Pitfalls of Street Photography

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.

Parade of Street Visuals with the X100F

Parade of Street Visuals with the X100F

There is no question that busy cities such as Vancouver, San Francisco or New York provide a plethora of situations and visuals, making a great stomping ground for street photographers. When talking to photographers I found many of them have their own photography “route” in the city which, with ever-changing city life, provides visuals on demand. I have routes too which are almost guaranteed to provide interesting subjects.

However, I learned a long time ago that routine and complacency are your biggest enemies. After all, photography is all about discovery and risk-taking. You shouldn’t stick to just one genre of photography because it’s detrimental to your seeing and leads to conformism in choosing your subject, place or even composition.

I often receive emails from photographers from small towns or rural areas who would love to do more street photography but are limited by their location. I understand the problem. Indeed, it‘s hard to wait 30 minutes or more in one spot without seeing a single human being.

But don’t give up – there are advantages in photographing in smaller cities or rural areas.

First, places like this have less visual noise so your “seeing” is able to slow down and you can evaluate every element before you start shooting. I notice that my composition tends to get better and even the placement of my subject gets more interesting.  

Second, my interaction with people is more amusing. There is no need to rush to “the next.” You’re not bothered by traffic and crowds and your subject is not rushing to work. It is just a pleasure to chat without feeling rushed by the forces of the Big Apple.

Third, while opportunities are rare, sometimes the visuals you create are really unusual.

After travelling extensively around small-town North America, Kasia and I have run across community gatherings, festivals, parades, weddings and even funerals (those are tough and you have to be very sensitive). These events are full of people and unbelievable energy, providing a great opportunity to observe, interact with your subject and do some street photography. Yes, I said street photography!

Many people have a pre-conceived idea that the term “street photography” only applies to cities, ideally a big metropolis. I disagree. I sometimes find amazing visuals in small towns. They offer a different visual vibe, which requires your seeing to be more acute, tuned and creative. With sufficient effort you may be surprised what you will find.

We recently visited Cloverdale, British Columbia and did some street photography there. I admit we were very lucky because we caught the popular Cloverdale Rodeo and Country Fair event. I haven’t had so much fun with my X100F for a long time. Great Parade, great event, fantastic people!

Here are the images.

 

Next time … we have so much visual material for you! From street photography with the X100F to our continued coverage of the GFX system. Don’t forget to check in. 

 

And don’t forget that our Streets of Vancouver photography workshop is coming up in late July. Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.

Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

Forgotten Memory, X100F

On the surface the photographic process appears to be easy and straightforward. You grab a camera and capture whatever you like. This is true for someone who doesn’t aim at creating a photograph but rather performs the mechanical task of pressing the shutter button to take a snap.

However, if you are interested in creating a photograph, the process is much more complex. Among other things it involves emotions, observation, connection, evaluation, composition, light and some technical considerations. Today, it appears that technicals have taken a central role and occupy the minds of photographers. If I could point to one area that has been the most ignored it is the art of observation.

Elliott Erwitt described it this way: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” While it may sound simple, for many people it is incredibly difficult to do.  

As humans we are naturally wired to focus on important things and filter out all the rest. While such an approach has served us well over the ages, in creative photography it’s a major obstacle. In addition, our education system and our daily routine push us to see and react in a certain way. Have you noticed while walking around the city how your brain filters out the noise and visuals? We usually stroll around town without challenging what we see or how we see it.

In order to find “something interesting in an ordinary place” you must challenge your seeing. In other words, you need to break your seeing patterns and go for something new, uncomfortable and different.

While such a plan of action sounds great, it is incredible difficult to execute. The key ingredient of breaking our own seeing patterns is to go after visuals, which we miss. For example, while shooting on the streets of Vancouver, I usually include the human element into the frame. In the meantime, there are many scenes, which has no people in them but somehow they imply human activity. Another example would be shooting portraits or scenes with people but showing them in a new perspective and/or harmonizing them with the background.

