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"TAKE A WALK WITH ME"
"LOOKING FOR AMERICA"
Photographic opportunities are where you find them, and of course, where you look for them. Follow my logic on this this, although this is may be a case of stating the obvious: You will not find photo opportunities without actively seeking them.
Different styles of photography require their own unique techniques for the search for subject matter. For example, landscape photographers accomplish this by first selecting a usually faraway and exotic location, then planning a trip to said locale, replete with airline and hotel reservations. Photographers who shoot flowers must frequent places where there are flowers. Street photographers have a logistical advanatge over other styles of photography, when it comes to the search for subjects.
Street photographers have a more immediate way of finding subject matter: All we have to do is to step outside our doors
and explore the immediate environs of our cities or towns.
All you need is to take your camera along when you walk to work. If you walk to work, what better opportunity is there on a daily basis to take street photos?
I'm going to take you along on a walk to work in this article (and on the way home), and describe to you the circumstances surrounding the taking of street pictures on the way. I took six photos on the way to work, and two on the way home.
When I left my apartment near the East River at 6:00 AM, the sun hadn't risen yet so the biggest problem was the availability of light.
At ISO 125 with my Nikon D1x at wide open (f/4), the shutter speeds at this time were 1/15th of a second. By the time I reached Houston Street which is about a mile away, the shutter speeds at f/4 were bordering on 1/30th of a second. On this day, my first picture was "Looking For America" which I found at a Dunkin Donuts on Houston Street.
As I passed the donut emporium, I noticed this man asleep in a far corner of the store, who fell asleep under an Amercian flag. Sleeping people at shop tables can be interesting, but the American flag in this case, added another contrasting and enhancing element to the picture. I realized that this photo would carry all sorts of political implications, subject to the interpretation of individual viewers. It would serve as a Rorschach test of sorts. Although I viewed my feelings regarding the resulting image to be politically neutral, I knew that different viewers would come up with their own biased interpretations of it.
I find that light is relatively low in stores, ranging from 1/8th of a second to 1/30th of a second. The light in this Dunkin Donuts, required 1/30th at f/4.
Thr first thing I do when I find a subject is to form a mental image of the best composition possible, the first parameter being the use of a horizontal frame versus a vertical frame.
This composition dictated a vertical framing. The next parameter that is dictated by this mental picture, is how far from my subject do I have to be to accomplish the composition I want? I decided that I had to be five feet away from the man and the flag to do this.
I set focus to 5 feet for this picture as I entered the store, using the distance scale of the focusing ring. I also checked exposure in advance , so all I had to do was walk up to the man, establish my shooting position 5 feet way, frame the composition and trip the shutter. The subject may have been looking for America in a Dunkin Donuts, but I found a picture.
I always walk to work with my wife Patty. Patty and I work fairly close to each other, so we walk together until we reach 8th Street and Second Avenue, then we split up to go to our respective offices. The second picture of the day was taken on 6th Street before we went our separate ways.
For the second picture of the day, "Wa," both Patty and I became integral parts of this composition.
Perhaps the song, "Me And My Shadow" should've accompanied the taking of this picture.
"Wa" was taken on 6th Street, when the sunlight was becoming stronger.
As you can see, it was at this time extremely directional. The directionality of the light coming from the east, produced these long shadows of us walking. "Wa" by the way, is Japanese for "harmony." This type of picture that I take occasionally, can be dramatic and interesting, the interest being modulated by the amount and direction of the light from the rising sun. Focus was preset to six feet, and the manual exposure was 1/60th of a second at f/4. In street photography, the exposure can vary wildly because of the intercession of the shadows from buildings.
"DOESN'T HAVE AN ACCOUNT"
By the time Patty and I reached 8th Street on Second Avenue, the average shutter speed was 1/30th of a second at wide open. This is the corner where Patty and I split up and go our seperate ways to go to our offices. There's a Chase bank on this corner where I found this graffiti on the bank sign.
The graffiti was obviously engendered by an individual who doesn't have an active bank account--hence the title. This sign was in deep shadow that called for a 1/15th of a second shutter speed.
