Wonderings of a street photographer honing his skills. I'm not an expert and experts may find what I have to say is simplistic, unnecessary or just wrong. On the other hand, I have learned a thing or two along the way. Perhaps my words will resonate with those of you in a similar place. A journal of discoveries.
When Henri Cartier Bresson was asked about what made a great composition he simply replied “Geometry.”
I had this in mind when I found myself staying in a 34th floor apartment in Toronto recently. The view across the city and to the next door CN Tower was amazing. However, it was the view immediately below that fascinated me. I was transfixed by the ant-like people. They manoeuvred themselves along the busy streets, stopping at junctions and then beginning their immaculately choreographed street dance again. All of this movement was punctuated by the road markings and street furniture which would not even be worth a second glance for a local resident. To a tourist and street photographer, these were things of beauty.
It’s a great gift to photographers that new places allow you to see things with the fresh eyes denied to the locals. I loved the yellow and red taxis, the yellow fire hydrants, the stop signs, billboards and fire engines. Those colours just ... popped!
My usual street photography set up involves a 35mm equivalent lens on my Fuji x100f. However, that would have been useless up there. Instead I reached for a 300mm lens; something that would be impractical and highly unusual in street photography where Capa’s maxim of getting in close is sacrosanct. I needed those 300 millimetres to frame the shots I wanted; shutting out so much of the busy streets and just focusing on the geometry below.
Something a little different from me - but all the more satisfying for it.
I find that when I go out specifically to take photos that I can’t allow myself other distractions or it just doesn’t work. I’m not the kind of photographer who can listen to headphones while I shoot (much as I wish I could) or text, eat, drink or any of the other things which seem to count as essential to modern life. Maybe it’s a bloke thing - after all, I’m not half as good at multi-tasking as my wife or female colleagues. I have to be in the zone and focused on just that one task.
I am rarely bored. Whenever I find I have time on my hands, my camera seems to magically create a host of photographic opportunities. If I’m alone, even in the most familiar of places, give me time and a camera and suddenly the scene has great potential. It doesn’t matter if I’ve never been there before or I know the place like the back of my hand. There is aways something to see.
Obviously, having time means I will look around and notice things that otherwise may never have caught my eye. Throw a little patience into the equation and, of course, opportunities will appear the longer I wait.
This morning, sitting alone in a cafe I know well, I became aware, for the first time, of the light coming through the doors. These are doors I’ve walked through many times. This time I was alone, with time to kill. That light was just waiting for the right character to silhouette themselves there. And suddenly my morning was transformed.
My blog thus far has tended to be philosophical ramblings about photography; musings on settings and gear; or the occasional “how to.” That probably begins to explain why blogging tends to happen fortnightly - fitting around the day job and collecting my thoughts gets in the way.
I have decided that perhaps the blog space is the place to try posting photos that I have been taking recently with a view to seeing how they look published, out there in the world, for all to see. Be prepared for more photos and and more posts - though just as many words.
Last Saturday I was in London with the camera, though not specially to take photos - this was a family outing. The trusty Fuji x100f is never far from my hands. The light was fantastic, even if the clear blue skies meant the air was shockingly cold, making holding a camera a challenge at times. I can’t do gloves. Gloves seem to introduce some kind of layer between camera and brain - as well as between hand and camera. I just can’t seem to function properly as a photographer in them.
Here is a mix of colour and black and white images from the day - all shot around South Kensington and Brompton Road.
Most street photographers will favour one method of shooting over another. First, there are the "hunters" who go out looking to see what they might find and satisfy themselves with unplanned, unexpected stolen moments that happen to come their way. They rarely stand still and will walk around following their noses, the light or an interesting character or scene as it plays out.
Then there are the "fishers" who will go out specifically to work a location or scene. This may be somewhere that they have been successful before or somewhere that they have made note of and planned to visit for some time. It may be a chance discovery which anchors them for a while until they are satisfied that they have what they came for. Some will wait a short time, but many will wait patiently for an hour or more until they are satisfied that they have what they came for.
Temperament must play a part in whether a street photographer is more hunter or fisher. The weather must surely be significant too. I suspect that there are more fishers in sunny Mediterranean climes than there are in London.
Personally, I am more of a hunter. I get restless and bored in one place unless there is a lot going on. Waiting for a character to enter a scene (who may or may not turn up) fills my mind with all the images I could be getting if I moved on and found something else to shoot. Furthermore, if I stay put I risk being moved on or arousing suspicion. Easier to keep moving.
Like all hunters or fishers, I can change style if I find the right circumstances. And one of my photographical resolutions for 2018 was to slow down. So... nothing for it then!
