Today is one of those days that I often really struggle with in London. It’s grey, the light is flat, there is some of that very sprinkly rain that doesn’t totally warrant the whole rain gear outfit but is none the less an inconvenience.
Di went for a walk down by the river this morning and told me how many people were out jogging and rowing. I couldn’t help but mutter to myself, crazy people!
You know what, though? (And this would have made me splutter with surprise when I first got off the boat from California all those years ago) – English weather ain’t that bad for taking photos of London. And this is because this city is so incredible, so interesting and diverse and amazing, it almost taunts me by saying I don’t need blazing sunshine and spectacular light to show off what a fascinating city I am. Explore me and you will discover incredible things.
My favourite part of the city to photograph is – hands down – East London. If you don’t know this city and you come here, I urge you to go east and explore.
I think it’s mostly to do with the contrasting architecture – you’ll be walking down some ancient street, where you can literally smell the history, and suddenly a sparkly new building will appear, like it’s grown from the ground like a weed, shooting up in its shimmering glass and steel.
You’ll then turn into another street to suddenly be sucked into the riot and colour and noise of a street market, before feeling like you’ve moved into a totally different city with the delicious smells from a row of Indian restaurants.
It’s the constant juxtaposition of architecture, cultures and communities that is so awesome to photograph.
But what stands out for me is the street art. I’m sad to say there ain’t much street art in my quaint environs of West London. It’s all a bit samey this side of the city, but there you’ve got incredible artists displaying their breathtaking talents on all kinds of amazing textures, walls and buildings.
What makes me think they are even more super-awesome is how temporary it all is. Like, I am just going to put this beautiful picture out there, let it go into the world and not worry if it lasts just a day or 2 years.
There is an energy to this part of London that I don’t feel in other parts. Yes, it can be a very intense energy of struggle, being the part of the city in which so many new communities land, working crushingly hard to get a foot into a new life. But there is also the energy of possibility – it’s the place where many artists live and work, where entrepreneurs are often found starting their businesses with big ideas. It’s the home of artisan food shops and the birthplace of many cultural trends that then sweep across the city.
So you can totally imagine my absolute sheer joy when I was asked to do a book about this very area of London that I love. A limited edition photo book of 1,000, no less, commissioned by a very cool new aparthotel that has just landed in the East End.
I brought together my favourite images of the area, and then went out and shot some more.
I took my son to explore the early morning street markets and we shot together. I went out on one cold and flat morning and shot the Balfron Tower – and it didn’t matter that there was no spectacular sunrise that morning. That’s what I mean about this city – even when it’s dull, it’s incredible to photograph.
I went into the ‘edgelands’ that are so much part of East London, places that are neither city or country, that are filled with desolate-looking industrial estates that feel devoid of life, but are in fact teeming with industry.
The upshot being that I photographed a tremendous part of the city, and I loved every minute of it.
This project is now coming to fruition and the book is being launched at the end of the month. Now, it’s only and exclusively available for purchase at the Leman Locke, the amazing design-led aparthotel that commissioned the book.
I have got 50 of these beautiful books for sale, yeh! These are signed by me and will be have an edition number inside. I have chosen to go for a slightly different look to my last books: I’m using a beautiful thick matt paper that I think really works with the project – this is, after all, one of the most intensely urban parts of London.
(And by the way, you are the first to hear about this, because we love you guys!)
As I only have fifty books, I am expecting them to sell super quickly (for my last book I sold 100 books on the first day I announced it! Which was so exciting.)
It’s a cloth bound, A4 hardback with 80 pages capturing my vision of East London at dawn, really quite beautiful if I say so myself.
Di has written some beautiful words and collected some great quotes for the project. It’s a really special collection, and we are both very proud of the book.
If you’ve ever wanted to own a little piece of my art, this is a good time to do it! And what a great present! You can say you know the artist 🙂
If you would like to get one of these limited edition books, you can purchase them here. Remember, I only have 50 – so if this looks like something you’d like you know what to do. Here they are!
And thank you! It really is the most tremendous thing that all of you stick around and read our writing about photography and creativity. The life of a photographer is often a very solitary one; to have this worldwide group that gives me so much feedback and inspiration is incredible. I hope you all know how much it means to me to know you’re out there and how many of you send me emails and comments – it’s just beautiful!
BBC London did a feature on the project – see here. (BBC World a few years back did an amazing feature on my dawn projects too, including of Paris and Venice)
On my workshops, taking photographs of strangers seems to conjure up a wild mix of terror and excitement. Most people are naturally drawn to photographing people, and I understand. I love it too.
I think it’s a tremendous honor to photograph people, as they go about their lives and reveal themselves in such interesting ways to us.
I’ve already written about fear and photographing strangers, so I won’t go over that again (street photography really is an ‘inner game’). But I will repeat this point, in case you are feeling a little nervous. Just remember that:
“Most people love to be noticed. Taking someone’s photo says to them: “I see you and you interest me”. For the majority of the population, that’s an exciting and affirming act. That’s your key.” Me
Here are five ideas to help you get awesome photos out there on the street – tips from me as well as from other photographers I love.
“If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.” Bruce Gilden
In this post I’m talking about two different styles of photographing strangers. One is street photography – which is a “type of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places. Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying “unmanipulated” scenes, with usually unaware subjects.” Urban Picnic Street Photography.
The challenge with street photography is actually making a great photograph. Maybe 1 in a 1000 is worth looking at again. Trent Parke is famous for shooting thousands of images to get a few good ones. (I love his feeling for light. Incredible.)
The other type is street portraits, where the subject knows you are taking their portrait. They are most likely posing for you or allowing you to capture them in situ. This is how I photograph most, it’s just my personal preference as I think I’m drawn to people’s faces and I love exploring their facial and physical expressions.
This is a nice comparison of the two styles of street shooting, and here I am classifying street portraits under ‘documentary photography’:
Bottom line – do what you love! Do what thrills and excites you. No right or wrong answers here.
Photographer: I quoted Bruce Gilden above, a street photographer who is famous for (usually) photographing his subjects very close up, without their permission, using flash so that the light is very harsh. The results are pretty intense, so you can almost see people’s life history in their skin, see his site. I’d say his methods are pretty controversial.
2. Don’t be (too) dazzled by the humans and their behaviour
Sorry to say this but most street photography, and street portraits, are boring! I think one of the reasons is that we get dazzled by the humans we see around us and think they are being way more interesting than they really are – meaning our photos can end up being too obvious or just quite dull and ordinary.
Humans are usually pretty private animals – and yet it’s amazing how easily people reveal so much about themselves as they go about their day to day lives. I think most people are so wrapped up in their world they forget about people around them. So, as photographers, when we start paying attention to people we can fall into the trap of thinking they are being more interesting than really, objectively, they are.
