Nature photographers like their landscapes pristine; generally, we don’t want to see any ‘hand of man’ in our pictures but rather we want to present nature in her purest and finest form. So we venture forth in hopes of recording clean and crisp mountain, desert, and forest landscapes. When nature photographers encounter atmospheric haze it dampens their enthusiasm for making pictures like chores ruin the day of a kid on summer holidays. We know of many photographers who have cancelled trips to areas like the Canadian Rockies when they heard that forest fires have obscured the clear alpine skies. It’s a shame that our preconceptions of what’s good and what’s bad colours what and how we take photos. Atmospheric haze can offer up unique opportunities for stunning photography if we’re open to seeing beyond our expectations.
Atmospheric haze results when smoke, dust and other dry particles accumulate in relatively dry air. Most of the time we blame human activity on atmospheric haze and consider it un-natural. For example, in the fall, activities from the harvest of cereal crops stirs up dust and particulates that results in hazy conditions. Fires burning, dust from gravel roads and particulate pollution from industry also creates atmospheric haze. But atmospheric haze has been around longer than humans. Lightning strikes burn vast tracts of forest, volcanoes spew out tonnes of particulate matter, wind storms churn up dust from dunes… the list goes on. So rather than fight or avoid haze, embrace it! Haze is a natural part of nature.
Atmospheric haze does several interesting things that can be used by the creative photographer. First, it reduces contrast in the scene due to the scattering of light by the particulate matter. These low contrast scenes look moody, ethereal and even painterly. Second, haze selectively scatters light waves with shorter wavelengths, like blue, being scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why haze and smoke look blue – the blue wavelengths bounce off and are recorded by our eyes (and cameras). Red wavelengths tend to pierce through the particulate matter and so in backlit situations we see warm colours coming through the haze. Anyone who has seen the sun through thick smoke knows the sun appears as a reddish ball even at mid-day because only the red wavelengths of light are passing through the smoke. As photographers, we can use this natural filtering effect of light bouncing off of or moving through haze to add further mood to our photographs. Indeed, atmospheric haze creates incredible mood and ambience. Just ask anyone who has travelled to India or China whether haze has added to the mood of their travel photos. You’ll get a resounding yes!
And so, when it’s hazy, don’t give up. Your expectations of clear, crisp, and contrasty nature scenes has evaporated. Advanced shooters see the potential in the murky skies. Look for scenes where the blue, low contrast light works with the subject to give a dream-like mood. Or, find situations where the glowing warm backlight creates an ethereal glow. Some of my favorite images have been created when nature (or human activity) created atmospheric haze and I was open to possibilities beyond my expectations. Rather than the haze being a nightmare that destroyed my nature outing, it became a dream that allowed me to create memorable images. Happy hazy shooting!
Camera clubs are excellent places for photographers to learn and share photography. In my own development as a photographer I owe much of my early inspiration, learning and excitement about photography to time spent in Images Alberta Camera Club in Edmonton. The friendships developed and the lessons learned have stayed with me through life. I have an abiding fondness for camera clubs, but there can be a dark side to belonging to a camera club….
As with any group effort, sometimes a little herd mentality may surface. And this way of thinking can stifle innovative or fresh ways of photographing – especially when it comes to image competitions. Over time, critiques of submitted images become increasingly formulaic; images that follow the ‘accepted’ rules of competition will score higher than those images that do not abide by these, dare I say it, sacred rules. Putting aside whether competitions are even healthy outlets for creativity, it seems that the ‘rules of photography’ espoused by most camera clubs reward conformity. In my experience, not much creativity happens when the first priority is conformity.
Let’s take a look at four ‘rules’ commonly trotted out during image critique sessions by camera club members.
What is the Subject?
It seems that every photo must have a centre of interest (watch yourself though – placing an object in the centre of your frame violates the superior rule of thirds). According to camera clubs an image needs to have something that we, the viewers, can define as a ‘subject’. No obvious subject? Then the image has failed. Abstract images that are simply about pattern, texture, graphic design or mood do not do well in photo clubs. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Pollock and Miro would have a difficult time thriving under a regime that forces them to have an obvious subject.
Fill the frame!
