Ultimate people watching

Loughborough Market III

Everyone has a their own likes and dislikes and I would imagine that most photographers find certain photographic genres that they enjoy more than others. There are a few genres which stand out for me however since starting to take my photography more seriously again street photography has become one of my favourite past times. There are many reasons why street photography has captured my imagination and I hope to explore this a little further in this post and talk about the genre as a whole.

I love cities and could happily sit for hours drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I enjoy looking around at the people, architecture and general goings on of the city. Something that has fascinated me is the way in which our environment shapes our behaviour. I have carried out a small study on the subject deliberately omitting the people, more interested in the thoughts and feelings my images would evoke when they were out of context. I really enjoyed putting the project together and I intend to return to it at some point.

Typically however street photography is characterised by its focus on the people that live and work in our cities and towns, putting them in the context of the environment which they reside. Since the dawn of photography we have been drawn to photographing the human condition. Some photographic genres attempt  to place its human subjects in a staged environment however many images attributed to street photography are candid, capturing people going about their everyday lives. Even when the subjects are posing for the camera in street photography the images are trying to capture the street as much as the person in it. This can lead to interesting juxtapositions with the advertising and other imagery that is commonplace in modern towns and cities.

Smoking Companion.jpg

With the variety of  people and viewpoints that one might encounter in any urban space the possibilities are endless and you never really know what you might find. The opportunities are also often fleeting with an image being made and lost in a moment. This can lead to street photography being exciting as well as frustrating. The good thing about street photography is that you can often take a break and then find some new inspiration around the very next corner. In fact when faced with some disappointing shots I have headed towards the nearest pub and struck up a conversation with a stranger over a pint only to get back out on the street with a new vigour (hopefully derived from the conversation rather than the alcohol).

Like most genres of photography we are standing on the shoulders of giants, many great photographers have made a name for themselves by creating stunning street photography. What is striking to me is the different approaches that have been taken. For example Henri Cartier Bresson would spend vast amounts of time in a location working a scene where the backdrop created a perfect geometric composition, waiting for a person to step in and complete the image. Others like Bruce Gilden took a different approach, striding through the crowds with camera and flash filling the frame with his subjects. Personally I find the images by both of these photographers absolutely mesmerizing and there are many other approaches to being a street photographer.

All of the different definitions and approaches to street photography can lead some to question whether or not it is a genre worth pursuing as it can appear diluted with some regarding it as a scatter gun approach to imagery. For me it is this flexibility which makes the genre so appealing. If I were to imagine the most eclectic place that I could, I would probably have a city street in my minds eye. Each street photographer conjures up their own view of the city making them sinister, sultry or a celebration of what it is to be human. Depending on your technique you can draw out the harsh colours, graphic and claustrophobic press of the metropolis or wash this away and draw on the loneliness, decay and  corruption which exists in the spaces surrounded by people. If photography is about showing your view of the world then showing your personal view of the city is a worthwhile endeavour in my opinion.

Paris books

One of the other reasons why I have been drawn to street photography is that when I picked up my camera again I promised myself that I would put myself out of my comfort zone. The act of photographing the stranger in a public space is at first nerve racking. If you are trying to shoot candidly then you always have a question about how somebody might react to your pointing a lens in their direction. This feeling took me a bit of getting used to and I still sometimes feel a little self concious today. What you don’t want to do is try to look like you are hiding. Be bold with your camera instead of making yourself look a bit creepy. If you catch somebody’s eye then smile and perhaps indicate that you would like to take their photo. Now that I am more confident I quite often ask people if I can take their picture although the act of asking can dramatically change someone’s reaction to the camera and I am always concious of how this might change my image.

There are plenty of resources on street photography in books and on the internet. Eric Kim’s website alone is a treasure trove of information. You will also find plenty of groups on Flickr to use for inspiration. So what are you waiting for!? Pick up your camera and head off into town.

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What are the ingredients for motivating you to improve your photography?

