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On Photographic Style

January 25th, 2016

On Photographic Style

Written in 2009

Many photographers, especially when they're first starting out, are advised to find their own personal photographic style. And even after you've been shooting for many years, it's one of the things you wonder about. Do you have a personal photographic style? If you do - can you define it?

After decades of shooting I began to wonder whether I had a personal style? If I do - I couldn't see it. What I saw as I flipped through the images in my portfolio, is that they almost all have a feeling of being shot in the 40's or 50's and that certain subjects (children, old people, subways, even benches) were always popping up. I began to think that a big part of photographic style was simply what you took pictures of. What interested you.

Even among the greatest photographers, if you didn't know that a shot was done by say Ansel Adams, could you tell? You would have a clue, if the subject was Yosemite Park, but Ansel had many students - some went on to do very similar work. Others diverged from his style. Again, if you didn't know the particular photograph, would you know if it was shot by Cartier-Bresson or say, Doisneau. Many of their images are similar. From a single photograph, it would be difficult to absolutely pinpoint the photographer.

It's true, there are some photographers that can be guessed at because you know they are interested in geometric shapes, or a certain type of lighting. Some even go through the expensive process of creating something akin to a movie set - to take one picture. But being able to tell the photographer by how exactly the shot was taken is very rare.

On the other hand, if you knew the work of Doisneau and Bresson very well - and were given a portfolio of shots that you hadn't seen before by both photographers - you would have a better chance.

I believe that a photographers style is much more difficult to identify than a painters. A Van Gogh, for example, can be easily recognized (assuming it isn't done by someone who is emulating Van Gogh) if you have knowledge of his life and art. Even if you haven't seen the painting before, it won't be confused with a Picasso, or a Rembrandt. With painting, sculpture, music - if you know the artist - you can identify their work by their style.

It is much more difficult to establish a personal style in photography, because it is at it's heart, a mirror of the physical world. Of course, it's not just a pure reflection because the photographer decides when to snap the picture, how to shoot it, where to stand, what shutter-speed to use, and other technical matters. But the single greatest clue to a photographer's so-called style, is what is put in the frame: the subjects the photographer is fascinated by.

If you spent your career photographing carnival people, or "little people" you could easily be mistaken for Arbus. Of course, you would just be emulating her style if this is your choice of subjects. And so, I will repeat: unlike painting - where personal style is evident in the way the subject is treated - the single greatest contributor to your photographic style is still your choice of subject.

If I began to do still life shots of peppers, I could (if I were technically able) to be mistaken for Edward Weston. And if I could live in Yosemite for a few years, I could turn out some Ansel Adams shots.

Luckily, most photographers that have been at it for a long time find that their interests don't change very much. And so, without even having to be aware of it, your personal style (mostly) is a collection of what you pointed the camera at and why. This "why" is the real key to photographic style. The "why" is where your own personality comes into play.

What you decide to put in the frame is a reflection of your own interests; your own ideas about what is important.

So - Is it possible for an absolutely boring person and produce a portfolio of fascinating photographs? Is it possible to know nothing about what makes people tick and be a great street photographer? No. Since a big part of street shooting is anticipation, it helps to have some clue about what people are likely to do in a particular situation. Your ideas about what is interesting need to be fed. Whether it by reading literature, or listening to music - your imagination needs fuel. And it needs more fuel than what you can get by simply studying other photographers.

It's the reason that when you begin to study great photographers you often find that they have a musical background (Adams for example once thought he would be a concert pianist). The relationship between proficient musicians and great photographers is hard to ignore. And then add on top of that - how you spend your time on this earth. Everything you experience ends up in your collection of frames.

What got me to pondering this style thing, is that I often see workshops that promise to help the student find their own style. Given my ideas about what makes a true photographic style, I can't see how this can be picked up in a one-week workshop.

Is this an obvious observation about photographers? I'm not sure since I see so many trying to "find their own style," as I also did a long time ago - only to find - like at the end of the Wizard of Oz, that I was carrying it with me all along but didn't know it.

How to Mat Photographs Video

January 25th, 2016

A few years back, I did a video showing how I matted prints. Of course the matting is now done at FAA - but still - it may be interesting for a few people so I thought I'd post it.

Street Photography Focusing

February 17th, 2015

Street Photography Focusing

Published 2011

Hyper focal distance is a popular technique used mostly with rangefinder cameras. If you are using a Leica or Contax manual focus rangefinder - you'll find the lenses marked and easy to read the hyper focal distance.

Look at the lens and see foot and meter distance measurements for a given F-Stop. Since most street photography is done between 7 and 15 feet you can easily set the lens so that everything that falls within this distance will be in focus for a given f-stop. It's not what I'd call exact focus - but it's close enough so that focus will seem fine. After that you can walk around and know that if your subject is within your hyper focal distance you'll be fine. Obviously, you need to be able to judge distances, and it will not be possible if you are shooting "wide open" at say f1.4. There just isn't enough depth of field (DOF).

Modern SLR lenses don't usually show the hyper focal distance (because they're auto-focus). I like to have the foreground and/or background out-of-focus. In other words, even when I was shooting with a Leica M, I would tend to pre-focus and use a lower f-stop. In fact, I brought neutral density filters with me (since I usually shot a fast film) so that I could shoot at a wider, more-open f-stop if I wanted to.

Pre-focusing, whether with a manual focus camera or an auto focus camera involves anticipation. You have decided what your shot is going to be and find an object that is at an equivalent distance to focus on. With a manual camera, once you've pre-focused the lens, just leave it as is, and point it at your subject and take the shot.

With an auto focus camera, you need to know how to "lock focus." On the Canon line of digital cameras (both digital and film) you can move focus lock to a button on the back of the camera and keep your thumb on it to lock focus - or even flip off the auto-focus once you know the general area you are aiming for. This is found in Custom Function 4.

