Saturday, October 22, 2011

Street Photography, My Style

The street is full of photography subjects, ranging from portraits, still life, old architectures, urban landscape to urban decay just to name a few. The choice of subjects and the appeal would differ from one photographer to another, as we see things differently, and approach photography with individual unique styles. I have been receiving overwhelmingly positive remarks on my street photography work lately, and I have you all beautiful readers to thank for. I have also been requested (on several occasions) to share what goes on and around during my usual shutter therapy sessions, where I would attack my subjects on the streets. I shall gladly share whatever I can, including some tips and tricks on getting my usual shots. However, do bear in mind that my photography techniques are just my own preferences, since there is no right and wrong in photography, and you may choose to agree or disagree with my methods of execution. Choose the style that works best for you, and you will only know what works and what does not by shooting more and more. Also, street photography is a very, very wide genre, with various definitions.

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5, Zuiko Digital Lenses: 11-22mm F2.8-3.5, 50mm F2 macro and 50-200mm F2.8-3.5

I like catch-light, and I usually made sure they are seen on my subject's eyes when I do close up shots like this.


Keep an eye out for water, windows, or any glass, reflective surface, as the reflections can open up a whole new perspective for your street photographs.

Black and white is a good presentation because it gets rid of distracting background.

Subjects are endless on the streets. Watch out for things that attract you. The incense has an intense smell, hence following it to the source led me to a photography subject, which was dynamic.

A story can be a compelling subject. A homeless sleeping out in the mid day, in the midst of a busy street where no one cares.

Get close enough, for impact, especially portrait shots.


1) Choice of Subjects

One of the most important things in any photography is the subject content. It is not just how you capture the image that affects the overall outcome of your photography, but what you shoot actually weighs considerably heavily. Keeping an eye open on the streets is important, but spotting the subjects which are out of the usual, attractive and appealing can make a difference than just shooting anything ordinary and normal. For example, the portraits on the streets. I would usually attack people of age (having weathered, wrinkled face), or really young kids (sweet and innocent eyes), or those with unique costumes (turban, headscarf, or traditional, colourful dress). I shoot people with character. People that stand out from the crowd.

2) Dynamic vs Static

Many times, I would go really close for impact, for example, executing on headshot to reveal the unique characteristics of the face: sparkle in the eye (catch light), deep wrinkles, or that pearly white teeth. In such situations, my subject would look directly at me, and it was a simple look in the eye and snap this kind of photograph. Other times, I usually prefer to shoot my subject in action, doing what they do on the streets, may it be ironing cloths, cradling a baby, or walking on a stick. Capturing the dynamics can really open up something different altogether, because action is included, and the subject is no longer static. Motion can tell stories, and what your subject is doing can be another subject by itself in the photograph.

3) The Hunt and the Kill

So how do I approach the people on the streets? I have written many times on this matter, and I used a combination of many methods. If the subject appears friendly and approachable, I would ask permission directly, engaging in short conversation and shoot with the subject looking at me. Sometimes, sensing the hesitation of the subject's cooperation, I would stand from a distance, not encroaching too much into the subject's comfort zone, I will smile, look into the subject's eyes, and signal my camera (pointing to my camera and have a gentle head nod to symbolize asking permission, a gesture made from a distance without the need to actually speak) and most of the times, people would nod back in return, signaling that they allow their photographs to be taken. For this range, I would usually shoot with the 50mm or the tele-zoom lens.

There are times, I want to shoot without my subject knowing my presence, or when I know for sure that permission would not be given, or I do not want to make the subjects to feel as if they were taken advantage of (beggars and homeless). Hence I would just shoot from a long distance using tele-lens, or adopt shooting from hip level (hip shots) as I pass by with a wide angle lens, aiming and snapping away without looking at the camera.

There is no right and wrong, and which method works best depends from one situation to another, and what I wanted to achieve in the first place. It does not matter if you suddenly thought that the method you are engaging is not the best, just shoot away. If the subject refused permission for you to take their photographs, smile along, and do not retaliate. Respect their decision and privacy, and move along. There are plenty other subjects more to be attacked; one less subject does not make any difference. Keep a positive mind, and be optimistic when you approach your next subject. It is important to stay mentally focused.

Incorporating part of the surrounding can make the image more complete.

Using lines (poles and hand guard rails) as framing aids.