Fragments of a city: Hold me

Like many things in life you will only become a better photographer if you practice, practice, practice. Whilst your ability to practice your photography is somewhat based on opportunity you also need to have some level of motivation. Some people are able to motivate themselves to improve by simply having their camera with them but personally I need something bigger to get my teeth into. In my experience having a project to work towards is a good way of driving motivation as it helps you to set goals and monitor your own progress.

When it comes to photography projects they can be as ambitious as you want them to be but my top piece of advice with any kind of project would be to set yourself realistic goals. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t push yourself but if you currently don’t set yourself any kind of project goals then start small and build up from there. Achieving an extremely ambitious goal can give you a massive boost in your confidence and motivation but consistently missing your goals will result in the complete opposite. Its all about setting a pace that you can consistently maintain.

In order to start a project you need to have several ingredients; an idea, a plan, a goal, a deadline and time to review. If you don’t want to define all of these things for yourself there are plenty of places where you can find some or all of these things. For example Black+White Photography magazine have a monthly photography project which they print in their magazine. Their projects  include some helpful ideas and tips on how to plan your project as well as some references and photographers for you to research. For something even simpler there are many places online where you can get involved with a group projects or competitions. Personally I have entered the monthly competitions of Birmingham Photography Meetup and I am currently contributing to the 2014 A-Z Project on Flickr.

I have enjoyed some of these simpler projects but I have recently found that I want to push myself a little further and wanted the creative direction of my photography to be more about my own ideas. For me this meant thinking about my photography projects in more detail and having a clearer plan. I already have some experience of running software projects from my professional career but some research in photography projects lead me to an interesting blog post by Ian Turpin which talks about his experience A level photography projects. Using the fantastic information in Ian’s blog and some of my own ideas  I have put together a project framework for photography projects:

The planning phase

The initial idea

Come up with some words & phrases which will form the initial idea. It is useful to keep the list with you and add to it when you are waiting for the bus of making a cup of tea. Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely places.

Resources:

  • Initial ideas list
  • Project topics list

Strategies:

  • Mind map

Tools

Build on the idea

Take the idea further by looking at existing images and building a theme. Try putting together images from different places and times to see if they tell you a different story. Perhaps look at images which are different to your usual subjects or style.

Resources:

  • Mood board

Strategies:

  • Other peoples images
  • Famous photographers images
  • Images from the internet
  • Images from magazines
  • Your own images that you have previously discounted

Photographer research

Choose two or more famous or professional photographers to research. The internet can be a good resource here but don’t underestimate your local library. Photographs will always feel different in print than they will on the screen.

Resources:

  • Short essay about the photographers

Strategies:

  • Review their work
  • Critique
  • Relate their work to your theme
  • Compare the different approaches to similar themes or subjects

Statement of intent

Lay the groundwork for your project. This will be the final part of your plan where you will document exactly what you are going to do.

Resource:

  • Written statement of intent

Strategies:

  • What you plan to do
  • How you plan to do it
  • What equipment will you use or not use?
  • What techniques will you employ?
  • Which photographers will you use for reference?
  • Plan your shoots
  • Schedule your time
  • What is the deadline?
  • Will you work alone?
  • What will the final output of the project look like?

The execution phase

In this phase you should work in a cycle: Shoot – Review – Research – Shoot

Shoot

Each shoot should be an improvement on the last. Explore the idea at the beginning but try to build on the theme as you go learning from previous shoots.

Strategies:

  • 1 test shoot to explore ideas
  • 2  or more actual shoots
  • Improve on shots from previous shoots
  • Change composition, subject, viewpoint etc.
  • Limit the number of pictures you take
  • Have a separate shoot for new techniques
  • If you have used film then you should print your own work
  • You can document a shoot / technique using your camera phone
  • Use a notepad / smartphone to record your thoughts and feelings

Review

Build a portfolio of presentation worthy images. Document failure as well as success.

Resources:

  • Contact sheet

Strategies:

  • Compare the best
  • Critique the worst
  • Compare shots with famous or professional photographers
  • Aim to have 2-3 shots for a small project or 8 plus for a large project
  • If you are unsure about whether or not something worked document it and why you made your decision
  • Be prepared to be brutal, if its not up to scratch then don’t include it
  • Create an initial contact sheet and come back to it after a few days. Does the images still work together?