You can also just work with the built in focus. I use the center spot only. I don't want the camera to make the decision as to what is going to be in focus. Though the Canon's also have an interesting Depth of Field setting that will attempt to emulate hyper focus. I haven't used that much.

If all you were interested in shooting was street stuff, then I'd have to give the rangefinder a strong edge. If you are (like me) a generalist, you could have two cameras. One for your scenic work and another for street work, but I have a problem with that - I like to stick to one camera at a time and let it become a part of me. I don't want to have to think about what switch to hit or where such-and-such is buried in the menus. I set the camera up once, and that's usually it.

There are other techniques for street focusing that can be used in combination with these focus techniques. One of these I'd call - the street ballet.

For example: you are walking down the street and about 20 feet away you see someone approaching that you want to photograph. Just point the camera at a spot on the sidewalk where you are planning to photograph them and lock focus. Then turn around with your back to the subject. If you hold the dslr in the right position you can see the reflection of your subject approaching. You still have focus lock on. As they are approaching the spot you locked focus on - turn slowly with the camera already to your eye - as if you are just looking through the camera at just about anything and if your timing is good you can take your shot and keep moving so that they are puzzled by what you are doing.

Takes some practice, but works well. It's sort of a street ballet.

Remember, as I've said before, you never lower the camera from your eye after taking your shot because this is a dead giveaway.

Yes - it's sneaky - but if you are attempting to photograph people at a close distance without alerting them - this is a useful technique.

Another caveat: the shot from the hip has been around forever. And there are times and places when you may need to do this. But as a general rule, I'm in favor of looking through the viewfinder. Especially when you are starting out. You should get used to various techniques that allow you to take a quick shot with time to frame.

EXERCISE: Find a busy corner where you can practice this technique. You don't need to stand in the same spot but can move around but try it about ten times to see if you can master it. It's most useful on a deserted street where there's only one person walking towards you. So once you think you've got it down - try it on a quiet street.

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Techniques Street Photography

February 17th, 2015

Techniques Street Photography

Published 2011
Photograph: Manhattan Breakfast, 1993

When you're getting started the challenge is overcoming the fear of taking pictures of strangers. Since telephoto lenses are not normally used in street photography, how can you stand a few feet from your subject, put the camera to your eye, focus, and click the shutter without getting nervous? A good street photographer is not only fearful in the beginning (this is a good sign of being sensitive) but they also don't want to do anything which will change the how the subject is behaving.

With practice, you can overcome your reluctance to photograph strangers as well as learn techniques which will help you get better candid shots. One word of caution - it can be addictive. After a while the street photographer will choose which seat has the best view in a restaurant, or which side of the street offers the best possibilities.


The first thing to accept is that you are invading the privacy of your intended subject. You may have the best intentions in the world, but once you decide to point your camera at someone without their permission, you will be invading their personal space. This is what it means to take a candid street shot. Before going into the physical techniques which can make your job easier, it is important to look at your own motives. Most of the time, you see something that you simply want to share with the rest of the world. It might be funny, odd, mysterious, have an interesting design, or any other quality that you think is worth shooting. But you are nervous about taking the photograph. This is normal. When you are just starting out, ask yourself whether you would take the picture if you weren't afraid of your imagined consequences. This may seem drastic, but pretend that this is your last day on earth, and that nothing else matters but getting this shot. Take a deep breath and after learning the various techniques listed below - you should be ready to get at it.


A good street camera has the following characteristics: a quiet shutter, interchangeable lenses, fast lenses (F-Stop of F2.0 or lower), no shutter lag, RAW capture mode, the ability to focus well in dark places, usable high ASA, a good viewfinder and lightweight enough to take with you wherever you go. I don't know of any digital Point and Shoot camera that meets all these criteria. A digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) will meet all or most of these properties. The Canon 40D, for example is no heavier than a Leica M, but the fast lenses are larger. The high end Point and Shoot, known as a digicam, has some of these features, but they don't have interchangeable lenses, and the zoom lenses are not usually faster than F2.8 at the wide end.

The current crop of DSLRs have many features of a good street camera.

So, let's get to it. Whatever digital camera you use, turn off any beeping the camera makes. Also turn off the immediate playback on the LCD. Do some tests to find out that highest ASA you can use without getting too much digital noise. Again, this is where DSLRs are best. Cameras like the Canon Mark II can allow you to use an ASA as high as 3200 (maybe more) without creating much digital noise in the image. Most point and shoot digital cameras creating noiseless images at much about 200 ASA.

Most DSLRs depend on a tic-tac-toe matrix of focal points. Keep the center point on, and turn the other focal points off.

For a digital camera with a cropped sensor, a 30mm F1.4 is a good walking around lens. Sigma makes an excellent one though remember, the Sigma f1.4 30mm won't work with a full-frame sensor). If you are using a full-sized sensor, then a 35mm f1.4 lens, in combination with a 50mm f1.4 is an excellent combination. Having a lens that gives you a good quality shot at F1.4 is very important. And just because a lens opens to F1.4 doesn't mean that it's good at that F-Stop, so pick this lens carefully. In the Canon line, the 50mm F1.4 which is for a full sensor, and which works with a cropped-sensor as well, is one of their best lenses and compared to their other F1.4 lenses is cheap.

A DSLR usually has a method for decoupling the exposure from the focal point. It's a good idea to do this. The Canon 40D and in fact almost all Canon SLRs (going back to the film days) have this feature. You set the focus lock to a button on the back of the camera, and a half-press of the shutter locks exposure. I dwell on this idea because many times you are going to use the button on the back to pre-focus your shot, and do framing as the camera comes to your eye. The idea that you want the camera to take it's exposure off the focal point doesn't make much sense. In general, if you are relying on the meter, than it's better to lock focus, and have the meter do a general reading of what's in the frame.