It can also be a super intense experience photographing humans – especially ones you don’t know. Often the adrenaline starts pumping as you enter the orbit of strangers and again you get overwhelmed by the experience of photographing strangers, rather than by the uniqueness or compellingness of the shot.
So the aim is to get away from taking the ‘obvious’ shot. There has to be a certain je ne sais quoi about the person you are shooting. There has to be something about their person that makes your mind think – interesting…. And really that’s a lot to do with your own personal intuition. Trust it!
With any portraits – it’s always good to remember that people will have their barrier up initially, the ‘person’ they show the world. And everyone has their photo ‘pose’. You need to get beyond that, because that is very unlikely to make an engaging photograph. So you need to wait for their mask to drop, and it will, usually quicker than you think. Just keep watching them or photographing them. It’s like unpeeling like an onion, getting down to the deeper layers of a human being.
Look for what the story the person is telling you with their eyes. Eyes give so much away about how a person is feeling. There are also striking, subtle gestures that people make with their hands, legs, bodies. It’s extremely hard to hide anything for long.
Photographer: If you’ve never looked at Vivian Maier’s photos, I would totally recommend you do. Her work only became widely known after she died, a tragedy as it’s some of the best street photography I’ve seen, especially as much of it is from a time not as well documented as our current one. Love her colour work.
Photo project: Brandon Stanton Humans of New York project is a good example of how we are drawn into learning about those people who surround us. I listened to this interview with Brandon and his key advice on approaching strangers was: be confident – anything less than total confidence will stop people from trusting you.
3. Pick a theme
One of the easiest ways to get started is to pick a theme – like the amazing street photography of Eamonn Doyle who shot old people passing by his house in Dublin. All the photos from the subsequent book were shot within a half mile radius of his home (excitingly for those joining me for my Arles photo retreat, Doyle has an exhibition at the Arles photo festival, plus here are some other great street photographers showing there.)
I like how Doyle explained his vision for his work:
“The one guiding idea was to strip away the visual noise of the street so that the people emerge in a different and hopefully more surprising way.” Eamonn Doyle
Having a theme gives you a focus if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of just stepping out onto the street and taking photos.
Other interesting themed projects are Stan Raucher, who photographs people on the underground all over the world, and Tirzah Brott ‘Women of a Certain Age’. Brott’s project reminded me that even though it didn’t sound particularly original idea, it was in fact not something that has been done that much. I think there are certain parts of society that are very well photographed, and some that aren’t. There are some people who are ‘seen’ more than others, and that’s an opportunity for us photographers, to seek out the ‘un-seen’.
So, inadvertently, I’ve taken a lot of photos of people taking selfies. It’s such an intriguing concept to me, people photographing themselves and totally controlling what they look like.
4. Photography as poetry
“Living in modern and crowded cities make photographers forget about poetry as a part of their lives. Gazing upon street scenes through our lenses reminds us of our lost innocence.” Ako Salemi
I think all photography is a form of poetry. Photography is about rhythm and creation and recognition of beauty. What I believe is so special and important about street photography is when you get away from being overwhelmed by the human experience and into the natural flow and spirit of the humans around you – that’s the poetry part.
Photographer: I love Ako Salemi’s photos, particularly This,this and this from his story asking Iranian professionals about the nuclear deal.
I also agree with what photographer Andrew Hinderaker says, that his photos are like finding little gifts around the city:
“But my favorite photos aren’t so contrived, they are little gifts that you happen upon, some weird moment, or some strange interplay of light reflecting off buildings in midtown, for instance. I look for subtle moments, gestures, people interacting. Generally I just shoot and move on, but I love that having a camera basically gives you a license to go up to anyone and ask them what they’re doing and why.”
5. Photograph what scares you
There are people who are easy to photograph – their demeanor is so open and friendly and warm that you move easily toward them and photograph them. My suggestion is – don’t just go for those people, that’s the obvious shot!
Now think about those people that you stay away from because there is something that scares you, or a place (OK have to state the obvious here – don’t endanger yourself OK!!!). People you are super intrigued by, but maybe their energy is less encouraging. Step towards your fear, rather than away from it. You will be surprised that more often than not their response will be positive.
This, for me, was actually the most scary photo I’ve taken on the street – for some reason I was totally intimidated by shooting these French guys, but I got over my fear and I did it! And I love this photo:
Thanks for reading this and I hope it has given you some ideas or inspiration for your street photos. Taking photos of strangers is such a cool and fun thing to do when you get into the vibe of it. I can’t recommend it enough.
And please do share this with anyone you know who loves photography, sharing is so helpful! I also have a very cool free creative photography e-course for everyone who signs up to my newsletter 🙂
Plus – I’d love to know what you think of my post – and what ideas you have for taking photos out on the street? Comment below.
“A city does not mean a couple of windows and a door frame. A city means a place where people love to live, where people get a certain flavor out of living. Those are the places I love to photograph.” Ara Güler
As a photographer of cities, Istanbul has everything I could ever want. I am completely and totally in awe of this place. The incredible light, the complex history, beautiful buildings, the seas, the people, the culture, street sellers… it’s packed with incredibleness (a technical term).
In this post I wanted to pick one theme of what I like to shoot in Istanbul – with the hope that if you make your way over here it will give you some ideas on how to get a handle on this intense and bustling city. The two easiest things to photograph in Istanbul are the monumentally beautiful vistas and the people. Because Istanbul is laid out over seven (very steep) hills it’s easy to capture epic views over the city. And the people here are stunningly friendly and warm, so ditto very easy to photograph. But I will pick up those two themes later in another post.
What I want to do with this post is go a little off the beaten track. I want to bring together some of my photos of the streets of Istanbul. Some of the details, the scenes that I saw that are away from the epic and grand and impressive. My aim here is for more of the every day. I want to find some of the flavour of the city, the city that people live in and give you some ideas on how to photograph those parts. Most of these shots are from my dawn wanderings, but a few are from later in the day.
There is so much to shoot here. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of the potential, and to go at shooting like a rabid bunny. Don’t shoot like that. I guarantee, my friend, if you are shooting too much, then you won’t be able to truly get into the vibe of the city – slow down and pace yourself. Shooting a city, especially this city, is not the same as feeling a city. Work with all of your senses: really look at it, smell it, listen, and look again.
It’s good to remember that interesting light can make most subjects look interesting. Boring light can make even the most compelling subject look dull and flat. A semi-interesting wall brought to life by the light and shadows:
But it doesn’t have to be intense light. Here we have some much much softer light and it works to beautifully enhance the building, just look at all of those textures!
For me the things that I am aiming for in my photos is clarity and simplicity. I am always looking to remove things from my photo, break down the elements even further so that I can create something appealing to the eye.
