but came visiting the other weekend. We caught up for a quick shoot since it had been a couple of years. Numbers 2 and 4 natural light, the rest an Elinchrom Ranger fired through a Lastolite Mega Umbrella. Camera: Nikon D750. Lenses: Tamron 24-70 f2.8 Di VC with the strobe and Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art for the natural light.