I was not aware there was such a thing as “Street Photography” when I started, I just thought I was taking cool pictures of people in city streets. I made pictures the best way I knew how, learning through trial and error – then came the internet. As soon as I started posting images online – people started saying, “…looks like Doineau.”, “…looks like Bresson.” Wikipedia was just starting, nothing there – googling street photography brought a certain set of images from the first people who called themselves street photographers, always the same images. There wasn’t much to learn from those same set of images, no time line as to where they started from and where they evolved to, just their best images. No thought process behind the individual images, I was left to my own device, I did what I did best, ignored the background noise and stuck to what I did best, making pictures – without any clear guidance on how to improve my street photography.
I have learned a few things since reading the following on a street photography centric website, “Defining street photography might do injustice to it’s free, liberated and completely non-uniform nature; however, I am so frequently asked about it that I decided to give it a try despite the possible disservice. Simply put street photography includes any photograph made anywhere in public places. Some people narrow it down to urban settings and some people think there must be people present in these kinds of photos. But the bottom line is that each street photographer will find their own meaning and approach therefore whatever definition they might arrive at will work just as well. The purpose of street photography will again vary from one street photographer to another. Some photographers are interested in simply and honestly documenting life as they see it, at times adding their own interpretation to the scene. Some want to make artistic photographs of available street scenes and others basically enjoy taking pictures and do it purely for the pleasure of it. And so clearly street photography has no need for any set of rules and guidelines on HOW IT SHOULD BE DONE, and better be independently created and elaborated by the photographer.” I took this quote from an old web site which has since changed, it was called, “No Rules Street Photography” which has morphed into nonphotography.com today.
Rules… are there for a reason in photography, before you forget the rules you have to understand why these rules work. You first have to know the rules before you can even forget the rules. The basic rules of photography, exposure and composition work really, really… really well. When I improved my street photography is exactly when I started applying the known rules of photography composition, it is when instead of looking for more information behind the images I could see from other street photographers – I started looking and thinking what made those great images work so well, what made them memorable and why they were selected to be showed all the time, the same 30 to 40 images from the great, if that. After really thinking about why they worked and looking at those images, I realize I was not doing street photography, I was mainly what could be qualified more appropriately as candid photography.
For an image to be qualified as street photography, in my opinion, it has to have a little more than just a person in a public space… it has to tell a story. The image has to be able to stand on its own without a caption to catch the viewer’s attention, often times the rules of composition are followed to a T and show a relatable, recognizable emotion. The moment it clicks, that fraction of a second, the decisive moment as Bresson would say, that fleeting moment in time you make into an image as opposed to just snapping pictures of pedestrian going from point A to B… Street are the A & B moments, not the pedestrian commute in between those A & B points…
Street photography is not unlike poetry to a certain extent, I will have a different experience looking at my pictures than you will have – to you it will have a different meaning and different photographer walking down the same street will see different opportunities and take very different pictures than me. We all have a different eye, we all have a different understanding – we all have different filters through which we see the world, however in the end we all seem to more or less agree what is a good picture and what isn’t.
The three main things I learned doing street photography, the first is summarized by a hockey player “You will always miss 100% of the shots you never take” – Wayne Gretzky … when you see a shot, take it, if you don’t – you’ll miss it, simple. The other thing, was the best advice I ever was given when it came to street from another pro-photographer… “Mind the background” took me a while to wrap my head around this one – and lastly… keep in mind no camera ever took a picture by itself – the camera you use doesn’t matter – it is how you use it, but – you have to use it, it always comes back to the first thing, you do miss 100% of the shots you never take.
Someone sent me a link when I first started sharing my photos online years ago which contained interviews with different street photographers: “Street Photographer Interviews” … I loved the format, they were all asked the same questions. The information provided in these interviews the first time I read them was not unlike my own experiences – I printed and kept those interviews, I wrote the following questions and answers, with very different answers, a few years back.
These interviews with various street photographers were on popphoto.com, the link has been dead for a coupe of years now, to introduce myself and a little of what I do I will answer those questions from those Pop Photo interviews, here it goes.
Q: How long have you been doing street photography?
A: Over ten years, I always wanted to take pictures of people in public spaces, with film I did very little compered to when I first went digital, a point and shoot which was a pure joy to use. With a small point and shoot people may think you are a “prevert” shortly after, I bought my first Digital SLR… digital was freeing, it was almost immediate, I could see what I had just made plus digital is extremely cost effective.
Q: What got you interested in Street Photography?
