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Abstract Street Photography Tips

There are many kinds of street photography. They don’t all feature full frontal images of people. I have written and spoken on street photography tips that are really designed to be some form of that larger group of styles with or without the face being seen.

What I haven’t really spoken about is what might be called abstract street photography. My guess is that most people reading this newsletter know that my favorite photographer is Saul Leiter. He didn’t call himself a street photographer. We don’t really need to go down that path.

Rather, I should say that if you want to explore that style of street photography you can throw all the tips that I have provided out the window. You don’t have to use a wide angle lens and you might find it to be an obstacle to achieving abstract street.

Abstract Street Photography
Underground, New York City, June 2019

If you look at abstract art you will see how an artist uses color and space. That is really what abstract photography is in a sense. But in the art world, many artists confine themselves to either figurative or abstract art. There are however some who combine both.

Saul Leiter was a painter first as were many photographers who were later categorized as street photographers. The point being that the field is wide open to interpretation and creativity. It’s possible that labels are not always the best method of thinking about photography as they can of course be restricting.

So everything from shadows and reflections to color combinations to even going so far as to intentionally blurring a photo are a few possibilities. I will be writing more about these in upcoming issues. Check out Saul Leiter or do a search for abstract photographers to get some ideas.

The key is to have an open mind and realize that with practice and determination you can get better at it. I’ve tried to learn how to paint a few times. It’s easy to think that you have an idea in your head that you would like to recreate. However, in practice is another thing. That’s why they call it art. It often looks easier than it easy.

Those brush strokes you see on paintings definitely take practice. Yes, the same is true in photography. But you might even find that it’s fun to do. If you are passionate about it, you will persist in it. Happy abstract street shooting.

Street Photography Tips – What to Shoot

The choices of what to shoot in street photography are nearly endless. Street photography broadly defined is about capturing the human element. Street photography can include photos of people whether they are personally identifiable or not. As I wrote in a previous article, German street photography tends to not show a person’s face because of their privacy laws. I quite like this style. But you don’t have to be German to shoot in this style. Many of the stunning photos by Saul Leiter do not show a person’s face. Street photography can also merely suggest the presence of people.

Let it Rain, New York City, April 2019

A large majority of street photography is straight ahead shots of people. I use this style on a regular basis but I also often shoot people walking by my frame. Capturing a side view of them. That’s only two angles and styles that you can do. Regardless of the place where you shoot from, in New York City street photography is legal in public spaces. That includes children, police and everything in-between.

Chinatown Street Photography
York, New York City, February 2019

I have my own set of rules about what to shoot. First of all I think that it’s important to be within close proximity to your subject. To stand back at a distance with a telephoto lens is creepy. I know that if someone did it to me I would be suspect of their motives. That is how people naturally respond in this situation.

Harlem Street Photography
This is Harlem 6, New York City, April 2018

I shoot children on a regular basis. I realize that’s not always an easy subject to photograph in this day and age. Even for a woman. But no matter who I choose to capture in my frame, I always look at their eyes for a brief second to determine whether to take their photo or not. It’s very possible that I have good intuition on who to shoot and whom not to. Shooting the streets does mean that you may have communication with people. In my experience very few people are upset by having their photo taken. Not everyone will like it and that’s something that you can’t know or control in life.

I don’t take photos of people who clearly look like they have a psychological, drug or alcohol problem because I can’t predict how they will react. I do on occasion photograph homeless people. The world is full of beautiful people living the good life. I think that it’s important to show all of humanity. A beautiful photo doesn’t have to be of a “beautiful” person. I do think that it’s always important to show the subject of your photos with respect no matter who they are.

Monochrome Street Photography
Bench Time, New York City, June 2015

Street portraits are a different topic and nevertheless still a valid genre of photography. They are not however street photography. In street photography shoot first and ask questions later. It’s not about seeking permission. Photos that are taken after asking for permission are rarely candid. I’ve never liked having my photo taken mostly because I don’t like the way I look in photos. But on a few occasions people have taken candid photos of me that I like. In general, people are too conscious about how they should pose in front of the camera. I rarely like those photos as much as the candid shots. Happy shooting!

Analog vs Digital – part one

I shoot with film and digital cameras. I have never thought that you have to choose one over the other as so many people seem to do these days.

The reality is that they are both valid tools and one does not cancel the other out. There is a definite difference between the results of the two.

Abstract Street Photography
Blue Streak, New York City, January 2020

Perhaps you could say that it’s like the difference between oil and acrylic paints. When a photo is viewed on paper, the difference between film and digital becomes more apparent than when seen on computer.

I make it a practice to make the occasional print of my digital work and to compare what I see on my computer monitor vs what I see on paper.

Can you see the difference between the two? In part two I write about the difference between shooting analog and digital.

Untranslatable

What is abstract art? How do you decide what’s abstract and what isn’t? These of course are great questions. They are also open to interpretation. Mostly, abstract art leans in the opposite direction of representational art.

Using lines and shadows in a minimalistic fashion is one form of abstract art. The eye is drawn into the movement of the work. To the shapes and colors or lack of color.

Abstract and minimal art can easily be found in the everyday. If there is light and shadows, you’re already off to a good start. If you’re not used to this kind of work you can look at the work of the photographer Aaron Suskind. Also, they are many painters who work in this style.

Monochrome Abstract Film Photography
Untranslatable, New York City, May 2020

This photo was taken with a film camera during the pandemic lockdown on my daily walks. Film photography has a way of making you take your time to look at and study your environment. There’s always something to photograph and sometimes it’s there in your front of your face to shoot.

