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If you try to find an exact word to describe the humour of the French comic artist Jacques Tati (1907-1982) you’d probably be most accurate with the English word “dotty.” I prefer it to “whimsical,” or “wistful,” or even “bumbling” — all of which spring to mind, but which seem to place too much emphasis on the person and not enough on the humour.

Tati’s humour is all about the ordinary “man in the street” who is living — and trying to survive in — a world gone slightly dotty. In movies such as “Traffic,” “Mon Oncle,” “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” and above all “Playtime” he explores what the film review site Rotten Tomatoes calls “the infinite mysteries of the modern world.”

When I walk around the streets of modern towns and cities taking street photos I’m constantly reminded of the wonderfully inventive humour of Jacques Tati.

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Colour is both joyful and exhausting. It’s the signature of life: a signal to living creatures that we’re here on Earth instead of far away on a remote, monochrome moon.

Think of how the world would look if everything were in black and white, the two neutral colours of a legal document. It would look dead and lifeless.

Most animals, together with birds and insects, have colour vision. Dogs tend to confuse red and green, but they can certainly distinguish red from blue. Even cats — once thought to see only in black and white — can detect more colours than was once thought.

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In street photography, goals are good but projects are problematic.

There’s a big difference between, on the one hand, setting yourself a simple goal, and, on the other, directing all your efforts into a specific, rules-based project.

Having a goal, such as getting one great shot each day for an entire week gives you plenty of freedom to grow and develop as a street photographer. Projects, on the other hand, are restricting. They tie you down to taking pictures to fit a pre-ordained concept.

The photography world is awash with projects. It’s no exaggeration to say I could list hundreds of them.

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I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, the redwoods of California, the skyscrapers of NYC and the mighty Mississippi — and yes, America is awesome. But why, oh why, oh why do Americans (and increasingly Europeans, Brits, Aussies, and even the Chinese) want absolutely everything to be awesome?

I’ve just had another email from Awesome Books, but the books are exactly the same as the ones you can buy on Amazon, except there appear to be fewer of them. How awesome is that?

Far From It
As an activity, street photography is a far from awesome, which is one of the things I like about it.

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I try every possible strategy to take candid pictures in the street. Sometimes I “work the scene” by finding a subject and concentrating on it for while; at other times I keep walking and take the occasional shot here and there.

I’m always on the lookout, calculating the odds, trying to predict people’s movements, and thinking up new compositions which I hope will work. However, at some point during the day I’ll pause and hit the reset button. I banish all the fancy ideas and clever strategies! I tell myself: just do one thing. Go back to basics, keep it simple — take some shots from across the street.

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Colour is both the joy and bane of street photography. If you get it right you can make a great photo; get it wrong — which is all too easy — and your photo will be ruined. In that case your only option is to convert it to black and white.

Digital photographers are burdened with colour complexity. Instead of shooting, as film photographers once did, with a particular stock such as Velvia or Kodachrome which imparted a characteristic “colour look,” photographers now have limitless options. Yes, the camera’s sensor has a colour profile, but subsequent processing enables us change colours globally or individually.

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Like most street photographers I occasionally take impromptu street portraits. They’re hard to resist.

For example, one day I was walking along a street in London when I spotted a man smoking a cigarette. I managed to get a shot of him before there was any conversation between us, but because he was looking directly at the camera I felt I had to say something afterwards.

We had a brief chat and he kindly let me take another photo. I asked him to look away from the camera. The resulting image (shown above) is very close, super-sharp, and technically more accurate than most street photos.

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If ever there was a “vexed question,” it’s this one. Time and again this subject comes up for discussion, not always in connection with street photography but with photography in general.

I’ve read hundreds of comments in forums and I’ve taken note of what technical experts have to tell us about the topic and to these (contradictory) chunks of information I can add my own experience.

A surprising number of people deny that cameras and lenses play any part in the “look” of a photo. They say, essentially: “It’s the photographer, stupid,” as if those who detect a characteristic look are deceiving themselves.

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When I was a boy, my parents bought me a set of Cumberland Pencils with a vividly coloured landscape on the front captioned “Keswick on Derwentwater.” I was amazed at the picture. My home county (Suffolk) had no lakes or mountains — and it certainly wasn’t as colourful. Even then I was a bit suspicious of pictorial representation.

What we call “the pictorial” or “the picturesque” is essentially a way of looking at the world, discovering its most appealing features and presenting them to their best advantage. It is never completely truthful. The artist or photographer will probably remove any ugly or discordant elements from the picture.

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Way back in December 1995 Bill Gates said Microsoft was “hardcore about the Internet.” He couldn’t have been blunter. Hardcore was the strongest word he could have used — and absolutely necessary in the circumstances as Microsoft’s entire business was threatened by the rise of Netscape and the prospect of its browser killing off the descendants of Windows 95.

When you juxtaposed the words “hardcore” and “Internet” in 1995 most people thought of pornography, which represented a larger proportion of Internet content than it does today. But the word had only recently become associated with sex and at one time had been two words, hard core, as in “there is always a hard core of trusty stalwarts…” (who are the most active, committed, or doctrinaire members of the group).

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