Five Things I Learned in 2018 About (Street) Photography

The year is coming to a close and 2018 was a year of tremendous growth for me as a photographer and artist. I am thankful for many successes this year, including:

  • Printing my second photo book, featuring my favourite images from our trip to New York in the spring.
  • Participating in a city-wide “art crawl” by contributing three framed works to Gallery City.
  • Participating in a street photography workshop led by Fuji X Photographer Ian MacDonald.
  • Learning from fashion photographer and filmmaker Adam Zivo on the art of portraiture (plus a few Photoshop tips and tricks!).

I think most significantly, though, I was able to connect with other artists and exchange notes and ideas. These are the conversations – whether in real life or online – that helped me grow and learn.

Recently, an Instagram follower asked me about street photography and how to get into it. I think there’s a lot of confusion about this genre, especially in this age of social media where everyone is a photographer with their phone (not that there’s anything wrong with using your phone as a camera). At year’s end, I thought it would be appropriate to share some things about street photography (and photography in general) I learned along the way. Herewith, the top five things I learned in 2018.

1. Learn what makes a GOOD street photo

First and foremost is understanding what street photography is. Just because a picture consists of a person on a street doesn’t necessarily make it GOOD street photography.

More recently, street photographers have preferred using the term “candid urban photography.” It’s the “candid” part that sets this genre apart from other forms of photography. It’s a form of documentary photography that features people and other subjects in candid public situations. It doesn’t always have to include a street setting, although most do take place in urban environments. I also don’t think it necessarily needs to involve a person either. If you Google street photography, you’ll soon understand what the images you’ll find online have in common with each other.

At the same time, you’ll also find a plethora of images that consist of a person or persons hanging out in a public place doing not much of anything. Here’s an image I made a little while ago:

At the time, I must have thought this was a great photo. But now, I’m able to look at it with a more critical eye. I was excited to have used a slow shutter speed successfully to give the two figures on the stairs more movement. However, as a composition, I don’t think it hits the mark at all when I look at it now. I think there are too many figures in the image – it would be a more effective shot if it consisted of only one person on the stairs or just the woman on the right-hand side.

More importantly, I don’t FEEL anything when I look at this photo. A good street photo should elicit some kind of emotional reaction. Here’s an example of what I think is a better street photo:

There’s much more of a story in this image. Where is this little boy? What are the adults looking at that the boy is ignoring? Is he alone? Is he lost? What’s happened to his balloon/toy?

Street photography also encompasses a lot of different styles and techniques – it doesn’t HAVE to feature a discernible face of a person at all. Silhouettes, for instance, make for some very interesting shots.

Another thing to watch out for – especially if you’re using social media to share your work – is if a caption is needed to explain the image, that might be a clue that the photo is not doing the story-telling. I used to include captions on my Instagram feed, but I stopped doing it because I’d rather leave the image open to interpretation.

I highly recommend two books for anyone starting to learn about street photography. The first is “The Street Photographer’s Manual” by David Gibson. Gibson is an established photographer and his book is a great source of information, techniques and projects you can try yourself. “Street Photography Now” is more voluminous book with lots of photos for studying.

2. Don’t obsess over cameras and gear

If I had to do it all over again, I would have stuck with the camera I had for a lot longer before buying lenses and other accessories.

My first camera was an entry-level Nikon D3300 with the 18-55mm kit lens. After shooting with that for a while, I got a prime 50mm lens and – anticipating a lot of use with a zoom lens for a trip out east – traded in my kit lens for a 18-200mm. Then of course came an ND filter and a polarizer. These all served me well as I continued to focus on landscapes.

Believe me when I say that if you’re just starting out and haven’t figured out what type of photography you want to focus on, something like the D3300 will do just fine. Even with street photography, the 50mm lens would have worked just fine – and I still use it once in a while, depending on the situation.

Remember when you first started school and they gave you a pack of eight crayons to start with? We had our basic colours and that was all we needed. If for some reason, we needed a VERY specific colour, we just mixed two colours to get it.

The same with our camera gear. Unless you know exactly what you will be doing for the next several years or you somehow are the next Steve McCurry and your first shots are total masterpieces, focus on what you can do with the gear you have. You are the artist – the camera is just a tool.

Instead, spend your money on books so you can study the masters. Visit gallery exhibits not just on photography but art in general.

No doubt, you’ve heard of Vivian Maier. I have two books featuring her work and they simply take my breath away. I have also written here about William Eggleston whose work is also an immense inspiration to me.

