There are a lot of street photographers who show enormous passion for their hobby. All constantly learning to hone the craft of street photography, getting better with each shot, and learning from each failed snap.
I look at the crappy photos and learn. I ask myself what happened when I took a great shot, lovely composition with nice frame, but the ISO was ruining everything with noise. That happens. I was taking some good shots alongside a Berlin canal. The Bellevue Ufer is a beautiful spot for a slow walk on any day, rain or shine, it always has something interesting to offer. I didn’t compensate for the clouds that came and went faster than a canoe shooting the rapids.
Standing close to the canal bank, the sun was bright and constant, so I set my camera to take a shot of this guy on the Corona Bike. He was about to pass, his face and top half of his body would hit the sunlight coming through the trees as he passed. It would all happen in a moment. I took the shot, but hadn’t noticed that the sun had gone behind the clouds. I was already looking through the viewfinder, framing the shot in my imagination a moment before the bike and figure slipped into the frame. A dark and noisy shot appeared on the screen after I uploaded it to the computer. I raised the light to find noise, but a fairly nice composition. It’s a shame, it’ll go in the bin. But a point of thought that I’ll bear in mind on my next jaunt through the city on a bright and sunny day.
There’s a lot of chatter about street photography. Photographers seem to have a need to identify with one of many labels as a photographer. Street photographer, candid street photographer, people photographer, street portrait photographer, it seems that the list of labels is endless. It boils down to the need to define oneself as a specialist, to hit a niche in photography and be known as a particular type of specialist photographer who is best at this or that.
It doesn’t help you to learn when you niche down into a hole where you haven’t got enough room to photograph everything that inspires you. Just be a photographer and seek out interesting scenes.
I think that “niche” is often an attempt to replace “intention”. Niche is a very ambiguous idea of pigeon holing a person, intention is a determined way of living and working.
The streets, people, cars and buildings, events and individuals that you meet are all changeable. They create the buzz of life. They offer every observant photographer an opportunity to capture a moment of life that is worth looking at, thinking about, and keeping.
If you work with intention, you will know what turns you on, and you will come home with good photos. Niche will limit you to what is served up that day.
An individual without a city is not life as we know it, nor is a car park full of useless empty cars. We look for actions, interactions, and hope they will reveal emotional hints to feelings. Photographers capture the action and hope that they elicit emotion in whoever looks at your photo. I’m sure we could all take up the challenge and make something out of rows of colourful cars, but it’s overwhelming. There’s so much more in everyday life that give a photographer opportunity to delve into the crowds and take great photos.
People on the street tend to be in reactive modes. They walk, stop, check that it’s safe to walk on, then react to red, green, and amber lights. It’s when somebody on the street breaks the mould by acting out their own thing that we see a flurry of activity that makes street photography fun, and sometimes a little edgy.
Just think of all the things that could happen on the street. People get into arguments. Two lovers having a public spat. Hands and arms windmilling, faces angry, sweat, tears, and pacing around. Absolutely different body language. You can’t take photos of their voices, but you can look for the emotion in a shaky body, a face full of sadness.
You can come across a group of people organising an event.
After all this Pandemic stuff, 18 months of Lockdown and constant fearmongering in the Media, it’s time to get out and feel the vibe of the streets.
Here in Berlin, Friday the 4th of June 2021, the shops opened up again, the cafes can offer seats and food, and beer and wine to anybody. The vibe is flowing, and the weekend looks good.
I think people are positive at heart. The problem is we often find it difficult to express our positive intentions, and so we screw things up with ego, selfish actions, over protectiveness.
With so many people out enjoying the sunshine, the freedom to sit in a cafe, to go jogging, walking, swimming, and the bothersome bike riders, something is going to happen. There will be a clash of egos. Street photographers can capitalize and rely on human nature to create street wise fuck-ups that make great little photos.
On the other hand, it is spring time, and love will blossom under the weeping willows. Peaceful shots of people enjoying life bolsters the thought of harmony.
The Way We Practise Street Photography
Street photography is different in each country, these days.
In the US, people can photograph what they like with little worry about legal consequences. We have to be careful about the way we practise street photography. (the law changes constantly these days. So, I’m not citing law here.) There are limits, but in the States you can photograph through a person’s home window and get the shot quite legally. If the person is standing in their window looking out, then they are public.
In Europe, if you photograph a person through the window of their home, you are immediately a “peeping tom”. The law is known as Peeping Tom law, and loosely defines the difference between snooping on a person in a private space and taking a photo of a person who is decidedly in a public place – such as the street. It’s an English law, but often referred to similarly in European situations.
Lawers in Germany have already pointed out that data laws regarding images, is wrought with problems of definition. Judges have pointed out that they aren’t going prosecute street photographers who practise creative and artistic photography – compositions of people on the street.
Where I live in Berlin, it’s okay to go out photograph people on the street. The important difference to remember is that you can only use the figures of people in the street as compositional factors, there is no lee way for an obvious portrait on the street – unless you ask, and the person agrees. A verbal agreement is binding, but try arguing it in court that the person said, “ok”, when they later change their mind.