Now that’s my aesthetic. I am sometimes a bit too austere – we should always be pushing ourselves and developing our style – but the concept of simplicity is very useful in a place like Istanbul where the city is just so packed with complex backgrounds and interesting things to photograph.
Look for elements that interest you and build your photo from there.
The photo below was shot in Tarlabasi, where I stayed for a few weeks earlier this year. It’s a very run down area, lots of poverty and considered quite rough. It’s worth wandering through though, particularly on a Sunday when there is a great market (This is a great blog post about the market and area). The area is a mass of historical buildings and is undergoing huge, controversial redevelopment. Lots of people are battling to keep their homes, so it’s going to be changing dramatically soon.
In many neighbourhoods that I visited, next to a new building there could be one that is abandoned, windowless and rotting. That could sound depressing, but it actually makes the city feel very ancient and in constant flux.
When you want to capture depth: think in layers. The camera can’t distinguish depth in an image, like the human eye can, and if there are too many things going on within the image it will look flat and messy. A good way to think of it is in layers. Each layer should be distinct from the previous layer, and therefore allows the eye to mentally build up the depth. This photo below has several distinct layers, but it feels very simple doesn’t it? At the front it’s the green, then the building, then more green, then the clouds and finally a wash of blue sky.
The elements that make the photo below work are the mixture of natural and artificial lighting; the contrasting colours and shapes of the buildings. Between the green building and the ones behind it there is a subtle layer created by the tungsten lights of the shops. It’s not a great feature of the shot, it’s just something that adds another layer and a feeling of depth so that it doesn’t all blend into each other. And of course the last element is that it’s bathed in the soft blue light of early morning.
The photo below has more layers. First I’d like to say that if the photo didn’t have the man on the balcony it wouldn’t have the great sense of scale that it has. The buildings would look quite flat. The man is almost the first layer, then you have the buildings, then the sea, the boat and the far shore. A mixture of people and landscape/buildings are really effective if used simply and purposefully to create depth.
I wasn’t sure about this photo below but my wife loved it. Much of the city is filled with tall buildings and apartment blocks where the dawn light only barely enters, and so there is not much dramatic morning light (which I love photographing). But this photo has a suggestion of it, as well as some artificial light which adds really nicely to the photo.
Here is another shot that could have been too busy and therefore looked flat (isn’t it funny that when a scene becomes too busy it looks flat rather than chaotic). The three significant elements I focused on were the mural on the broken building (amazing!), the man’s head below (great expression!) and the contrast of the modern and colourful buildings behind.
Istanbul is great for contrasts, and it’s worth looking for contrasting details when you are wandering around. Again – both of these photos below focusing on artificial lights’ are about simplicity in the face of busyness.
Remember to strip out the elements that aren’t enhancing your photo.
In this photo the area around the street vendor was busy, but for me the crowds were too distracting, so I waited until there was a lull before taking this shot.
A few more things:
Where to shoot: I will put together a list of my favourite spots but in the meantime I really like this. It’s recommendations from seven famous photographers from Istanbul and where they like to shoot in the city.
Ara Güler: I’ve mentioned Istanbul’s most famous photographer before (his book of black and white photos of old Istanbul is great), but I just bought a lesser known book of his colour work of the city called Vanished Colours, which is amazing. These photos remind me a lot of Ernst Haas’s feel for colour. Beautiful book. You can check out Ara Güler’s site for his work. He also owns a cafe, Kafe Ara, here in Istanbul, and I hear he’s often there hanging out. Generally I prefer colour photography because it’s more real, there is more feeling to me and it’s actually harder to capture something interesting.
Yildiz Moran: I was also happy to come across Yildiz Moran, an underrated but interesting photographer, one of the first famous female Turkish photographers.
Rule of Thirds: I just wrote a post for Digital Photography School on the Rule of Thirds – which you might like to check out. It was great fun to write, I love that rule! And it has over 4,000 shares already 🙂
I’d love to know what you think of this week’s post – what do you love to photograph in Istanbul? Comment here or drop me an email – I love hearing from you.
Greetings from Istanbul. I am here with my family working on my next book, and continuing to explore this enchanting city. Highly highly recommended. And now for something I was nervous to reveal…
Last year CNN asked to publish some photos from my project on the Homeless World Cup. It’s an amazing feeling to have someone call you up and not just pay you to do some work, but pay you to publish your personal work. It feels so validating.But…
CNN wanted to see everything I had taken, so I sent it all to them. Of course I had already done a mental edit, I had a pretty good idea of the images they would pick. Why? Because I had worked so hard on this project, going to Mexico City and Poznan to photograph the games over two years. I knew the project, and my photos, inside and out.
But when CNN replied, they asked for fourteen almost completely different images from the ones I had in my head. What the heck was going on?
But you know what, once I had time to go back and look, and look again, and the images they had chosen, I was able to see beauty of these other photos. They weren’t my favourites, but together they told an impressive story.
And it made me realise something extremely valuable – I am often not the best person to edit my work. In fact very few photographers are. I am constantly coming across stories about famous photographers who ignored images on their contact sheets for months, years even, before realising that they had an amazing image on their hands. Trent Parke ignored one of his most iconic images for a decade! Jonas Bendiksen for many months. You know why photographers can’t always be trusted to recognise their best images?
Because we are too emotionally involved with our photos (and ourselves). We see our work through the ever-changing filter of how we are feeling – about our images, ourselves, our lives, what was going on the day we took that shot. Sometimes we look at our images and feel a surge of excitement, and at other times we plunge into the depths and think – my photos are awful!
And that’s OK. Every photographer, every artist, every person who is creating, is in the throes of the mysteries of creativity and isn’t always able to be objective about their work. Get a fresh eye to look through your work – to give feedback, provide ideas, suggest new ways of developing, to prod you sometimes out of your comfort zone and into new ways to thinking and seeing. These are essential if you want to keep improving your photography. And unfortunately it can’t just be your other half or your mum who does this (hearing ‘that’s so great! I love your photos’, isn’t objective feedback :)). It has to be someone who loves photography and who can see your photos for what they are.
For me photography is only a solitary pursuit part of the time. And the more I continue on this journey the more I see how integral other people’s feedback, ideas, suggestions and comments are to one’s growth as a photographer. Even to this day, after twenty years, I rely on other people. I have a small team that I consult with. They help me edit, help me discover images I’d left out or discourage me from images I have an attachment to but don’t quite work and who I talk through new project ideas with. They help me keep the flow of inspiration fresh and my eyes clear.
A few years ago I decided to create a group that would help all of the amazing photographers that I was meeting through my workshops in the same way. And so I created the Light Monkey’s Photo Collective. Each year I offer a group of passionate amateur photographers the chance to be part of a group that meets regularly for walks, talks, feedback sessions and hosts online challenges. The group is there to motivate, inspire and inform.