There is a plethora of similar examples, which we discuss in-depth at our education and mentoring platform, Simplicity-In-Seeing. We also include specific exercises we use to break our usual seeing patterns.

What are your ways of breaking your seeing patterns?  

Here are our latest visual explorations from the streets of Vancouver as seen through the X100F viewfinder.

 

 

2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

Coming Soon! Santa is Coming to Town

“Hello people, what’s going on?” we hear you ask. We haven’t hit the road for quite some time and some of you started wondering if we have totally abandoned our ON THE ROAD persona. The short answer is NO!

Here is our long answer.

For the last few months we have been working on a new project/idea that we think you will like a lot. While our launching date is well past due, we are finally getting there. The new platform has required a lot of work and constant communication with our remarkable technical team.  

We are also musing on a truckload of ideas and attempting to write some of them down. This requires the right frame of mind, or in other words a break in our chaotic, incoherent line of thought. Of course we help ourselves with an occasional glass of wine (Kasia) or a well-shaken glass of diluted vodka (Olaf – no James Bond pun intended!). Please note that the latter prohibits me driving my Aston Martin!

We’ve also been busy planning our 2017 road routes. There are some remarkable locations – some of them north, some of them far south. We will hit the Palouse region in spring, this time with some of you, as we are about to announce our first unruly, let our-seeing-demons-on-the-loose workshop (I really don’t like using the word workshop! I always see a group of people standing in a perfect line with their tripods wide open shooting the same thing for an hour or more).

To clip all of the above together, there was so much going on we couldn’t hit the road.

It is not that we allowed our “seeing” to gather dust. Quite the opposite! We took advantage of any opportunity to sneak out and indulge ourselves in seeing closer to home. We worked on our R-A-I-N project (see our previous post), hit the streets of Vancouver, rain or shine or snow, and got some visuals we would like to share with you today.

So please remember, Coming Soon, or in other words, Santa is coming to town!           

Fujifilm Classic Chrome and ACROS film simulations. All shot with the X-Pro2 and the amazing XF 23mm F2.

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and some B&W…

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

The City of Pikes, Stars and Bucks

The City of Pikes, Stars and Bucks

Usually when Kasia and I are on the road, our itinerary is all about photography. No wonder our 16-year-old son prefers to stay home! After all, who at his age would enjoy driving thousands of kilometres only to watch two overexcited “old people” running around with their eyes glued to square boxes.

Therefore, whenever we convince (and bribe) Oli to go with us we try to make it a family adventure. It doesn’t mean that our seeing goes out of the window, not at all. I guess this addiction of ours of observing, composing and seeing cannot be brought to a full stop.

I know that my only window of opportunity to immerse myself in seeing is early in the morning when my family is still asleep. And that’s exactly what I did.

Once I pick the place of interest I like to arrive there early, before all the action starts. In this way I can get to know all the elements, backgrounds, anticipate the direction of the light, make some compositions in my head and imagine people in them.

Then, I wait for the light and people to arrive. In such a busy and popular place as Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market I try to remain focused and open to visuals that reveal themselves to me. Sometimes it is an interesting individual, sometimes it is the compelling light and sometimes it is the scene itself. In any case, a good, a well-thought out composition is a must.

OK, enough of these incoherent ramblings for now. Here are the images I shot this very morning.

 

All images shot with the Fuji X-Pro2 paired with the XF 35mm F1.4. Processed in LR6 (Classic Chrome and ACROS film simulations)

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…and some B&W

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Thoughts about Street Photography

Thoughts about Street Photography

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No, I am not a devoted street photographer but I do enjoy this fascinating and challenging genre of photography. Not only does it help me improve my seeing but it also teaches me patience and the art of observation; it motivates me to break human barriers. I do believe that every photographer should indulge her/himself in this arena from time to time.

Yes, Kasia and I have a great appreciation of high quality street work. There are many photographers that excel in street photography and you can see the hard work and dedication in their photographs. Unfortunately, along with the rising popularity of so-called street photography we have noticed a very troubling trend – taking random photos on the street and calling it street photography. We have a problem with that.