Whether it's a sunny day, or an overcast day - ASA 800 is a good place to start. You almost always want all the shutter speed you can get. If your camera produces very noisy images at ASA 800 than it is not the right camera to use.

Never use a lens cap. Not at any time, for any reason. You should always have a UV filter on the lens, which will protect the lens and make it easy to take a quick shot. You can always tell an amateur if they are using a lens cap.


You'll be headed out to a tourist spot, so dress like a tourist. I'm not kidding. Although you may have lived in your city for 50 years, get yourself a tourist map and dress like you have just arrived from the mid-west on vacation. I'll leave that part for you to figure out.

Visit a crowded tourist attraction where everyone has a camera. Dress and act as just another tourist. Study your tourist map. Gawk at the landmark like everyone else. And keep an eye out for interesting subjects.


Start off like everyone else. Take pictures of the landmark. Keeping the camera to your eye you can now scan through the crowd for something interesting. As you take pictures, do not remove the camera from your eye even after you have the shot you wanted. Continue to move the camera around pretending to take pictures. Never give away the fact that you've taken someone's picture by removing the camera from your eye after taking the shot.

You may not find anyone worth shooting, but this is an easy way to get started. It shouldn't be very scary, and you will find that even while standing very close to your subjects you can take their pictures without arousing suspicion. You can employ the same techniques at street fairs, or parades. Just about any crowded area which is filled with tourists is a good place to practice.


Keep your non-shooting eye open. You should be able to look at possible subjects even with the camera to your eye. Most DSLR cameras have an LCD screen for viewing images on the back. This should always be turned off.

You just don't want the LCD coming on while the camera is to your eye. It's annoying and it gives away the fact that you've taken a shot, especially in a dark location. Also, if the LCD is off, and you hold the camera a bit in front of your face, you can see the reflection of what's going on behind you.

Knowing what is happening behind you is useful in a street where people are moving around because you can estimate the distance the potential subject will be when you turn around, and have your camera pre-focused for that shot. Of course you'll need to gauge how fast they're walking towards you, and about where you'll turn around and snap. But again - as you turn keep the camera to your eye as if you are just looking around. You will be surprised at how easy it is to take a picture of the subjects when they are five feet or so from you without them knowing.


As a general rule of street photography, if you can get the shot with the camera to your eye, you will get a better shot. I know that there is an entire school of shoot-from-the-hip photography, which you can practice as well, but you will never be able to frame this sort of shot as well as if you put the camera to your eye. (That's my own opinion and of course open to debate.) There will be times when it is simply impossible to shoot with the camera to your eye, and so shooting from the hip is worth learning. But I don't think it's a good way to get started.

You need to make decisions about depth-of-field. A common technique for the street photographer is relying on hyper-focal distance. I don't think this is as necessary with modern auto-focus cameras, but the idea is that with a wide lens, in the 30 - 35mm range, you can set the lens to f8, if you have enough light, and set the focus at ten feet, and know that everything from approximately 6 feet to 15 feet will be in hyperfocal distance.(I'm not looking at a lens as I write this so the exact distance and f-stop may be off, plus most modern autofocus lenses don't include a hyperfocal scale. But for older cameras with a hyperfocal scale on the lens, this is a tried and true technique.) I just haven't found it to be necessary with modern auto-focus cameras.


For example, with the Canon and Nikon DSLRs you can assign focus lock to a button on the back of the camera and exposure to the shutter button. You anticipate that you are going to shoot a certain subject, and hold the back button down to focus on them, but maybe you aren't ready to take their picture yet and they aren't moving much. You can continue to hold that back button down until you are ready to take the shot, or you can turn the lens to manual focus while holding the button down. Then you can release the button and know that the focus remains the same. Don't forget to turn autofocus on the lens back on when you're finished or all your subsequent shots will be out of focus.

Modern cameras have a matrix of focal points. They are a big selling point. But they are not very useful for street photography. I would recommend turning them all off except for the center focal point, which you'll use to pre-focus with. I don't like the idea of having the camera decide what to focus on.

Suppose you're walking down a New York street and you see a bunch of subjects leaning against the building to your right. You know that you are going to turn and face them at take your picture and then walk on. So the distance between you and any building directly to your right is the same. You focus on a building to your right before you arrive at your subjects and lock that focus. Now as you approach your subjects, you turn to your right and take your shot without the need to focus.


This technique goes back a long way in the history of street photography. Walker Evans would bring a woman friend along with him, and stand on a crowded street pretending to take pictures of her. She was a decoy, and he would move the camera so that she wasn't in frame and take pictures of the people that behind her.


Sneaky camera gadgets have been around for a 100 years. The right-angle attachment on the viewfinder was often used by famous street photographers. It can swivel at various right-angles so that you are looking in a different direction than where the lens is pointed.

A similar device that fits on the end of the lens has a mirror inside. The front of the lens is points straight ahead, but the mirror is pointing to your left or right.

Both gadgets are still made, but they take some getting used to. I haven't found them necessary, although I've experimented with both devices.


The subway car is another popular locale for street photographers.

When Walker Evans did his series of subway "portraits," he used a Rollei Twin Lens camera. You look down at the ground glass to focus and compose. Evans used a cable release which he ran up the arm of his coat. He put the camera on his lap, sat directly across from his subject, and kept his right hand in his pocket to operate the cable release.

He knew ahead of time, what the distance was too his subject. If you are shooting on the same subway line, the trains are always the same dimensions. If you don't have a camera with auto-focus, you know the distance between different points.

Evans had one problem with his setup. After taking his shot, it was very obvious that he was advancing the film to the next frame. He would usually get up and settle down in another car with a new frame loaded.

Although the subway is a difficult place to shoot, it has one advantage: it's noisy. There's always enough noise to drown out the click of the shutter. I have taken thousands of pictures on the subway with the camera to my eye without running into any sort of trouble other than the occasional nasty stare. However, before the camera is raised to your eye it should already be focused. This rule is true for most street shots.