“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” — Albert Einstein
It’s for people who want to connect with others who love photography – and in the process be encouraged, inspired and motivated by the group and having regular events to attend. It’s not a formal education program, but you will learn a ton.
The group has been an absolutely incredible, surpassing my ideas of what it could be. We’ve been on evening walks through Little Venice, explored the docks at dawn and had fantastic sessions looking at each other’s work in my studio in Waterloo.
Maybe you are looking for a trigger of inspiration, you are stuck in a creative or technical rut; you are looking for ways to be more motivated; you want to know what people think of your images (and maybe where to go next), you want to find new ways to bring a regular photo practice into your life; being part of a group excites you; you just love photography and want to share it – ideas like this? Then Light Monkeys is for you.
And I am really excited that I am now opening up a limited number of new places for the 2016 group.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard
How will this help my photography?
We are all busy people. We all have a lot on our plate. Even professional photographers like me find it hard to carve out time for working on personal work. Life, family, work – always gets in the way. But I know that if I don’t carve out time to dedicate to my photography, to wander and imagine, to explore and adventure, toplay – then my life doesn’t feel as full or as deeply connected.
Photography not only makes me feel more alive, it makes the rest of my life a more heightened, interesting and rich experience.
Life is, after all, an amazing adventure. And every day I make sure I do something that acknowledges that.
Membership is designed to be flexible.
You don’t have to come to every meeting. The idea is that every month there is always something happening so that if time allows you have something to get involved in.
We have photo walks, studio meet ups or review sessions. We get together to take photos, explore technical issues, look at programs like Lightroom plus we’ll review and critique each other’s work.
This is one of the most exciting, interesting and fun groups I have ever been involved in. The people are great, the sessions are fun and next year’s program is going to be the best yet.
The year long membership includes:
Monthly photo walk or in-studio sessions
Three dawn walks just for Light Monkeys
A one-to-one session with me to discuss your images, any issues or developments you want to make or a project you are working on
Opportunity to attend any one of my London workshops throughout the year for free (and in addition where there is a last minute space, I will offer these spaces to Light Monkeys, also for free)
Monthly online photo challenge, set by one of the members
Online community for support – to share your images, ask questions and share knowledge
Who is this for?
This group is for people who have attended one of my workshops and want to do something more. This is for anyone who is passionate about photography, regardless of their skills and abilities. We’ve got people who have just graduated from camera phones to a DSLR and people who have been photographing for years. The thing that unites us all is we love taking photos and we love sharing our experiences with other photographers.
There is a very limited number of new places available. We are offering an early-bird price of £345 until Oct 31st for the year long membership program. If there are spaces still available, the price will then become the regular price of £445. Full details and schedule here.
Imagine a year from now how much you could have done with your photography. Imagine, the photos taken, the feeling of accomplishment and nourished creativity. Imagine the connections you’ll have made and the adventures you’ll have been on. There is no way you will not love this experience.
“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” Ken Robinson
Of course you can do all this yourself, set up a group with some photo loving friends. But what I am doing with Light Monkeys is taking all of the organisational headache out of it. I am bringing together a group of super motivated passionate people, so you don’t have people drifting off after a few months. I am creating events and situations where you will be abundantly inspired. And to be honest – there is me! A seasoned professional, who lives and breathes photography, to help you. I am on hand to answer your questions and give you insights into photography. I want to make this as easy for you as possible to create an abundance of fun, adventure and photography in your life. All you need to do is show up, with your camera.
Questions / queries….?
Get in touch. I am working in Istanbul at the moment on my new book but I am on email and checking in every day.
Not in or near London?
For those of you who want to get more involved in your photography but can’t come to my group – or want something shorter or more focused – I have just launched a limited series of Private Skype Sessions. I will have one to two sessions available per month and these can be used to review your images, get detailed feedback from me, and for personalised help with the development of your photos. I can also answer tech questions! See here for more details.
As always – please send feedback, questions or thoughts to me. I read every email and I’ll respond! Or comment on my blog.
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca
This month marks the beginning of a busy spring and summer where I’ll be taking several photo trips. My first stop is Istanbul for a month to work on my book of the city at dawn and to run a workshop at the end of April. Although I am dreading how much I will miss my kids (and my wife!), that sense of nervous excitement about setting off on one’s own for a long period of exploration is exciting.
I love finding beauty (in all of its forms) in the every-day. It’s quite poetic how interesting it is looking at people going about their lives, wherever you are.
I wanted to share how I get ready for a photo trip. I’ve got a lot to say so for this post I am concentrating on the preparation – both practical and mental prep – and then for the next post I’ll be looking at finding your subject when you are on the trip. But first…
Why traveling is good for your photography “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy.” Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sometimes I like to think of the dawn rising all over the world but in vastly different places – dawn light filtering through the trees of the Amazon, and bathing the fisherman heading into the docks in Venice, as well as gently bringing the dark alley ways and ancient streets of Istanbul into the light. That this very same dawn that is gently cloaking my little South West London street in wintry sunlight could also be taking me to such vastly different places, makes me feel excited.
I feel that travel creates space in your mind away from the stresses of the day to day. And that space will always exist there. It will always be part of you. And that’s what creativity needs – mental space. You can’t create anything new or special when you are cluttering up your mind wondering when you are going to fit in the weekly trip to the supermarket or endlessly running through your presentation for a new client.
I always feel a little different when I return from one of my trips. I’ve added another little well of inspiration for my mind to draw upon. I’ve created another filter from which my mind will adjust and work and see things. It helps me lead a richer life every day, especially when I return home.
Get into the travel mindset
Going away on your own or with others to take photos is an exhilarating experience. But it’s not always straight forward, and negotiating different cultures, not speaking the language, finding yourself in weird situations can be intimidating.
So for me one of the biggest part of getting ready for a trip is the mental preparation. Getting into the mood, thinking about what I am going for, getting fully into the creative experience, learning about the local culture so I can relax into the experience when it finally arrives.
Be nervous…but not too nervous
Whenever I start working for a new client, or start a new book or project, I am insanely nervous. The nerves go after a while, and then come back when I hit a stumbling block or two, but then disappear. A bit like waves, that’s how my wife is encouraging me to see it. The adrenalin in this situation works for me. It keeps me alert and aware of my surroundings, and it helps keep me motivated. But if you get too nervous or overwhelmed, that’s a danger, so if this sounds like it could happen to you have your little mental tool kit at the ready. In mine there is meditation and reading complex sci-fi or history books – those chill me out in no time.
Ditch your expectations “Travel like Ghandi, with simple clothes, open eyes and an uncluttered mind.” Rick Steves
You’ve taken the time out of your busy life, you’ve spent money on the trip – you want to have an incredible experience and come back with unbelievable photos – right?
