The Magic of Street Photography

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A messenger in downtown Tampa reading his text for the next pickup.

A messenger in downtown Tampa reading his text for the next pickup.

Street photography is something I rarely do but at the same time love to do. I’m a bit shy and so getting out onto the street and taking pictures of random people is not easy. Nonetheless I do it any chance I get because of the magic of freezing time. Images can be thought of as frozen moments in time, yet they are poignant when they have people in them. However, when the scenes are out in public on a busy street it and if done carefully and with purpose, these frozen moments can provide glimpses into the soul of a city that connect us with the inhabitants in a powerful way.

A unique gesture, expression or circumstance can be preserved in a split second that we can return to over and over again. Maybe it’s a circumstance that didn’t even exist when the photo was taken because in truth, we overlay our own stories and meanings onto street photos. We look at a person in a photo and imagine who they are and what they are doing or saying. In most cases we’re wrong, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a photograph and what is left out is quickly filled in with our own imagination. And in that split second, the photo becomes art.

Setting the stage

Here I positioned myself and waited for someone interesting to walk through my frame.

Here I positioned myself and waited for someone interesting to walk through my frame.

There are different ways to do street photography. My overall favorite is staging or framing. This involves preselecting a composition and then waiting for someone to walk through. For me it’s particularly fun because it engages my imagination and perhaps is most closely related to landscape photography. By that I mean this technique gives me a bit of control. In case you didn’t know, us landscape photographers are control freaks. We like doing things on our own terms and in our own way. So perhaps this technique is the easiest to try if you too are a landscape photographer like me.

 

Gentleman walks past a white brick wall

Gentleman walks past a white brick wall

The idea is to pick an interesting composition like an entryway to a building or wall and then wait for someone to walk past. There are no real rules on the frame, just something that forms a backdrop and can add a little to the story you are trying to tell. The next step is that I line myself up so that I’m positioned perpendicular to the frame and then just wait. This is where it gets a little tricky. If I make myself too obvious, people will look up and may avoid the frame. The ability to blend in and not attract too much attention is key.

 

Someone walks along the shore as the sun recedes. Now get out and enjoy the weekend (say's me to myself). ;-0

A man walks through my frame at sunset on the beach.

Funny thing is I use this technique when at the beach around sunset. While this is not street photography, the technique is identical. I’ll line up my shot of the setting sun and wait for someone walking along the shore to walk in my frame; it can make for a nice image. At sunset on the beach everyone has their camera or cell phone out and is snapping pictures as the sun goes down. Yet invariably what happens is people will look up and out of courtesy walk around me, thinking they don’t want to ruin my lovely shot. Little do they know it’s just the opposite, they are my subjects. And so this happens with street as well and trying to look inconspicuous is key.

Drive by shooting

Captured an expression on the woman while walking in mid-town Manhattan one evening. The man was engrossed in what he was saying.Another technique I use is what I call drive by. That’s a terrible name, I should think of something different. How about “spontaneous shooting”. Hmmmm, not much better, perhaps I’ll work on it. Nevertheless it involves taking impromptu photos of people as I walk down the street. Precisely because of the unscripted nature of this, good results are far and few between. When doing this at night, it involves a high ISO so that the shutter is fast enough to freeze the action of both my stride and the stride of my subjects.

Also, autofocus helps a lot because there is little or no time to focus manually. This is a low percentage endeavor; ninety percent of the time I get junk, blurred or boring images. But every once in a while I capture an expression and it pays off. The expressions are of two types, either the instant recognition of what’s happening or something completely private and intimate. Either way it can make for interesting images, especially once I’ve made my getaway and I’m long gone. 😉

 

Vignettes

Cooks in lower Manhattan Chinatown taking a break on the doorsteps of the side entrance.Finally, perhaps the largest category of images is interesting scenes I call vignettes. Walk around any busy street, take the time to notice and you’ll see evocative episodes of daily life unfolding all around you. For me I’m attracted to things that are not part of my everyday experience. For the most part I work in front of a computer, so if I see a cook taking a break on some steps, to me that’s interesting. If I see a guy meditating in a busy park, well now that’s very interesting.
On a recent Saturday morning in lower Manhattan I noticed this gentleman meditating in a park. Boy, if I could meditate in the middle of a busy park in Manhattan, well, that would be something. Anyway, there was ancient Chinese music being played nearby, people singing, talking and all manner of activity and he was sitting there meditating right in the middle of it. I couldn't resist capturing a photo yet given everything else going on I doubt he even noticed.

A lot of times the people are so engrossed in what they are doing that they never notice me taking a picture. It still helps to be ready because you never know how long the scene will last or if the people will notice you. More times than not, in the time it takes me to setup the scene has changed and the moment lost; that’s why I try to be prepared when doing street photography. High ISO, fast shutter and auto focus are my most common choices. However sometimes in complex scenes I prefer manual focus such as when I have some foreground distractions such as people walking by which will easily confuse any autofocus system.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed some of these images. Many of these I’ve never shared before. If you are interested this is link to some of my street photography which I’ve not shared before. They are for me like a private collection that I come back to and enjoy from time to time. And the more I look at them the more I want to go back out and try it again. Street photography keeps me on my toes, both in terms of my gear and in terms of being aware of the busy scenes all around. And perhaps the most satisfying thing of all is that I’m always surprised at what I come back with. Try it sometime, put yourself in a busy location and just let the magic happen, you will most certainly come home with some real gems.

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