October 04, 2019
Cover photo by Denis Palanque.
All too often winter photography is associated with sweeping landscapes and snowy mountains but for a small percentage of photographers, winter photography is all about one thing: hitting the streets and documenting the day to day life of the urban dwellers.
Let's face it, street photography can be an intimidating endeavour. If you're a nature or landscape photographer, you might find it strange to make the transition to photographing urban landscapes and the people who frequent them. After all, a tree or a mountain will never make you feel weird for taking their photos.
It’s normal to feel nervous and self-conscious when you embark on your first street photograph mission. Urban photography is not an easy discipline. It often requires getting up close and personal with complete strangers. The truth is, you’re going to stand out and there's almost no way to avoid it. People will stare at your, people may judge you, people may think you’re weird. That’s okay. When you start to feel self-conscious, smile and remind yourself why you’re out there in the first place.
If you are afraid of photographing a stranger without their permission, a simple conversation will go a long way. Strike up a conversation, tell them who you are and why you want to take their phot, involve them in the process, show them the end result. Approach them from a point of admiration instead of making them feel a strange subject under a microscope. Most people will feel flattered and if they say no, smile and move on.
Street photography is a game of timing and skill and if you’re going for candid shots, you’ll only have a split second to capture your moment. This means that you’re going to need to know your camera inside and out and be able to make quick adjustments in a pinch.
If you need to shave off seconds of your shooting time, try shooting in Aperture or Shutter Speed priority. This will allow you to adjust one setting while the camera adjusts the other to help give you a balanced exposure. Quickly changing the aperture is going to be a lot faster than chasing the aperture and the shutter speed.
We could debate for hours on what the best lens is for street photography and at the end of the day, it’s always going to come down to personal preference but here are a few things to consider when acquiring your kit.
A wide-angle lens with a lower f stop will allow you to capture a larger scene while still being able to showcase the depth of field with the lower aperture. A lease the 24-70 is a good choice but keep in mind this lens is generally heavy and it might be cumbersome to lug it around. Another downside is that to get a good portrait, you’ll need to get close to your subject which might make the stranger your photographing feel uncomfortable.
A telephoto lens will get great portrait shots but you certainly won’t be able to blend in with the crowd. Telephoto lenses are large and obvious so while you may be able to snap a great portrait of someone from across the street, you also risk limiting yourself for capturing a scene since a telephoto lens will only showcase a small portion of the scene you’re looking at.
A prime lens could be a good compromise because of its lightweight and low-key profile. A 35mm or 50mm are good options for full-frame cameras and will help recreate the scene as your eye would see it.
The downside of the prime lens is that you cannot zoom so you’ll need to get creative to get your framing right.
Despite the logistics, the old saying still stands true: the best lens is the one you’ve got. Even a smartphone or compact camera can do in a pinch so don’t feel too limited if you’ve got minimal gear.
Showing motion blur is a great way to enhance the hustle and bustle of a city. You can do this a few different ways. If you’re shooting at dusk or night, use a low shutter speed and a sturdy tripod to help show the movement of traffic. The slow shutter speed will create interesting light trails against the urban backdrop.
You can also use motion to show the movement of people. Try finding a stationary subject to focus on and decreasing the shutter speed to create a blurred effect for passersby.
Another method to show motion blur is to pan with a moving subject. A person on a bike, a fast walker, etc. To do this, you need to match the speed of your shutter roughly to the speed of your subject. If you get it right, you’ll freeze the subject while the rest of the scene is in motion. It may take a few tries to get this down so stake out a good a spot and keep trying.
As always, you’ll benefit immensely from being well prepared for your urban photography. Do you location scouting ahead of time or return to places you’ve been in the past to try and improve your shots. Get familiar with the alleyways, interesting geometry of the buildings and the way the light filters through the narrow streets. Taking notes of the elements that will affect your photo will help make a more interesting and well-composed image.
Remember to be prepared for any elements or change in the weather. Sure, you could always duck into a coffee shop for shelter but some of the best, most interesting urban shots happen when the weather turns bad. Don’t miss out on these photo opportunities just because you don’t have the gear to stay warm. Moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layer and waterproof outer layers will help keep you out there longer. Of course, don’t forget your photography gloves! Being able to grab a quick shot without having to mess with removing your gloves could make or break you when it comes to nailing your urban photography.
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