One of the ways that camera clubs reinforce the idea of subject is to tell photographers to fill the frame with the subject. This rule makes sense in that many beginning photographers make pictures where it’s not clear what the photo is about or why they took the photo in the first place. Having photographers fill the frame with their desired subject of interest is an easy way to get photographers to make better images. If you fill the frame with the subject, then we will know what the photo is about – all other stuff is excluded. But if all we ever do is fill the frame with the subject, there is no room left to explore placing our subject in a broader environment to tell a contextual story. Many of the great environmental portraits we see in National Geographic or Life magazine do not ‘fill the frame’ but have a small subject in a sea of context. Try that in a camera club and you will hear, “Get closer and fill the frame!”
Make it Sharp!
In camera clubs there is a fascination with sharpness and detail. Much time is spent talking about the best sensors, the sharpest lenses and esoteric things like circles of confusion and hyper-focal distance. If an image is not tack sharp, it won’t win a competition. Period. I think this fascination is partly about gear and partly because most camera clubs are populated with the over 50 crowd who long for the 20-20 vision of their youth (trust me, I know, I also fall into this camp)! Some of the most recognized and historic photos of all time have not been sharp. Just think of Robert Capa’s World War II D-Day photos. These gritty photos succeed because the blur and grain give them the mood of being there. Ansel Adams famously said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Of course we can reverse this idea and state, “There is nothing better than a fuzzy shot of a sharp concept.”
Shoot in Good Light
And finally, there is the fascination with light in photography. This makes sense because photography is literally ‘writing with light’. Light is our tool; the cameras and lenses just capture the light. So a pre-occupation with light is an occupational hazard in photography. Camera clubs tend to classify light as good or bad. Good light is the ‘sweet’ light of the ‘golden hour’ (the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset). Any other light is bad. The reality is, as my partner Samantha likes to say, “There is no such thing as bad light!” There is either light that flatters your subject or concept or light that detracts from the subject or concept. Your job, as a photographer, is to choose the light that best enhances your idea for the photo.
The rules of photography that camera clubs follow are generally useful ‘guidelines’ for making stronger images. But like any rule, followed religiously the rules become constraints and shackles to creativity. You obviously need to know why rules work so that when you break them you do so for creative effect. I wish that camera clubs would look beyond the rules and just look at the heart of each image. If it resonates in spite of ‘flaws’ it is a good photograph. I’ll end this article with another Ansel Adams quote which nicely sums everything up: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
We’ve all heard the old saying: “It’s not the camera that makes the picture, it’s the photographer.” Why in music isn’t there a similar refrain? “It’s not the piano that makes the music, it’s the musician.” Or in art? “It’s not the brush or the paint, but the painter.” We rarely care about what brand of brush an artist uses; we care about the art produced. So why is it that, invariably, the first question asked of photographers is, “what kind of camera do you use?”
We think the problem with photography is that photographers use a tool that records images directly from reality. There is no implied ‘interpretation’ in using a camera. It’s seen as a device which objectively records the ‘real’ world. As such, we think that the better the recording device (the camera), the more accurate the reality, and therefore the better the photograph. And so it goes. As photographers we become obsessed with getting better and better gear. Our camera, lenses and accessories become the ends to the means and the means to an end. We become slaves and lovers of the technical aspects of the endeavour. Art is forgotten if even acknowledged at all.
In photography we are less likely to think like an artist. An artist uses his or her tools as a means of inner expression. Art is about telling the world who you are and what you think. Art is not reality; it’s an interpretation of your personal reality. Photographers mistakenly believe that the more they know about gear, tools and technique, the more accurate their representation of reality. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Obsession with gear and goodies only gets in the way of communicating any message whether that message is journalistic or artistic. In photography we spend precious little time developing vision and voice. Mostly we just want to play with goodies.
For photographers who want to advance beyond gear obsession into the realm of artistic expression, we recommend several approaches:
- Take a bare minimum of gear with you on photo outings. We have written about this before but remind you about taking only a camera and one prime lens like a 50mm lens to help you hone your ability to see and express yourself with a single tool.
- Think of your photography not as a hunt for single trophy shots but instead in terms of a project. Pick a topic (e.g. garbage, trees, puddles) or a conceptual theme (isolation, power, contrast) and develop a body of work that speaks to the topic or theme. Project-based photography will help you concentrate more on the message than the medium. Gear quickly becomes secondary and diminished in importance compared to artistic expression.