Another story-telling image, displaying the ignorance of Malaysian society.

Ok I just love cats. You will find them again and again with no proper reason or explanations.

I don't love birds as much as cats, but I do find them fascinating enough to photograph. Shoot what catches your attention.

I love the contrast between the red shirt and the blue roller shutter.


4) Shooting considerations

So what goes on in my mind when I was shooting the street subjects? Well, there are many things that go on all at once, and it is hard to pin point everything exactly. However, there are several very important elements which will always pop out, and I never over-look them.

(Composition)

Firstly, I will always find a clean background. I hate clutter and distracting background, hence I will either try my best to blur it off with bokeh (by using wide aperture), or shoot my subject against plain background, such as wall. I like to keep my composition very simple, one subject, and one super clean background. Sometimes, the background can support the subject, hence I would incorporate a part of it into the frame, to support the main story. For example, the homeless was sleeping on the street, but I want to show more of the surrounding environment of the area, hence I included a doorway, or a part of the roller shutter of the shoplot.

(Lighting)

Secondly, (well, actually there was no proper sequence, those items just pile up on top of each other), I keep an eye on the overall available light. I avoid shooting anything under harsh sun. I usually shoot early in the morning, and I love love love directional lighting, especially the light from one heavy side, creating a very three-dimensional, yet soft enough for even coverage on a good portrait shot. I choose to shoot most of my subjects under shade, and I would position myself to an angle where I can get really good balance of light on the face/body, and adding the natural catchlight on the eyes is the perfect finishing touch.

(General Camera Settings)

Thirdly, I make sure I adhere to consistent camera settings, which I only fine-tune according to various lighting and shooting conditions. I shoot primarily with Aperture Priority mode, allowing me to control the depth of field by manipulating the aperture F-number. I adjust my ISO settings manually, usually as low as possible, and staying close to ISO200 whenever possible to maximize dynamic range and minimize noise issues. I use center weighted metering. I paid extra attention to focusing, and I use Autofocus on 95% of my street shooting. Generally I have no issues depending on Olympus on AF, but getting the perfect accurate focus guarantees tack sharp images. I use Auto White balance, and I fine tune (rarely find the need to) in post-processing. I shot mostly RAW these days, hence I can still customize some settings such as noise filter, adding Art Filters or doing some perspective/distortion correction when necessary.

5) Getting close

I think this is the same advise you will get everywhere in photography, you have to get close enough to your subject to get good enough photograph. Even by using 50mm or tele-zoom lens, I still have to move myself considerably close to my subject to get enough impact. Fill your frame sufficiently with the subject. The closer you are the more details on your subject you can record, and the more isolation from the background can be achieved. It takes time and a lot of shooting practice to gain enough courage to approach the people on the streets, but I get nervous and excited every single time I am on the streets. I am usually uncomfortable and get panic attack too, especially when I sensed things could get wrong. But the risk is worth taking. I would rather not shoot that subject if I could not pull off a good composition out of it, which requires me to get close enough.

Kids give the most sincere smile. Facial expression is important.

Catching the midst of action.

Panning shot, to emphasize on movement.

An example of available, side lighting, for a headshot.

Not an everyday sight, sleeping on such narrow five-foot-way steps.


6) Screw the rules

If you have followed me for a while, and seen a few series of my photographs, you would know that I have broken many, many rules and guidelines set by photography predecessors. I shoot directly against the strong source of light (I even shoot directly against the sun), I engage my subjects when I street shoot (most people describe street shooting as unstaged, unposed, natural, undisturbed scenes on the street), I shoot sleeping people (some people are against people shooting others sleeping) and I don’t really watch technical perfection requirements, such as preventing highlight brownouts, or having accurate white balance to represent the real life color reproductions. Does it mean my photographs are bad as they failed to fulfill the never-ending checklists of rules and standards of street photography? Who cares, seriously, I shoot the way I want to shoot, and I present my photograph the way I want to. They may not be perfect, and they may not please everyone, but they surely represent my vision, and what I wanted to say and tell the world through my photography work. If I fully follow everything everyone else tells me to do, I would just be a replica of other photographer’s work.