On Monday I was shooting around the City of London. The light was fabulous - strong and directional through the towering monuments to capitalism. In one dark walkway there was a reflected rainbow of sunlight from a high window that slanted across the pavement like some heavenly dancefloor. It was just waiting for the right feet to break the rhythm. As you can see, I stayed for some minutes and enjoyed the carnival of legs and feet that tripped their way through that fabulous light. The problem is that I now find myself unable to decide between a gallery of similar shots. Three are posted above.
How about you? Hunter, fisher or bit of both. Let me know.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” Elvis Costello says; at least he is just one of several musicians who this quote has been attributed to. The more attributes, the more pertinent - perhaps. So, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how about writing about photography? And what about about the connections between jazz and street photography? That is what is currently occupying one partially lit corner of my mind.
Many great photographers have shot evocative images of many great jazz musicians, it's true - deep blacks, crisp rim-shot whites, all filtered through a haze of filter-less Gitanes smoke. You can almost hear the flattened fifths of the tenor saxophone. The music and the stylised black and whites take us back to a bygone age when cigarette smoke was de rigeur and a kipper tie, pork pie hat and blacked out shades was the uniform of the new school of jazz. But that particular alley is not where we are heading.
Instead, I want to explore the connections between jazz and shooting on the street.
Music and photography both have their own distinct subcultures or genres, each demanding a different appreciation and I think there are similarities here. Take landscape photography. This requires a considered approach, taking time, preparation and precision to create the greatest images. In this it is a kin to classical music. The holiday snapshot; surely that’s pop music. Immediate, brash, unsophisticated for the most part, disposable yet relevant and life enhancing. Street photography must be jazz.
Jazz relies on certain rules or forms. Structures are learned - scales, cycles, blue notes - forwards and backwards and around. Well known songs, standards, are revisited time and time again as new elements are unearthed and discovered or rediscovered by new bloods eager to make themselves heard. It requires a great deal of technical proficiency. These structures are echoed in street photography with its foundation in other genres of photography and of visual art - the rules of composition, the work of the greats on whose giant shoulders the photographer attempts to climb.
Perhaps the defining feature of jazz is its reliance upon improvisation. True, this is not confined to jazz. Classicists will tell you that the great composers created frameworks for improvisation. However, it is improvisation which defines jazz. This, to me, is where the arcs of jazz and street photography swing closest to one another.
The dictionary will tell you that improvisation can mean making do. Who would want to sit on an improvised chair, or tuck into an improvised meal? Improvisation in jazz is not about making do. Far from it; but it is about making, creating something afresh. It is about an artist at the peak of his/her powers, creating something on the spot whilst referencing the traditions that preceded them and demonstrating their technical prowess in response to a given situation. It means a high level of technical proficiency combined with a high level of creativity.
Isn’t this what the street photographer does? In creating a new image, they bring to bear the knowledge of every image they have ever been influenced by. They use their technical expertise coupled with the inside-out knowledge of their camera, each button and lever falling into place instinctively just as the keys of every piano or saxophone do in the hands of the most skilled jazz musician. And they do this instantaneously; responding to whatever happens along.
It is this ability to react quickly to whatever is going on around them which makes a great street photographer or great jazz musician. It is part anticipation, part learned technique and part luck. The challenge is to rearrange the world into something beautiful from whatever ingredients you are handed at the time.
The moment of creation is one of stepping off into the void. For a jazz musician, it means being able to imagine the sounds before they have been made; for a photographer it is about envisaging the image before the shutter is pressed. Nether moment is repeatable in quite the same way. This is what puts the energy into the piece or the image. This is where the excitement lies.
Perhaps most significantly, jazz also likes to throw away the rules. At its most free, it is simply a celebration of sound and reaction to an environment. Street photography, too, is at its most creative and innovative when it bends the rules, breaks the structures and surprises our expectations. A celebration, a riot of light.
As the great Charlie Parker said: “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”
Jazz has always doffed its pork-pie hat to tradition but forged bravely forwards into new territories and this, to me, is what street photography does best.
At a recent talk about my street photography one of the questions I was asked was "Do you crop?" This was clearly the litmus test. Would I be seen as a street photographer true to the code, or was I some kind of imposter? They’d listened to me talk for the best part of an hour. I’d shown my photos; talked about focal lengths, shutter speed; I'd mentioned the greats. Here it was - all distilled to this one moment.
The room was silent. I looked at my shoes. Then, head up, I said it.
Done. It’s out there.
I crop. I know that this can be a crime tantamount to murder in some avenues of street photography. But hear me out.
Today’s cameras are capable of shooting in such amazing detail - look what you can do with 16, 20, 24 megapixels. The detail is incredible, allowing you to zoom in and crop while still retaining great clarity. If I’m carrying a camera with a fixed lens or one camera without a bag full of lenses then the shot I want may well be compromised or impossible with the gear have on me. And there isn’t always time to zoom with my legs and walk closer. Being able to crop in gets round this and brings the shot I envisaged to reality.