But expectations are often a pathway to hell. It reminds me of how whenever I am really excited for my kids to get home so we can have a lovely evening together, as soon as they get through the door all hell breaks loose. But when I am not thinking about it, when I have no expectations of them, it seems we are more likely to have a wonderful, relaxing evening together.
As long as you go through the process of preparing yourself, then whatever you come back with, it will be worth the experience. Any time you take time out for yourself to be creative is fuel and nourishment for the future – so abandon your expectations and just get on with doing what you love.
Surround yourself with inspiring things
I don’t really do anything else that’s creative. This blog-writing is the extent of my non-photo creativity (and even then the thoughts and ideas are mine, ie. the skeleton, but most of the words have been plucked out by my wife Diana) but if you do, do it! And seek out inspiration from other sources. Whatever the medium, the objective of art is all the same in my opinion – the examination of life. We are standing and watching and seeing so that others who don’t do this can see the world more clearly.
So go to art galleries, pick up a book by your favourite author – try to add more inspiring stuff to your brain than the brain sapping stuff (the news, your tax return… you know what depletes you and what fills you up).
Read (and watch documentaries)
Knowing what inspires you is really important for any creative practise. It means you can go to that well of inspiration on a regular basis. Some photographers get really inspired looking at other photos, and I do, but only up to a point. What gets me most inspired when I start a new city for my book series is my love of history, so for my work in Istanbul I’ve been reading Orphan Pamuk’s brilliant book ‘Istanbul’. Here is an edited extract, which in itself explains much of the feeling of the city (‘For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy.’ Pamuk writes.) I’ve also been reading the new edition of A History of the Arab Peoples as a way to get to know the region in a broader context.
When I spent several months in Paris my wife and I loved Parisians, in which author Graham Robb tells a series of ‘stories’ about impactful historical events of the city in a very fun and absorbing way. We really enjoyed Francesco’s Venice, a documentary series on the history of the city by Venetian architect and writer, Francesco da Mosto. You get the picture…
Find people to meet
I love being on my own, and am quite happy to wander for days and weeks on my own. But I know that the easiest way to get under the skin of a new place is to meet local people. So into every trip I do I build a few immediate ways I can get to know people.Airbnb is a great resource for places to stay with local people. In Rome my wife stayed at this awesome apartment which included the owners doing a free tour of the city at night. She got some insider tips on the city, great company and a lovely apartment. In the same trip my wife had dinner with an Australian woman she had met at a cafe in Soho who lived in Rome, they fell into conversation and six months later they were having a great meal at a very local restaurant in the city.
I also ask around in my friends’/work circle if anyone has any friends in the city I’m going to. I’ve found people are usually happy to share connections and everyone I’ve met through my circle has been wonderfully accommodating. People are usually proud of their home and love to show visitors around.
There are also photo clubs in most cities or perhaps you’re a member of an organisation with international links. But perhaps the easiest way to meet people is just to be there. If you missed it my last blog was on how to photograph strangers, which is often how I meet locals.
Know where the rough parts are
As I’ve said I am a fan of wandering, and I do feel more relaxed than most, I’d say, wandering the streets at weird hours. My wife is the opposite and takes precaution to strange levels. Probably somewhere between the two of us is the approach most normal people should take.
I’ve had a couple of altercations, and both were down to my lack of preparation. The first time I came to London was in 2000. I was wandering out at dawn and wandered straight into King Cross, which was a lot rougher then, and I almost got stabbed by some crazy homeless guy on crack. I felt like a total naive lost tourist.
In Barbes, in Paris, I was in the local African market and started to photograph some people who were involved in some not very legal selling of bags and things. I immediately got several people surrounding me and shouting at me very aggressively.‘It’s illegal to photograph us! Stop it!’ So I did.
So wherever I go I do a little research and ask around – Anywhere I shouldn’t be going? Any time I shouldn’t be going? Anyone I shouldn’t try and photograph? Just to have that in your little bag of knowledge is reassuring and lets you wander with more confidence. Get yourself acquainted with the culture. Learn the norms.
And lastly, a few quick practical tips:
Get to know your camera: even if you are going on a photo workshop or tour getting familiar with your kit allows you to hit the ground running. Ideally you want to use your time with your instructor learning things you can’t easily glean from your camera manual. (** I know lots of people hate reading camera manuals, and I get it. So just do what you can. Or just play around with your kit. Go out and shoot and see what you get stuck on and what you don’t**)
Pack light: take the bare essentials of what you need. Take what you need but be ruthless.
Portable hard drives are essential
Plus: a plastic bag for your camera in case it rains, a hat or visor for when you are walking/shooting against the sun (not for style), a torch if you are doing any very early or very late shooting, spare camera batteries. I am always with my tripod
Insure your kit! Vital.
Prepared to be surprised
All of the photos on this post are from my Paris at Dawn book. I am kinda in love with that book, partly because I think it’s some of my best work I’ve done recently, but also because I was blown away by Paris once I had thrown off my preconceptions about it being a pretty, dainty, uniform…a little bit of a boring city, which is what I had seen on my weekend trips there with my wife (I like a little bit of grit as many of you will know). Once I really explored the city, and really looked at the life in the city my whole perception changed. Humans have an amazing capacity to do weird, interesting and crazy stuff with their lives. Which leads into the next weeks blog post on finding your subject…
If you have any questions please feel free to email me, I love hearing from you.
And I’d love to hear how you prepare for a photo trip, do comment if you have any tips to share.
Finding the confidence to make brilliant portraits out on the street
About ten years ago, on one of my dawn escapades, I came across a homeless man who was asleep in an alley. He had covered himself in magazines and newspaper to keep warm. Lying on his chest was a magazine-spread of a lady’s buxom breasts. It was a perfect photo.
But I was struck by anxiety – was this crossing my internal ethical line? He was asleep, not participating in the photo. Was I using his misfortune and the naked lady who was keeping him warm, to make fun of him? I battled internally for a few minutes and then I walked away.
I still think about that photo and wonder if I made the right choice. Sometimes I think I should have taken it, but most of the time I know I was right not to. And the reason I start this post with that story is that I think that it’s really important to consider your ethical line when you are taking photos of strangers.
The world is your oyster when you are a photographer, and you have the right (often enshrined in each country’s law, not in Hungary though!) to take photos (although usage is a different matter. See the P.S. below).
Considering the people you photograph and their right to be represented fairly is essential, in my view.
Last year my family and I were at an exhibition in an empty car park in London. My kids were having a great time running up and down a ramp. Suddenly a man appeared and started taking lots of photos of my daughter.
My wife approached him and asked him what it was for. He said “ohhhhh, I am a new photographer, it’s just for my website.” Even though she is married to a photographer my wife was really nervous about approaching him. I eventually went over to talk to him and told him it was definitely not cool to photograph someone’s child without asking them first and, secondly, to be so vague about usage.
