Sunday, October 03, 2004

Street Photography: Intrusive or art?

Two of a kind Posted by Hello

Pic: A boy and his pet monkey romping in the local park, such a rare sight warrant a good photo shoot. Both of them up in their heads in mischief and loving every moment of it! Brings new meaning to the phrase "monkeying around" Esplanade, Kuantan, 2003.

Well I've noticed a very lively discussion raging on between my two esteemed photographer friends and the topic is a good one to look into. Jeremy has commented that my photos need to feature people more up close and Adrian counters that such an act would infringe on people's privacy. It's true that many moments are best captured up close, to convey the expression of the subject and the passion of the moment. Here, posted is a photo I hope will reflect a better notion of how good a street photo can be. It's a little hard to get close ups on your subject when you only have a camera that allows 3X zoom, meaning I've to get very up close and personal at times. So post your comments on what you think of the topic, are you against it or for it?

Photography, often street scenes offer very good shots, the people are the heart and soul of the streets and each are unique individuals. The ethics in question is whether a photographer taking a casual picture of a passerby is regarded as intruding into his/her life or is it just a harmless act, that of taking a photo of a subject?

The many reactions I've gotten from my photo subjects often range from apathy to disregard to outright hostility. Often the best subjects I've found are children, they are willing subjects to the point that at times it's hard to shake the bunch that are clinging on to you and asking to take more photos of them. The worst experiences I've had was during my stay in Penang where everyone from the trishaw driver who waved me away to the old grandma who was shouting obscenities and putting on a sour face (the thing is I wasn't even trying to take a photo of her, was composing s street scene when she confronted me), were quite perturbed at having their picture taken. Maybe it's just people there in general (please anyone can comment on this?). Each person has a different perception of photographers and the act of photographing someone may be construed as being rude and treating them like objects with no regard of their feelings (quote Adrian).

The dilemma lies in the fact that when asking a person for permission at times would lose you the spontaneity and relaxed poses if compared to just point and click photography. We always want someone acting like themselves and often people's attitude and posture changes when they're in the len's view. I even had a lady once quickly applying lipstick when she saw me pointing towards her. I agree to the fact that we should not treat our photo subjects as mere objects, to me they're the very people, unique and irreplaceable that brings a photo to life. So a balance must always be struck in the process of photographing.

One, keep your subject's privacy private as best as you can. If needed, ask permission but this is the last thing one should do unless you're doing a photo shoot and you need their permission to publish. At times you may be surprised if you do ask permission, you may find the person let go of himself and set out in some interesting antics that he would not normally display. A group of kids that came to observed us during field work, went ahead to do silly acts when I took my camera out and it was a blast!

Second, better equipment translates to a better ability to take photos from a distance and thus avoid alerting your subjects, long lenses, far zoom capabilities and a tripod are necessity for this matter. Keeping a distance ensures that you don't enter into people's private space, where they'll feel threatened or at ease, the age old biological response of flight or fight ensues. Being in a distance also affords you anonymity.

Thirdly, certain affairs are easier to photograph than others, festivals, fiestas, functions and celebrations all afford photographers to take photos of subjects without much difficulties as they're either busy watching the event or that photography is seen as a natural phenomena to occur in that setting. Occasions like these, people WANT you to take pictures of them, so just shoot.

Fourth, this is an advise from Adrian. Try to look inconspicuous, which can be hard if you're lugging around heavy camera equipment. If you see a subject you like, be patient. Hang around the place for a while and let the people around you adjust to your presence (works with wild life as well, once read about someone crawling for four hours to get near a toad to photograph the eyeball). Don't just point your camera at them and then only compose, picture your shot in your head and then when alls done, only then do you shoot.

Lastly, certain protocols must be followed, it would be rude to just rush into a crowd where people are praying or when a solemn event is being carried out. Here, the photographer is the intruder and should act according to the rules governing the event and place. Don't use flashes and stand out, take a look around, position yourself where you won't be disrupting the event and shoot silently.

So what do you think of the topic? Have you any experience in dealing with street photography, share your views and advise? Any other advise to better take photographs on human subjects?

Always respect the people you photograph but don't be afraid to go ahead and snap a picture if the opportunity presents itself, the moment may just come once in a lifetime.


Adrian said...

