Photojournalist Keith Grieve shares how to get the most out of your camera and take great images. These are his top 4 tips for street photography…
Keith Grieve believes that, for most of us, street photography primarily challenges our personality – can we walk up to a stranger and take his picture, are we capable of putting someone at ease quickly, can we overcome our self-consciousness?
Landscapes, animals and birds are far simpler to handle – there is rarely any personal interaction between the subject and photographer, and a different set of skills is necessary. For a start, you don’t necessarily have to be charming.
What puts street photography into a genre of its own, different from press photographs, portraiture or wildlife, is its focus on the visual pun, or occasionally the satirical, ironical and ambiguous nature of the subject. It is the ‘thinking man’s’ free-form photography, where old rules rarely apply and new rules are not yet clearly defined.
1. Recognise the Visual Pun
The Free Dictionary defines a pun as ‘the use of words or phrases to exploit ambiguities and innuendoes in their meaning, usually for humorous effect; a play on words’. Recognising this without words or phrases, and in a visual sense, is the foundation of street photography. The relationship between the old man and the medical centre sign is perhaps too inescapable, and creates an obvious visual pun. And composing the shot, dealing with the photographic technicalities, and sometimes having the courage to lift the camera and shoot, all have to be accomplished in what is often only seconds or, at the most, minutes. So try not to draw attention to yourself by using a flash, and avoid long focal length lenses – they tend to flatten the subject and compress distance. Less than 50mm usually delivers the best results. Take the time to set your camera as early as possible, and reset as general lighting environments change.
2. Eliminate Distractions
Directing the viewers’ attention in street photography requires an elimination of distraction. The first of these distractions is colour, and the `end product’ is therefore almost always in black and white. Many of the tried and trusted `rules of photography’ are also simply tossed out the window.
If the foreground is large and out of focus – great. If heads are chopped off – great too. If there are distracting street signs in the background – wonderful. And as far as the rule of thirds goes – not really necessary. That is not to say the photograph must lack structure or rhythm – it is just a structure that is unbalanced compared to conventional photography. There are, however, the reasonably conventional photographs, and then there are those that look like the camera was dropped but happened to capture a good picture as it struck the pavement. But all this casualness must be planned, and a 400mm lens is just not an option – it leaves the photographer too obviously detached from his subject. Use 28-50mm and, if lighting is good and you have a larger than ten megapixel camera, include a fair degree of background – it can always be cropped later.
3. Be Clever with your Crop
When a landscape or wildlife photograph is cropped, it is done so that attention is focused on a particular area, or to `balance’ the overall view. The same can be said for street photography, with one important addendum – since we are dealing with people and their body language, cropping can change the meaning entirely by including or excluding sources of reference. A source of reference can provide the information by which the person’s behaviour is interpreted.
In the photograph of a Zambian brick-maker below, the context is provided by the pile of bricks in the background. Excluding a reference places interpretation squarely in the viewers’ court, however. The picture of the two embracing women, and the dispassionate child wandering past, leave one undecided. Is it a joyous homecoming or a moment of deep sorrow? By excluding a reference, we discard the setting and accent the relationship between the dispassionate child and the embracing women.
4. Seize the Moment
In the digital age we have no excuse for not taking hundreds of photographs of the same subject – there are no development or film costs. A dog licking its lips takes less than a second, a horse pulling up at a petrol station takes a minute, and an old man sitting on the pavement could last an hour (or longer). Depth of field created by medium and small apertures is the norm in street photography – it places one `in the street’ by providing clear background. But consider an unfocused background, where necessary, by using a large aperture and a high shutter speed, and stick with an ISO of about 200 – it serves most street purposes adequately and saves you fiddling about while the shot of the year walks right past you.
Good landscapes and shy, exotic birds do not appear on your virtual doorstep. Neither do they change constantly. Take the Saturday train to the city, or a quiet suburb. Sit down at a pavement coffee shop with your newspaper and camera. Take a few shots to get your confidence up (wear sandals with socks and everyone will forgive you for being a tourist), and then just stroll down the road enjoying yourself – the street is your oyster.