You can focus on your subject when they aren't looking, set the camera lens to manual and wait for "the moment" if it ever happens.

Whether on a train, or some other location, the easiest time to shoot is when there is a distraction. For example, when the mariachi band enters the car, everyone will be looking at them. You can shoot other passengers without being noticed.

And even if you are seen, people will understand that you have your camera out if you take a few shots of the mariachi Band as well. This is the same technique as using a landmark as a reason for taking pictures.

Another modern phenomena which makes life easier for the street photographer: everyone, whether on the street or in a subway car, is already distracted by their iPods, cell phones, e-books, and Blackberry devices. One day I was on the train, and noticed that everyone around me had earphones, or were reading their email. Combined with the noise of the train, I was able to take closeup shots of a passenger who was about a foot and a half away from me without being noticed by anyone. I found that amazing. It wasn't like that ten years ago.


As a rule for hand-held shooting, your shutter speed should equal the focal length of your lens. If you shoot with a 30mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/30th of a second. If your shoot with a 90mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/90th of a second to prevent blur due to camera shake.

Some photographers can hand-hold a camera at 1/15th of a second with a 30mm lens and some will have trouble holding the camera steady enough even at 1/30th of a second with a 30mm lens. So this is just a guide. Camera shake is also a property of the camera. An SLR camera, with the slap of the returning mirror, vibrates more than a Point and Shoot camera which doesn't have a mirror. Many Digital SLRs now feature "Live Mode" where the mirror slap is no longer a factor. So you will need to experiment to find out the lens / shutter speed combination which will prevent camera shake with your setup.

But remember this, camera shake is not the same thing as motion blur. Even if your camera is set on a tripod, with a mirror lock-up, and a cable release, if the motion of the subject is too fast for your shutter speed, you will have a perfectly blur free background (no camera shake) with a blurred subject.

I call this technique The Stutter Step. The object of the stutter step is to be able to freeze your walk, in mid-step if needed, at the same instant you click the shutter, and then continue on as if nothing has happened. If you do it slowly, someone walking briskly behind you may just about bump into you because you have stopped dead in your tracks for an instant while you put the camera to your eye and took a picture of someone walking towards you. For this sort of shooting, where your subject(s) more directly towards you, it is best to have as fast a shutter speed as you can manage.

Digital SLR cameras usually have the following settings: P (program mode), AV (aperture mode), TV (shutter speed mode) and M (manual mode). They also have a a bunch of icons representing other situations such as Action Mode, or Portrait Mode, or Night Mode. Don't use these. Again, you don't want the camera to make decisions for you.

But it is handy, to set your AV and TV modes so that with the twist of the dial, you are set for aperture or shutter speed priority. In the case where it is a sunny day and you are walking, and expect to be taking pictures of other people who are walking, you can work in TV mode, with your shutter set to 1/1000th of a second. This assumes that you are using a relatively fast lens, and that you can shoot at an ASA of at least 800.

But to return to the stutter step. Your camera is hanging around your neck. You are wearing tourist clothes. You see an interesting situation developing ahead of you. Your camera is set to shutter priority of 1/1000th (more if you can manage it), and you must image what distance you will be when you take the shot. Aim your camera at the sidewalk and focus at the distance that you imagine you'll take your shot and lock that focus in.

Now, just when the situation is right, you halt, sometimes in mid-stride, the camera moves to your eye. You already know whether this is going to be a vertical shot or not, and what the frame will be, and while you are stock still, you take your shot and just as if nothing happened, you continue on your way. Your subjects have passed you. Even if they noticed you, it is unlikely they will turn back to find out why you may have just taken their picture. Maybe you did, and maybe you didn't.


One benefit of modern cameras is the ability to shoot at a high ASA. You may be able to set your walking around shutter speed at 1/4000th of a second, with an ASA of 1600. Some of the newer cameras have usable ASA ratings of 32,000 and higher without causing noise in the RAW image. This opens up a new world to street photographers. With a high ASA you can shoot with a high F-Stop and a fast shutter speed in low light situations like the subway. For example you could use an F11 f-stop with a 1/1000th of a second shutter speed, and still have enough light for a proper exposure on the subway. That is a new development in street shooting.

Previously, street photographers would push their film or use fast film for shooting. They might use an ASA of 1600 or more, but the resulting negatives would be grainy. As I write this, the Canon Mark II can easily shoot at 1600 ASA with results similar or better than 400 ASA black and white film.


No matter how you try, and no matter how good your street technique is, most of your shots will be ordinary. You might come back after a day of shooting with nothing to show for it. You may feel non-productive.

Street photography is like fishing. If you enjoy fishing, the catch is important, but the entire experience of getting up early, and making many fruitless casts from your boat isn't non-productive. You may enjoy the experience whether you return with fish or not. You simply can't cast your rod and expect to catch a fish every time.

Your best street catches make up for all the uninteresting shots. Unlike fishing, you can't always tell immediately if you've caught a great shot. Many street photographers will let their captures sit for a while before looking at them. What this means is: don't throw anything away. Make backups of your images, and even if you think they're not very good - don't toss them. Given the inability to describe what makes a good street shot, you shouldn't throw any away. Even an out-of-focus shot might have something interesting in it when you have enough distance to judge it. Your may find something in a shot that seems boring when you look at it again a few years later. This has happened to me enough times so that I never delete digital images.


Street Photography is easier then it used to be. People in the city walk around with their senses clogged up. More people are oblivious to what is going on around them then ever before. Music is blasting in their ears, or they're talking on their cellphone. If they're not talking on the phone they may walk the streets while reading their email. This makes it easier to photograph a stranger without them noticing you.