You should always give your subjects the courtesy of knowing where the photos will be and what for if they ask – particularly if you’re photographing children.
So once you have your ethical code in order, I would like say that photographing strangers is awesomely fun! Not only can you get great photos but you can also meet some really cool people. It’s a brilliant way to penetrate a new culture and get under the skin of a new place. And for the most part, people like to be ‘seen’, to be noticed and that’s a point to focus on.
Be friendly, polite and hopefully relaxed, you will rarely encounter someone who doesn’t respond in kind. And for those that don’t want to be photographed – just smile, apologise and be on your way. Don’t try to force the issue, or wait until they aren’t noticing.
Everyone has their own style My style is more environmental portraits. I am not a ‘street photographer’, although I occasionally delve into that territory. Street photography is a candid genre, focusing on capturing moments of life – not creating or pre-visualising a shot but seeing and capturing what’s happening out there on the street right now (the street photographers collective In-Public have a good explanation)
My style is to take portraits on the street, which fall into three categories, which I am going to explore here:
Portraits I ‘find’ and ask permission to photograph
Another (yes, another!) amazing thing about shooting at dawn is the fact that when you encounter people they are usually really friendly (and drunk) and want to know what you are doing wandering the dawn streets with a camera.
The photo, above, was a very typical experience for me. Two inebriated young men fell into conversation with me and wanted me to take their photo. They decided to climb this tree (it was completely their idea not mine) and I got this shot, one of my favourites from my London book.
Now I know many people don’t feel safe wandering around alone at dawn – I totally get it. I probably feel more confident alone because I spent the early part of my career living in Los Angeles. The city not only has horrid crime statistics (America’s great gun culture), but feels really hostile because everyone is in their car, not engaging with each other and making themselves feel even more paranoid and frightened of each other.
When I moved to Europe it was like a great big sigh of relief. Walking around on actual streets does a lot to combat people’s fear of strangers. That’s not to say I haven’t had any dodgy encounters (I love that English word, dodgy).
But of the hundreds and hundreds of mornings I’ve been out, I can only remember two, and it was intimidation not actual violence, so fingers crossed, it stays like that. The upshot being, take out a friend or two (or five!) if you feel a bit strange wandering at dawn (or join me on my workshops!)
I do a lot of these posed portraitson the street (my entire Belly Project is exactly that – over 100 bellies of strangers). You would be amazed by how many people will pose for a photo (even people who aren’t drunk). Amazed!
There are people who are just perfectly happy to be photographed, and those who are down right exhibitionists and hams in front of the camera (both my son and my wife are of the ham variety), but there are only a small, very small proportion of people who hate being photographed. And that’s OK. So – remember that the maths is in your favour.
If you are new to photographing strangers I would start with this type of photography. You need to work up the nerve to ask the person but once you have their permission, you won’t have that fear of them noticing you and smashing your camera (that’s a fear by the way, very rarely a reality even for hardcore street photographers). So you get to relax and then work on composing your shot.
I usually smile at someone I want to photograph If they seem welcoming I will approach them, tell them what I am doing and ask if I can photograph them. I try to say something about why I want to photograph them – “You look like you have an awesome belly! I love your hair!”
Although it’s hard not be scared, I think it’s important to seem fairly confident so that people trust you. Taking things slowly, being relaxed, not rushing – are all ways to imbue your approach with confidence.
I came across the above scene in Paris and was mesmerised. I was super quick (you are not setting up a tripod for this kind of shot). Now, what would have happened if the man had turned and seen me? I would have smiled and gestured ‘OK?’
If he wasn’t happy I would have apologised and walked away. That simple. At the very worse you can always show them the photo and delete it if they are truly unhappy (although this was shot on my still amazing Hasselblad on film, I presume most folks in this modern age are, you know, shooting digital :))
So if you are scared of doing anonymous portraits like this, or street photography, think what’s the worse that can happen? And then work out what you would do if that were to happen.
Elliott Erwitt is an endless source of inspiration for me. I love what he says:
“It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organising them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”
Portraits I ‘find’ and ask permission to photograph
I often come across a ready made amazing shot with people in it. But I know that if I just snapped they could notice, and it would be weird. Can you imagine me coming across these two lovers lying on this empty bridge and chatting, then putting up my tripod and taking a photo? Weird! So of course I just asked them.
Now you will notice that this photo is in Paris. I don’t speak French. So if there is a language barrier (I admit I do just break into English), I just point to my camera and smile. Again you would be astounded by how most people are perfectly happy to be photographed if you are warm and friendly.
Even in such an intimate moment as this. I sent the couple in this photo a copy and they were both very appreciative.
Now a few other thoughts / ideas / tips:
Attitude is everything. Being friendly, open, polite and relaxed is the best thing to focus on when you are out taking photos.
Don’t hide your camera. I know quite a few street photographers who advocate hiding your camera (and many who suggest otherwise – but that just feels really creepy to me). Be honest. Be human.
Have a few lines prepared. Sounds strange, but have a few lines prepared for people you’ll talk to, like: “Do you mind if I take your photo? I’m working on a photo project about fur coats.” Then when you are out and about you’ll be less likely to stumble over your words.
Have a purpose: If I could sum up my purpose as a photographer I think it is ‘beauty in the every day’. I think my purpose is to show people the incredible beauty of what’s right here on our doorstep which I hope will lead you to feeling more connected to this wonderful world, and loving it more.
I have always been fascinated by light, I’m a bit of a loner, I love empty/quiet places and I love nature. So that’s what you see when you look at my work. My passions and my personality shining through.
That’s when you know you have really got somewhere as a photographer, when people can look at your work and see your personality.
I recently came across the photographer Ruddy Roye and I love his work. He calls himself a ‘Humanist/Activist Photographer’ and has found fame by shooting what he is most passionate about: people who are usually ‘unseen’ (he has an amazingInstagram account).
In this great interview on Longreads he said he thought about something that Eugene Smith said, and that propelled him to focus his photography in a different way:
“You know, there are enough photographers photographing the pretty things, and not enough photographing the things that aren’t as pretty.”
He then decided that “I want to introduce white America to people who they might never have met, and I want them to fall in love too.”
In the interview he also talks about how he engages with his subjects. He’ll often chat to them and get to know them before he shoots them. Sometimes he finds a subject and ends up not photographing them, just chatting. Just being human.
And that’s something we photographers sometimes forget. Humans love connecting, so just be human.
When you have a purpose photographing strangers on the street is much easier. It’s easier to talk to people, to communicate to them why you want to photograph them.
It doesn’t have to be something really epic like Roye, it can simply be that you find people interesting, you want to show people your vision of the world, that you care about people being seen in an engaging, interesting, compelling way.
