walking through the mall
stealing people’s expressions
unbeknownst to them

Street Photography: The Slacker’s Approach

In almost everything I do in life, I do it in a haphazard way. Let’s just roll the dice and see how it all shakes out. That’s pretty much my basic approach to everything in life. So writing a “How-To” article on anything is pretty far from my area of expertise. There is one thing I do on a regular basis though, and that is to shoot street photography. Today I took my daughter to Cherry Creek Shopping Center and took advantage of the opportunity to get some candid shots in the mall. I was going to make my headline “Shooting People in the Mall” but it just seemed like an invitation for trouble.

When Barbara Diamonstein interviewed Garry Winogrand  she mentioned that his name had been synonymous with the term “street photography” for quite a long time. This was his reaction:

“Well, I’m not going to get into that. I think that those kind of distinctions and lists of titles like “street photographer” are so stupid. I’m a photographer, a still photographer. That’s it.” – Garry Winogrand

This is one of my favorite quotes from Winogrand, a man who represents what street photography actually is rejecting the entire term. I love it. I’ve been studying photography for a few years now and I’ve found that my favorite kind of photography is what everyone is calling street photography. In my own independent study of this genre, I have found that the actual definition of what street photography is to be a topic of much heated debate.

I’m not here to define what street photography is or isn’t. I’m here to document my attempt at producing photography that tells a story from my own personal perspective. That is all I want to do. I want to record as many moments in time as I possibly can. I want to do this because I feel I have lost so many memories to the passage of time already, and on my last dying day I want to sift through all my pictures one last time until I can’t take another breath or hold my eyes open for another second. I take pictures so that I can cherish life and the experience that I had in it.

I want to share what I capture with as many people as possible. I want them to see what I experienced and how it made me feel. That probably comes off as egotistical, but it is the truth. I’ve struggled with sharing my work in the past because I was reading all these advice columns about things like what is “played out” in street photography, and what comes across as cliché, and all these other judgmental critiques on what we should be putting out there if we want to call ourselves street photographers. I think I finally have had enough of the Kool-Aid; I’m not drinking it anymore.

I am going to share whatever the hell I want, because this is my life, my camera, my memory cards, my experience, and my creative drive. I’m tired of trying to emulate what other people are doing within the genre. I want to be a photojournalist. I am intrigued by people and the way they interact and behave. So I take pictures of them. It’s good practice. It’s fun. I enjoy testing my courage to see how close I can get. I fail more often than not. I come away frustrated more often than not, but every once in a while I get a shot that makes me react emotionally, I become overwhelmed, and I relive that moment. That is what I love about photography. That is why I’m taking these pictures.

We all have heard it said over and over, everyone and their mother’s mother have a digital camera now. The iPhone’s camera is an 8 mega-pixel wonder that floods the magic internet cloud with an eternal stream of photos of food, pets, vacations, bathroom-selfies, shoes, clothes, babies, cars and sunsets. I don’t mind it so much, but some people absolutely loathe it. Similar to the way people are always hating on hipsters, photographers have little cliques as well. The HDR haters, the “if you post one more picture of your taquito’s online, I swear I’m un-friending you” type of people, the photographers who always seem to be the first to complain about whatever the new hot trend is. It is a visual cornucopia of the human experience, we are all photographers now. I’m just embracing that notion. I don’t care if there are a lot of photographers in the world; does that mean I should just give up being one of them, because to become one is SO CLICHÉ? I finally stopped caring about what other people might think and just decided to put myself out there.

So now instead of worrying about what some stranger half way across the world says about street photography, I just go out and take pictures and share what I like. I try and look for interesting subjects doing interesting things. I probably should slow down when I’m out shooting, but I’m usually on a time constraint, and I also have found that keeping on the move keeps me clear of most trouble. Nothing gets the man’s attention like a guy with a camera lurking in one area for extended periods of time. I try to stay slightly on edge when I’m out in the streets for the purpose of photographing people. I started out in the beginning by just walking around and putting the camera to my eye and taking pictures of people in a blatantly obvious way. That’s fine if you are at a festival, or a concert, or some other major gathering like the Denver Zombie Crawl. In close quarters when hardly anyone else is around, suddenly bringing the camera to your eye and taking a picture of someone feels extremely awkward to me. I will say I have done that, but very rarely do I have the courage in the moment to just go for it.

Today, I decided to use a shutter release cable in my pocket while the camera hung around my neck. I wanted to freeze motion, but the lighting in the mall is a little dark, so I set the camera ISO to 6400 in order to get a faster shutter speed, and shot in Shutter Priority (Tv) with the speed set to 2000. In shutter priority mode the camera can be set to the desired shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture for correct exposure. My images turn out noisier this way, but I can freeze the motion, and in this type of lighting it was the best I could do without flash, which I’m not willing to turn on in the mall. I’m trying to blend in as much as possible; I don’t want to be running around blinding people. I imagine that is probably a great way to get kicked out.

