Monday, May 12, 2014

My Journey Into Street Photography

Photo by Matthew Mann

As some of you know, I've been getting back into shooting film photography over the past year.  I picked up a cheap 35mm FED4 camera and carry it with me wherever I go.  From this, I've improved significantly in reading exposure by eye and guessing where my settings should land on my camera in any lighting situation.

After a year of shooting with it, I gained my confidence with film on the FED and was ready for a next step up.  After seeing the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" (watch the trailer below) I really began researching medium format cameras for all-around high end photography.  After a few weeks of research, I invested in a Hasselblad 500cm, which was the holy grail of medium format film photography for a long time.  They shot the lunar landing with a 500 series camera.  It's been used for decades in fashion shoots and classic studio photography.  It's robust, and is just a finely engineered piece of machinery.

I've done multiple outings with it as a street photographer with my buddy Matt and have really been struggling with shooting people.  It's just an uncomfortable hump to get over, and is a very common problem to street photographers when they first start out.

My goal is to be comfortable just approaching someone on the street, getting into their personal space and capturing an event or portrait of them.  It's a lot easier said than done though.  Several articles and videos I've come across have really helped me get my head into it and challenge myself to get over this anxiety.  Hopefully some of you are in a similar boat and could use a good set of tools to help curb this issue.

One of the most helpful tools I've come across is an e-book written by Eric Kim that gives a 30 day challenge to green street photographers.  Each day provides a new challenge and new set of tips to go along with it.  A lot of the material is common sense but it's helped align my mindset when going out and doing this.  That can be downloaded here.

The next majorly helpful item I've come across is a lecture by Adam Marelli sponsored by B&H.  He goes through seven major approaches he uses in the way he tackles street photography.   Surprisingly, there's very little overlap between he and Eric's tips.  Where Eric challenges the photographer to shoot first and handle the consequences later, Adam suggests picking a location that's photographically pleasing and almost like a wildlife photographer, waiting for the right people to walk through your scene.  I think both approaches have merit and it's ultimately worth trying any and all techniques until you get over that fear.  The lecture's about an hour and a half and can be seen below:

The last thing that's helped me approach this anxiety is another article I came across through Eric Kim's site called "10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography".  Again, it's another list of tips, but they're from a great source for learning technique and the general message is important: Shoot a ton.  The article talks about how Garry would shoot an entire 36 shot roll just walking down the street and not stopping!  That's a challenge to find that many interesting things even with a digital camera.  Let alone handling film.  But I love the idea of it.

There's kind of a dark and light side to shooting film.  You are generally more selective on the shots, composition and subject of each individual shots because there is a finite amount of film and every shot is a little more money burnt up, but on the other hand that can be arresting as well.  You may miss a shot because you go back and forth about it in your head.  "Is this situation worth it?  Is the light good?  Are these people emotionally evoking enough?" and by the time you've decided whether or not you're going to shoot the photo, the moment's already passed and you're stick with zero photos for the day.  I think shooting 36 shots in a matter of minutes, especially on film, is a bit absurd, but the idea is right.  I think the more you do it, the more refined your sensibilities will become for spotting those moments and the quicker you'll become at getting the shot off.

Another interesting piece that came from the article is a recommendation of Garry to not develop your negatives for a year.  I'd never heard that before but I guess that's a common practice for street photographers.  Shooting in the moment is important, but forgetting the moment over time can be just as important.  Waiting for an extended period of time and then returning to the material without rose-colored glasses and truly reacting to the photo as a pair of fresh eyes would is important in curating your own work.  I think you could do a similar method without so much "wait time" and only allow yourself to share three photos per roll of film you shoot.  Maybe even be more strict and allow one photo per roll.

I like that idea, as you're teaching yourself the discipline to ask "what is the best, most emotional and aesthetically rich material I've shot?" and severing any "maybes".  It's about honing your sensibilities and remaining critical of your work.  I know at this point in time, I typically post maybe 30% of my exposed photos online, and I'm learning that that's probably too much quantity, and not enough quality.  I think as I receive my first few rolls of medium format back from the lab, I'll really start to incorporate a more strict filtering of my work.  To read the full article, visit Eric's site here.

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