leisure 03.22.13

Street Photography

THE MORNING LINE We asked photographer James Maher if he would share some of his street photography techniques and he's delivered a terrific in-depth account below. James also gives private street photography workshops that will, we promise, up your game. All the images in today's MUG are his work. The one above is called Polka Dots and Pink Shoes, 2012.

By James Maher
There's a good chance that you've heard about street photography over the last few years. Maybe it's been through Joe Holmes' work shown daily on MUG, maybe you've heard about Street Shots, the new exhibit at the South Street Seaport, or maybe you've even come across some sneaky fellow trying to take your photo in public.

Well, today you're in luck, because we're going to talk about what street photography is and some tips on how to do it. And maybe you'll feel better about that sneaky fellow the next time he tries to take your photo. Or maybe not.

1. What is street photography and what is the point of it?
Street photography is a clunky term that is often thought to mean the practice of photographing strangers candidly on the street. However, I prefer to think of it as a visual way of a describing what life is like in the areas that we live and in our time. For instance, the aim of street photography is not necessarily to show what New York City looks like, although that is part of it, but to portray what living in New York feels like, what its residents and visitors are like, and what its culture and atmosphere is like. It is a pictorial study of the human condition.

To get a better understanding of the long term significance of street photography, it is important to take a look at work from the past and see what it means to us today. Some of my favorite street photographers that have done a significant portion of their life's work in New York are Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Matt Weber, Lee Friedlander, and Joel Meyerowitz, among others. Take a look at the work of these photographers for inspiration and also pay attention to how their photographs have aged. It can help to think of photography as if it is a fine wine that matures as it ages and as the elements and culture in the images become dated. New Yorkers live in one of the most rapidly changing cities in the world and it is important to pay attention to that. The only constant here is that things will change, so try to figure out what those things are.

2. Find a great location and wait there.

Chased in Sheep Meadow, 2010.

Traditionally, street photography is meant to be candid, so as not to infringe on the original feeling of a moment, and when you try to capture strangers on the street candidly for the first time, it will feel like a daunting experience. It is so hard to not only capture an interesting shot that is exposed and composed well, but to also be able to get into the right position and take the photo in an inconspicuous way without intruding too much on the subject. This balancing act can seem nearly impossible at first.

To help with this, my favorite trick is to pick a location and wait there for something to happen. A couple of my favorite areas to do this are around SoHo and 5th Avenue in the 50s. If you stay in one location and let people come to you then you are not encroaching on their space. Instead, they are encroaching on yours and so it will be much easier to take candid photos. You don't have to stand still, but find a location with a decent amount of traffic so you will not stand out and slowly wander around. Try to notice interesting people from a distance so you have time to get into the ideal position to take the shot as they come towards you.

3. Try Street Portraiture
Street portraits are an important spin-off of traditional candid street photography and are a tremendously fun way to meet new and interesting people. Maybe you've never spoken to that interesting-looking man you pass every day, so next time grab your camera and ask for a portrait and get him talking about his life. There are so many talented and driven people in every crevice of this city. You might find out that the person who makes your coffee everyday is an incredible up-and-coming musician. Who knows what you'll find? Don't be afraid to stop people and share a moment with them.

4. Try to tell a story or portray an idea in your photography.

Shades of Red, SoHo, 2010.

Street photography is not about capturing people or places, it is about capturing moments, stories, ideas, and emotions. That is why it is so hard to do well because it is not just about composing a photo of an interesting person or place. A great street photograph is one will make you think and feel.

For instance, take a look at the above profile of a woman in SoHo. Here is a photo that says something about a person. It is a portrait of a woman who is embracing her unique features through clothing and accessories that were chosen to enhance them. Even the shape of the flowers on her shirt matches the swirl of her hair. In a world where the definition of physical beauty is perpetuated by portraits that have been cleansed in post production to reflect homogenous characteristics, this portrait shows the inherent beauty of self-confidence and human individuality. I like to think of this photo as a landscape of a confident woman.

Pushups, Rucker Park, Harlem, 2004.

To further this idea, it is important to pay attention to eyes and expressions. A good photographer does not try to capture an interesting face, they try to capture an interesting emotion. A unique face is not enough. So instead of focusing on the people themselves, focus on what you think the person is feeling and try to capture that as best you can. Pay attention to the eyes as they have the ability to convey more emotion than any other aspect of a person. Wait for that moment where an expression reveals itself. It's tough to do this well and a lot of the time it's just not possible, but nobody said it was easy.

5. It's not just about people.

Wallpaper, East Village, 2012.