Research

This is where you will create / validate the plan for your next shoot

Strategies:

  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • What will you do differently in your next shoot?
  • Which shots will you try to improve?
  • Review your statement of intent
  • Change your statement of intent if your ideas are changing but document what you changed and why
  • If you are struggling to think about new ideas then write about it

Project close phase

Review and conclude

Once you have your final images make sure that you close your project by reviewing them one last time and making some conclusions about your successes and failures.

Strategies:

  • Describe your final image selection
  • Explain your techniques
  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • Where would you do differently if you started the project again?
  • What ideas does this project give you for future projects?

Hopefully this project framework will be useful to others. I have just started to use it myself on a upcoming project details of which I will share in future posts. As always please share any of your own techniques and ideas in the comments.

Thank you to Ian Turpin for his original blog post. Sorry to those who received a sneak preview of this blog post, its all too easy to hit publish when you meant to hit preview 🙂

You’re not a real photographer if you rely on autofocus

School trip

I’m third from the left.

My first camera was a 35mm point a click compact. It was black, it was probably purchased by my mother from Boots, I was 7 or 8, I used to ask my barber to cut my hair like Jason Donovan. I have still got some of the pictures that I took with that camera most notably a set of glossy prints from Foto Processing of a school trip to the Lickey Hills. Looking back at those pictures now evokes some strong memories about that sunny day and reminds me of the ability for photography to capture a moment and allow us to travel back to that time.

You didn’t have to think about focusing with my first camera. You pointed it at your intended target and depressed the shutter, job done. The downside of course is that you couldn’t make creative use of depth of field either. I first started to learn about focusing and depth of field when I purchased a second hand 35mm SLR at the age of 13. That SLR is a Canon AT-1 and to be honest deserves a blog post all of it’s own.  I say is and not was because I still use it to this day. I only purchased my Nikon D700 DSLR in April of last year and whilst this is now my main camera body I still like to shoot with my 35mm SLR semi regularly.  The only thing that puts me off using it more often is the cost of film and processing.

There are many differences between my AT-1 and my D7000 but of all of those differences it’s the addition of autofocus that has stood out for me. Right up until the day that my DSLR arrived in the post I had been using my Canon SLR and the whole aspect of manual focus was part of the process for me. It might sound strange, but having a camera which has the ability to handle focusing automatically somehow felt like cheating. Manual focus was so embedded in how I took my photographs that relying on autofocus made me feel like I was less involved as a photographer.

For a while I struggled to get to grips with the autofocus feature of my D7000 and instead opted to continue using manual focus. This wasn’t quite as simple as you might think, the A series camera has a split focusing rangefinder built into the viewfinder. If you haven’t used one of these before it works using prisms to help the photographer set the correct focal distance. From a practical point of view the central part of what you see through the viewfinder is separated in two, horizontally. As you change focus and get closer to the correct distance the two parts of the image move together. The aim is to align both parts of the image in order to get a sharp shot. The only downside of this type of rangefinder is that it makes what you see though viewfinder a little darker.

Split focusing rangefinder

I took this picture through the viewfinder of my AT-1. You can see that the eye of the duck is not quite lined up showing that it isn’t in focus.

Initially I thought that my D7000 was completely lacking any kind of rangefinder but that isn’t actually the case. In the lower left corner of the D700 viewfinder there is a small green LED which uses the same electronic rangefinder used by the autofocus. When using manual focus you can press the shutter release halfway and the green LED with illuminate if you have the right distance set. One thing to bear in mind here is that it will use the currently selected AF point in order to judge the range.  To me this still feels a little bit like cheating as I’m not judging the correctness by eye but the D7000 has a lovely clear and bright viewfinder and the rangefinder is a useful tool.