A: To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know there was a term for it, I did live a very sheltered life, I had seen pictures of people taken in the street in the past yet remained totally unaware there was such a thing called… street photography. To answer the question, I love watching people, I try to understand their emotions, intentions, to read their body language and expressions… I try to figure out what they are feeling or could be thinking, I was very very bad at reading people, the best example I can give is when a woman was interested in me I have not one clue until she kissed me or says it without any games. I want to be able to capture this with my street shooting, the intent, the emotional responses, or simply a nicely composed image with people in it if I can’t get my primary goal, go for plan B… At one point I used to shoot almost solely beautiful women, the babes, were a by product, they just happened to walk into a frame and… As any man would do, I pressed the shutter, after a while it gets old and your photography either evolve into something better or gets stale very fast. When ti comes to beautiful women in the streets, you have seen one, you have seen them all type of things. To go further in my answer – what keeps me interested is striving to make better images today than yesterday, it is my golf game, all about making connections and better compositions with people in them, it is all about improving my game.
Q: Who are your big photographic influences?
A: I didn’t have any when I first started and I didn’t want to emulate anyone when I started looking at what at been done before – I just want to go out there as often as I can and do my thing – perhaps I can develop my own style over time, I think I am on the cusp of getting there soon, within a few years. The best influence is just walking with other photographers. I know there are people who have great work in street photography I did certainly look up Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank as well as Walker Evans, now a days I look at images from Vivian Maier, I am astounded by what she made, a virtual unknown until her images were discovered recently. Those are just a few quick ones I can think of who have a great body of work street photography wise. This said I do not think of street photography as street photography, but just as photography – either good or bad photography. As such an influence in what makes a good picture, I can certainly think about and name Yousuf Karsh, his pictures are simply astounding and I try to learn how he used the light in his portraits, which was very controlled – you can’t control the light in street photography but you can certainly look for the best light, when it comes to photography Karsh is what I aspire to, not to make images like he did, but his understanding of light and how he worked with it.
Q: Do you try to be “invisible” when you shoot, or do you approach people and ask to take their pictures? Either way, how do you handle approaching people and taking their pictures?
A: At first I was just taking the pictures from further away than I do now. Shortly after I started to ask people if I could take their pictures, which I haven’t done in a very very long time after talking to a friend of mine a long time ago, a girl who also liked taking pictures of people on the street s- she told me, “Don’t ask, when you do, people are self conscious, just take the pictures.” Now I never ask, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. Handling approaching people is simple, I smile lift the camera point and shoot then keep smiling. I never make eye contact. When people who are with me see me take pictures of strangers, without pause, without asking, they are really surprised how positively people react, people don’t mind at all at having their picture taken, most people are oblivious they have been shot, they don’t even realize I just took their pictures. I am far from invisible, I am right in the open with my camera and I don’t try to be sneaky about it, I just make sure my fly is not open before I head out and start taking pictures of women on the street… It is difficult being invisible when you are 6’2″ and 240 pounds. Honestly, I just see the shot before I make it, I just lift my camera to quickly compose and take the picture I visualized *click* there is nothing to it, just don’t make eye contact, the prison mentality – to avoid getting in trouble, don’t make eye contact.
Q: Have you ever been stopped by someone you’ve just photographed? How did you handle that situation? Got any good anecdotes?
A: I get stopped a few times a year, two or three times max, there is nothing to it, it happens. Anecdotes… I have been doing this for so long – I have a few of those, when I am asked, I answer honestly and with a smile, I’ll give you the best example, a young man, wearing a suit holding a skateboard leaning against a wall eating a hot dog… photo op galore… *click* but that was not the image I ended up using. The first image was in lower light, he caught up with me at the light. When he asked “Did you take my picture?”, I said yes I did… short and to the point, no… “I have a right to” on my part, his answer was if I did, my answer was I did. He asked why, “Cause I thought it was cool, you’re wearing a suit and you have a skateboard, it was a nice contrast.” He then asked, “Can you delete it?” to which I then asked “Why?” He answered, “I am starting a new Job on Monday and I don’t want it published in the papers…” Fair enough request, to which I answered, “I am not a journalist, most pictures I take I never use, if you want me to delete it, I’ll delete it.” … I did … Then he walked a bit with me and we talked… at one point I asked, “It would be cool to retake it here, as you cross the street, there is more light, I’ll e-mail it to you.” He said okay, I had him cross the street 3 times to get a better image, he gave me his business card… I e-mailed him the picture and he loved it. The picture I deleted wasn’t good anyways and I wouldn’t have used it, no harm no foul and I ended up with a better picture. The best way to handle such encounter is to keep your answers on point, a yes or no question only requires a yes or no answer, how does, “A person has no expectations of privacy in a public space, I can legally take your picture and there nothing you can do about it…” fits anywhere in any such conversation… you want to diffuse a potentially explosive situation, you don’t add fuel to the fire of who’s right, who’s wrong… in the big scheme of things it doesn’t matter.