- Take a course in photography that is about leaning to see and expression. Avoid courses that discuss technique or gear. You want to exercise your creative expression and not your wallet. Buying more gear, software or camera goodies will not help you. Invest in discovering your creative eye. One option is our Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self eCourse which is targeted so that you discover what makes your creative clock tick.
- Instead of reading on-line reviews of cameras and lenses, book off a day a month to go to art galleries and check out paintings, sculptures and visual installations. Take a notepad and jot down why the art appeals to you or not. Relax and really look at the pieces. What is the art telling you about the artist?
- Don’t try too hard; let your subjects speak to you. Don’t force a technique or a conscious attempt at style. Just respond and soon your photos will be created from within and not as a result of blindly jabbing at the shutter of your high-priced optical recording device.
- Get off the camera control crutch. Go back to fully auto or program mode in your camera and just shoot intuitively. Don’t think, just respond.
Of course there is a lot more you can do, but hopefully these little exercises will get you off the obsession with gear and on to the discovery of your self!
It seems photographers fall into two camps; those who shoot Raw and those who shoot JPEGS. Few photographers shoot both. Raw shooters want to capture the most data possible from their cameras so they have the most information available to tweak in post-production. In the film days the negative was the analog data base used to make expressive prints in the darkroom; in the digital era the Raw file is the equivalent to the film negative. Raw shooters generally want to take control and expressive processing is as important (and sometimes more important) than image capture.
Photographing with JPEGS is like photographing with slide film. With slide film, the images did not go into the darkroom, the slide (the positive) was the finished product to be projected or published. Slides shooters were photographers first; they were not darkroom artists. Digital photographers who shoot JPEG need to get it right in the field because the image is processed and finished in camera. Any further processing in the computer will degrade the image information plus defeats the purpose of finishing the image in camera. JPEG shooters either don’t want or need (or are allowed) to do post-processing or are under tight deadlines and don’t have the luxury of post-production.
Why not have the best of both worlds? Until recently the main reason that photographers did not shoot both is that Raw and JPEG required different approaches in image capture that often were incompatible. Raw shooters want the most data possible and to get that data requires ‘exposing to the right‘ to capture more pixel information. Essentially this means ‘over-exposing’ the image without clipping important detail to have more pixel information to massage in post-production. Superficially these images look washed out and pale on the LCD and Raw shooters use their histograms to judge appropriate exposure and not the look of the image on the camera display. The final image density is set later in the computer. JPEG shooters, on the other hand, want images that are finished in-camera looking appropriately exposed for the photographer’s taste. As well, JPEG shooters must decide on the appropriate picture style (vivid, standard, monochrome etc), colour space and white balance to set on their cameras before pressing the shutter. With Raw, you just capture the data; camera settings like white balance, colour space and picture style have no effect on the information captured. And so shooting Raw or shooting JPEG often meant two different shooting mindsets. Photographing with both at the same time didn’t really work well for most people.
In the last five years or so, improvements in camera sensors have made the need to ‘expose to the right’ to get high quality data more a matter of theory and less a matter of necessity. If you’re really anal and a pixel peeper you may see small quality differences in files processed from ‘expose right’ versus ‘exposed to taste’ Raw files. But really, the differences are now so small that for practical applications exposing right just doesn’t matter that much anymore. And so now we could shoot Raw plus JPEG and have the best of both worlds… but why bother?
The biggest problem with shooting Raw is the fact that it’s easy to make images in the field but the real work and time involved is in post-processing. Almost all the photographers I know that shoot Raw have years of back-logged images that are not processed and this backlog constantly haunts and taunts them. You can’t print, email or publish unprocessed Raw images; they need to be run through a Raw image convertor, even if minimally processed, before they can be used. Piles of unprocessed files languishing on hard drives are more than just an inconvenience they are a liability. Years later, looking at backlog of Raw images, you may have forgotten your initial creative vision for a particular image. Maybe you initially envisioned the finished image as a high contrast B+W but now looking at the pale milky looking Raw file you wonder why you even took the photo in the first place.