After some practice I was fairly happy manually focusing my Nikon DSLR but I really wanted to learn how to use autofocus properly. I made it my mission to take control of autofocus so that it felt like I was taking picture rather than the camera doing it all for me. Coincidentally I happened across a tweet from @nine_volt_photo that lead me to this YouTube video by Steve Perry:

You can find out more about back button autofocus at Steve’s website, Back Country Gallery.

I have been using back button focusing for a month or so now and I have to say that I am more than impressed. Setting the focus using this method is a concious decision rather than something that happens when depressing the shutter and means that I am fully in control. Back button focusing feels natural on the D7000 and I can now easily move my thumb between selecting an AF point and pushing the focus button. If you are going to try it for yourself then stick with it as once you get use to the change it really is worth it.

Even with my new found control of autofocus I will still keep using manual focus fairly often. The more you manually focus your camera the quicker you will be able to get a sharp shot and there are times when autofocus will let you down. Especially if there is little contrast in your subject or low light. Not to mention the annoying autofocus lamp which alerts people of your impending picture.

If you have any focusing tips then please leave them in the comments.

Taking photographs on your own is easy

UrbanWildlife-1523.jpg

In my last post I mentioned how I recently joined a photography community on the online community platform Meetup. After entering one of Birmingham Photography Meetup’s monthly competitions I thought it would be worth going along to one of  group’s photoshoots. Luckily the next meeting was a street photography shoot in Birmingham, which (excuse the pun) was right up my street.

I knew that going along to the Meetup was going to have an effect on the way I thought about my photography but I didn’t realise just how much. In the back of my mind I thought I would meet some interesting people who would be able to give me some technical pointers about how to get the right exposure in this situation or with that type of lens as opposed to another. The friendly bunch of photographers that came along to the meetup where more than happy to share their techniques and I learnt some great stuff but these pearls of wisdom aren’t the main thing that I have taken away from the experience. Somehow going out and shooting with a group of other people has made me focus on myself.

Up until now photography has been pretty much a solitary exercise. I’m often shooting  when out with my family but it’s normally only me that has a camera in their hand. I find myself walking around from point to point thinking about what it is that I am trying to capture and moving methodically through the motions. I am usually capturing images with something in mind and I tend to have a single set of ideas. Walking through Birmingham  with the folks from the Meetup had some profound effects on me and hopefully will help me to grow as a photographer.

The first thing that took hold of me was impatience. I had an itchy shutter finger and the only way I was going to satisfy it was to push that shutter release as quickly as I could. Its not that I took a great deal more pictures than I probably would have done on my own its just that I took less time to take a single image. The presence of others with a lens in their hand immediately made me feel like I had to be the first. Street photography generally lends itself to this type of fast paced shooting as you attempt to capture the “decisive moment”1 but it doesn’t mean that you should do this at the expense of a well composed image. Unfortunately at the beginning of the shoot my lust to be the first overtook my photographer’s eye in some cases. Sometimes my speed payed off but in others my lack of attention is obvious in the images that I captured at the beginning of the afternoon.

The next thing I noticed was that every time I went to take a shot someone else was already there. The guy beatboxing, the bored looking burger flipper texting on his phone, the trumpet player, the atmospheric side alley. Snap, snap, snap, snap! This made me feel like I had to go faster but it made no difference, the photographer in front of me just became the first behind me. My competitive nature started to grow in my panic. Luckily for me I have an emergency kill switch. I came to a halt on New Street and assessed my situation.

I’m sure many of you have read photography books that give tips on how to improve your photography and one tip that tends to come up again and again is don’t just turn up and take the picture that’s right in front of you.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what I had been doing and to some extent that’s what I was observing from my fellow photographers. There nothing wrong with this approach and it doesn’t mean that from a technical point of view that you are going to get “bad” images it’s just that on my journey into photography I was hoping to find something else. I was hoping to be able to find something about myself in the images that I create, an ability to communicate my perception of the world. I might be a long way from having my own style in my images but if I don’t think about why I am creating a certain compositions then I’m never going to find it.