There has already been a case with a photographer on Potsdamer Platz who took a portrait photo of a passing woman. She took him to court, and he was fined a hefty sum for breaking the data protection laws on images. He took a portrait style shot of her.
The woman turned out to be an actress who didn’t like the shot when she saw it, the photographer didn’t ask permission, but he did fight her claim in court. His claim was that it was a beautiful portrait of a woman on the street, she said that it was a bad image on a bad day. She wouldn’t want an agent or a gossip mag to get their hands on the photo, which would put her in a bad light.
Her career as an actor was her argument and the judge went for it as more sensible than simple beauty in a moment on the street.
What we see through the lens can often be justified as art, or creativity, but for others it can be a compromising image that doesn’t fit the person’s view of themselves. I’ve been approached by people who thought I was photographing them, I wasn’t, but they were so adamant to see my photos to be sure they weren’t caught on film. I figured that they were up to something clandestine, such as out with a lover, on the lam, or simply have a peeve about being photographed by anybody at all.
I’m always looking for the limits that are respectable towards others and help me get a good shot involving people. I don’t want to end up paying large fines for a snap-shot of two nuns smoking cigars and drinking whiskey.
Most people don’t mind, or aren’t bothered. The ones who walk up to you and create a scene begin with the words,”You can’t take photos of me because it’s against the law.”. This is BS. They often then demand to look in your camera. These people are full of themselves and can be recognised by the way they strut about with their head up their arse.
I remind them that they are demanding that I hand over my camera/property to them, so that they can make a thorough inspection of it. Often, they will back off when they realise how ridiculous their demands sound. I always stay polite and work at diffusing the rising temper with an emotionless face and polite speech. In my thoughts I have already told them to take a long walk off a short plank.
So, I look at everything for inspiration. Architecture is beautiful, and it is ugly – when it’s wrong. Tall glass buildings that represent anonymous corporations. Symbols on the side of the glass that look like secret insignia, and doorways that you know you shouldn’t enter, are a pain in the ass, but can create interesting back-drops. Such buildings are awesome modern cathedrals. Places of financial worship to those who have too much. When human beings walk below on the streets, they look like ants, worker ants. Bright smiling faces reflected in the dark glass, and deep ominous shadows cast across their faces. You can take only so many of these shots before you realise that there’s a formula to it. It’s always the same old thing, dark long shadows, juxtaposed by bright sunny skin tones, if you get a face with emotion it’s a plus. They do make great shots, and these type of shots are great for practising your settings – in manual – of shutter speed, ISO, and F-Stop.
The shot below is interesting. It could be described as generic street shot, but it isn’t. The man in the corner of the frame is the centre of attention. You have to find him. When you first look at the photo you don’t look at him, you automatically look at the centre of the photo. If only for a second. But you then shift your eyes across to the right, you knew there was something there. So, there is a little tension in the shot that is caused by this first glance. The man has an expression that is interesting, he looks as if he is surprised, or astonished, maybe, he is about to call out to somebody out of frame.
He also appears to be quite unconscious of himself. His stance his natural, unassuming, and he’s not trying to impress anybody else on the street by strutting, or cutting a figure.
The road sign full of little stickers is interesting, too. They are colourful, and tiny flashing tickets that somebody has pointlessly stuck onto the parking sign to the left.
In the background, the partial sign says, “Why”, which is a word that grabs everybody’s attention. There is a lot going on, but it is also a normal day in the street. This is the type of shot that we can intentionally look for when we do street photography.
The photo composition is challenging for the viewer who expects the centre of the photo to hold all the information.
We live in a world where writers and photographers have a bent towards automated processes. The automatic “P” setting on a camera ahas nothing to do with creativity. It’s the “I don’t care”, setting, and offers a snap shooter the opportunity to fire-off a thousand photos in two hours and believe that the results are the height of their creative abilities.
You can’t get the vibe of a scene and transcribe it into an image if you don’t take control of the situation. You have to take a risk and always work with full manual settings, constantly checking the light, adjusting, testing, observing, shooting. Susan Sonntag, in her essays on photography, pointed out that a photographer uses the language of a sniper with a gun. Well maybe, but it’s not a gun but a creative tool to be mastered and used to record life.
Street photography is a way of developing and recording an idea of life. It’s a moment caught in a frame. Many frames make a story, one frame an idea for a story. Narrative is a different concept of thought and can only be found in the meandering thoughts of inspiration within the mind of the viewer. Which is exactly what Susan Sonntag meant when she, at the beginning of her book, “On Photography”, pointed out that writing is more articulate than photography.
Writing gives you a story, and a narrative to follow. The reader fills in little gaps that an author purposefully leaves open for interpretation. A photo is a frozen moment. Outside of the frame is where the mind can wander and find the rest of the story, and a narrative in reflection.
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