Street Photography is harder than it used to be. Since we live in an age of urban terrorism and web postings, people and the police are more suspicious than ever. This suspicion extends to landmarks and property. The subways and the streets are filled with video cameras watching your every move. While you take your photographs, most likely you too are being photographed. In New York all major infrastructure contains signs banning photography.

In New York, although it is legal to take pictures on the subway, there is the possibility that you'll be questioned by the police who think you may be a terrorist. Maybe they don't know the current laws. You are allowed to photograph on the subway, so long as you don't use a flash or tripod. However, it is always a good idea to have valid ID with you in case you are stopped. I have been stopped many times while photographing on the subway and usually I just explain that I'm a fine art photographer, working in black and white, and show some ID and that's enough. If you are going to use a flash, or a tripod, it is still possible to get a permit to photograph in a specific location in the subway.


Photographers who are starting out want to know if it's a good idea to ask permission from your subject. It would be nice if you could, but it isn't practical. Once you strike up a conversation with your subject, you are no longer doing street photography. From that point on, the person will strike a pose, and you will be doing what I call street portraits. Should you get a model release? Unless you are doing street portraits, it isn't practical. On any given day, you may take 100 images only to find one good one (if you're lucky). It would be impossible to ask each person you photograph to sign a release Many of your shots are of people that rush by you in a fraction of a second.


At some point, you will be caught, and your subject will approach you. Maybe they say, "Did you just take my picture."

Honesty is the best policy. The answer is, "yes." You smile, and try and explain what it was that you found so interesting about them. With a digital camera, you can show the image on the back of the camera. The person may then be annoyed, or they may be flattered. If they are upset, and the picture isn't that great, then you could offer to delete it for them - and don't play any tricks. Delete it while they watch. If it's a great shot and you want to keep it, then you'll have to win them over. If you were using a film camera you could just shrug it off and say "no." But everyone knows that you could just show the picture on the back of the digital camera.

Most of the time the person is flattered and wants to know if you would like to take another shot. At this point they almost always strike a pose, and you take the picture knowing that you won't use it. You aren't a war correspondent. Very few images are worth getting into a big hassle over. In all my years of shooting, the worst that's ever happened is that someone asked if I would please delete their photo. I think this happened twice out of ten thousand shots.


- Choose an easy locale with lots of tourists when you are first starting out.

- Turn off any beeping your camera does.

- If you photographing individuals in a crowd, don't remove the camera from your eye after you take a shot, but keep scanning the crowd with it.

- Turn off the instant playback on the digital LCD

- Use a wide to normal lens. Don't rely on telephoto lenses

- Make sure that you are focused and know how you are going to frame the image before the camera goes to your eye.

- Only shoot from the hip, or without looking through the viewfinder as a last resort.

- Practice looking for specific literal ideas: irony, juxtaposition, design elements, joy, sadness, emotional moments, things that you find unusual, surprises.

- Be prepared to take a hundred shots for every good one. And try and understand what a good shot means. (This is outside the scope of this article).

- Always have a camera with you. You'll take some of your best pictures during your normal daily routines.

- Know the laws. You don't need to get into a big hassle with the police when they stop you from taking pictures in a place where you know it's legal to take pictures; but it's important to know your rights.

- Do not ask for permission or a model release, unless you are doing "portrait" work on the streets. Do not expect that you're images will be usable for print ads unless the subject is not recognizable (profile, shot from the back etc.)

- If you are afraid to put the camera to your eye - try to imagine that this is your last day on earth, and that the shot you see before you will be great. In other words, you may need to psych yourself into taking the shot. But there is a balance and if it really is too scary - then don't force yourself. Your own fear will come across to the subject. When to shoot, and when not to push it, is something you'll learn with time.

- Never use a lens cap (have an UV filter on the lens instead)

- Remember that no matter how many of these techniques you use, you are still invading someone's privacy. There is no way around that. So you must feel that what you are photographing is worth the effort.

And finally, give yourself time to get used to the experience. Expect to be nervous in the beginning. Also expect that after you've been at it for a few years these techniques will become second nature. I think that being nervous is actually a good sign. Anyone with some degree of empathy will be uncomfortable doing street photography in the beginning. If you are the type of photographer that begins by sticking your camera in the faces of strangers, it is doubtful whether you are sensitive enough to be a good street photographer.

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Defining Street Photography

February 17th, 2015

Defining Street Photography

Originally Published 2009

Most types of photography can be easily defined by their subjects. A wedding photographer takes pictures of weddings. A portrait photographer poses someone and takes their picture. The nature photographer covers a wide area, but it is easy to categorize.

Street photography is difficult to define because it can encompass just about any subject.

If I were to ask you to name a few famous street photographers, you might pick, Garry Winnograd, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or maybe Robert Frank. But if I asked you to define street photography - that would be more difficult. You might say that street photography is candid pictures of strangers on the street. That might be a good start, but it doesn't really describe street photography.

To start with, street photography doesn't need to be done on "the street." And it doesn't need to be pictures of strangers. In fact, it doesn't even need to be pictures of people, though it usually is. Although there are common subjects for street photography, it is not so much about the subject as it is the style of the photograph. I can easily imagine an astronaut orbiting the earth, using a street photography style.

Just as any object or scene can be painted with in a cubist style, just about any subject can be photographed in street-photography style. I say almost any subject, because the one thing that all street photos have in common are human beings, or human artifacts: things that were made by human beings. So what are the characteristics of this style which can be separated from the subjects of the image.

The most common and famous property of street-photography is the idea of capturing "the decisive moment." The most well-known street moment may be the blurred image of a man trying to jump a puddle at the railway station by Cartier-Bresson. A moment sooner and you have the guy standing, looking at the large puddle. A moment later, and the man has fallen into the puddle, or cleared it somehow. You don't really know. But capturing the moment, even if it is important, isn't everything.