So instead of walking down the center of the street and being drawn to “the obvious image” I started to stalk around the edges of the street. I began by searching for stickers, the little pieces of graphic design which adorn our urban environments. I expect that many people view these vinyl wonders as vandalism but to me they tell a story about the creativity of the people that live in a city. The type of people that live their lives through the bold colours and alternative images that the self adhesive artwork  represents.  One of my favourites images from the shoot was found stuck on the side of a phone booth in the corner of large a square in Birmingham:

UrbanWildlife-1561.jpg

This might not be the most technically perfect image but it feels much more like it belongs to me. I have found recently that its the small incidental items which intrigue me.  For example on a recent trip to the pub with friends, a shot of my best friends Doc Martin resting on a beaten up coffee table was one of my favorite images. For me that image captures a little piece of the day. Perhaps the same can be said for the image of the sticker.

In conclusion, one trip out with a group of fellow photographers has made me look at the way approach my subjects as well as help me to think about what an image means to me. They also helped me with some new ideas, one person in particular mentioned using a square crop and I decided to use this as a way of bringing together my final collection. These are some pretty deep subjects and not was I was expecting to get out of the Meetup. Taking photographs on your own is easy, meet some people and get out of your comfort zone.

1 http://www.openculture.com/2011/11/henri_cartier-bresson.html

Photo Opportunities are Everywhere

DSC_1346.jpg

So this blog has got to start somewhere so I guess it may as well start here…

As soon as I started taking my photography seriously again I realised that to get better I am going to have to take more pictures. I know that this sounds pretty obvious but as someone who isn’t a professional photographer and has a full time job, finding time to take pictures isn’t always easy. Having just recently become a farther this lesson has become even more important. In short, I’m not going to learn anything if my camera is at home whilst I am out of the house.

Here are a few ways in which I have improved my opportunities to use my camera:

Leave your camera somewhere obvious

Your not going to remember to take your camera with you if its stuck at the back of a cupboard. Much to the dismay of my wife my camera is kept on a bookshelf in our dinning room. When I go to get my coat I can see my camera and more often than not I think to myself “Hmmm should I take my camera?”. Which leads me onto my next tip…

Yes, you should always take your camera

OK so it’s not always appropriate to take your camera everywhere but most of the time its going to be fine. For those with a heavy DSLR with lots of bulky lenses you have probably thought to yourself “Can I really be bothered to lug that around with me!” I have had this thought many times but I always remind myself that the only way I am going to get anywhere close to capturing images the same way favourite photographers do is to shoot more often.

Keep it simple

This tip leads on from the previous one (I wish I could say I planned it this way), keep the kit you keep by the door simple. The bag on my bookshelf contains my D7000 with a 35mm prime, 2 x rain covers, a lens cloth and a spare battery. All of this is kept in a small DSLR bag. Next to that is a Cannon compact for the times that even this small amount of kit is too much. The rest of my equipment is kept elsewhere. When I think I might need it I can go and get it. Keeping it simple helps with any negative thoughts about carrying my camera around with me.

Be prepared for rain

Rain is no excuse not to take your camera. Cheep and effective DSLR rain covers can be found on Amazon. They don’t take up much space so it is easy to keep them in your camera bag.

Get a spare battery

There is nothing more frustrating than motivating yourself to go out and take some photos only to find that your camera battery has no charge. If I had to choose one essential accessory it would be a spare battery. Once the charge has gone on the battery you are using simply swap it for a fresh one and keep shooting. Just remember to charge the spent one once you get home.

If all else fails, use your camera phone

So you have spent a great deal of money on expensive camera gear but you don’t have it with you when you find something worth photographing. Never fear, there is a camera on your phone which will still help you improve as a photographer. The thing to keep in mind is that its still worth taking the time to compose a shot when using your phone.

I have been employing these tips to help me take more photographs for a while now and I have definitely seen the benefits. If you have any of your own tips for taking more pictures then please add them to the comments.

The picture included in this post was taken on a recent family trip to Birmingham Library. If you are interested you can see the full set of images in the Birmingham Library I set in my Flickr stream.