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"TUTORIAL: TECHNIQUES OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY"

by Scott "Genghis" Wong








THIS WAS A QUERY FROM GARY AT MY PHOTOGRAPHY FORUM-- MY RESPONSE FOLLOWS:

"Scott---I just had to take a moment today to tell you how much I enjoy your street photography. I recently took a street photography course and it was mostly a waste of time and money. I've learned so much in reviewing your work and seeing the data like focus set to feet and aperture, etc. Noticing you use a Nikon D1x, I'm tempted to get one just for street work. Personally, I've never seen better rendered photographs. Your framing, composition, etc. is always right on though as I understand it, is a last thing to consider in street photography. Subject matter is usually exceptional. Rather than just a 'street' shot I always get a 'story' or at least an emotional feeling with most of your work.

I bought one of the last black Contax G2 cameras and one of the last Ricco film cameras because I thought (after much research and asking questions)that these were 'the' SP cameras. I'd never seriously considered a digital until seeing your results. And I know 'it is not the camera' it is the guy using the camera - but do you find any inconveniences, drawbacks, etc., to the D1x in terms of size, etc. Do you do any post-processing or are they mostly, as they look, right out of the camera? Excellent contrast, true b&w, to me anyway - and something I've worked and worked and am working on - but come nowhere close to your clarity. Thanks for your time. I wonder how you have time for anything else as prolific as you are. I don't mean to 'gush' but I genuinely admire your style."


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Thanks Gary, I really appreciate it. What makes street photography so different from other types---and ultimately more challenging and rewarding than other genres, is the speed with which you need to take the picture before that stranger you want to photograph instinctively moves away from you. Street photography is a more dynamic process than other styles of photography, for this reason. That's why it's imperative to have your exposure (correct shutter speed and corresponding lens opening) preset by the time you see a suitable subject, and before you approach your shooting distance from the subject. After you spot a subject you like, you should make the fine adjustment to your final focus distance as you walk toward your predetermined camera-to-subject distance position. You should do this by setting focus using the distance markings on the lens. You should also previslualize the composition before you approach. This way, with all of these parameters set, all you have to do after that is to approach, set yourself at your predetermined distance from the subject, bring the viewfinder up to eye level, compose and shoot.

You should constantly be checking your exposure by metering the light conditions as you walk. This way, your shutter speed and lens aperture will be set, for whatever comes your way. As I mentioned, you should refine your focus to whatever distance from the subject you have decided is appropriate to the composition you have in mind, as you make your approach to that shooting position. I keep my focus set at five feet using the distance markings on the lens. When I see a subject I like, I will change this focus setting to between 2 1/2 and 10 feet (which is the range I use with my 20mm lens) as needed, as I make my approach to my shooting position. This takes no time or effort at all as you walk toward the subject---and since you will do this by looking down at your camera instead of having the camera up to your eye, subjects will have no idea from your actions that you're getting ready to take their pictures.

Once you get a feel for a particular focal length (I prefer my 20mm lens) by using it and gaining experience with that lens, you'll later be able to quickly choose shooting distances that correspond to composition that you mentally visualize, and therefore will be able to set focus to those distances by using the distance markings on your lens before you reach your shooting position. As I approach a subject, I eyeball a spot at a certain distance from a given subject that would fit the composition I'm thinking of, and estimate how far from the subject that spot is. You'll be surprised at how accurate this is for precise focus. Even if you're slightly off, the greater depth of field of a wide angle lens like a 20mm will be forgiving enough to make small errors in judgement moot.

My aperture preference is to shoot wide open. In the case of my 20mm f/4 Nikkor, that would be at f/4. Consequently, I just leave my 20mm f/4 Nikkor set at f/4 all of the time, and obtain correct exposure by adjusting shutter speed. I feel that the most important exposure parameter in street photography, is shutter speed. I am the most comfortable knowing that I've maximized my shutter speed for any given photograph, by shooting with the lens wide open, as the true impediment in street photography is subject motion. People as subjects are not static subject material like mountains, trees, or buildings. The very nature of street photography dictates that our subjects are on the move. Given the fact that oftentimes I shoot at less than ideal lighting conditions where even while shooting at wide open, shutter speeds will vary down to a 10th of a second in low light, maximizing shutter speed is all important. Another factor to consider is that to a street photographer, the greater depth of field offered by smaller apertures, is not significant. Remember also, that a wide angle lens like a 20mm, already provides a significant amount of depth of field.

