Bostonian with cigarette dangling, in the North End, 35mm film.
A friend of mine (who’s Flickr I have posted at the end of this) has just started a job for Apple which requires that he travel to China pretty often. This is not only an amazing professional opportunity, but also an amazing opportunity to explore a pretty unique part of the world. He’s recently armed himself with a Nikon DSLR, and has come back with some pretty great shots of life in Chinese cities. Bombastic architecture, glittering skylines, and oppressive smog are to be expected, but I’m more interested in his pictures of life on the ground. This is the impetus for this post.
Street photography is dynamic, in the sense that none of the variables are constant. Landscape photography, while certainly challenging, (sometimes requiring getting up at obscene hours to capture the right light) is fairly predictable. One can take time to compose the shot, and dial in the settings. One can shoot hundreds of shots, and choose the best one. Portrait photography allows even more control; specify the lighting, the model’s pose, the tone of the image. Street photography is the opposite, almost none of the variables are in your control, and they are are constantly shifting, so one has to move fast. The goal is order from chaos.
As with most photography, patience is key. Yes, it’s dark and freezing, but you have to be patient if you’re going to get that perfect light from the rising sun. One also has to be patient while walking the streets. Simultaneously patient and aware of the surroundings. Anyone can take a great picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Eiffel Tower. Of course, it’s absolutely huge and impressive and it’s right in front of you. It takes a little more work to suss out the kitchen worker in the alleyway on break, but the shot could end up as powerful as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
As I said before, the variables are many. Jostling crowds, inadequate light, and the fact that many subjects may be apprehensive if they notice you. I’m not sure that I should offer advice on how to approach apprehensive or hostile subjects, because it’s very situational, but I find it best to be up front about what you’re doing. That can be tough when you don’t speak the same language…maybe just say United Nations or New York Times? That’s a digression, what I’m getting at is that street photography requires adaptability and strong knowledge of composition in the best of times, because moments come and go quickly. You often only have one chance to get the right shot, so that means that your settings and framing need to be dialed in from the get-go. RAW formatting has definitely made it easier to get away with no-so-perfect settings, but it’s still important to get it right the first time. And you can never fix the focus!
Some of my favorite examples of street photography are intimate. They make me feel like I am in the crowd, or with that person. Many photographs, whether by intent or lack of an outgoing nature, tend to convey a very voyeuristic perspective. Photos taken with a telephoto lens, for example. There is no doubt that some incredible results can be attained with these lenses, but they often feel hollow to me. The best shots are often taken using “normal” prime lenses (e.g. 50mm). For those wanting to get into street photography, these are the way to go. They force one to move to change the composition, not just stand in place and twist a thingy. They also force one to actually get in on the action, or go for a perspective or angle one wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
This kind of photography often involves very busy scenes, and it’s important to tell the viewer what they should be looking at. Or maybe the whole point is that the viewer must pick their meaning from a complicated scene. Either way, there should be clarity and definition. So many street photographers just take pictures of people doing things. Like walking. Or looking at their phones. Great! People do things when they’re out and about! Who knew! Where’s the purpose, what should I be thinking about when I take this scene in?
Street photography is rewarding because it is challenging. It requires adaptability, patience, and often a willingness to exit one’s comfort zone. It also helps to be able to pick out meaning in the mundane. More than anything, it requires you to jump into the bloodstream of a city, and just let it take you where it may.
As promised, here is his Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/99263711@N00/