Well said! As long as your subject is at ease, shoot away. As for sitting down and waiting... Yeah, thats the worst part. My 3 frames of mandarinfish took me 45 minutes in the cold dark water without lights, and breathing shallow to avoid scaring the fish away...

Jeremy said...

It *is* possible to shoot discreetly if you experiment a little. With autofocus it's even easier. Don't lift the camera up to your eye -- shoot from the hip. I was once by a lake deep in the Black Forest where lots of people were bathing nude and I felt fairly comfortable shooting a few frames with the puny Minox 35 GT.

Also, I've noticed that your pictures aren't that well processed. I've taken the liberty to show you the possibility of adding more pop to your pictures both here and here.

Jeremy said...
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Jeremy said...

Here is a more aggressive one. Who needs Velvia when there is Photoshop?

Kervin said...

Mmm yes Photoshop is a very handy tool in post processing of photos and it has been invaluable to me. I was going for the more subdued look for my landscape photos, if adjusting the levels to make the subject more well lit helps but it spoils the ambiance of serenity and soft touch, that's why I opted to keep the photos for the two you edited as they are. But each unto his own:)

Adrian said...

Of course there is Photoshop, but doesn't it look fake? I mean, anyone with a trained eye can catch Photoshop's dirty tricks. The photo you did for Chong, naah. Sometimes underexposure and a less contrast looks more appealing, rather than vivid and high contrast scenes. For a dawn photo, I too elected to keep mine a little underexposed, as it brings the feeling of darkness before the light. I do admit that with some level adjustment the details do come out much better, but have a closer look and you'll see so does the noise. Sometimes seeing less is better, more intriguing and more captivating.

As for Photoshop replacing my coloured gels, filters and Velvia, I'd say never. Maybe not for a little longer. CCDs and CMOS sensors at the moment cannot compete in colour saturation and dynamic range compared to Velvia (or Ektachrome). And changing saturation, etc in Photoshop, that is for showing my photos to the world. Yet to me, there is no satisfaction like a perfectly framed, exposed and balanced photo that needs no touchup.

You cannot catch more detail, nor edit with photoshop to bring out more details than there is in the raw photo, just as an overexposure whiteout spot cannot be repaired, nor a black shadow be filled with details. I believe that without filters, good lenses and good dynamic range medium, one cannot get more details than what one's hardware has, regardless of how powerful Photoshop is.

Else if this is untrue, Mamiya, Hasselblad and Rollei would've been bankrupt, and so would have Zeiss and Fuji's 120 film format divisions...

Jeremy said...

Looks like the three of us have very definite views about how we like our photos. I, for one, like my Milo* with coffee creamer in it. And I insist on making coffee in a French coffee press and not in an expresso machine, though we have such a machine in our apartment.

(I am still convinced your pictures look much better the way I adjusted them.)

As to dynamic range, you get heaps of that with colour negative film. The seemingly higher quality of slide film is illusory: When making prints from them, printers use a contrast-reducing mask and you get...ta da.. the same contrast levels as CN film. So if the eventual output is to be a print, use CN film.

I used to shoot slides until I started scanning my film. My housemate's cheapo film scanner can't peer into the dark parts of slides (Sensia 100), so I switched to shooting with CN stuff which scans a lot better. BTW, I just received by post a 10-pack of Kodak Professional Supra 100 nearing expiry. They cost me RM 10 a pop. Still on the lookout for Fuji NPH 400.

I know this sounds really sad, but I'm currently salivating over the Contax G2 system. It's a film camera, duh. With wunnerful Carl Zeiss prime lenses. For some reason, the curent digital offerings don't get me too hot. Maybe the Leica M Digital will, when it eventually comes out.

Oh BTW, a digital SLR like the Nikon D70 isn't the holy grail of photography, as I'm sure you'll find out when you buy one. SLRs do what they do, but they don't obviate the need for compact rangefinders, and rangefinders don't obviate the need for super-compacts like the Ricoh GR1 or the Minox 35. And none of them obviate the need for medium format. Horses for courses, as they say, which is why I have a wardrobe full of cameras from medium format (Yashica-mat 124G) to the Minox 35 GT and everything in between, even digital.

Horses for courses is also why I have 3 camera bags. But that is a different story.

Jeremy said...

* where I live there ain't no Milo. The closest is the Swiss-manufactured "Ovomaltine", which tastes somewhat inferior.