Composing is as important in street photography as it is in any other type. I can't emphasize this enough, Gary. I feel that my concentration on creating coherent compositions, is what sets my street photography apart from others. A thoughtful street composition, will always be better than a street picture that lacks aesthetic integrity. The difference between composing on the street and other types of photography, is that a street photographer doesn't have the luxury of copious amounts of time to think about composing. That stranger that you're planning to photograph will be gone in a split second, as opposed to a building or bridge which will stay still for you, virtually forever.

As far as I'm concerned, careful consideration of composing factors are just a critical in good street photography as in other types of photography. Street photography is not an excuse to make sloppy or merely adequate compositions, as it has become for many. How far away from the subject you will have be from the subject to obtain the composition you want, whether to use a horizontal or vertical format, what elements will be in the background and foreground and to the sides of the subject, how the lighting conditions affect the photograph---all these considerations and more are important and should not be shortchanged---but these decisions must be made quickly in street photography.

What makes composing difficult in street photography is, you have to mentally see the composition on the fly as you walk toward the subject, so that all that needs to be done when you get to that spot two to ten feet from the subject---is to bring the finder up to your eye and expeditiously frame and shoot. Just quckly arrange the elements of the picture in your viewfinder the way you mentally visualized a few seconds before, and make the exposure. Don't shoot from the hip. Hip shooting is holding one's camera down by one's hip, and surreptitiously tripping the shutter so that subjects aren't aware of their pictures being taken. While these types of pictures may be sometimes interesting in a chaotic way, these have no viable composition to speak of, and they are therefore in my view---ultimately worthless as compositions. They also connote dishonesty, and a certain lack of courage on the photographer's part. Like it or not, there are degrees of confrontation in street photography of people. This must be faced, made peace with in the photographer's mind. A timid approach by shooting from the hip produces subpar photography as a art. A visual art requires cognizant thought that results in deliberate composing, in my view.

With regard to my use of the D1x, I just love the ergonomics of this camera, and have always been a Nikon enthusiast---but---I don't think choice of camera is all that important, with one proviso. Don't get into a mindset of getting a small camera with the intention of using it surreptitiously. I find that an honest demeanor and confident attitude are important for a street photographer to project in order to be successful. Even though you often don't want subjects to know that you're getting ready to take their pictures as you're walking toward them (because you don't want to ruin the spontaneity in their facial expressions---some subjects when they realize they are about to be photographed, will begin to subconsciously pose), you'll want to act as if it's your God given right (which it is in a public arena) to take their pictures once you've arrived at the shooting position. Act confidently, and smile in a friendly way after you've taken their pictures. Act as if you belong there, and you'll be surprised how accepting strangers are of your presence with a camera. Don't act furtive, because that makes you seem suspicious. Believe me, I get plenty of attention because of the size of the D1x, but that hasn't been an impediment in my street shooting.

There is no such thing as "The Street Photography Camera." Any camera will do, as it is a faithful visual recording instrument subject to the will of the user---so it doesn't really matter as far as I'm concerned, whether one's camera is big or small, film or digital. Those that believe that there are particular cameras that have to be used for street photography, have set limitations on themselves psychologically---or they may be elitists who are more concerned with self-image rather than the photography itself. It is a photographer's mind's eye that counts, not the equipment which is an extension of the mind's eye. One should remain open-minded in street photography. Street photography is an art. "Art" implies freedom, and freedom of expression. Just find a camera that you're comfortable with. That's all that matters.

I do find that D1x images take a lot of work to optimize them (I shoot in RAW, but save the finalized image in JPEG), but the underlying potential is there. Other cameras may yield better out-of-camera images, but I feel that D1x images have tremendous depth of image potential when one is willing to post-process abundantly from RAW images. With regard to post-processing, I do a ton of it, and spend quite a bit of time with each image. I happen to enjoy the act of processing to refine my images, because I've worked in the wet darkroom all my life---so some of that enthusiasm has carried over to the digital darkroom. But that's another subject for another time.

About meaningful subject matter, this I would like to talk about---but "meaning" is hard to define. I like to take pictures with meaning, so I'm highly selective when walking the streets and choosing subjects to shoot. A scene has to really strike me as worthy, for me to shoot this subject. Whether "meaning" is conveyed by the poignancy of a subject, the juxtapositioning of elements or by the sheer proximity of a lens-to-subject, these are amorphous things to discuss. Some have visual impact on their own due to proximity or dramatic lighting. Some have impact because of the nature of the subject. I don't really want to take a picture unless it strikes me that the resulting picture will ultimtately seem meaningful to me, when it's done. This is hard to define for others---but it's recognizable when you see it. A meaningful street photo has to have "it."