Life on the Streets
1/100s @ f/4 ISO 100 @ 125mm
Ah, street photography. What more can I possibly say about this challenging and intimidating photographic genre? For an admitted introvert like me it is probably the most difficult kind of photography to execute, I much prefer wildlife photography with its solitude and beauty. Yet street photography keeps pulling me back with its: bleakness, candidness and authenticity.
The ethos of street photography dictates that it must be: candid, contextual and above all authentic. What does all of that mean? First it should be candid and not posed, second it should include some environmental context and third it must be authentic (it must be real). No Photoshop tricks in street photography.
Does this image respect the ethos? I think it does. I did not ask him to pose; in fact I was across the street and I’m not convinced he knew I was photographing him. Even though he is looking straight into the lens I think he was watching me (in his mind’s eye) photograph something other than him. He was interested in me, and what I was doing, rather than being concerned I was photographing him.
I included environmental context by shooting at the shorter end of my zoom range, 125mm rather than the longer 200mm maximum zoom limit. I was able to include some of the street, the sidewalk and of course his background complete with graffiti. More importantly I captured his entire cache of worldly belongings bundled up next to him. He was truly living his Life on the Streets. I composed this image almost entirely in-camera, and only cropped the final image to a more conventional ratio.
This scene is totally authentic, no Photoshop gimmicks whatsoever. What you see is what there was. I saw this gentlemen almost everyday for over two months. This was his spot in the world, this was his life. Like most good street photography this is very documentary in style. Which raises an important question: is it ethical to photograph people in dire circumstances? I’ve addressed this question many times on this blog, and I’ve come to believe (personally) it all goes to motive. I don’t photograph to exploit, I photograph to document.
Street photography is very controversial amongst photographers and people in general. Some think it serves an important purpose, others think it is an invasion of privacy. Legally if a person is in a public venue there can be no real expectation of privacy, we all show up in photographs everyday. That’s the legal definition, the moral and ethical definition is open to individual interpretation. I’ve struggled with that question for years, and again I come back to motive.
I am pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to street photography. My images are almost always shot in black & white (over 95% of the time), they tend to be gritty and they usually have a lot of contrast in them. The blacks are truly black, and the whites are truly white. I do that in Photoshop post-processing, and it’s not a gimmick. This is a technique refined in the old “wet” dark rooms of yesteryear, and now replicated in the “dry” digital dark rooms of: Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements. I will also use dodging and burning to enhance the final image.
I like my images to be critically sharp, “Tack-sharp” as we photographers are wont to say. I shot this particular scene with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens, which is renowned for its crispness. I also shot at ISO 100 ensuring extremely high image resolution, and because I composed in-camera I only had to crop slightly in post (thus maintaining the high-resolution I had achieved). I think this is a very good example of what street photography is supposed to be.
I challenge my fellow photographers, both amateur and professional, to give street photography a try if you haven’t already done so. It will challenge you, it will intimidate you and it may even scare the hell out of you, but it is a worthwhile photographic exercise. It will improve your overall skill level, and it will force you to see things in a different light, both literally and figuratively. Typically street photography presents its best opportunities in large cities and urban environments, though not always. And you are often forced to “see” people who usually remain invisible to us.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler
Currently in South America