I saw a tweet recently that summed up how I feel about street photography, creative projects, and the world in general right now.
It was posted by Ralph Smart over at @InfiniteWaters, and this is what it said:
“Instead of attacking what you hate, start promoting what you love. Be that change you want to see.”
It sounds quite standard for a feel-good, motivational type on Twitter, but it did resonate with me.
So much so that it’s worth expanding on.
Instead of attacking what you hate…
As mentioned, the whole first sentence of the tweet – instead of attacking what you hate, start promoting what you love – is how I feel right now about other people’s street photography, and anything else they’ve taken the time to create.
This first bit of that first sentence, though.
I can’t hate anything people produce creatively, even if I don’t necessarily like it. Nor would I ever attack anyone for making what they make. I can think of nothing worse.
But, sadly, some people do.
I’ll never understand why. Why would you spend your energy attacking what someone else does when you could be trying to do something yourself?
I suppose that’s half the problem. The people who do only criticise don’t possess the empathy that comes with creating something themselves.
… start promoting what you love
It’s not a case of only create or criticise though. There is a third option.
If you really don’t want to try anything yourself, why still waste your energy on criticism when you could be praising something you like instead?
If I see some street photography or anything else someone has created and I don’t particularly like it, I just move on.
The people who made these platforms – Instagram et al – for us to share our work made it very easy for us to keep scrolling when we’re skimming half-interestedly through what everyone else is posting.
They’re as much political numbers games as they are photography showcases. Likes and comments and shares are given in the vain hope of them being reciprocated as much as they are in genuine praise.
I get it. It’s the way of the world right now. Marketing has been for a long time, and this is just a modern form of that. There’s no point fighting it when you can use it to your advantage instead.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t promote what you love too, alongside the self-promoting and social media politicking.
If you see something you like, don’t just tell the creator.
Tell everyone else about it too.
Be the change that you want to see
I’m going to take this out of context, as far as the original quote is concerned.
Yes, it means take the lead. Practice what you preach. Practice before you preach, even. Stop attacking what you hate and start promoting what you love.
But I’ve been changing in a different way.
A while ago, I found myself becoming bored with the style of photography I’ve been both shooting and looking at.
Be it my work or that of others, I was finding the mass of monochrome #streetphotography kind of blending into one indistinguishable whole after a while.
Most of the street photography that’s been standing out and impressing me recently has been shot (well) in colour.
So why was I still shooting in monochrome? Why was I adding to what I saw as an uninspiring collection? Why was I contributing to the problem I was perceiving?
Why wasn’t I being the change I wanted to see?
So I decided to change.
Learning a new style of street photography
The kind of street photography I’ve been most impressed with for a while has two main components.
Colour and layers.
I can think back to when I first saw what F.D. Walker is doing over at Shooter Files. I thought it was brilliant.
That led me to finding the work of Alex Webb, who is, of course, one of the best ever.
I spent some time thinking it was above what I could do. That it was beyond my capabilities. Which is a ridiculous thing to believe.
So I set out to see how I could do it too. To see how I could stop producing the stuff I was bored with and start producing something similar to that which inspires me.
To be the change I wanted to see.
I found this article by Eric Kim on how to shoot layers in street photography a great place to start.
You should certainly read it to get the full picture, but the main points I took from it were these:
- find a location with enough depth and foot traffic to create your layers
- shoot when the light is good as the shadows will help with contrast and depth
- have at least three layers – a background, a middle ground, and a foreground – in your shot
- look for anchor subjects for your background and middle ground and work from them
- keep your layers clean by not having any overlap of your subjects
- fill the frame and consider using foreground subjects as bookends
Armed with these tips, I went out into the late afternoon Shanghai sun and gave it a go.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the hour or so I spent shooting was that adding layers to your street photography isn’t easy. It takes practice, and these images are more failure than they are success.
Either way, let’s take a look at what I learnt.
My first attempt at colour street photography with layers
I started off looking for an anchor, as per the tips from Eric Kim.
The girl in the middle of the image looked like she might work as one at the time, but she’s just too hard to see in the shot.
Also, the lady and the man on the motorbike are on the same plane. There’s no foreground and no interest or value in the shot.
Verdict: even as a first attempt, it’s a pretty bad photograph
The gentleman in the green coat gives this next one a far better defined foreground.