To solve both problems (the image backlog and remembering your creative vision) why not shoot Raw plus JPEG? Photograph with appropriate white balance, colour settings, exposure, aspect ratio and picture style to honour and represent want you want the final image to look like. These settings will be recorded on the JPEG as a final processed image that you can catalog and share right away. The RAW version of the file will serve as the negative for that JPEG and is always available should you want to tweak the image later or try a different treatment. Using this system gets your images into your catalog faster, allows you to see a rough representation of what you had in mind for your finished image and still provides you with a Raw image to manipulate if you need it. Also shooting JPEG will make you a better photographer because you’ll have to think in advance about what you want the final image to look like. You actually have to visualize and that’s what good artists do! They don’t just take a Raw file and wiggle sliders until something ‘cool’ emerges. If you worried about hard drive space, then just shoot small JPEGS with your Raws since the former is really only used as a visual reference of your digital negatives.
The Raw plus JPEG workflow is not for everyone. If you shoot lots of HDR imagery, focus-stacking, or multi-image panoramas then you might as well stick with Raw because you’ll need to process your images anyway. If you have a camera older than 5-years old you might also want to stick to Raw as well for quality reasons. But if you mostly shoot single in-camera images and have a newer camera with a great sensor, then maybe the Raw plus JPEG workflow might work for you. Try it and let us know what you think.
Who Are you Creatively?
Why do you make photographs? Some people will answer that they make photographs because they want to document their travels or important events in their lives. Others are inspired by nature and want to capture this inspiration. And many use photography as a positive escape from the hectic rat race of life (a kind of meditation or mental yoga). But if we dig even deeper I think there is a universal desire, if not a need, for creativity. As kids we are all naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, these traits get sapped out of us early on as we are taught the ‘values’ of practical education, work, consumption, and conformity. Many of us picked photography as a creative antidote for the homogenous pressures put on us by society.
But as we learn and practice photography, the ‘ought tos’ start to rear their ugly heads. We are taught about subjects we ought to photograph, locations we ought to visit, compositional rules we ought to follow. In short, over time, the very hobby we took up to express our creativity is stuffed into a box and turned into formula. We suppress our creativity and shoot just what others deem acceptable.
Every so often we need a reset, a reminder to get in touch with who we are and what our inner voice wants to say but that gets drowned out by the yelling of the outside world. Lately, I was feeling out of touch with my creative voice and felt that I was just repeating photographic formulas. My partner, Samantha suggested a little exercise for me to do that would help me determine who I am creatively. She showed me a variety of visual arts from painting to collage. She asked me to pick out pieces that I really liked and then had me write out answers to these questions about each piece:
- What do you think this picture is about?
- What do you respond to or find interesting in the picture? Why?
- Looking at the shape, line, form, texture and colour etc. used by the artist, how do these compositional and material choices help convey the essence of the picture?
Together we looked at my art choices and my detailed answers to her questions. We began to notice some themes, ideas, visual elements and even colours common to each piece. Sam suggested that these commonalities were the seeds of my creative voice. Frankly, I was surprised by the results because the imagery I liked was very different than the images I have become known for. But when I looked at my most recent work, there were little hints of this new voice trying to emerge; I was already beginning to use the themes, ideas and visual design elements that I had chosen in Sam’s exercise. It became obvious that I no longer knew myself creatively. Indeed, I had changed significantly but was still trying to force myself to shoot in my old ‘style’. No wonder photography was feeling strained lately. Now that I have discovered with Sam’s help who I am as a creative, the world has opened up for me again. Photography is a playground and I have given myself permission to play once again.
So if you are feeling a bit lost with your photography, try Sam’s exercise and share and discuss the results with a good friend or fellow photographer. Better yet use the exercise on each other. Often someone else can see easier patterns in your choices that you may subconsciously deny or that you may not want to see. What often emerges from this exercise is the discovery of who you are as a visual creative. That is a powerful revelation. Now go discover your creative voice.
Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.
Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there. Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.
One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.
Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.
So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.
In our last blog post, Samantha tackled building a code of ethics in photography. In the end, we here at oopoomoo decided that the principle to promote the well-being of the things we photograph was a good guide to keep us on the right track ethically. If we are not promoting the well-being of our subjects then ethically we are wading into dark waters. Samantha compiled an extensive checklist of positive actions we could each take to keep on the ethical path. One of those positive actions was to ask permission before photographing an identifiable person. This statement had a number of photographers up in arms suggesting that to do so would kill the art of street and documentary photography. On the contrary, we think keeping the guiding principle of promote the well-being in mind will easily guide you as to whether you should push the shutter button or not. For example, we recently featured the work of documentary photographer Larry Louie and he always asks permission before photographing identifiable people and his photos are all the more powerful in veracity because he engaged with the people he photographs. In some rare cases not asking permission is OK if it promotes the well-being of the subject. Potential situations where this might apply might be war journalism where the need to document might outweigh the privacy of an individual. Our suggested positive actions were guidelines not commandments for you to blindly follow – we always encourage you to question and think for yourself. We hope our guiding principle of promote the well-being is useful to you in your journeys as an ethical photographer.
