Street Photography Tips – Vision Above All Else

I don’t always know how I do what I do or have the ability to explain it in words. I mention this because people frequently tell me that they don’t know how I’m able to see what I do. We’ll be out shooting and I’ll turn quickly and shoot. And they are surprised that I saw the shot.

Monochrome Street Photography
Bowery Afternoon, New York City, August 2018

I tease that I have eyes behind my head. My eyes are always wandering and it’s so natural that I don’t know how I do it or even if I’ve always done it. What I do know is that you always have to be ready to respond and shoot quickly. That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss some shots. That isn’t even possible. Don’t get me started about the photos that I’ve missed! I think that the fact that my eyes are always wandering wouldn’t work in many other professions.

Monochrome Street Photography
Waiting, New York City, February 2020

So having to fuss with camera settings, previewing photos just taken and a host of other things can distract you form being able to see and respond to what’s going on around you. The more you practice, the better you become. That is of course true of most things in life. At some point in time it begins to fall into place.

I know that I’ve said it before, but I think that the important things to do are to shoot often, to experiment and not be afraid to make mistakes. You can take a recipe that someone else provided and learn how to copy it. But making it your own and learning from the mistakes is a part of the process that you can’t eliminate. Just keep doing it. Or as they used to say, don’t worry be happy.

Photography is a Language

Photography is like learning a new language. In the beginning you are constantly aware of grammar, sentence structure, verb conjugations and vocabulary.

The mechanics of language is very similar to that of the camera. It takes awhile to learn the diffferent parts of language that allow you to communicate smoothly and effectively. The same is true to become fluent in photography.

Diamond Exchange, New York City, November 2017

A camera is merely a tool. When people ask me what cameras I use my response for a number of years now has been, do you ask a carpenter what hammer she uses? I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a quote from Man Ray in which his response to the same question was “you don’t ask a writer what typewriter he uses.”

Your ability to get your camera to do what you want it to do is the first step. But even when you become fluent there’s still so much more that can be learned and explored. Like expanding your vocabulary.

If I am not able to believe that my best photos are to come I’ll put my cameras down. And it’s not just about the technical aspects about photography by any means. It is about the constant evolution of style, subject and technique. There IS always something new to learn and do! It is a lifelong pursuit.

Street vs Documentary Photography

If like me, you’ve been staying in during the pandemic, my suggestion is to spend time looking at the work of other street photographers and identifying the things that you like or dislike to give yourself ideas of areas to explore once you’re able to safely go out and shoot the streets.

Protest Photography
Occupy Wall Street 34, New York City, November 2011

On the other hand, if you’ve been out on the streets shooting the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, I applaud your work and I do hope that you are staying safe and social distancing.

There is however a distinction to be made between street photography and documentary photography. In street photography you are setting out to take photos which you cannot predict who or what you will encounter.

Protest Photography
Occupy Wall Street 35, New York City, November 2011

In documentary photography you are already planning on capturing a certain subject in your photos. You already have an idea about what you’re likely to see.

While street and documentary photography are both valid photographic genres, street is always candid and frequently documentary will also be candid. You bring yourself and your thoughts and ideas to shooting either. You approach the two in a different manner.

Protest Photography
Occupy Wall Street 30, New York City, November 2011

I took the photos included in this post at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City in 2011.

Photography Changes the World

Photography has the power to change the world and we are witnessing it at this very historic moment in time. The Black Lives Matter protests are an excellent example of this. While people can read and talk about what’s going on in the world, it’s the photos that become etched in the mind.

When you can see something with your own eyes, an abstract concept becomes illustrated. While a single photograph by itself doesn’t necessarily represent the Truth with a capital T, the repetition of many photos can cement a reality.

Between the images of how George Floyd died to the demonstrations in the streets around the world has illustrated the growing beliefs of a large number of people. It is through these many photos taken by everyone with a camera including the journalists, that the people are giving voice to what might otherwise remain just a theory or a dream.

Black Lives Matter scanography
Get up, Stand up 5, New York City, 1 June 2020

I have written and stated many times in the past that I think that street photography can change the world one photo at a time and that maybe I am a hopeless optimist.

While photos of the demonstrations might be more appropriately called documentary photography, the genre title is not really important. It is clear that the majority of the photos shared publicly are candid and they reveal the feelings and beliefs of millions.

So yes, photography can change the world. Whether you are out there taking photos of the movement or, like me, only able to observe the overwhelming number of photos that repeat the same story, we are witnessing a major shift in the world.

Street Photography Tips – The Rule of Odds

What can I tell you about the “rules” of composition? They are interesting. They are often applied and rarely mastered. The masters of photography like Cartier-Bresson practically invented them. One has to wonder if they knew that when they were doing it? Or did it later become a so-called rule?

Many of the masters of photography, yes they were mostly men, started out in painting. They had already studied composition. Alas, it was introduced into photography. 

The rule of thirds has been done to death. It certainly has its moments and I admit, I often use the rule of thirds. Sometimes with good results. It’s like grammar. Learning how to communicate visually. Poetry however pushes the basics to a new level. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson - rule of odds
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rome, 1959

The rule of odds is yet another of the composition guidelines. It is a bit looser in some ways. It can apply to a disjunction of sorts. Like a very large man with a very small dog. The photo above by Cartier-Bresson is a classic example of the rule of odds. The photo below is mine and also an example of the rule of odds. There is one odd person in each photo.

The Rule of Odds
Every Which Way, New York City, June 2015

For many street photographers, the rule of odds is about numbers. It would seem that even numbers are not favored. Odd numbers create tension and the number three is a particularly good one. And three can form a triangle indicating movement as well. 

When the rule of odds works it can work very well. But circumstances don’t always allow it. It’s not like you can get people into place or even that you’re thinking where are my three people? So I would say that it’s more often used as a method of justifying why a photo works or doesn’t after the fact. It’s a bit of a crap shoot.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hope that you’ll be alert enough to capture it when you see it. Just don’t get hung up on trying to obtain that. Maybe you find the even numbers are easier to capture and you’re getting shots that you’re happy with. The art of photography is always an ongoing process. My evolution is ongoing as is my sense for what makes good composition. Happy shooting and composing!

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.

Photography is – Part Eleven

The action doesn’t stop, but a photo desires to freeze time in a way that it can be remembered. If we didn’t pause to look and shoot, life would still move on. A photograph exists as a memory of a time that no longer exists. My photos are a record that I was here. It is what I do with my time.

LES Street
LES Morning, New York City, December 2019

Photography is – Part Ten

Photography is a facsimile. It is a miniature view of a much larger picture. Even a 360 degree photos misses more than it captures. It represents the fleeting moments in life.

The Great Believers, New York City, December 2019