7) Post Processing is Important

Photography-naturalists would kill me. Because I believe post-processing is an integrated part of digital photography, and should not be left out of the equation. Some die hard straight out of the camera fans would scream foul at me, but I still stand still and admit that I have post-processed most of my images which I present on my blog. My workflow is usually very simple, an easy crop (many times I do not even crop), contrast/brightness adjustment to get that balanced and comfortable exposure, white balance fine-tuning, and finally a jolt of contrast and boost of saturation. My editing on my images was minimal, but I do not exactly go against many new generation photographers who have become digital artists, creating digital art out of their original image via heavy Photo-shopping. I resized all my images, then I added the watermark “simplyROBIN” and the dark frame before uploading directly to online storage which will be linked directly to this blog. I used Olympus Viewer 2 for RAW conversion to JPEG, and subsequently both ACDsee 7 (with Powerpack) and Google’s Picasa for quick and fast post-processing. I used ACDsee mainly because I have been using them since forever and loved them to bits, and I loved Picasa because it is fast, fuss-free and fully integrated to Picasa Web Online where I stored my images. Picasa is also fully integrated with Blogger, the platform of this blog.

8) Shooting alone vs shooting in a group

For most of my shutter therapy sessions, I actually did it solo. Yes, there are times I shoot in a group, but if you take a closer look, most of my best photographs happen when I went out shooting on my own. I allow myself to explore more and more of the visions I had in my mind, and I had more time to do all the things I wanted to do without anyone slowing me down, or diverting me off the direction of street I wanted to walk to. Shooting alone also avoided unnecessary conversations and “chimping” which would eat into quality shooting and self-reflecting time.

Often, in a group, you have to be less selfish and think about others and what they want to shoot too. I have nothing against shooting in a group; I do too, from time to time. It is great to have friends to share ideas with, especially those who have the same vision and would want to do similar photography genre. Having people to chat also makes the whole shooting process more fun, especially if the shooting extends until a full day outing.

Alvin, a young friend with a Leica. Delicious, is it not? I mean the bokeh.

I don't even know what camera this is. Belongs to friend, Koon Yik.

Don't forget to take photographs of food too !! My lunch with shooting kaki this afternoon, yummy !!


I hope my simple and quick sharing on what goes on my usual shutter therapy sessions will be beneficial to some of you, who intend to pick up street photography, or are curious on what’s on my mind all these time. Many people have tagged me along hoping to find that “secret technique” or “kung fu” which many thought I have kept hidden, but much to their disappointment, I am, nothing different from other photographers.

My only advise, is keep shooting, and shoot consistently !! What are your thoughts on street photography? Do share what you have in mind, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask (via email, or comment below), I shall answer the best that I can.

9 comments:

  1. Great article once again Robin.

    Haa haa.. My baby in your article is a 1948 4x4 mini TLR called Ferrania Rondine and is made in Italy by Ferrania who is the maker of the Solaris films you see at our local boutique photography shops.

    Rondine is zone focused at 75mm f8.8 1/75 secs or bulb. It does have flash socket.

    Yes, film for my Rondine are still being manufactured and can be processed locally. :-)

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  2. Hello Koon Yik !!
    Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for identifying that alien camera you have there !!! Amazing piece of equipment it is. Old cameras work best, as they refuse to die !!

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  3. Hi, Robin!

    I have fallen in love with steet photography thanks to your blog. Before that I was mostly shooting nature and landscapes. It's important to explore other genres and to always look for something new.

    Keep up the good work and share the passion for photography and life!

    Bartosz Dawidowski

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  4. Bartosz Dawidowski10/23/2011 03:06:00 AM

    Oh, and that picture with the little girl sitting - it's perfect. One of your best photographs shared on your blog!

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  5. Hello Bartosz,
    Long time no hear from you !! You should start a blog man.
    Thanks for the compliments. It is my deepest desire to share my passion for street photography. I love that picture of a sitting girl too !!

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  6. thanks sharing for the street photography, i read this website recently also : http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2010/09/how-to-shoot-from-the-hip-street-photography/. Eric also has many experience in street photography.

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  7. Thanks for sharing, Dreamie.

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  8. Here is an other project called "My Street Photography": http://www.gunwalt.de/blog/blog/2011/11/kontaktbogenfrei/

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  9. Robin,

    I would personally refrain as much as I could from taking photos of the homeless, beggars, and the disabled - though they tend to be easy subjects to capture for many novice street photographers. One one hand one could argue that it is a social documentary i.e. capturing real life moments, but on the other, there is this nagging feeling of exploitation of the poor and downtrodden.

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