OK, so that’s our perspective. For a slightly different view on the ethics of street photography we present the guest column below by Amruta Mohod of PhotoWhoa. We would love to hear your feedback on this contentious topic in photography. Please note that the opinions and any errors or omissions in the article below are the sole responsibility of the author and PhotoWhoa.
Ethics In Street Photography; The Black, White And The Grey Of It
by Amruta Mohod
Photographer Joel Goodman’s striking photo of a Manchester street on New Year’s Eve was recently dubbed a ‘perfect picture’ with its painting compositions and conformity to the Fibonacci Spiral that the likes of Lenoardo Da Vinci employed while creating masterpieces.
Did Goodman seek permission from any of the subjects?
Image courtesy The Guardian
Image Courtesy Time Life
Ethically speaking, street photography is the most controversial branch of photography. Since the subject largely consists of people who are mostly shot candid, the question of ethnicity ubiquitously plagues photographers everywhere.
However, note that not every street photograph features a person in the picture or even have to have a street in view.
The idea is to have – as Wikipedia puts it – a human presence.
Another question often asked in connection with street photography is whether or not it should be candid. A lot of times your subject would be aware and even posing for a click. Does that then qualify it to be termed a street photograph?
There are different thoughts on this. While Matt Hart, UK-based street photographer and educator believes in going completely candid so as to not disrupt the natural composition of an image and keep it real, New York street photographer Michael Comeau feels he wouldn’t just startle his subjects if he doesn’t seek permission but might not even get the desired shot.
What’s right and what’s wrong?
Street photography blurs the line between the two, and it’s amply justified.
When it comes to ethics in street photography, every expert has his personal opinion, and swears by the implementation of the same in creating pictures the way they see it.
Like Ansel Adams said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it“, a picture – street or otherwise – says a lot about the photographer too. It’s his perception, thoughts, beliefs and ideologies all seeping to his work, which is why the concept of ethics varies too.
Come to think of it this way, just like ethics in general are extremely subjective, so it is with ethics in street photography. What might be right for one would be horribly wrong for the other and the other way round.
For instance William Klein’s pictures are primarily up close and personal shot with wide angled lenses.
He quotes “I photograph what I see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame”.
He’s one of the legends in the field of street photograph and has given us some rather compelling clicks. A notable attribute in most of his work is that it tunes the viewer in. It’s like the viewer becomes part of the picture rather than being an onlooker.
True to his words, Klein had always gone for it. Clicked when he saw something that held a sense of a story, a palpable sense of identity and relation and overall a surprising yet perplexing perception of something banal. Like his May Day picture of an old lady surrounded by a small but eclectic group of different nationalities.
Image courtesy https://www.artsy.net/artist/william-klein
Echoing the same thought, is ace street photographer Thomas Leuthard who not only has made his mark with his street portraiture in a short time but is also eager to share his vast wealth of street photography related tips and tricks.
In his free e-book titled Street Faces he gives insights into the approach. He emphasizes on the right approach and how it can make or break your capture.
He also says that the average person doesn’t interest him, he’s always looking for that one face that stands out of the crowd, based on any parameter. But it has to be something captivating, a face that speaks without opening the mouth.
Image courtesy Street Faces
Most might call his approach unethical and even illegal but he sticks to it when it comes to street portraiture.
I never look them into their eyes, never ever (only through the viewfinder). I point my camera to the persons face before he turns his head. I press the button halfway down to pre-focus. When the person turns around, I press the button down and make 3-4 frames in a series. After 3-4 shots I turn around and walk away. Don’t talk, don’t look, I don’t do anything else…
And even legendary Garry Winogrand who is renowned for his artistic perception of the cacophony of American life, was famous for not seeking permission before a click.
