Pitfalls of Street Photography

Since its inception this blog has covered many topics, some of them distinctly personal, some common and some highly contentious. When initiating this blog many years ago, I knew from the start that I wanted to make it honest and conversational. Especially in photography, genuine and filter-free discussions are important as they often lead to a fresh mindset. The worst I could do would be to have another let’s-all-hold-hands, everything-goes or photography-is-always-fun outlet.

Today I would like to share some personal thoughts about street photography. I know that some of my work doesn’t fit easily into the genre of street photography but for the lack of better term, it will do.

There’s no question that for those of you taking your first steps in the thrilling world of street photography, the genre offers huge awards. The excitement of hitting the street, breaking personal barriers to reach out to strangers, searching for the light and crafting imagery from ordinary elements has massive appeal. Nevertheless, street photography also has its dark side.

One aspect is visual patterns, which are clearly visible for those who live, study and shoot this genre on daily basis. Such visual formulas often lead to immensely popular imagery, which is being produced en masse, also by yours truly, I confess. I am not throwing stones at anyone but pointing out an issue. Let me give you an example.

If I were to publish these images, I would probably get many “likes” with great comments about light, shapes, etc. Indeed, they are very appealing images. What are you beefing about then, Olaf? Well, these images follow a formula and can be produced repeatedly. In fact, given the same friendly afternoon or morning light, I could go out for two hours and come back with a truckload of imagery like this. The visual literacy and intellectual zest needed to craft this kind of image is minimal. Of course, I have seen similar imagery but with a clever visual twist that adds another layer of difficulty and makes the image more captivating.   

This leads to another trap: the menace of the sole image. Many of us, including me, go out and try to capture this individual imagery which, other than location, doesn’t have much in common. Of course, by itself, this is not a problem! However, after a while this approach might lead to establishing certain visual patterns and causing unintentional repetitiveness. It might also desensitize a photographer from producing what I call “articulate” imagery – in other words something more meaningful, a project or purpose-oriented work.   

The popularity of imagery with a certain DNA (for example, a nice pocket of light) may provide a false sense of accomplishment. A photographer may quickly find out, consciously or unconsciously, that producing certain type of imagery pays off but the consequences are clear: a lack of visual diversity and an aversion to risk-taking – in other words, a massive visual stall for the sake of consistency and approval.

Recently I had a brilliant student at my workshops shooting really unique imagery. There was no question that this student skipped the common eye-candy phase of street photography and went for much richer arrangements. However, the reception of this person’s work is less than stellar, for obvious reasons. Of course, I encouraged the student to march on, keep taking visual risks and not let the temptation of the spotlight ruin their visual courage.

I am well aware of such dangers. Recently I published numerous images that go well beyond my street work and are project-related. Someone who is addicted to certain street work wrote to me that “your recent work doesn’t fit your usual themes” further suggesting that I should stop doing it. While I am always open to even the harshest critique, this advice is as far from my photographic philosophy as it can get.  

Why I am writing about all this? Well because sometimes it’s important to pause, stand back and evaluate our seeing without any filters. Being aware that such visual traps exist is already a big plus, especially in street photography. It is remarkable and humbling to have honest conversations with some of my photographic friends, those with the most creative and adventurous seeing, who always question their current visual viewpoint. 

Next time I will describe ways to navigate your street photography so you don’t fall into those traps. Stay tuned and thank you for the great, honest conversation.              

Today I will leave you with some of my recent street portrais.

next time… something different

 

2018 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Pitfalls of Street Photography

  1. Olaf,

    I know you love a good discussion, so I’ll bite and add some tension to the conversation. First, I’m glad you wrote this because it’s an excellent discussion , personally it has been in my mind lately. You always have a knack for hot topics…and just like our discussion on creativity, I still think about it and toss it back and forth in my head from time to time, because it’s not settled…there is still more to unpack.

    I think there are two (at least two that I can think of tonight) variations of the problem of repetition and visual similarity. 1 – there is a genuine lack of creativity and an obsession for likes and perceived digital success, which we all succumb to at some point or we wouldn’t be discussing any of this online. We see a shot and we want to take that shot for ourselves and we feel like we are done, checked it off our list, hashtag it and keep going..

    But 2 – I find that there is a creative stage at which repetition or the creation of a common image composition is a learning tool and a conversation between “artists”…I quote it because I am not signifying success as an artist, only intention to make more than a snapshot or take a picture. For example, there are some photographers that I follow who have mastered a shot or perspective that I admire and that they taught me to see. By that, I mean that it wasn’t obvious to me in the world before I saw the image, but when I saw the images and the story that they were telling, I recognized the deeper meaning. The same way I recognize a photographer who has similar shots to mine (or visa versa) where I see what they are trying to do and maybe they did it better or worse, but the point is, I recognize their language and narrative.

    So there are some shots that I take, and post, as a conversation and a visual marker of how I am progressing in capturing a narrative that I admire or that I am interested in. And by practicing the shot, and frankly copying the visual syntax, can I discover something within that context or share a detail or perspective with others that may not make a completely unique image but could add to the language of a shot? I don’t know that the other photographers actually see my work or would consider it a conversation, but there are many people trying to learn the language of photography and If one can’t regularly capture a shadow, pocket of light, a gesture or a landscape that I like, can we truly be original? So maybe we just have to get the basics before we can iterate creatively?