Yes, you can follow a bunch of street photographers and other artists on social media, but in my view, it’s no substitute for print media.

3. Learn how to be invisible

A very common concern among people starting out – myself included – is how to avoid offending someone when taking their picture without their knowledge.

Even though in Canada, it’s perfectly legal to take someone’s photo without their permission as long as they are in a public space, you don’t want to be the creep that causes a scene in pursuit of the perfect shot.

I still find it challenging to get up close to someone to take their picture in a candid fashion. There have been at least a couple of times when my subjects have figured out what I’m doing and have other asked not to have their photo taken or have simply walked away. Just as I have a right to take their photo, they also have a right to ask me not to do so and I always honour that right.

One of the easiest solutions to this is to practice in a very busy environment. More often than not, people will ignore you if you’re shooting at a street festival or in the middle of rush hour at a busy intersection. They just assume you are a tourist, or don’t care enough to stop and challenge you.

Do this enough and you will get the hang of it. You can read more about various techniques on Eric Kim’s blog.

And don’t forget – you do NOT have to always get in someone’s face in order to make a great street photo. There’s nothing wrong with cropping your image to get in closer to your subject (although remember that image quality suffers the farther you are from your subject). Some very safe techniques include taking a very wide shot, focusing on shadows/silhouettes, finding interesting reflections, or using a different vantage point.

4. Make photos for yourself, not someone else

In other words, don’t obsess over likes on social media.

I have found consistently that many photos that I personally am very happy with are not necessarily the ones that people respond to.

On Instagram, I’ve learned there is a strong preference for black and white shots versus colour. Even with colour shots, people respond more favourably to high-contrast images.

This is all fine and completely natural. But don’t let it dictate your style or what you find interesting to capture. At this stage of my development in photography, I am open to trying all kinds of techniques and styles. What drew me to street photography was the humour and emotional connection. The image below is still one of my favourites. It is not a perfect shot by any means as the young man is slightly out of focus. But I enjoy making up the story behind why he would have two ice cream cones in each hand – both partially consumed.

5. Chase the light

Finally, this last tip circles back to my first point. Photography is literally all about light. I’ve shot many images that might be interesting if it weren’t for the fact that they are completely flat and dull, and no amount of post will make up for that. Here’s a photo I took on Halloween:

I found it to be a little funny and tried to make it interesting by framing the eyes within the windows. But it’s still pretty blah to me.

In contrast, the lighting in this shot is an integral part of the composition and therefore the story itself:

I hope these tips have been helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments. And if I may, I’ll add a sixth one:

Above all, have fun!

One Year Later…

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This image was taken just over a year ago. I like it because – while technically imperfect – it’s one of the few times (among 16,000 shots according to my camera’s shutter count) I was able to capture a moment of humour, wonderment and curiosity.

It was also just around the time when I “discovered” street photography and fell in love with it. Along with a million other people around the world who have a cellphone camera and an Instagram account. After all, what other genre of photography is more accessible in this digital age besides the almost as ubiquitous bathroom selfie?

When I first started, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I figured all I need to do is go out on the street and take a photo of someone in public, right? And if it isn’t very interesting, maybe turning it black and white will at least make it artsy and gritty. I also latched on to the whole “spray and pray” method – shooting rapid fire (sometimes in burst mode) of random people on the street and hope you get at least one good shot of someone doing something interesting.

Hard lessons, but learning is also a big part of my love affair with photography. Recently, I was lucky enough to learn from @ianmacdonaldphotography for street photography and @adamzivo for portraiture. Getting real-world tips and constructive criticism are essential to learning. There are so many ways an image can be improved, whether it be through composition, light, technique, etc., etc. That also means an almost infinite learning curve. But one that is fun, fascinating and incredibly satisfying too. Every time I read about a “master” photographer, or find on Instagram a new contemporary, there’s always lots to learn and be inspired by. I think maybe that’s why photography is such a good fit for me – I’m always in a constant state of growth and discovery, and pushing for that next great shot.

Inspiration

 

Joel

Just picked up Joel Meyerowitz’s Where I Find Myself.  It’s a hefty retrospective of one of America’s leading photographers and includes his most recent work all the way back to the first photograph he ever took. More than just street photography too – he was the only one allowed to take photos at Ground Zero after 9/11.

 

 

Summer’s End

I can hardly believe it’s already Labour Day weekend. To me – and a lot of other people – it is the unofficial end to summer.

And what a summer we’ve had. I can’t remember the last time we had consistently HOT weather for the entire summer. But I’ll take that over our Canadian winters any time.