And this is where ethics comes in again. I think people can feel your purpose, they can sense if you are a genuine person and you have their best interests at heart (unlike the rather misguided photographer who was shooting my daughter).
Deciding on your purpose before you go out helps set you up for when you start shooting.
All of this advice is rubbish though…if you don’t practice, practice, practice. By doing it over and over you will find your style, what you are comfortable with, how you like to photograph strangers, what attracts you and what doesn’t.
I promise it gets easier and easier every time you do it. There are endless opportunities out there for you so just try, fail, try and fail, try and end up with something really special and completely unique that you created.
Be polite and friendly
Remember most people like being noticed for their uniqueness – and will welcome you photographing them
If someone isn’t happy to be snapped, just apologise and walk away
A smile and a relaxed attitude will take you far
Remember your humanity
Have a purpose
And after all that…STOP thinking. Once you have thought all of these things through, and done some mental preparation, then just forget it all and get on with it. And again I use this Picasso quote “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing”.
Anthony and Diana
PS a note about usage and permission
In most countries you only need people’s permission if you are going to sell the photos or use them for commercial gain. Photos for art and editorial usage usually don’t require individuals’ permission (but there are exceptions – like Hungary! Where it’s now illegal to photograph anyone without their permission).
There are exceptions, particularly for children, so always check out the law in the country you’re in. I have yet to find a website that covers all countries – here is one for the UK to get you started, and remember laws change all of the time
Plus, when you are travelling it’s important to be aware of cultural sensitivities before you blaze out there, camera in hand. There is a tonne of info out there on the web. Load up on knowledge and that will also help you feel confident as you go out to shoot.
‘We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.’ John W Gardener
A few years ago I was shooting at dawn in East London for one of my books. I walked past a butcher and thought – awesome! Capturing people up at dawn can be really hard as they are either not around or it can be difficult to find people doing interesting things.
The scene was great. I liked the blue early morning light on the buildings contrasting with the yellow tungsten inside. It really was a perfect combination of elements. I lifted my camera, shot this, but I obviously wasn’t happy with it because the positioning is all wrong.
Then I saw that the butcher had spotted me. Guess what I did? I carried on walking! I had been totally overtaken by the fear and just left the scene.
To be honest it sort of surprised me how fearful I was. I have a lot of years under my belt of photographing strangers. It just shows you, though, that fear is not something you overcome and then that’s it, it’s gone. It can come back at any time. And of course, we professionals are not immune.
But you know what? That’s OK. For me the best way is to accept that fear is a bit like clouds in the sky or rain in London – it comes and then it goes. The worse thing for me to do is let it stop me from taking the shot – or in this case, going back and getting the shot.
Fear is an interesting concept (I like to think of it as a concept because the more I emotionally distance myself from it, the less it’s likely to eat me whole). A little fear and a little anxiety can be great drivers for creating work.
Fear can keep you motivated and alert and save you from the most dreaded of all creativity killers – inertia. But too much, and it’s a real threat to your creativity. And it’s too much fear that I see most often on my workshops.
It’s good to note though that it’s totally natural to feel fear when you are creating.
“We’ve evolved to distrust creative ideas: except in a crisis, there’s little survival benefit to trying something new.” Oliver Burkeman
As creative people though we are always striving to be better at what we do, trying to create original and beautiful things with our photography.
I believe that fear in its many forms is the main barrier to improving your photography. It’s not just the thing that will stop you from photographing strangers – it will also stop you pushing yourself further with your creativity. It will stop you from envisioning what is possible to do with your photography – and then getting on with it.
I see fear all the time with my students, and often they are surprised when I tell them that most people can experience fear when they are taking photos. They are not unique or alone in this. With my students I see fear come up in the form of:
Not staying at a scene long enough
Self-consciousness when shooting around people. So instead of being in the moment, connecting to your environment and composing your image, half of your mind is distracted with what people might be thinking or what is happening outside the moment of the photo
Not shooting what you really want to photograph because it scares you too much
Not shooting that intriguing stranger
Not getting started! I see this a lot. Worrying about doing it just right, so people don’t even get themselves out the door. (Perfectionism is just another form of fear.)
I agree with Oliver Burkeman (again) in that:
“The real question, then, is not whether creativity provokes fear, but what to do when it does. Far too many authorities urge you to conquer it… but as with any emotion, launching an all-out attack on fear is counterproductive. That just puts it centre stage, and risks reinforcing the notion that creativity must – and should – be one endless, bare-chested struggle.”
So what I encourage in the dealing with fear is:
Be patient with yourself. Fear is just a feeling. Don’t react to it. Let it come up and eventually it with leave you. Probably the worse thing you can do is start adding lots of thoughts and judgements about your fear. Thoughts are like adding fuel to the fire. Let the fire just burn itself out.
Accept that it’s part of being creative. Putting yourself out there in terms of showing your work, being out there in the world with your camera, doing something outside of your day to day life is going to provoke feels of discomfort. And really, if you are feeling discomfort you are on the right path – it shows you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone, you are onto to something new and different.
I also like this idea about overcoming fear by distracting your mind and creating habits:
“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks. A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.” Twyla Tharp
Accept it is impossible to totally quieten the mind – thoughts just keep coming in whether you want them to or not (I love what the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says – that the mind has no shame, it “secretes thoughts the way the mouth secretes saliva.”). So the only choice you have is to ignore your mind, the thoughts, and pay attention to being completely present.
Don’t think ahead
Don’t wonder where you are going
Listen to the sounds around you
Look for the light
Spend three times longer looking than you usually would. Stop yourself from moving
Imagine yourself just drifting, like a small child looking around with fresh eyes, catching the things that interest and being totally absorbed until you are ready to shift the interest to the next thing
Try and look at the whole scene
Don’t think about taking photos, think only about looking and seeing
If in doubt, stay still
And perhaps most importantly….have fun! (remember how much you love photography?)
When I am really struggling with fear I like to remember what Seth Godin advises about starting small:
“What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?”
Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s to intellectually realize – we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.”
Photography for me is not a list of technical skills or camera gear to acquire. It’s not exotic locales or hip people to photograph – photography is a state of mind. The more you work on removing what is cluttering up your vision, the more you’ll see searingly original, interesting photos that make people go – wow!
Last thought for you – if you are struggling with fear, and not sure if you want to overcome it, then I like to remember this:
“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished?
Yes; work never begun.” Christina Rossetti
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and please if you have any thoughts or ideas please do comment – I love hearing your feedback.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Ansel Adams
I am not crazy about January (is anyone? Well my son is, he loves grey days as much as I love sunshine. He’s even written a little book of ‘Grey day activities that don’t involve watching TV’’ to help other people enjoy them too). So in the absence of having my son’s enthusiasm for this weather, what I like to do to start the year is review my work from the previous year, as this gives me a nice jolt of joy and helps propel me on to a good creative path for the next year.