However, the whole scene is still too cluttered. The guy in the background doesn’t stand out, and I don’t feel there’s any balance to the image.
There’s not enough that grabs the attention in the huge space to the left of the green coat chap.
Verdict: maybe better but still not very good
This next one has the potential to be better but I’m still not really feeling it.
You could probably squeeze a story from it of the one guy in the suit facing the opposite way to those on the motorbikes, but it’s still not a strong image. I tried cropping to make the guy in the suit more of a bookmark but it still wasn’t up to much.
The suit overlapping one the motorbike riders really doesn’t help either.
Verdict: getting a little better but still nothing worth sharing
I left that open background alone and tried to see if a wall would work better.
Although there is better separation between the subjects here, there are other issues. The three guys in the background are all on the same plane, so there’s no depth. Also, the plain white wall is kinda distracting.
The worst thing though is that it’s a shot of the back of someone’s head, and that more often than not results in poor street photography.
Verdict: still bad and not anything I’d share in a normal article
A new location, and a slightly better result for this one.
I like the colours of the man near the camera, and the closeness of his face to the people on the bike. Again though, I can’t forgive how those people are facing away from the camera.
Had there been eye contact with the lady and the boy, I think it would have been much better. As it is, I don’t feel any connection to the scene.
Verdict: better with the foreground , shame about the middle ground and background
Another change of location.
I was trying to use the lady waiting to cross the road as the anchor and capture people passing on motorbikes but there aren’t really enough layers. The background is too open-ended, heading off into the distance.
I think one lesson here is to have a clearly defined, flat background.
Verdict: foreground and middle ground passable if not amazing, needs a flatter background though
My final location was in front of a fruit shop.
The light was still good and I thought there might be enough background activity to make some layers work. What I found, however, was the scene to be too shallow to really get the layers I was looking for.
In this first shot, there’s also nothing or nobody close enough to the camera to be called a foreground. At least I got some eye contact, though.
Verdict: all too shallow, with a background and a middle ground but no real foreground
I tried to get more of the street to the left in this one, for the added depth it would bring.
I also tried to link the man on the bike with the bicycle on the floor, and the banana boxes with the bananas for sale. As an exercise in shooting layers, it still doesn’t work. It’s not a great photograph in any other regard either, I don’t think.
Standing on the edge of the street, too far from the people coming up and down it, wasn’t working.
Verdict: as above really, with the lack of foreground meaning there’s nothing to grab the attention
I took a few steps forward into the middle of the pavement and tried my luck again.
Although there’s still maybe only two layers, a foreground and a background (with no middle ground) seems to work better than a middle ground and a background (with no foreground).
It’s not an image I’d expect a great deal of praise for on Instagram (although I’ll throw some of them up and see how they’re received), but I’m learning the importance of having a clear foreground here.
Verdict: if you’re only going to have two layers, maybe make sure one of them is a foreground
This final image was shot in almost the same place as the previous one.
It has its issues, if we’re thinking back to the list from before. The lady’s shoulder overlaps a face. Again, there are perhaps only two layers. The strongest element is the lady’s head, but that may be due to the light on it. Don’t ask me what she was doing though.
I think it’s one of the better shots here but that doesn’t mean it’s much good. It is a vast improvement on first one in this list, though.
Verdict: another reinforcement of the importance of a foreground, but the overlapping of the subjects isn’t great
Continuing to shoot colour street photography with layers
While the images here are nothing to write home about – and some are pretty terrible – they are part of an important stage in my development.
None of them really turned out as I’d hoped beforehand. Even the better ones don’t really have the multiple layers I was hoping to get, but that really doesn’t really matter at this stage.
The getting started, the learning, and the improvement are the important things.
I learnt the following in particular:
- although you should look for the anchor or background first, the foreground is what makes the shot
- you need to have enough depth for your layers, but not so much that you can’t control what’s filling it
- even with some layers achieved, a bad photo is still a bad photo
I’m looking forward to getting better at this.
In fact, at the time of writing, I’ve shot more and have seen an improvement on the images here.
Compared to other people who shoot street photography this way, I’m starting at the bottom again – if I was ever off the bottom before – but it’s an exciting place to be.
I’m promoting the kind of street photography I love right now by joining the pool of people producing it. I’m not attacking anything I don’t like.
I’m just being the change I want to see.
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