Street photography is typically of people on the streets. I would say that a good 95% of my street photography is comprised of people as subjects, so subjects like this Chase sign are in the minority, as the picture of my and Patty's shadows is also. There would be one more such picture that I would take a few blcoks later on 8th Street. I don't disdain street pictures of inanimate objects. I just find the taking of people pictures on the street far more challenging and rewarding. Street photos of people is dynamic and involving. That being said, photos like "Doesn't Have An Account" does have social commentary value. You have to admit, this photo did make you think. Was there a streak of anarchy in this graffiti scribbler?
"YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER"
When Patty and I split up at 8th Street and Second Avenue, Patty walked north on Second Avenue and I walked west on 8th Street. In the middle of the block on 8th Street between Second and Third Avenues, I found this fortune teller's sign starkly backlit because of the higher rising sun to the east. The sun was definitely beginning to hit its stride during this early hour of the rooster.
"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" is one of those "juxtapositional" street pictures where I will wait for a person or persons to walk by so I can capture that person or persons in juxtaposition to the main element of the composition, that being the sign, to enable the picture to tell a story. In this case, the "story" entails the telling of the future of this woman. I admit to an element of humor in my picture title. I think that there isn't enough humor in photography. Sure, street photography is serious art, but do not underestimate the power of humor in art.
Such juxtapositional devices are common in street photography, and can be stimulating. Because of the strength of the directional sunlight behind the sign and woman, the exposure for this picture rose to a whopping 1/125 second at f/4! Does the speed ever stop?
Timing on this type of photo is critical, so one must frame first---vertically, naturally, if one were to position the sign on the left as a main compositional element---and wait for the critical moment to make the exposure when a person appears. Without the woman walking by, this picture would be far less interesting, and far more ordinary. Street photography is a Thinking Photographer's art, in which the photographer considers every element of a composition as critical. Let's not over-overegghead this, though. Street photography in the end, should be "fun," and in some measure profound because of the street photo's content.
Street photographers who hang out at street photography discussion forums are fond of labeling the various techniques involved in various scenarios. Some may call this a type of "stake-out" street photo, where the photographer selects a main element, and "waits" for the second element to come along. Me, I just take pictures and leave the intellectualizing of techniques to others who have the time to debate these issues. Time spent shooting the bull at internet sites, could be better spent shooting street pictures. Isn't that the name of the game?
Further up on the block on 8th Street approaching Third Avenue, I spotted this rendering of a teacup on the side of a building facing the rising sun. This faded and weathered painting was apparently very old, perhaps a century or more old.
This teacup sign is on a building that is a still-standing tenement building in one of the oldest sections of New York City. These historical tenement buildings date back to 1839.
This was an on-site ad for a very old establishment, long-forgotten by the passing years. Was it a tea house or a greasy spoon diner? The clarity of its purpose has been washed away by the ages, and made more uniquely interesting by the patina of antiquity.
Like many old and forgotten signs in New York, this sign from another age goes for the most part, unnoticed and ignored by passerby every day.
This type of photo I would place in that 5% of non-peopled street pictures that I take. What makes this particular image interesting, is the melding of the light and shadows falling on the face of the teacup, which is very dramatic and aesthetic, if you've a mind to appreciate this sort of thing. "Ta" is Cantonese for "tea." Exposure for this was 1/15th of a second. This type of photo appeals to the abstract part of my mind.
This demonstrates how wildly shutter speeds can vary in a small area in street photography. Compare the 1/15th of second shutter speed needed for this, compared to the 1/125th needed for "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" just down the block.
"FAR REACHING CONSEQUENCES"
On Third Avenue I crossed the street and walked to 9th Street, where I contiued walking west to my office. A block away between 4th Avenue and Broadway, is an office building where this worker was cleaning windows, dramatically backlit by yellow light. Sometimes when a street photographer is in "seek mode," photo opportunities seemingly fall into his or her lap. Being on high alert though, is the name of the game. Just as good football teams make their own luck, good street photographers make their own photographic opportunities. "Far Reaching Consequences" exhibited very low light, necessitating a 1/15th shutter speed.
As you would surmise, street photographers shoot everything hand-held. A "tripod?" What's that? Beats me.