To this date, the prolific Winogrand remains an inspiration for a multitude of photographers skewing towards street photography in particular, despite his evident dislike for the term ‘street photography’. But while he could have gotten away with his ‘don’t hesitate, just click’ attitude in the patriarchal 20th century, today his beliefs are not just more likely to be reproachful and angering but it can also pose a threat to a person’s privacy.
Changing Technology and Ethics in Street Photography
There are tons of websites that feature random ‘street photographs’ of people caught unawares. And given how Smartphones have made a photographer out of each one of us, it takes only a few minutes to click, upload and taint a person’s reputation.
This is the area where ethics in street photography need to be discussed closely. The question of consent and the question of intention both determine whether an image is fit to be called a candid and honest street photograph that the public would smile and say thank you for one or that would get you sued or at least beaten up.
Street photographers (majority of them) agree that what they are doing is fine because what they’ve set out to do is create art.
But cut to today’s time when people are not just more wary of getting a picture clicked without their consent (for all the justified reasons) but they are also constantly captured and monitored through surveillance cameras.
So how do you find the middle ground in such contradictions?
Are you clicking that beautiful red-haired lady with a squealing newborn in one arm to show the realities of motherhood or do you intend to put it up in a dark space on the internet for the faceless chorus to go MILF?
The onus of clicking candid is always on the photographer, ethically that is. The legal viewpoint might differ depending on which country you are in.
Consent is an important factor, but when you are going candid and the subject has no idea they’re getting clicked is that ethical or unethical?
And when you are clicking a larger group, do you take each person’s consent?
And there’s also the question of whether taking consent still qualifies it to be called street photography or does it then become a portrait.
Some photographers consider them to be two different areas while some consider portraiture to be a sub-sect of street photography
Weighing in on the ethics debate, some photographers believe that educating the general public more on the requirements of street photography would help. Like if they knew they’d consent automatically like they do in case of CCTV cameras.
But that’s a theoretical concept. Come to think of it logically, this might make them more resistant.
There’s no way to use the idea of surveillance camera to justify street photography, it’s absurd and rather does more harm. Since there is a question of safety involved in surveillance captures, people don’t object to it. The same cannot be said for street photography.
But to some degree, there is a need for that; for a decent understanding of and exposure to street photography. And also the backstage work, requirements, and consequences in general.
Street photography is a form of creating art, actually more like recognizing art. Like Duane Michals puts it:
Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing.
What could make a street photographer click is subjective, it’s what they see traces of art in. And this is why they opine differently than their peers on the ethics of clicking street photos.
Although this area of photography is affected a lot by the changing times, laws and perceptions, it is not going to be banned or so we hope. Should there be a type of explicit or implicit mandates governing street photography is still hard to say. Like art, photography cannot be contained.
You cannot direct a photographer to click a certain way, it’s something natural and to a degree innate too.
But then should you disrespect or worse derogate an unknown person in the name of art?
Some general no-nos of street photography
Here is an attempt to round up some of the general what-not-to-do(s) in street photography from an ethical point of view. Some of these points might not resonate with some street photographers, well to each his own, but from a general point of view it’s better to not do any of these:
Take pictures of the subject in a compromising position – There’s only so much you can do in the name of art. When it comes to street photography, which is already polarizing, it is best to not take pictures of your subject which they would definitely not consent to.
This is especially important if you are clicking candid of kids. Even when done with the right intention, it would somewhere evoke the wrong response. Therefore, the correct thing to do is to not do it.
It’s better to ask consent of parents when you click a child – You don’t want to have an angry father at your throat or a scared mother calling the cops. If the parent is nearby, ask them permission to shoot a picture of their kid. Most parents don’t mind if you ask them the correct way.
If they ask you to delete, you delete – So someone not just caught you clicking them candid, they marched over to you and demanded you delete their picture, which you absolutely should.
Not only that, if you are going to follow the approach that William Klein or Bruce Gilden took – that of getting right in the face while shooting – then the chances of this happening is all the more. People don’t like their personal spaces tampered with, while some would give you a quizzical ‘what the hell bro’ look, some might actually create a ruckus.
So even after tackling the situation with tact, if they ask you to delete the picture, you have to absolutely do it.
Don’t interrupt their moment – If you think this is irrelevant when you’re shooting candid then you’re wrong. Just because a person isn’t directly aware of you shooting them, doesn’t mean he is completely in the dark. Take for instance what Leuthard does, he waits for an eye contact before clicking candid.