On Being Critical

On occasion people ask me to be critical of their photos. While I can and do critique photos from time to time, I prefer to help others develop their own style.

I like to encourage others to find their own style. To give them the courage to do what they think is right. To take photos that they like. After all, you need to be happy with your photography first.

There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong way to do it. And it’s possible that I am influenced by my own experience of not really fitting in in any of the photography clubs. Typically boys clubs.

As I have said before, steal from the best and make up the rest. Find those elements that speak to your own sense of what looks good. A big part of photography is developing your vision and having your photos match your vision.

Blue in East Harlem, New York City, August 2017

I took this photo during a street photography workshop and I can only tell you that timing was everything! She turned and I clicked. And yes, the focus is a little soft. Whatever. I still like it and some of my favorite photographers have photos with soft focus.

You might not appreciate that. I look at photography as an art and art is always in the eye of the beholder. It is subjective. It is not a science. There isn’t a recipe that will always be successful.

Street Photography Tips – Visual Rhyming

I love capturing visual rhyming in street photography. The funny thing is that I was unable to find anything on it doing a web search. I don’t believe that I invented it. For the most part it seems that the term is used in writing. So I will provide my description of visual rhyming in photography.

In the photo below, the man is wearing a striped shirt and standing at the crosswalk with the white stripes on the street. The mind sees the two sets of stripes and recognizes this. They just have a way of fitting together even though it isn’t necessary for it you to verbalize it in your mind.

Yes, vision precedes language and the necessity to translate what it sees into words. That said, it’s surprising how often visual rhymes appear in street photography opportunities. If you keep your eyes open to them you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.

Queens Street Photography
Stripes Crossing, New York City, June 2019

Of course, you can stand at an intersection and wait for the stripes to appear. Other possible visual rhymes are when a person’s clothing matches a color in the background. Below you can see an example of rhyming with colors. 

Soho Street Photography
Rainy Day in Soho, New York City, August 2018

Somehow the above photos would be far less interesting without the rhyming. These are just a few examples of one more thing that you can look for while out shooting the streets. It’s a bit like poetry and it provides another layer of depth to your photography. Happy rhyming!

Thoughts on Photography in the Digital Age

What are photos worth now? Do they have more value or less value as a sheer result of the volume? Why take photos at all? These are real questions that deserve real thought even if we are unable to come to some kind of solid answers that we can all agree on.

When I took this photo earlier this year, I was very conscious of the fact that for whatever reason, this building won’t be here forever or at least continue to look like this. Sometimes I wonder if the way that I see things now have more to do with my age or if perhaps we are really in the midst of a major change in the way the world is moving?

I don’t take photos with a thought to if they have a monetary worth or not. I shoot as a form of expression. Photos have a way of sparking memory. We look at photos about the way things used to be. Photos are always past. Are history.

1 Allen Street, New York City, May 2019

I took this photo because the colors and light on that day and at that time appealed to me. For the moment, I like this photo. I have no idea if I will continue to like this photo after shooting another 10,000 photos. Perhaps it’s not that important. Photography is an activity for me. It’s not always obvious why I take a photo or if it will become important to my work.

When we choose to shoot certain subjects, we reveal something of who we are and our tastes in things. And of course, those things are subject to change. How often do we stop and look at a photo and decide what it means to us? We see thousands of images everyday. Most of them are not by choice.

Your assignment if you choose to take it, is to stop and take a look at a photo and think about what it means to you. Let’s call it intentional viewing. Happy looking and getting lost in photos.

Street Photography Tips – Up Close

When you’re in the middle of large crowds of people it is actually rather easy to get up close and personal shots. Whether you stand in one spot and wait for people to approach you or you shoot while walking it’s not difficult to do. The funny thing is that most of the time people aren’t even aware of me when I get these kinds of shots.

Monochrome NYC Street Photography
Monochrome Mood 20, New York City, August 2018

So of course the most important thing is to have correct exposure settings on your camera. It’s also important to keep your eyes open. This is where it’s good to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I tend to lift the camera and use the viewfinder. Which is what I did while walking to get the 2 shots shown here.

Monochrome NYC Street Photography
Monochrome Mood 14, New York City, August 2018

That said I also often just lift the camera without really looking at the preview and shoot. In the right state of mind it’s like a good mental and physical exercise. Street photography is very cool.

It’s Everywhere You Go!

Photography in its broadest definition has become important to everyone! It is such a dominant part of our culture and our lives. Creating and consuming images is constant. So how do we differentiate between the different kinds of photography? Are they all equal? Do we even understand the effect that images have on us? Visual literacy is a tricky subject. Especially when there’s barely enough time to understand it all.

I work as a tour guide. On a regular basis I come into contact with tourists taking selfies with major attractions in New York City. It would be difficult to not witness this everywhere in the city. I wonder what the actual value is of these photos? (I will refrain from being judgmental here even if it is annoying.) They are intended as souvenirs.

One Grand Central, New York City, January 2019

The idea that you can choose to remember something by an image or an object. The strange thing is that souvenirs actually have a way of killing memories. They take on new meaning. We no longer have to remember it.

Perhaps the actual act of taking a photo is more important than the photo itself. That and the fleeting moment that it has a life on social media. We designate a moment which we have predetermined to be worthy of remembering. We have scripted our lives in doing this.

Planned vs unplanned photos. My favorite photos that I’ve taken are not planned. They couldn’t have been planned. They are decided only at the moment that they are shot. Sometimes I like them. Others I don’t. It’s always starting from scratch. Starting over with a clean slate.

When it comes to street photography you can’t decide beforehand what you’ll shoot. It’s life in motion. By it’s very nature it is unplanned.