As a result, street photographers are used to shooting effectively down to very low shutter speeds. I have a 90% success rate of no camera shake down to 1/8th of a second. beyond that, it's a bit more chancey. The ability to shoot at low shutter speeds while framing compositions quickly, are what makes for successful street photography. One hurdle to be jumped in street photography, is the willingness to routinely shoot at low shutter speeds. It is counter-intuitive, but a necessary part of a street photographer's technique.
One thing that cannot be controlled when shooting at low shutter speeds, is the motion blur of subjects. One can have the stillest camera, but the subject moving at 1/15th of second will produce some motion blur. Sometimes this can enhance the picture, sometimes not.
"Far Reaching Consequences" would be the last picture that I would take before getting to my office a couple of blocks from there. A whole day of work would seperate this picture, from the next that I would take on the way home. On the way home, I would take only two pictures, the first being "Turned Out."
ON THE WAY HOME
Take my word for it, there's nothing tawdry or salacious in the meaning of the picture title, "Turned Out." It simply stems from a memory of a dance term I heard once (not that I know bupkis about dance) that describes the way that flexible dancers can turn one foot outwardly beyond a 45 degee angle in relation to the supporting foot. Anyway, it may be chromosomal thing, since most women can do this. This picture was taken on the way home, on the southeast corner of 8th Street and 4th Avenue. I actually spotted these women from across the street, where I planned the composition before crossing.
It would have to be a vertical composition, to conform to the dominant lines of the two subjects from heads to toes as they stood there talking.
That whole intersection was in shadow. I checked exposure before crossing the street and came up with 1/30th second at f/4. Considering what I wanted my composition to be ( I always to try to envision the composition before approaching a subject), I decided to shoot from a distance of six feet, and set the focus accordingly with the distance scale of the focusing ring on my 20mm Nikkor lens. Okay, focus and exposure was set, so all I had to do was cross the street, arrive at my spot six feet away from the women, frame vertically and make the exposure. As you can see, all the heavy lifting technically, was done way before the exposure was made. The vertically positioned "portrait" shuttter release (this is a second shutter release on the camera) on my Nikon D1x, is a Godsend ergonomically for quick and efficacious street photography.
"JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL"
One block further on the corner of 8th Street and Third Avenue, would be where I took the last picture of the day. This would be "Jesus Take The Wheel." This is the type of photo where the subject may not be bathed in the best light available. That distinction is enjoyed in this picture, by the building in the background. That's the new Cooper Union building in the background. Because the subject is in shadow, he necessarily would have to be darker than the background, which is a common happening in street photography. This should not deter a street photographer, though, because this apparent defect in lighting can be quite artistically appealing.
Another example of the aesethetic appeal of such less than ideal lighting is "Castaway." In both "Jesus Take The Wheel" and "Castaway," there is a delicacy of subtle darkness that is not attainable with direct, brighter light on the subject.
Regarding the technique in taking the former, I set myself up three feet away from the subject. Obviously knowing the way I work, you already know that I had exposure and focus preset before placing myself near the subject.
One word about the psychology of close street photography: I find that when I shoot a person from so close, that there is a certain degree of denial in the subject, as if disbelieving that a photographer would actually get inside a proscribed "personal space." Most people I've shot this way, have no real reaction, because they can't believe it happened. It may register minutes later. I wouldn't know, since by the time that may happen, I'm gone baby! Demeanor is everything in street photography. Always act as if your shooting of people is the most normal thing in the world, and subjects will react sometimes positively, and mostly neutrally.
Artistry is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. Obscenity is also hard to clearly define, but a supreme court judge said of it, "I know it when I see it." Likewise, I know artistry when I see it, and subjects cast in darker areas of a street photograph can be quite artistic and engaging because of it.
My advice to other street photographers is to shoot even when the lighting on the subject is not deemed to be ideal. This can yield some beautiful pictures.
More advice: Don't despair that the seasons or your location conspire to rob you of suitably wonderful street photography opportunities. One doesn't have to fly away to faraway streets---thereby subjecting oneself to full-body scans or groin gropes by airport minions---to shoot great street pictures. All one has to do is to take one's camera to work. Later.