It’s rude and distasteful to interrupt and spoil someone’s moment just because you feel you’d get an amazing shot from that. Some subjects might make the shot better when they know a camera is on them but most would close up.
When we say ethics we mean morals that are accepted by a large group of people. Street photographers the world over believe that there is nothing unethical in their work but there’s no set consensus when it comes to ethics in street photography.
Click a picture with the wrong intention – There was some mention of intentions earlier, the talk of ethics become more prominent in situations where the intention had always been to defame or demean.
And that’s not art.
The question of ‘decency’ and consent make up for most of the ethics debate in street photography, but the only thing that can be said is if it feels right in your heart, click it!
Amruta , PhotoWhoa Team
I love writing about photography and keep it as simple as possible. When not writing about photography I can be seen watching TV and petting all the possible dogs in the society. (My husband dosen’t let me own one) and looking for new places to eat and review them. I also love to connect with new people across the globe hence you can always find me online on Skype. You can find me on Twitter here @amruta_mohod
The great thing about photography (or any visual art) is that no two photographers see the world in exactly the same way; give ten photographers the same scene to photograph and you’ll most often get ten (or more) different results. Even a single photographer will produce multiple interpretations of the same scene. Often our subconscious notices the scene; there is something there that we like. If we respond with our cameras right away then often we capture that flash of subconscious interest and come away with a photo that honours what we feel about a subject. But just as often, our conscious brain kicks in and overrides our subconscious to make judgments, and to categorize and analyze what we see. The more we think, the further we get from what attracted us in the first place. However, we can often get back to our original ‘attraction’ if we let go of our noisy thoughts and begin to explore the subject more from the heart than the mind. Let’s look at both of these scenarios in turn.
Sometimes, your heart’s eye gets it right first thing and further explorations take you further from your visual truth. For example, this past October I went on an outing to the Cochrane Ranchehouse, a lovely natural area park near our home. There, while walking around, I found a curved aspen tree in full colour. I immediately stopped where I was, dug out my camera and because the tree was far away, I put on my 300mm lens and made this photo. In hindsight this image perfectly captures what attracted me to the tree in the first place. I like the bent shape and the contrast of bright yellow against a darker subdued backdrop.
But then, of course, my brain kicked in. Stupid brain! What if I got closer and used a shorter lens? What if I tried different angles on the tree and different framing and aspect ratios? All of these ‘what ifs’ were intruding on the purity of my expression.
And so I worked the scene further to answer these conscious questions. All of these mental explorations took me further from what attracted me to the tree in the first place. Sure, the resulting photos (below) are still pleasing but none honoured my heart’s view of the tree like the initial image. I have learned that if I make a photo as soon as something stops me that often that image is the most ‘true’ to my original attraction.
In the next example, I was driving in the country near Cochrane when I noticed a big snow drift over a grass seed head. I stopped the car, got dressed up and got out the camera gear. In the time it took me to prepare for the cold photography experience, I lost the germ of what attracted me to this scene. The first picture I made was more a document of the overall scene.
I felt the image above was interesting but then I had leading lines of the snow drift and the fence that went nowhere so I zoomed out to take in more of the scene and to have the lines lead to a vanishing point.
Now the lines of the snowdrift and the fence all converge in the distance to take us visually to the part of the fence with the horizontal cross bar. I immediately realized that the fence was not the reason that I stopped the car so I should not include it in the photo.
In the next picture, below, I concentrated only on the snow and the grass. I thought of the tenuous existence of the grass seed head under the big snow drift and I made the next image to tell that dramatic story.
I like the image above a lot and it tells a story of tension but it’s not why I stopped the car. I finally realized that what grabbed me was pure graphic appeal of the lines of the grass and drift. My mind saw lines and that’s what it wanted to show in the final photograph.
This image above is closer to the reason I initially stopped but as anyone who follows oopoomoo composition teachings will know, there are two areas where the line of the snowdrift is ruined from underlying ‘mergers’. A simple shift to a higher viewpoint and slight change in aspect ratio (slightly more panoramic) eliminated the merger problems and gave me the result I had intended from the beginning.
This final image, above, honours what I initially saw in my flash of subconscious. I just needed to work the scene to get back to my original vision. I blame it all on the cold.