Suppose that photograph were taken with a long modern lens, and the figure was frozen at 1/8000th of a second in mid-air, and the background and foreground were blurred because the depth-of-field with a long lens is very narrow. Well, it might look very much that moment when a pitcher releases the ball in an important game. The foreground and background are blurred. Even the closest part of the pitching mound is out of focus. Can that be considered a street shot.

No. Why not? It's the decisive moment alright - but without context - it isn't street photography.

Since we're imagining shots, let's imagine that you are sitting in the dugout with a normal or wide angle lens, and you hear footsteps on top of the dugout. You wonder what is going on, and at the same time you prepare your camera, and the pitcher is taking his wind up in the background, and just as he let's go of the ball, a naked streaker jumps from the top of the dugout onto the field. And you have snapped just as the figure was in mid-air, and the ball was coming to the plate, and the pitcher was finishing his follow-through. That's a street shot. No street. No buildings. But you have caught two moments, and pretty much everything is in focus, and you can look at the picture and just be amazed. The viewer is as surprised as you were - though you had some idea that something was about to happen.

It's that sort of moment, or juxtaposition of ideas, that street photographers are fascinated by. If you had a lot of money, you could dream up this still shot, and rent out the stadium and the team, and recreate this shot exactly as described - but that would not be street photography. And so long as nobody told about how the shot was set up and planned, it would be considered a great street shot. If everyone found out that they were duped, it might still be considered a great photograph - but not a great street shot.

The moment is not enough. To play by the rules, the shot really does need to be unplanned. It also needs to allow the eye to wander around and make it's own conclusions about the meaning of the photograph. If street photography were a musical form - it might be jazz. It might be rock and roll. The style of music would have a measure of improvisation.

Street Photography is not the same as documentary photography

If you send our imaginary street photographer to photograph the President giving at a press conference, they return with pictures of the other photographers at the photo op. Journalistic images are a dime a dozen. Their style is about curiosity. They need find be surprised in order to press the shutter. And it's not all based on juxtaposition, or the actual event. Maybe they find that three photographers look the same, and that's enough to click the shutter, if they are arranged properly.

The street photographer is a perpetual tourist. They may never leave their own town, but as they walk around, they can see things that the rest of the world is oblivious to. So I say again - it isn't the things they photograph nor is it always about the decisive moment.

I knew a street photographer who became fascinated by the different ways that people hailed a cab in New York. For two years, whenever he saw someone hail a cab, he tried to find a new angle, a new way of shooting this most ordinary of urban moments. One day, after years of keeping an eye out for people hailing cabs, he glimpsed, a young girl with crutches waiting to get into the cab. This might have been just another shot, but as he got closer to take the shot, he saw an old man with crutches was getting out of the cab. You look at the image, and think - what a stroke of luck to find this coincidence but he took years of maintaining this obsession to make something from the idea. And other times you just walk out of the house and are greeted with this sort of coincidental image.

Another common aspect of street photography that makes it different from other forms of photography, is that it is usually not sponsored. (In rare instances the photographer is given a grant to do this shooting, but as I say, this is rare). Just as nature photographers are haunted by their own desire to capture a mountain that is special or the mating habits of some bird species, the street photographer is driven to extract juxtapositions, or similarities, or unusual moments from the swirl of urban life.

The street photographer can best be identified not by what they shoot, but why they shoot. If their purpose is to make a discovery, to find a surprise, to give expression to their own curiosity about people and the things that people construct there is a good chance you've run into a street photographer. The best ones are like Zen hunters. I say Zen hunter, because you can't force the unexpected. You can only be open to it.

You can't force it, but you can put yourself in a place where there are enough people milling around to increase your odds. Looking for that moment is as useless as casting a fishing line and saying, "now I will catch a fish." It doesn't work that way.

The street photographer is the mirror image of the commercial photographer. The commercial photographer sets up the product to be photographed, arranges the lighting, controls as much of the image as he can, and takes the picture. The wedding photographer urges the various families to stand and smile at the camera. The idea of posing subjects is anathema for the street photographer.

The wedding photographer, or the commercial photographer are paid to produce a product. The street photographer is only paid afterwards, if at all.

The street photographer is often an unwanted guest. They need to develop Ninja-like techniques so that they remain unseen in the middle of a crowded street. They may even dress in camouflage. Rather than using a high-powered rifle to pick off wild beasts at a distance, the street photographer photograph strangers at close range. This can be scary for the beginner.

One photographer I knew would dress like a typical tourist in New York and bring a tourist map with him. He might stand near the Empire State building and gawk up at it, all the time taking pictures of the people around him. So here he is, a New York native for fifty years, play-acting the tourist so that he can blend in with the strangers around him.

I'm sure that many a street photographers dream of a cloak of invisibility.

To conclude - there are the formal elements that can be used to define the street photograph: the mysterious decisive moment that is shown in context; the use of juxtaposed elements to form a new synthesis that is unusual, although the juxtaposed elements may be ordinary; the desire to let the scene play without disturbing it; and most of all, the desire to experience and communicate the surprise that the photographer feels in the frame which is pointed at the world of human beings and their creations.

As you can see, it would be much easier for me to talk about techniques that street photographers use to achieve their ends then it is to define the style, but hopefully this article is useful in explaining the how it can be recognized.

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Long and Short Exposures

February 17th, 2015

Long and Short Exposures


Usually, when photographers talk about long exposures they mean that the shutter is open for longer than can easily be hand held, though it's surely not as simple a definition as that.

The first rule of thumb for a hand-holdable shot: THE FOCAL LENGTH RECIPROCAL RULE.

If your focal length is 30mm, then you should be able to hand hold a camera with a 1/30th of a second shutter speed. By hand hold, this just means that you SHOULD be able to depress the shutter and keep the camera from shaking so much that it shows up as a PHOTO WITH CAMERA SHAKE.