Wallpaper is an example of a street photograph without a person. It is a common sight in the city of an old building being torn down only to be replaced by a more modern building. However, this photo, with the beautiful wallpaper, textures, colors, and smoke-stained fireplaces, gives the viewer the feeling of the history that is being lost. There are no people here, yet you can imagine the families and stories that have thrived here over the years.

It can also help to pay attention to details. Sometimes the best photos are the ones that focus on the tiniest of details that most other people would have missed. The smallest details can portray the most powerful ideas, so keep an eye out for the tiny, nearly hidden things.

6. Be confident.
It can be frightening, I know, but when you're out trying to photograph people, acting confident is important. Even if you're trying to be candid, have a smile on your face and act like you are know what you are doing. If someone stops you after you take their photo tell them that you are trying street photography and found them to be extremely interesting and just had to take their photo. Act enthusiastic and excited. Offer to send the photo to them. Most people will be flattered. Have fun out there.

When done with respect, this type of photography is an important thing. Look back on the photos of the past and what they mean to us and imagine if they didn't exist. But at the same time you don't want to ruin a person's day. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about taking a photo, then don't take it.

Jerry Delakas, Astor Place Newsman, 2012.

7. Camera settings and equipment.
While a lot can be written about this, we're going to keep this section to the most important technical points, covered briefly. You can do great street photography with any camera, including an iPhone, but better cameras will give you advantages, particularly in image quality and in situations with less-than-ideal light.

Shutter Speed (Tv Setting).
To fully freeze a scene where nothing is moving, you need to set your camera's shutter speed at 1 over the focal length to make it sharp. So if you have your lens set at 30mm, 1/30th of a second should be enough. However, for moving subjects such as people, we have much less leeway. To fully freeze motion, my preferred minimum shutter speed is 1/320th of a second and if there is enough light then I try to shoot at 1/400th or 1/500th of a second. If the light is not very good, you can get away with 1/160th or 1/250th, but any slower than that and you will have motion blur, although that isn't always a bad thing.

Aperture (Av Setting).
The aperture is a circular ring in the lens that changes size to let in different amount of light when you take a photograph. A smaller aperture (the larger number, for example, F8 is a 'smaller aperture' than F2) means that more of the scene will be sharp. We want to take advantage of this because if more of the scene is sharp, then we have more leeway to get the focus correct when lots of different things are happening quickly.

Shoot with a high ISO.
As we just spoke about, to get the most amount of sharpness in a moving scene, we ideally want to shoot with the fastest shutter speed and smallest aperture possible (for example, 1/320th of a second at F8 or F11 is ideal), and since the light isn't often bright enough, it means that something often has to give for us to be able to use those settings, and that is your ISO. ISO is the measure of how sensitive your digital sensor or film is to light. The higher an ISO, the more light these mediums will be able to record. The tradeoff is that this will introduce more noise or grain into your photos.

In street photography, with fast-moving subjects and less-than-ideal lighting situations, using a high ISO, such as 1600, will actually give you better quality photos despite the increased grain or noise, because your photographs will be much sharper due to the better shutter speed and aperture setting that you will be able to use. Sometimes the lighting will be strong and you can shoot with a fast shutter speed, small aperture, and low ISO, but much of the time, especially with the tall buildings blocking the sun, this will not be the case.

Shoot with a light, wide-angle prime lens and get close.
My favorite lens for street photography is a light, 28mm prime lens and there are so many reasons to try a lens like this. Wide-angle prime lenses are so much lighter and less conspicuous than the larger zoom and telephoto lenses and a wider focal lengths means that more of your scene will be sharp versus a telephoto view. In addition, the act of using a single focal length will allow you to get used to the consistent view that your camera sees. As is often said, it is better to zoom with your feet than with a zoom lens.

Also, when you get close to your subjects with a wide angle view, I feel that it just tends to look better. There's more depth within the scene and the viewer feels as if they are within the scene as opposed to far away from it. This a personal preference of course and there are many exceptions to this idea, but give it a try and see what you think.

Zone focus (pre-focus).
Things happen so fast on the street that it can be hard to focus in time. Autofocus is not always fast enough and the solution to this problem is to zone focus. Zone focusing is the practice of turning off the autofocus and manually focusing the camera to a set distance, say 10 feet away. This way, you no longer need to think about focusing and instead can just photograph your subjects as they enter the range of 10 feet away from your camera. This is where using a small aperture (large number) can help the most, since there will be more of a range within the scene that will be sharp.

Lego Girl, SoHo, 2011.

The key is to just go out there and try it. If you're into photography, then it is an extremely fun genre to try, especially on the streets of New York. It takes practice, so don't get discouraged if you find it difficult at first. And take some time to look at the work of other street photographers. There is so much inspiring work out there–both historical and contemporary.

James Maher Photography

Street Photography Workshops

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