The value of working a scene can either confirm that you had your voice in the first place or that you needed to rediscover your voice. The creative process is exactly that, a process. Don’t be afraid to work it! Let us know what your creative process is and if you get what’s in your mind’s eye right away or if you have to work hard to get a result that is in line with your creative vision.
To read Part I one of this series go here.
The Roadblock to Creativity
A major roadblock to creativity is you. Often it’s a simple case of not knowing yourself that prevents you from blossoming creatively. Finding yourself isn’t that hard if you remove the expectations of who you ‘should’ be and really look into the mirror. Our journey of the one-year ‘creative sabbatical’ ended up being less about doing creative exercises and more about finding ourselves as creative entities. Not everyone needs a year-long journey to do a hard reset; many of you already know who you are. For those who truly know themselves, the problem isn’t about lack of knowing, the problem is about lack of time to honour your creativity. How do you carve out creative time in a world that seems increasingly designed to suck up your every waking minute? Below are a few strategies that Samantha and I recommend to make sure you get to do the creative stuff you desire.
Make Your Creativity a Priority
Any time someone says, “I just don’t have time to do my creative project”, what that really means is creativity is not a priority for that person. Actions speak louder than words. Inaction on your creative work means it’s really not that important to you. Maybe you’re afraid of failing so inaction is simply self-sabotage. It’s easier to tell yourself you would be a great painter but your circumstances don’t allow you the luxury of painting than it is to put in the long hours and practice and potential rejection to become a great painter. If you want to be creative, then schedule creative time. To nourish creativity you need blocks of at least three to four hours to get into the flow. Try to have at least two of these blocks of time per week. At the beginning of each week schedule your creative time in your calendar. This is your sanctuary and you must protect this time. The universe will conspire to take this time away from you, and mostly you’ll conspire against yourself to give up this time. Don’t let that happen. Put in the time even if it feels like you are a fraud. You’re not a fraud – you’re just scared!
But Where Do You Find the Time?
We all think we are so busy and scheduled but really many of us are inefficient with our time. Two of the most relentless time takers we know of are the T.V. and the internet. Most of us watch way too much T.V. and really what do we gain from the experience? Not much. Years ago Sam and I turfed the T.V. precisely because it’s such a mind-numbing, time-eating machine.
Same thing for the internet. We are all so addicted to our smart phones and every ‘ping’ stimulates a Pavlovian reward response. Our attention is constantly diverted from the life we lead to the virtual life we long to be a part of. If you actually measured the amount of time you spent on the internet and social media, you’d be depressingly surprised. All of this time spent watching grumpy cat videos and following the escapades of rich celebrities could be spent on your own creativity. Put a limit to your online time. Sam and I have decided that we will only go on the internet twice a day – once later in the morning after our creative time is over, and then once at the end of the work day. Each session is limited to ½ hour. If we can’t get done everything we need to in that time then we need to examine what we are doing online and streamline things further.
We also purposely chose not to own a smart phone because the temptation to be online all the time is too great (we are not immune to the seductive powers of online living!). We only go online if we are in the office, and we really don’t want to be in the office all day, so we become more efficient with our internet chores. And finally, together we take one full day off a week from the internet and trust us that day is so awesome! This is our ‘family time’ and it’s sacred and is a way to reconnect with ourselves and with each other.
You Do Have the Time – Hell Yes!
We all have the time to be creative, we just need to ditch the stuff that sucks our time or distracts us from pursuing our creativity. You’d be surprised at how much time you can free up when you look at your life and decide if a particular activity is a ‘hell yes’ or a ‘hell no’ pursuit. Is it something you love, something that gives meaning to you and others you love, something you won’t regret giving time to? Then that’s a hell yes! Mostly our lives are full of hell no’s and we let them control us instead of us controlling them. Ditch a few hell no’s and you’ll have the creative time you need. There are no excuses – most of us are simply afraid to be creative and use these external demands as an excuse on why we don’t have the ‘luxury’ of exploring our creative selves. Be brave, be creative; your life will be so much richer for doing so! Share with us some of the tips you use to carve out more creative time in your life.
Much of what we say here has been distilled from the great books listed below – check them out if you need a further kick in the pants to get on to your creativity. And if you have read a book that influenced your creative journey, please mention it in the comments.