Q: Has someone ever seen themselves in one of your pictures? Did they demand payment?
A: I have been doing this for so long now add the Internet to the mix with photo sharing sites and apps, our world is forever getting smaller – yes, usually through friends who see their friends in my pictures online. Those friends forward the links to their friends, I had a few comments from the subjects themselves, it has happened more through Instagram, twice in six months was a first. No one ever demanded payments. I don’t pay for pictures, I was paid to make them, what I do for fun I do for fun…
Q: Do you sell your Sreet Photography work? If so where/how?
A: Yes, I do, I have sold a few street photography prints these past few years, anyone can find the info for print purchases on my website for Instgram images and through Grange for pictures part of the Contact Photo Festival until August. I mainly sell other types of prints which are not street photos. I have a show coming up in a couple of weeks. I used to do more photo exhibits and sell prints through exhibits. I’ll probably do 1 to 2 exhibits a year going forward, time permitting, if I can I’ll do it, if I can’t make the time – I won’t do exhibits, it is a lot of work to set up and expensive and the return on investment is usually very little. Everything can be found online on my website – which is still under construction yet working.
Q: What’s your day job?
A: I used to be a photographer which left me a lot of free time, I just got out of it to pursue photography for myself – I recently started working with a software company. I am a client account manager – for the next 5 years at least this is what I’ll be doing during the day. It is a nice change of pace and a welcome change for me and my wife, I get to be home for dinner and on weekends plus I get to spend more time with people, when I did pro-photography I’d spend 8 to 12 hours a month working with people, the rest of the time was spent setting up the shoot and post processing, it is lonely work, had I been shooting more than post processing I’d still be doing it, it is the 90 percent rule, if you end up spending 90% of your time doing the task you like the least in any given job – time for a new career, I was post processing for other people images I made … about 90% of my waking time, it was time for change.
Q: What are your 5 favorite places to shoot street photos? (Be specific–street corners/intersections/etc., if possible, not just “London” or “New York.”)
That’s a difficult one, I can turn pretty much any place into a favorite place, it has nothing to do with location, a good hunter will find prey in any location… A good photographer will make a good composition anywhere. A few years back it used to be the corner of Yonge and Dundas in Toronto – lots of traffic and always a few street performers busking for a living however it has changed in the past few years, it is no longer so good, too many people and my focus has shifted from what I used to produce street photography wise and what I am after now. Any place with wide sidewalks and good steady pedestrian traffic is good, never at rush hours, too busy. The stretch of Queen Street West between John and Spadina. The financial district in Toronto is great, think King and Bay area. Bloor and Bay in Toronto is terrific, now for another city, Paris, rue de Rivoli is a great street to walk and capture people, Ile Saint-Louis is terrific, just a small area behind Notre-Dame, what I do is usually walk from Place de la Bastille all the way to the Arc de Triomphe and back – walking Rivoli, the Louvre court yard and le Jardin des Tuilleries all the way up Les Champs Elysees which is not the best opportunity wise, it is a strange yet great place. I also tend to explore the side streets of Paris. The Latin Quarters in Paris is a bonanza of opportunities. Tokyo, another part of the world, three places come to mind, Ginza, Shibuya and Omotesando boulevard, then a little outside of Tokyo there is the Yokohama’s China Town which is fantastic as it stands out compared to all other places in the greater Tokyo Area. The best places have a lot of tourists with cameras allowing you to blend in and wide sidewalks with slow car traffic, in case you want to step in the street to compose your picture with a great background.
Q: What photo books do you have on your bookshelf? (choose your favourites)
If we are talking about photography books in terms of influence on what I shoot then do magazines count? My father, God rest his soul, gave me a gift subscription to “Playboy” magazine for … about 15 years after I left home. I think he did it both as a lark and to try to win their yearly sweepstakes contest. Every time you gave a gift subscription you had a chance to win a Jaguar car or a trip to the Playboy Mansion or something like that… Funny thing is that when I moved in 2004 – I stopped receiving the magazine – forgot to do my change of address. I actually kept one, the one with the Owen Wilson interview it is somewhere around my house… Okay, okay I don’t just look at the pictures I also read the interviews and the jokes, however you can see the influence Playboy has had on my life – there was a sort of theme to my street photography, a lot of nice looking women. Well, if I have to chose between a guy and “an easy on the eye” creature… being a man, the choice is easy for me. In terms of photography books, My top 4, which I recommend to all new comers to photography: “Image Makers Image Takers” by Anne-Celine Jaeger followed by “Understanding Exposure” – Bryan Peterson then “The Moment it Clicks” by Joe McNally. “Many are Called” by Walker Evans, the first to do candid subway photography is a must see, nothing is new, it has all been done type of book. A book not in my top 4 as it might be hard to find “Karsh Portfolio” by University of Toronto Press all his greatest portraits with Karsh’s personal story for each of them, well worth looking for – in the end, it is all about how those pictures were made. There are so many great photography books out there.