The stricter street photographers will say that a photograph should not be cropped or straightened or altered in any way. I disagree. I am not a documentary photographer (even they will turn their focus to the riot at one end of the street and choose to frame an image without the quiet Sunday shoppers at the other end). My aim is not to record every small detail with great accuracy. My aim is to create the feeling of what I experienced on the street. It is subjective. It is how I saw it, how I felt it or, as Bruce Gilden might say, “smelt it.” I don’t see myself as some kind of street scientist, forensically documenting minutiae. No; I see myself as an artist, recreating a scene as I experienced it or as it moved me. Otherwise, I’d get a job watching video screens of CCTV footage.
Having allowed myself the indulgence of reflecting in my last blog it only seems right to think about the challenge of resolutions for the new year that has just started. I’m not talking about any of that dry January, veganuary, or any other personal “anuary” stuff but purely about a photographic perspective. However, it is a subjective consideration of where I need to put in some hours and resolve to improve my work with the camera. Join in if you want to.
It’s always good to begin a list with at least one thing you can tick off already so straight in at number one is “Enter more competitions.” Of course, the more bit is the easy bit here because even one competition entered would mark a massive percentage increase on last year’s zero competitions entered - but I am delighted to announce that I can already tick this particular resolutionary box. I succeeded in entering three candid street shots into the Sony World Photography Exhibition, sneaking in just hours before the deadline of 1.00 p.m. GMT on Thursday 4th January.
This is one of my favourite events of the last few years, visiting the exhibition each April/May in Somerset House with a couple of good camera comrades. I’d definitely recommend it if you haven’t been before. How incredible (unbelievable) it would be to see an image of mine represented this year.
Of course, there will have to be other competitions entered to really feel that I have fully embraced the whole resolution thing.
Number Two - Slow Down. Something I’m not particularly good at - which is probably why I’m more Mister Street than Mister Landscape, Mister Macro or Mister Portrait. I habitually shoot at a fairly fast shutter speed (1/500th) as I ricochet through town centres. I don’t want to stop that completely but I am aware that there are times when taking a more considered approach will pay off. Heck - I could even bring the viewfinder to my eye from time to time, like a real photographer. I think this may also mean carrying two cameras and shooting slowly with a longer focal length. I have the beautiful Fujinon xf56mm f1.4 lens which is equivalent to an 85mm full frame lens and produces beautifully creamy bokeh. I’ve tried shooting fast and furious with it from the hip - gunslinger style - but I miss almost every time. If I could slow down and shoot from further away, taking my time to compose and get just the right shot, it would bring a new style to my work with compressed foreground and a magical fall off.
Number Three - I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that I only know part of my camera. There’s so much more that I could utilise if I only knew how. I can get it to do the things I need fairly quickly but my needs are simple and mainly based around getting a quick result. However, I know that there are shortcuts and settings that would help if I took the time to get my head around them. I read other people talking about how they’ve customised their settings or watch You Tube clips of magic fingered photographers working their camera like it’s some kind of Rubik's cube. I could never do them either. An afternoon by the fire, working out my optimal settings, is probably all it needs - there just always seem to be better things to do with an afternoon.
Number Four - is a processing issue. It seems that most people think of my work as black and white. That’s fine. I love monochrome. But I do love colour too and some of my favourite photographers have a real strength in colour - Saul Leiter, Harry Gruyaert, Ernst Haas, Alex Webb, Fred Herzog. I know I like my flavours strong and perhaps that’s the problem. I find it all too easy to overdo colour processing. I think it’s finished and publish it; then I look at it and feel that I’ve overdone it again. More subtle in 2018, that’s the plan.
Number Five - keep on keeping on. By this I mean to continue taking the kind of shots I want to look at; photographing for me and not for anyone else. This way I will continue to develop my own style and voice. I know I’m good at getting close - often too close that I lose the setting - but maybe I should step back a bit to contextualise a shot and then not be afraid to crop in should I need to; perhaps take some of the clutter out of a shot and focus on the key elements of an image.
So, there are my photographic resolutions laid bare. What about you? What will you change?
According to Lightroom folders, I’ve taken about 20% more photos this year than in 2016. I already shoot too many. Of course, the number on file is nothing compared to the number taken - I delete a huge proportion of the number I take. And, I guess, like any street photographer, many of these will include the nearly shots - the ones that would’ve been classics if I hadn’t missed a head off or framed the action too far off the edge, or forgotten to switch the camera on/insert SD card/bring extra batteries. Ah the ones that got away.