A couple of weeks ago, I did get to participate in a street photography workshop led by Fujifilm brand ambassador Ian MacDonald. I first came across his work on his blog and realized I had just missed his workshop held around the same time last year. I like Ian’s style of photography and that he’s been an educator as well, so I decided to invest in learning… considering I’ve never even taken a photography class.

It was a two-day workshop, but unfortunately, I could only attend the first day, as it turned out. Still, I learned a lot of valuable tips and met some great people. I didn’t get many good shots that weekend, but I did apply some of the things I learned in the days after.

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Making the best of a rainy day – I actually shot this through the windshield of my car. Probably not the best thing to do. But I was dry and it turned out to be a good shot!

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Ian’s style often focused on getting silhouettes. This was shot just as the same storm as above was letting up and the sun was breaking out of the clouds. The woman is not in an absolutely clear silhouette, but I like the mix of the rain and the car splash.

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This is one of Ian’s favourite places to shoot in Toronto. It’s literally a wall of light in front of the H&M store at the Eaton Centre – perfect for capturing silhouettes.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned a few things about how people react to the photos I take and post online.

There seems to be a move towards “abstract” photos like the ones above… where shapes and colours and textures are the focus, instead of what I consider to be “pure” street photography – capturing people’s emotions, gestures and situations. For example, this one by Aaron Berger is still one of my favourites. For me, this sparked an emotional reaction – it’s funny and strange and it makes you wonder what the story is here.

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By Aaron Berger

It could be coincidence on my part that I’m seeing less of this type of work and more of the abstract. It could also be a way of our photographers of getting around the ethical quandary of respecting someone’s privacy if you don’t have to show their faces, but still be able to make a great photo.

I’ve been doing a balance between the two. I certainly like how light and shadows can come together in a street scene, but I also like capturing someone in a particular moment that reveals a little bit about how they are.

An end-of-summer tradition for me is to visit the annual Canadian National Exhibition fair. When I visited last year, I hadn’t yet devoted my energies to street photography, so I was eager to view the fair this year through a different lens, as it were, and practise getting both kinds of shots.

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I always go to this particular game for this shot each year. This time, I decided to have some fun and focus on a couple of ducks that were on their side. Adds even more humour, I think.

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Part of our workshop with Ian was discussing the legalities and ethics of shooting subjects without their knowledge/permission. Since this child was in a public space, I was within my rights to take her photo without her or her parents’ permission. But this was my third try of the evening to get something like this. The previous times, I couldn’t get close enough without being creepy, and I really wanted the shot. So, as this scene played out before me, I decided to ask her mom for permission and she was more than happy to provide it. In this shot, the kid wasn’t yet aware that I was taking her picture. As soon as she did, though, she hammed it up, which was funny, but I like this candid shot much better.

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This was a simple lesson from Ian – find a background and let the actors come into the scene.

I suppose as “art” – like the kind you’d want to hang in your living room – the abstract is more attractive. You can make up your own narrative to that kind of scene. Fewer people would probably choose to hang a photo of strangers at a fair in their living room.

Which style do you prefer – the more abstract look, or the more “traditional” street photography style? Let me know in your comments!

Pedestrian Sundays Bring Out the Colour in Kensington Market

A couple of weeks ago, I finally managed to make it down to this summer’s Pedestrian Sundays at Kensington Market here in Toronto. The Market is a very lively neighbourhood in the downtown area and in the summer, they close the streets to traffic on the last Sunday of every month.

Making it pedestrian-only, Kensington Market becomes that much more alive, drawing locals and tourists alike to take part in music, food stalls, dancing, etc. It’s a street photographer’s dream with all sorts of subject matter.

I personally think they should increase the frequency of making it pedestrian-only or even making it permanent. In all the years I’ve lived in Toronto, I don’t think I’ve ever driven THROUGH Kensington Market – it has always been a neighbourhood for exploring by foot.

It was perfect weather when we went, although the harsh sun made it a little bit challenging to shoot. Still, I came away with some interesting images. Hope you enjoy!

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Hot in the City

We’ve been having some awesome weather so far this summer – unseasonably warm, but I’ll take that over cold weather any time.

That means it’s a lot easier to go out and shoot these days.

We’ve also moved offices for my day job – I am literally across from the CN Tower these days. That means I’ve been able to take my camera with me to work and sneak in some shots in the neighbourhood. The area is teeming with tourists and a lot more people work here too.

I’ve also been able to take images at various times during the day – including earlier in the morning when the light is nice and warm.

Here are few recent images. Hope you enjoy!

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