The RECIPROCAL RULE assumes that the subject is relatively still. Posed. This rule works especially well with objects that tend not to move, and inanimate human beings that tend not to move or talk. If you were shooting with a lens of focal length 300mm, then you'll see that you need at least 1/300th of a second. And you will notice, I hope, that the longer the lens, the more the image dances around in the viewfinder.

Which brings us to the usefulness of placing the camera on a steady surface, especially when shooting with longer lenses. And if you can't put it on a steady surface, and you can't use a tripod, then the best you can do is press the camera against your eye and forehead and have the camera strap at a good length so that it can also act as a sort of triangular brace, from shoulder to camera.

So right away, the idea of "long exposure" is related to your intentions. If you are using a long lens, and you can't achieve a shutter speed that is the RECIPROCAL of the FOCAL LENGTH, and you don't have anything to rest the camera on. It's a long exposure - unless - of course you want to have camera shake in the final image.

Image Stabilization (IS) is a great thing. I have it on the Canon 70-300mm lens, and it can easily save me one or two stops. By that I mean that if the focal length is 300mm, I can shoot at 1/125th of a second, or even 1/60th without getting camera shake. And as soon as that shutter button is halfway depressed, and IS is turned on, I can see through the viewfinder that camera shake is almost gone.

As mentioned, stabilization will have no effect on objects that are moving. And frankly, this is something that takes some experience and testing to learn about. For example, I've noticed that a figure that cuts quickly across the plane - say from left to right - is almost certainly going to blurred with a shutter speed of less than 1/250th of a second no matter how steady the camera is. But even here, this depends on the lens. At least it seems that way to me.

The figure moving from left to right at a constant speed will be blurred differently depending on the focal length. This is something I can't swear to, but it does seem that way, though it may only be due to the relative size of the figure in the frame.

Nevertheless - I think this covers the major points of what constitutes a long exposure, but it doesn't get to what the reader would expect to read about under this exposure, i.e "the really long exposure." What for example is the difference between an exposure of one minute, and an exposure of five minutes?

With film, for example, there is the concept of reciprocity. Film reciprocity - what the heck is that and why should you care.

If by any chance you are shooting film, most films will say that after a certain amount of time, reciprocity sets in. That's not a disease. It just means that the amount of exposure decreases according to a certain curve that is particular to that film after a certain amount of time. Shooting tri-x for example (once a well-known film) the amount of exposure that you get after ten minutes is not ten times as much as what you got with one minute.

Ah laddies, it's a long subject with many a twist and turn. Let me chat about the long long exposure as it applies to digital shots in the next post.

I consider this shot of Bill Emory to be a "long exposure" because it was shot at 1/15th of a second, with a 300mm lens. I had mentioned to him that it would be good if he didn't breathe while I took the shot. The camera was on a tripod (in my cramped studio) and the zoom lens (mentioned before, Canon EOS 70-300mm) had Image Stabilization turned on. Lighting was by my standing floor lamp.

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Will the Living Room Picture Go Digital

February 17th, 2015

As I was re-reading a Sherlock Holmes story on my iPhone with Google Reader app (I like it very much) my eye caught sight a photographic print on the my bedroom wall. I wondered whether the print and paintings, what are considered part of home decor, would be replaced by digital frames in the same way that books are being replaced by eBooks.

Amazon recently proclaimed that they were selling more eBooks than physical books.

Will this digital conversion also replace the physical print in frame on the living room wall?

Were there unique differences between eBooks and a digital picture frames?

At first glance, they do seem different - but I thought it would be interesting to enumerate the differences.

The world has come to the conclusion that reading books is very convenient on digital devices, whether it be an iPad, an iPhone, a Kindle, a NOOK etc. The only screen that I cannot read on for any length of time is my computer screen. No matter what anyone says, I still like to curl up with a good eBook - something that I can't do with this giant screen.

Given that background, I began to wonder whether the living room print, the living room photos, the paintings in the hallway, would be replaced by digital frames.

And more to the point, what exactly was the difference between digital books and digital displays of visual art.

The differences may seem obvious to you - but I felt the need to enumerate these differences because as far as I could see, the digital picture frame had still not caught on, although it was a much simpler thing to do from a technical point-of-view.

1. Give Us Some Style

At first glance (so to speak) the digital book and the digital picture frame seem similar. A book is simply a display of some combination of text and pictures.

The digital picture frame displays images. The frame could be large, though as you begin to approach poster size, price becomes an issue. But smaller picture frames could be purchased, and rather than being able to only show one picture, they could be programmed to show different pictures at different times of the day, or in a random manner - like a screensaver for the wall.

And therein - lies the problem. What is chosen to display on a living room wall is an expression of the owner(s) of that space.

The very fact that it doesn't change from one image to another, gives it a value because you chose it. Think of it as a bit of interior design. The single unchanging picture in the living room has the responsibility of proclaiming your sense of style, in the same way as the paint on the wall, the furniture in the room, and the lighting mechanism.

The book, at it's core, is not for display purposes. It's true that there will always be rare books for display. First printings of rare books, and all that sort of thing. But for most people, books can be enjoyed perfectly well if they are curled up in a nice armchair, or sitting on a plane (ugh), or wherever without needing to be shown as a declaration of who you are.

In terms of style, if the very use of a digital frame becomes a wow factor, a proclamation of your style, then they could become popular. But unlike the benefits of reading a digital book, the digital frame as a style statement has an uphill battle.

2. The Enjoyment Factor

The book can be read and enjoyed on any suitable device because it is a set of symbols that you translate in your imagination. The art of telling a story, or writing about history, is not inherent in the physical presentation but in the way that the story or history is told.

It is true, that there is a craft associated with physical books which can make them works of art despite the content - but here we are talking about a separate form of artistic endeavor that will be lost to the digital book reader. Of that there is no doubt. But it is also clear that a time will come when this sort of bookmaking craft will be rare - and that purchasers of well-made physical books will do so as investments and read them (if they dare) with white cotton gloves on.