Crucially, have I improved? As Yoda puts it in the latest Star Wars movie “The greatest teacher failure is.” Perhaps this is the new hope - that we continue to learn from our mistakes. I have to believe I have and looking back at last year’s photographs I certainly feel that this year’s crop are more knowing, more intelligent. They have probably lost a certain innocence or naivety. That, in itself, may not be such a good thing. It isn’t good if my images have simply aligned themselves to others' perception of what makes a good shot. I hope that I have maintained an essence of me and even developed a more recognisable style. I still try to take the pictures that I want to see - rather than trying to conform to someone one else’s view of what works.
This year I have even discovered the joys of printing. For as long as I’ve been taking photos seriously they have existed only on a computer screen or a mobile device. My first exhibition at the tail end of the year necessitated finding out about printing and seeing the first fifteen black and white images printed was such a proud moment, eager to unwrap them at my desk and showing any poor soul who happened to be passing. Thanks to the Printspace for doing such a great job. The exhibition was a far greater success than I could ever have dreamt and I loved giving my talk - who knew I’d love talking so much? (Ahem!) Following the exhibition, some of the prints now hang in my home and in my office and I do still enjoy seeing them, adding to the sense that I am shooting the shots I would like to see. Long may that last.
A year ago my website was only a few months old. A year on, blogging hasn’t exactly been frantic but it has been fairly regular and consistent - enough to see the site in the top 50 street photography websites online - though I wonder how many there are… I’ve bashed away on Instagram and Twitter and seen my following increase, now approaching the 1,100 mark on instagram (not huge but not nothing). More importantly, as a result of plugging away on these I secured an interview and feature with Digital Photographer (Issue 195) and a feature on www.streetphotography.com. Both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Honestly, if you’d told me at the beginning of 2017 that by the end I’d have achieved half of the things above I would have struggled to believe it. I’ve been very lucky and very well supported. You know who you are... thank you.
Artistically, my photographs are better. I know they are because I am more fussy about quality control and what I will allow through. I have improved my editing workflow and become better - more subtle but still with some way to go especially with colour. I have honed a style that uses sub framing a lot and is better for it. I have improved my techniques with night shots and my street work is now more about capturing well composed moments and not simply catching a passer by on the way to the supermarket.
So, if could go back a year, what advice would I give myself?
Believe in what you’re doing especially the black and white - and be true to your vision of what is right.
Keep pushing the social media on a regular basis. Blog too whenever you can.
Don’t underestimate the value of just sitting and looking at pictures - online, in a book or a gallery. If that doesn’t sit comfortably with your Protestant work ethic, then think of it as high class training for the eyes.
Photographically, things have built to something of a head in the last weeks of 2017 for me. Having finished an exhibition which proved to be more successful than I could ever imagine, I find myself featured in the December 2017 edition (195) of Digital Photographer - available across the planet, they tell me. And online at www.dphotographer.co.uk
For some one who only ever saw their photography on a screen until a few weeks ago, it’s a bit of a head spin. Now I see my images aligned professionally with text and formatting ... and everything. And they look all right! Actually, to coin the old joke about the chap who was run over by a steam train - I’m chuffed to bits.
So, if you’re near a newsagent and not snowed under five feet of white stuff then wend your merry way down to the High Street and check out my eight page feature.
Here I am sitting on a train; being jolted over ageing rails on a weakened weekend service. It’s dark. There’s frost and the temperature is trying to decide which side of zero to settle at. The sun is straining to pull itself up at the windows of this Sunday service and everything tells me I should have stayed in bed.
I look out at the backs of blurred houses with their curtains drawn and the occasional dim orange bedroom light. I pat my camera bag as if to reassure myself. I mentally inspect it’s contents - camera, headphones, wallet...
I’m tired. I’m cold. I’m hungry and I’m in bad need of a coffee.
But I’m buzzing. The morning stretches a ahead of me with the hope of returning with the best shots I’ve ever taken. That’s what’s brought me here. Passion.
I doff my hat to those dedicated landscape shooters who drive through the night for the slim chance of a magic moment of light that will give them a unique shot of a much captured vista; waiting for hour after hour at some fabled tripod worn patch of earth. I don’t have that patience.
I keep moving. Always looking. Keen to catch that elusive moment, a hunter seeking out a fast disappearing instant before it becomes extinct.
This is what drives me - a fear of missing something that I’ll never capture again.
Yet I know that the majority of what I return with will be destined for the bin, culled before it’s seen the light of day. There may be one or two shots worth saving, nurturing, bringing to fruition - time will tell.
But, despite the efforts involved in bringing home just a few shots, I keep doing this. Panning for street photography gold. Maybe it is precisely that low return on investment that has me hooked; a promise of one or two golden moments; my fix.
And as the train pulls into the station and the city blinks awake to welcome me, opening its arms and it’s coffee bars, I grab my coat, my hat and head for the sunny side of the street...
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