Street photography is a genre that owes some of its enormous popularity to the growing urbanization of our spaces. As people move from rural areas and cities expand, finding landscape locations to photograph has meant traveling further distances, which isn’t always possible when you have limited time. When my mentor pointed out to me that street photography is akin to landscape photography for people who live in cities, I decided to test that theory by looking at the most common landscape photography tips and seeing if there were any similarities. Surprisingly there were more than just a few.
Foreground, middle ground, and background
One of the most common landscape tips is to pay attention to objects throughout your scene. By including something of interest in your foreground, you can draw the viewer’s attention into the frame and by incorporating objects in the middle, you can help their eye travel through the picture and hopefully include something of interest in the background as well. This tip is often cited to give a feeling of depth or three-dimensionality to landscape photographs. Street photographers have the same concept except they call it “layering”. This technique is frequently promoted to give depth of interest to street photographs but the goal is the same, to make use of the entire frame to engage the viewer.
This is a favourite tip of many landscape photographers and is frequently applied when discussing long exposures involving water. By extending the length of time your shutter is open, you can give the feeling of moving water especially if all other elements within the scene remain stationary. Long exposures can also be employed to photograph star trails in a big open sky at night. If you live in a city, it is almost impossible to see the stars but you can still capture movement either through panning or by simply finding a background that works for you, setting a longer shutter speed, and letting people move through the frame. Street photographers often use this technique when they find interesting signs or buildings that aren’t going to move and they want to include a human element to juxtapose and infer meaning.
Skies and Skyline
Often the difference between an interesting landscape photograph and a boring one is the presence of a dramatic sky. Pending inclement weather or interesting cloud formations can change a scene so much so that seasoned landscape photographers will consult the weather report before deciding when to head out to specific locations. In the city the skies may not play as prominent a role when there are towering high-rises and seemingly little sky to see especially when they are polluted. If you treat the skyline as an extension of the skies, framing with that in mind can add the drama that might be missing. This could be as simple as including interesting architecture or historical landmarks at the top of your frame. Often these elements will give viewers an indication of where the picture was taken as geological landmarks often do in landscape photographs.
When first starting out in photography, many people will buy a camera with a kit zoom lens i.e. 18-55mm or something similar. If you develop an interest in landscape photography, you will likely want a good quality wide-angle zoom lens such as a 16-35mm. Going wide allows you to capture big scenic landscapes that give the viewer a sense of the open space. The typical street photography lens is a medium zoom lens (Jay Maisel actually uses the Nikon 28-300mm) or a 50mm prime lens however some street photographers like to use a 35mm prime lens. This lens allows you to get closer without raising too much attention of those around you. It also enables you to incorporate much more of the environment which also makes it easier to use the “layering” technique mentioned earlier.
Water is an important element in landscape photography and many photographers find reflections irresistible subject matter. The best time to photograph reflections is early in the morning when the waters are calm and the light reflected has a different quality from the light that falls on the trees and landscape. You can often take a relatively ordinary scene and improve it by including a reflection. Shooting reflections is almost standard for street photographers because there are so many windows or reflective surfaces (such as cars) in urban environments. Here too the quality of light is important although photographing at high noon is preferable for getting reflections in cityscapes. You can take a relatively boring street scene and if you add in reflections of buildings or people, you can create more interesting pictures that will grab the attention of viewers. Here’s a link to getting creative with reflections by JJ Michael who teaches our Beginner’s Class.
Spend time scouting
If you listen to the stories behind some of the strongest landscape photographs, you will find the photographer has spent a lot of time researching the location. This includes a great deal of time scouting the location in terms of vantage points and understanding how the light and different weather conditions will work to create a better photograph. It is not uncommon for them to come back repeatedly to the same location in pursuit of more ideal conditions. Street photography can also benefit from location scouting especially if you are photographing in your neighbourhood where returning on a regular basis is easy to do. Research when the light is ideal and look for patterns in foot traffic or times of the day when local merchants might be following their routines such as receiving deliveries. Not only will you improve your chances of making a stronger photograph but you might also find something interesting that would have been missed otherwise.