    I struggle with this question a lot because the pressure of trying to find an “original’ shot by external standards is almost creatively crushing, it’s impossible to set out with that as your goal for the day. However, by looking at images I admire, and replicating them in my place, time, light, camera, focal length, f-stop and perspective, can I begin to understand my vision as well as understanding the challenges and choices of the other photographer? There are several photos that I try to replicate, that I haven’t been successful at replicating, because they are hard to get technically, or they take a lot of time waiting for the right moment…I may eventually get that shot, and post it, but not because it’s original, but because I wanted to see how it was made.

    So maybe the visual repetition is just more people joining the dialogue of photography and are still in the early stages of trying to learn the language? Is that a good or a bad thing?

    After saying all of this, I am super tired of shadowy man/woman walking into a pocket of light with a colored wall…yet I still shoot it sometimes. I am weary of minimalist shadows, but I still see some from people in your webinars that blow my mind with their simplicity. Personally, I look at my images today and I see many that I worked hard for at the time, but now, I am tired of them. Time to learn new ways of saying what I am trying to say, but I first needed to get proficient with the overdone before I got tired of it.

    Much longer than I expected, evidently I needed to get that off my chest :). This is in no way a thesis, just some questions that I am trying to answer myself. Always enjoy your point of view and willingness to discuss Olaf! Look forward to having this discussion in person in September!

    – Aaron

  2. I’m glad you wrote this, Olaf. I’ve been avoiding the topic for a long time. Most “street photography” is formulaic to the point of irrelevance. If I see one more “shadow on a wall” picture I may have to poke my eyes out … well, not really, since I’ll likely see another one today and I must search for something original, something honest, something not created for “likes” or approval. In other words, a moment of creative convergence and connection that just might have something to say a year from now.

    That should be our quest.

    1. Thank you Raymond for sharing your thoughts with us. Your conclusion “that should be our quest” is right on.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  3. Hi Olaf, your blog-post is exactly what i feel. I see ohter photographers around me, who shoot the same sort of imagery since years. I think that life is a journey and so is my own evolution. You know, your workshop in Berlin was really great for me and i learn a lot. But at the end for me it was just a big piece of a puzzle on my way as a streetphotographer.
    Sometimes i feel myselfl alone with my thoughts and that`s why this blog feel so good for me.

    Life is a journey, so keep your good way, despite other opinions
    Christof

    1. Christof,

      It is always great to hear from you. You are such an independent thinker and visual risk-taker! I am so glad what you wrote about your experience in Berlin. It should be a piece of the puzzle. I always encourage students to find their own ways, so I really like what I hear and see from you.

      Appreciate your kind words about the blog and let’s keep this conversation going.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  4. I came across this realization the other day as well on my lunch walk. I was looking at my a few images from that day and thought, hmm I should be doing better or more complicated. This is great advice!

    1. Thanks Mike. Indeed, street photography or creative street photography is much harder than many try to portrait it. Having said that, this is a great visual adventure for sure.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  5. I am glad I came across you yesterday.

    I am only a beginner in Photography, but have a background in Philosophy. In fact, I started Photography to get me outside my head. Often, at school in Art lessons, I knew in my head what I wanted to convey, but it seemed my brain didn’t want to talk to my hand! It struck me a few months back, that Photography is a different medium.

    But everything seems to be drowning in cliché, and any advice is geared around helping one replicate the cliché. (In portraits, for example, it’s the backlit sunglow in the top of the frame at the moment.) It seems to be just fads and mimicry, yet find myself, in a sense, conditioned by this.

    In other words, it seems the skills and understanding which I need to achieve what is in my head, aren’t out there, just how to copy others. It’s so frustrating. 🙁

    End of rant. 🙂

    1. Thank you Paul for sharing your thought. I agree with you. However, I find frustration a great tool to push into new seeing. Of course, it doesn’t always work but once it does, the results are magnificent. We have to keep pushing and taking visual risks.

      Appreciate your thoughtful note. Looking forward to your future comments.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  6. Continuez votre travail, votre sens du graphisme, de la couleur, de la composition et de votre patience pour déclencher au bon moment font de vous, que vous avez un regard différent sur la photo de rue. Ancien photographe professionnel dans le mariage, le portrait c’est à dire “la photographie sociale” je pratique aussi la photographie de rue, et il arrive tout comme vous que l’on se pose des questions sur notre travail. Continu t’il a plaire, faut’il changer de style ! Il m’arrive également que je m’égare sur cette pratique et me pose la question à savoir qu’elle est la bonne vérité sur ce genre photographique…Certaines de vos images s’inscrivent dans la photographie contemporaine. Notre œil est toujours à l’affût pour rechercher la bonne images. Ne changez rien, votre travail est superbe et merci de le partager sur ce blog. je vous envie avec votre GFX 50

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful note. I apologize for writing back in English but I am not that good in French (used translator 🙂

      All the best,

      Olaf

  7. Olaf, well written. The sameness of “street” photography is evident everywhere photos are posted. Perhaps it is only a phase that we go through to get to somewhere else. I hope so.

    I find that my rare street excursions are now more about practicing rather than image creation. Your advise to your student, and to anyone who will listen, is well given. Stick to making image you find compelling and don‘t go for “likes.”

    Keep up the good job of making us think about what and why we photograph.

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