Q: What camera(s), lenses, film, etc. do you use?
There are some things I will talk about and other I won’t, for a couple of reasons… The main is, the camera did not take the images I produce, I made them using different lenses and cameras, I am not a brand snob, a camera is a camera – of course there are some types of equipment which will make your job easier. I selected the one which enabled me to shoot the way I do. Second, I am against freely advertising what I paid good money for, my digital – pro-equipment I seldom if ever mention the brand as I spent way too much on equipment in the last 7 years, a huge chunk of change, to freely advertise anyone’s products. In regards to film… I mainly use three types of film in both 35mm and 120 format, Kodak Tri-X 400 for black and white, Portra 160 and 400 for colour & Ektar 100 for finer grain film scans I’ll digitize. I have 10 cameras and I count my iPhone 4s as a camera as it is one of those devices I recently adopted as my main fun photo making device. When I mean fun, I should qualify it by saying it is a serious camera to pursue my hobby which is street photography. Of the ten cameras I have, 4 are digital, 6 are film of those 6 film cameras two are medium format cameras. I use a mix of cameras from 6 different brands, some really new digital cameras and some very old film cameras.
Q: How many pictures do you shoot a week? A month? A year?
I shoot pretty much everyday, some days I can shoot 1000 pictures or more, other days, bewteen 20 to 40 and some slow days, 2 or 3. I slowed down quite a lot these past 3 years… I used to shoot more than 150,000 pictures a year, one year it went up to more than 250,000 pictures made… crazy! I know, the folks who service my pro-digital cameras changed the shutter on a yearly basis… I kid you not, this year they won’t need to change them for two reasons, I no longer do pro-photography to earn a living and secondly, I mainly use an iPhone for my day to day personal shooting… I probably shot more than 20,000 pictures last year with an iPhone, a work in progress.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is interested in trying street photography?
Make sure your fly isn’t open, do not leave the bat cave open, don’t take pictures of kids, do not make eye contact, it is the prison mentality, if you don’t want to get shanked never look people in the eyes. Be nice & smile – people actually like having their picture taken, don’t be obvious. The only thing you have to fear is your shyness. Doing street photography will actually improve your confidence. Go for it, when you first do it, it is a rush taking pictures of people you don’t know. I feels like you just did something you were too shy and fearful to do before, something you are not supposed to do. It will get your heart rate up and your adrenaline going, you’ll realize the only thing stopping you achieving whatever you want to do in life are your own fears of what you can and cannot do. Let me assure you, you can do whatever you set your mind to, street photography included. Be patient, it takes time to get good at it.
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of street shooting?
Overcoming your fears, contrary to popular belief I am an extremely shy person, and going out there each and everyday even on a bad day isn’t always easy. Even after having made close to a million street pictures in the past few years I still hesitate at times and miss a shot, I probably miss more than a couple of shots a day because I hesitated for a fraction of a second too long. The challenge is not in making a pedestrian shot, it is in making a good composition where everything falls into place.
Q: What’s the best part of it?
Besides getting a great picture no one else took and will ever be able to take again, meeting people and at the end of the day sharing your pictures and getting both positive and negative feedback.
Q: Do the skills you’ve developed as a street photographer help you in other areas of photography?
Yes, and no… I think other areas of photography help you more with street photography, and I mean making better street photography images as oppose to candid photography. What street photography helps you with is anticipating how people are going to behave, it develops your eye, you get to be a better observer… it helps you see a shot real quick and make an image faster than anyone else. This said, birders in Huntsville Alabama helped me more with my street photography without intentionally doing so, birders are the photographers making images of birds in the wild. Photography is about connecting the dots from the different disciplines in order to get to the next level, in order to go out of the known boundaries of a given discipline and street is the least disciplined of them all, there are no set rules to street photography, there are no boundaries really… so it is more difficult to push those boundaries, you end up pushing your own personal boundaries.