The question is whether a viewer can get the same enjoyment from a digital picture frame as from an original physical print?

That digital frame on the living room wall is always there. It can be turned on or off. It can show art, or turn into a video screen. But this very ability to display anything (unlike the case with the digital book) will make it harder to enjoy. Even if you only have one digital image in it, that image will not have the same aesthetic value as a physical print.

This ability to display anything removes the personality behind the images.

Some laptop makers now offer different covers as an option. The way the laptop looks, rather than what it does, is an important fashion statement.

The well-crafted artistic books that I mentioned before will become more interesting because they can't morph into something else.

In short, even if a digital frame had the same "look" as a traditional painting or print, knowing that you were looking at a digital representation that could be changed with the press of a button - will make the presentation less enjoyable.

Efficiency is not the key to enjoyable art. Can you imagine Renoir exclaim to his fellow painters: "Hey guys! Watch this. Now we can flip through my pictures with the click of my smartphone."

Edward Weston used to do something like that. Ansel Adams writes (and I'm paraphrasing) that Edward would invite friends over and have a stack of small contact prints, perhaps they were 5 x 7's.

He would put each one on a small easel for his friends to look at. Then without saying a word, remove it and place the next one on the easel. And so on until the little show was over.

Then they would talk.

But this was not a slideshow, or a digital frame with a clicker. These were original prints - and I just can't imagine a time where a print will turn into a slideshow; whereas I can easily see a time when only the very wealthy have what we used to call books.

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Inkjets Are Not Easy

February 17th, 2015

As an ancient citizen who grew up in the black and white darkroom era, and who worked, both at a pro lab, and in my own darkroom for a very long time, I tried to embrace inkjet printing as soon as possible. Ah, there was the great potential for excellent black and white prints that could compare with black and white fiber prints. In the darkroom, if I can remember that far back, my paper of choice was Ilford Gallerie Graded paper.

Later, I got lazy and switched to Ilford Multigrade fiber. Prints were air-dried on screens. Everyone talked about the best way to keep fiber prints flat after they dried.

Then inkjets entered the picture (so to speak).

At first I used inkjets (with dye inks) for cards and for testing. I kept my wet darkroom as my business depended on darkroom prints. And when you even spoke the word, Inkjet, your print value dropped.

Then Epson 4800 arrived. It had a built-in driver for black and white prints. Papers were beginning to appear that were especially made to resemble the Ilford Gallerie paper that I compared my inkjet prints with. Eventually, I became convinced that an inkjet print could rival or even surpass a darkroom black and white print. (Heresy at the time, and even now.)

I switched to the digital darkroom and eventually bought an Epson large format printer and managed to squeeze it into my studio apartment and tossed out the Zone VI enlarger. That's right - I couldn't find anyone to rent a van and take it off my hands. It is many years since I made that swap, and I have some conclusions.

Now to the point: the inkjet is going to be looked back on as a primitive piece of equipment. It's primitive in the same way that the Space Shuttle is primitive: it is just way too complex.

The darkroom, even today when paper is exposed by LEDs but go through chemical baths is still more reliable than inkjet printers. You will often run across the acronym term Lambda. Now this means that light sensitive paper is exposed with LEDs, but it doesn't always tell you what exactly the process is. In other words, I've seen it used to mean that color prints and color chemicals are being used; and I've seen it mean that RC silver prints will be produced, and also and this is most rare and the best solution for black and white prints, that the prints will be exposed on true silver fiber paper giving you the best of both worlds.

This Lambda fiber process is best for darkroom prints that normally require a lot of fine-tuning (dodging, burning, bleaching). Once you've got your digital file ready in Photoshop or your post-processing program of choice - you can get have the digital file used to produce a perfect Lambda darkroom print.

And printing processes that rely on "stamping" as opposed to "spraying" are also more reliable.

Think about what that high-end fine art printer is doing. The drivers for communicating with the inkjet printer are okay. That's not the bottleneck. The problem is that the technique depends on micro-spraying drops of pigment ink onto various types of paper, sometimes spraying as many as 2880 drops per inch, and these drops are coming from maybe eight different print heads.

And all that ink spritzing around. It gets on the print head(s) and needs to be wiped off. So something like a windshield wiper (though smaller) wipes off the excess ink and splashes it into a maintenance tank that is supposed to sop it up. But all it takes is a single hair to get onto that maintenance tank, get picked up by the print head - and voila - you are in trouble again.

To make matters worse, and to the surprise of the novice printer, the combination of high-end paper and ink turns out to be more expensive than the darkroom fiber print. That isn't counting labor. If everything is working properly, then the inkjet is the clear winner as a labor saving device. Again - that's if everything is working.

But given the complexity of what is being done when you print a large black and white print, there's more chance for something to go wrong.

Example: last week, an old enemy arrived on the Epson 7800 prints - a small amount of ink splatter on one edge of the print. Didn't matter the size of the print - there it was. Luckily, I have seen this before and suspected that the maintenance tank - the box that keeps the splattered extra ink - was messed up, although the Epson Driver indicators were - as NASA would say - Nominal.

Nevertheless, I pulled a dry maintenance tank from my 4800 printer (which I hadn't used for a while) and that maintenance tank had had a chance to dry out, and I exchanged it with the Epson 7800 print - and voila. The very next 7800 print was perfect, and no more splatters since then (about two weeks ago).

On the other hand, the Epson 4800 which I hadn't used for a while had clogged nozzles and it took every trick in the world to clean them (not to mention all the wasted ink which is more valuable than gold bullion).

So with all the incredible software that has progressed like crazy - I use NIK software for most of my post processing - their still is a bottle neck and it is the inkjet fine art printer which I suspect will one day go the way of the shuttle.

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