Over the last few weeks I have noticed a torrent of street photos posted on the Internet. Some photographers post a large number of images daily of people walking on the street, sitting in restaurants or just looking into the camera. Many of these images have no interesting scenes, no fascinating characters, no thoughtful compositions, no decisive moments – there is nothing unique there. There were just taken on the street.

Before I sat down to write this piece I talked to some people specializing in street photography and they validated my concerns. They also confirmed that it is incredibly difficult and rare to capture an interesting street photo. It requires days or even weeks of hard work and many, many kilometres of walking. There are just so many things that have to be right.

While shooting around the city in the last few weeks, on many days I came back with a full card of mediocre images and take full responsibility for it. There is no point in sharing them and polluting the Internet and your mind. While photographing the streets of Vancouver I gained great respect for those who specialize in this genre of photography and are able to produce unique and captivating imagery. Now I know how hard they work, how many times they tried, how many kilometres they walked and how many NOs they had to deal with. Yes, street photography is incredibly difficult! Please respect that.

Here are a few chosen images from my recent city escapades that I think are worth sharing.  All images taken with the Fuji X-Pro2 and the XF 35mm F1.4, Classic Chrome (CC) and Acros (A) film simulations.

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Becoming an Un-Photographer

Becoming an Un-Photographer

How badly I wanted to become a photographer! A serious photographer, I should add. First, I needed serious gear and the bigger the camera, the better. Check! Then I bought lenses – lots of them. After all, I had to cover every focal length known to humankind. Check! Then, of course I needed a hefty camera bag to carry it all. Check! Wait a minute – how about a sturdy tripod? Ansell Adams carried his up mountains so it must be necessary. Check!

Then, equipped with kilos of gear, my huge camera bag and equally impressive tripod, I could go out. Now, I could call myself a photographer. Everyone knew how serious I was about photography. Many randomly encountered people were impressed. They asked me about my gear, about my lenses. Many look at me with respect and envy. After all, a guy with such an arsenal on his back must be a photographer. I puffed out my chest, which wasn’t difficult because I had to take weight-lifting classes to carry it all.

But something happened along the way. The more I wanted to be a photographer, the less I was becoming one. The black beret and the dark glasses didn’t help. I gave away my XL T-shirts as my muscles reduced in size.

The next step was to sell all my gear. I bought photography books. No, not technical books but books about seeing, light, composition, landscapes and people. And I got myself a camera – a tiny, inconspicuous one. I started venturing into the world with this little camera on my shoulder. Just one camera and one lens. People stopped paying attention to me. I was obviously just another lost tourist with his ‘point and shoot.’ An amateur. It was strange but I liked it! Some touts offered to be my guide or show me a good hotel but in general I could walk around the city unnoticed, free of gear, lenses, backpacks and tripods, and free of a photographer’s mindset.

Visual stories started to unfold before my eyes. I began talking to people I hadn’t noticed before. Somehow, the light miraculously fell into place. I started seeing more, much more, and not just kittens and cathedrals. Others didn’t see me as a photographer but I started transforming into one. I became an un-photographer.    

Here are a few images from our recent walk around Vancouver, all taken with the Fuji X100S (Classic Chrome).

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Copyright 2015 © Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Rainy Date (with the Fuji X-Pro1 and X100S)

If you live in Vancouver, you have to embrace rain as part of daily life. In fact, the winter months are usually associated with non-stop rain, sometimes for weeks. Such generosity in terms of wet weather could be viewed as a nightmare for a photographer … or it could be a great opportunity to challenge your photographic vision.

In fact, Kasia and I promised ourselves that this year we would try to see differently and reach for hard and uncomfortable. As a result, last Saturday while drinking our early morning coffee and looking at the droplets of rain on our window, we decided to have a photographic date with rain. Here are a few images from our rainy rendezvous.

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2014 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.