I also had my 3-year-old daughter with me, which actually made things a lot easier as far as people feeling at ease around me with a camera around my neck. When I’m alone I get dirty looks and security guards approaching me, but with Penny, everyone smiles and waves hello or wants to stop and talk. I just snap away at the remote in my pocket while I talk to them all the while thinking in my head that this is the same person who would be sneering at me if my little girl wasn’t with me.

This is my ongoing experiment; I’m trying different things to see how they work. Today I used a 21mm wide-angle prime lens. It is my favorite lens, although it may be a little wide for shooting from the hip as I think that in a lot of my images the subjects seem just a little too far away. I don’t feel like I need to be in a rush though, and I want to try and master this 21mm for a while longer. I’ll also shoot with my 35mm prime from time to time, but I haven’t been able to get comfortable with the 50mm for street photography just yet. Maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance, but it just didn’t feel right to me the last time I tried it. It was a struggle for me, and I wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of it.

I was tasked with writing a trade column for a magazine writing class I am taking, which is why I am talking about camera settings and ISO and the like. I don’t have any advice to give as I am still learning and striving to improve my photography every day. If you were asking me for advice I would  say this: Do what you love. Don’t do it for the critics or anyone else but yourself. I think if you stick with that mindset you will probably find that it will actually help to improve your photography. Probably. I can’t guarantee anything. It seems to me though that anything that comes from the heart is usually better than anything else. Also, use a prime lens rather than a zoom lens, the images come out sharper and it makes you move around to focus, rather than just zooming in. It also makes for more candid looking images in my opinion. Use your common sense; get closer and your images will be better. I am still a work in progress. I always feel like I need to add that disclaimer in case somebody thought I was just self-proclaiming myself to be an amazing street photographer. I’m not an expert, I’m an enthusiast. I know what I’m trying to do and what works for me.

In my first attempts at street photography, I often sought out the approval of different social groups around the Internet by sharing my images with them. I found the critique to be helpful at times, but I also ran into a lot of negative and down-right nasty criticism as well. I started to feel like every shot I took had to be something spectacular. I wanted to try and win over the tough critics, thinking that if someone who hates so many people’s street photography could just give me a positive comment on one of my images then I’ll know that I am on the right track. It didn’t turn out like that. In my experience finding any constructive type critiques of any persons work submitted to the particular site was like searching for a needle in the haystack. It was just an Internet troll Civil War, full of hatred and negativity. Trolls on trolls on trolls on trolls.  A bunch of people trying to out macho each other behind their Internet personas.

The best advice that I have gotten so far in photography was when one of my teachers told me to “just shoot through it” when I was complaining about feeling uninspired. That’s what I do. I take pictures everywhere I go. I have a massive collection of images and I can’t find it in my heart to delete a single one of them. I love the genre of street photography and I practice it every day. I am simply documenting the human condition the way that I see it. I don’t claim to be great at it, but I am making an effort, and I love sharing it with whoever cares to look.

I like street photography because it’s an adrenaline rush, I love walking amongst the crowds, framing images in my viewfinder. I love finding new things in familiar places, which seems to happen a lot more than I could have ever anticipated. Street photography isn’t centered around being technically perfect, but rather about being in the moment and capturing something in its natural state. It isn’t staged or pre-planned; it’s just a frozen moment in time framed by the photographer to convey whatever it is that’s in their mind. It isn’t pure truth; it is the photographer’s version of the moment. We keep what we want you to see in the frame, we exclude what we don’t want you to see. This is a choice. In my experience, it is a sub-conscious choice, but I imagine that others might be much more analytical and patient than me, and probably plan their images much more carefully.

With everything creative in this world, the struggle is to find your own voice within your genre. This is easier said than done. You might think of a great idea for a project, only to find out it’s been done 17 million times already. There isn’t much to do that hasn’t been done, there is much to say that hasn’t been said. We seem to just regurgitate the same ideas over and over. Sometimes I think we just need to tune out the noise from the outside world, look within ourselves, and just be brave enough to put our work out there. What do I have to lose? No one is paying me for this, and the only person who can fire me is I. What could go wrong?

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Denver Street Photography

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8 thoughts on “Denver Street Photography

    • I have made several attempts with my iPhone in the mall, and I just can’t get a clear enough image in the low light. It always comes out blurry if I am moving. You have to be standing still to get a good one with the camera phone!

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  1. "Occam Blade" says:

    Love it. You’re allowing your heart, your soul and instincts to press the shutter. There are times when I just don’t look through the viewfinder to take a photo. If there’s a feeling, I just take it…. I especially like your image of “phone smile” because of the contrast in connection between the man on the left and the seated woman who appears to be using 2 phones she’s simultaneously.

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    • Thanks for taking a look. I really enjoyed the experience of just letting the camera hang. I felt less closed off and more a part of the scene. You catch more if your surrounding gs and open yourself to more possibilities, I felt more aware. It was a fun experiment, a little mundane maybe but that’s life.

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