Get into position
The other night I was out trying to figure out the best spot for me to photograph the Super Moon. I used an app called Light Trac to figure out the best place to be in relation to the landscape and the moon. JJ Michael wrote about a simple app here. Figuring out when the moon would rise and where it would be on the horizon when it would appear the largest was important to make sure I was standing in the right spot for the best opportunity to make the photograph I had envisioned. While there is no such app for street photographers, thinking about your scene and figuring out the best spot to make your picture takes away the randomness that leaves almost everything up to chance. Maybe that is the allure of street photography for some but to me, you shouldn’t be relying on happy accidents to become a better photographer. For his series “Dream Life” Australian photographer Trent Parke understood the light he needed to achieve his vision to the point of being obsessive in finding the right spot to make this photograph.
The parallels between landscape and street photography may not be apparent at first but like many aspects of photography, technical skill and “seeing” can be transferable. Our next Beginners class starts August 27th and JJ Michael will be teaching the fundamentals and maybe a few tips in this post. We still have some spots available so register today!
When I first started taking pictures, I never knew about the concept of “visual design”. I was perfectly happy snapping away what looked nice to me and I felt pretty good about my pictures. Ignorance sure was bliss. It was only when I began to get serious about photography that I learned there was a difference between taking a picture and making one.
One of my favourite photographers, William Allard, often draws analogies between photography and writing—good photography and good writing actually. It is also a great analogy to use to help understand visual design. Writing can be considered linguistic design that is, how we place and use words to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. Words can be arranged to create a specific kind of communication, for example, lyrics, poetry, prose, etc. and can re-arranged to improve the communication. Visual design is the arrangement of visual elements to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. These too can be moved around to improve the visual expression, which in our case is the photograph but also includes drawings, lithographs, paintings, and movies.
Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the six elements of visual design: tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective and share some examples of how these can be used in making photographs.
Photographers, as the Greek translation goes, write with light. Light is actually the source of these six visual elements. Without it, we would not be able to see these elements, to recognize and to frame them to create a photograph. Light has its own qualities that are of interest to us, basically the quality and the direction of light.
When we talk about the quality of light, we are referring to its harshness or softness. Although there is a perceived value in the way these are described, hard light can be good and soft light can be bad and vice versa depending on what you are trying to communicate. As you become more comfortable with using the elements of visual design, you will begin to recognize which quality of light you need in order to create the photograph that expresses your idea.
The direction of light is usually described in three ways: front lighting, back lighting, and side lighting. It is often a key ingredient in creating mood through the illumination or concealment of the things you include in your frame. Like the quality of light, the direction can, and should, be used to help create your visual expression.
The vast topic of light is beyond the scope of this post but it is very important to understand as you grow in this craft. If you want to take an in depth look at the subject of light, the book Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting would be an excellent addition to your library.
Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Tone
Many photographers who are just beginning will look at a professional’s work and think that professional photographers are merely lucky people who happen to always find themselves in the right place at the right time to capture the images they do. If that is the case then Eric Meola is one of the luckiest men alive.
Eric’s portfolio is full of wonderful images which use simple compositions and a brilliant use of color to beautifully portray diverse cultures and vast landscapes. It is very possible that Eric simply stumbles across fascinating people and beautiful scenery every time he turns a corner, but the more likely explanation for such an amazing collection of images is that through years of relentless effort he has developed a keen sense of awareness of his surroundings.
It’s this sense of awareness that allows photographers like Eric to regularly put themselves in the right position to create stunning images. The time spent exploring and observing is just as important as knowing about exposure compensation and metering modes. Technical skills and composition techniques can be learned, but the observational skills required for finding that perfect picture only come from continually walking out your front door with camera in hand.
In addition to regularly working at your craft, one of the best ways to improve your own photography or break yourself out of a photographic rut is to find inspiration in other photographers’ work. A great place to start is with Eric’s portfolio which spans several decades and comes from all over the globe. His images can be found at ericmeola.com.