New York: A Self Lesson in Street Photography.

New York 2013.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in New York, and, never one to eschew a cliché, decided to indulge in some street photography. I am not a street photographer, whatever that is; my working photography consists mainly of reportage or journalism; taking series of pictures to illustrate a story or the progress of a project, not one off bang bang photographs of strangers in the street.

Whilst there I gradually learned what I think makes a good street photograph, and why most, frankly, is poor. So, lets hit the street – let the lesson begin.

Early Days – Technical Technique.

As a former philosophy student I am not given to rushing into things without some thought (ask the wife – I have been considering the existential repercussions of decorating the lounge for two years now!). So my thoughts were that I wanted to capture people on the streets of Manhattan in context; I was in New York and wanted New York to be in my photographs.

So, a wide angle lens would be needed; 35mm is considered the optimum for this work, giving the best combination of setting the subject in context without distortion, but for the camera I would be using, I only have a 28mm, so 28mm it was. Also, speed is of the essence; I wanted to capture people behaving normally, which is something that they don’t do with a camera pointed at them, so I needed to get my shot before the camera was spotted. Whilst autofocus is fast, nothing is faster than not focussing at all, so pre focussing would be the order of the day. I knew that to get people significantly in the frame, whilst still maintaining some background as context, I would typically be shooting 2 to 3 meters away, so this would be my focus setting; also I used a reasonably fast film (Tmax pushed 1 stop to ISO 800), and with the reasonably bright July sunshine, I could shoot at small apertures, giving a good depth of field, and hence margin for error in my focus judgement.

Hit The Road.

So much for the theory, the time had come to hit the streets. For the first few days, I set about walking the streets, camera in hand, shutter cocked, looking for anything, or more specifically anyone, of interest. It was whilst taking these first frames that I started to learn my lesson.

When looking at these early negatives I realised that the pictures were only interesting in so far as New York is interesting. People walking down New York streets, people passing New York landmarks. These were pictures of an interesting place, or of interesting people, but not interesting photographs.

An interesting enough scenario, but is it a good street photograph?

An interesting enough scenario, but is it a good street photograph?

I decided to do a little research, looking at the pictures of Winogrand, Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank et al, it gradually it began to dawn on me. What their pictures possess, and what mine didn’t, and to be honest, most street photographs don’t, is an interaction, a gesture, a fleeting expression captured, an expression never to be repeated. There needs to be some other point of interest than the subject and context, some unique gesture or interaction, a captivating moment, to lift the image above the ‘person on a street’ standard or the ‘I was brave enough to take this, so it must be good’ mantra. There needs to be some decisive moment captured which, were it not for the 125th of a second snap of the shutter, would go unnoticed in the bustle of the street.

Is sleeping a decisive moment?

Is sleeping a decisive moment?

Keep shooting.

So, having decided that my photographs needed some more interesting focus of motif, back to the streets I went. Suddenly everything becomes more difficult. By the time you have spotted the fleeting gesture, the ephemeral expression, it is gone. There is nothing for it then, but to shoot away, and trust to luck. We can of course load the odds, by being in the right place, near the interesting street sign, or the street entertainer guaranteed to raise a laugh, but luck is still the major player in this game. The successful practitioners of the art were all prolific shooters; be prepared to shoot a lot but, and here cometh the second lesson, show little.

Good as a picture to illustrate homeless people who recycle, but as a stand alone street photograph?

Good as a picture to illustrate homeless people who recycle, but as a stand alone street photograph?


So, we have shot a lot of film (or captured a lot of frames) in the hope of capturing ‘The Decisive Moment’, and now comes the next crucial factor; the decisive edit. We need to wade through these hundreds of frames and ruthlessly cut out any that do not display the elusive moment, gesture, situation or expression, and to be fair, this means most or all of them. Be honest. Disregard the trouble taken to get the picture, ignore that it was taken in your favourite place or that you were brave enough to get closer than ever before, or that you may have walked away with nothing, none of these will show to the dispassionate viewer. Ask the simple question, is this a good street photograph? Is there something interesting here other than an interesting place or face? (It is quite sad but when looking for pictures I adopted the mantra of ‘more than the place and face’ which I would recite to myself repeatedly – not aloud of course!) Time is a great help here. The greater the duration between the taking of the picture, and the editing process the better; you are more likely to be emotionally separated from the picture, and give yourself a more honest and detached perspective. Of course one of the advantages of using film means that this is a given to some extent.

The way this gentleman fits in with the picture I feel gave me a decisive moment.

The way this gentleman fits in with the picture I feel gave me a decisive moment.

Lesson Learned.

So this was a learning experience, and in the process I came to realise what makes a good street photograph, and why most leave me cold. I am not saying I can now take wonderful street photographs, but I do feel I can discern between the good and bad, which is a start at least, and it also gives me a greater appreciation for those elite few who are good street photographers.

  1. It is harder than it looks!

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