Why is this a good idea? You’ll find new favourite images
It’s funny how you can have a perception of what you have accomplished, but then you sit down, go through everything anew and really look at your images and this gives you a whole new perspective on your year.
You never know – you will could discover a great photo that you missed the first time round. For example, I missed this image when I was putting together my Paris book. I was flipping through my images one day and said casually to my wife – do you like this? And she went crazy – she both loved it and wanted to shoot me for not showing them to her before and maybe missing the chance of them being in my book. I was saved from her wrath just in time.
Magnum photographer Trent Parke talked about ignoring this image for ten years in the interview I posted last month because he remembered the light was bad that day so ignored the shot.
When he found it again ten years later he saw the power of the image (here is the interview again for anyone who missed it – it’s probably one of the most inspiring talks I’ve heard on photography in years).
It’s important for your development as a photographer
In order to keep improving it’s important to take a cold, hard look at your work. I find doing my yearly review both a joyous experience – I always find photos I’d previously ignored which I now love – but also a little heartbreaking. Photos I ‘remember’ to be brilliant turn out to not be so much. But in an effort to improve your images you have to take a cold, hard look at what you need to work on improving, as well as celebrating how far you’ve come. Perhaps you’ll look at your work and be a little disappointed because you don’t have a lot of great images. Well, that’s just inspiration for committing to your photography more in the following year, right?
Do a review session with a friend
A photographer’s agent I know once told me that photographers are often the worst editors of their own work because they have too much emotion attached to their images. They often think about things like: the circumstances in which they took the photo, how they were feeling or how much they liked the subject – instead of just the image.
Apparently I am also guilty of this.
So, it really, really helps to go through your work with a photo-loving friend or friends. Heck, get a little group together, a few beers and make an evening of it. You will be amazed by what images you skip over that others love, and then they become your favourites, and likewise images you think are absolute killers and they aren’t.
(BTW I have introduced regular group feedback sessions into my Light Monkeys group if you are looking for something more structured.)
Some questions to ask yourself about your images
Is there a running theme?
How has my photography changed in a year?
Are there any new subjects I am passionate about?
Have I been using my full imagination?
It helps you to prepare your photography for the coming year
Getting into a ritual of a yearly review is an excellent habit because you are giving yourself time to let your work settle. You will have lost some of that excitement that maybe is attached to the work – like the holiday you were on when you took it, or the beautiful sunshine you encountered.
It will help you formulate some desires for your work in the coming year and set some little goals for yourself.
Next week I’ll be talking about this creative goals setting (goals in the loosest possible sense) and how to get a personal project started. Although I am a-keep-thing-in-my-head-kind of guy, and not one for lots of structure around my personal projects, I do like to set a few markers for the year, have a sense of how much time I want to commit to my work every week/month and have an idea of what I will be focusing on shooting wise. But more of that next week.
And finally….share your favourite photos with the world (or at least your loved ones) – it’s an obligation
I think a lot of creative people get nervous about sharing their work with the world. Not only are you putting yourself out there to be judged (scary!) but it also feels rather uncomfortable to self-promote. But I am here to say that not only is it great to show people the work you’ve done because you have something unique to express that only you can say, it also inspires others to be creative. And as many of you know, I believe that creativity is an essential tool for living a good life. Whether your creativity takes the form of cooking, art or reading – it’s something that takes you away from life’s ‘grind’ and helps you enjoy life in a deeper, more meaningful, more connected way.
So do the world a favour – show people your work and inspire others!
I really like Austin Kelon’s talk (based on his book by the same name) called Show your Work. It gives a plethora of reasons why you need to be showing the world your creations.
My top shots
So in my yearly review I picked out some of my images that I really loved from 2014 (with the help of my wife, and it only involved one creative altercation :)) I would love to know what you think of my selections!
And…I’d love to see your best photos from 2014 – either post them to my Facebook page or email me directly and I’ll send you my feedback.
Looking forward to a great year for us all.
Happy shooting in 2015!
Included in my favourite shots are some photos from my Venice project. I stayed on the Eastern side of the city this year and discovered some amazing new places to shoot – abandoned buildings, a lush park and a fortress like entrance that must have been useful for ancient times.
Of course my adopted home city always wins my heart! This was a little ‘snap shot’ I took one morning, and is totally unprocessed. I never get bored of shooting this view. London always offers up something new for me.
And now to Paris, a city I learnt to love over many months, once I had got underneath it’s ‘pretty’ surface…
If I was to sum up what I like to photograph (and I should, we all should, not in a prescriptive way but just as a way to get to know our photography better) it’s probably this – urban landscapes, workers, humorous portraits (though strangely I don’t photograph to be funny) and street details. I love finding ugly, dirty, weird things on the street and making them look interesting or inviting. A quirk of mine I suppose…
“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau
When we are confronted with a beautiful scene our first reaction is to take a photo. “Done – can’t wait to show my friends. Let’s get lunch.” This is what I would call the obvious photo. A snapshot.
What do I mean by the ‘obvious’? Well, in photographic terms (mine) the ‘obvious’ is what is seen and taken as a snapshot by 95% of the population (or 100% of tourists!) It is what is right in front of you, not what is behind, above, below, beneath and all around you. It is usually very beautiful and worth a snap, but like most things that are beautiful, it may have many parts and aspects that make it so.
Most of my work is shot in cities, where people with camera phones and other photographers are in abundance. Cities create a good tension because I am always aware that every view or building that I photograph has not only been copiously photographed, but is probably being photographed at the very second I am pushing the shutter button. It reminds me to push myself further, to see something new, to find a different photographic path.
So what can we do to obtain that special shot that no one else will? Here are a few super simple tips I like to use:
1. Deconstruct the scene
My favourite thing to do is to de-construct a beautiful scene and make it my own. A simple example is a landscape, say with a vast range of smoky mist-capped mountains beyond a winding river valley (Ansel Adams comes to mind). Really nice you say. Indeed it is. Who wouldn’t want that photo – it’s what we are there for, right?
Now stop. Look again ‘inside’ the scene: see that tree with light playing just on the top half and the way the light reflecting from the water illuminates the shadowed side of the tree opening up the dark. If I captured just that small part of the scene wouldn’t that also be a good photo? Maybe even better?
The only difference between the two photos is you. You make it yours by seeing it. And your vision is like no one else’s. You have made something special because you are ‘seeing’, and you saw when everyone else was enraptured by the obvious. Most people won’t see that tree or the light play on it. Most people are not aware that there is more to the scene for whatever reason; time, interest, mood, etc. As a good photographer you cannot help but to ‘see’ that piece of the obvious and make it yours.
2. Look in the opposite direction
Here’s another way. One late sunny afternoon I found myself on Westminster Bridge with twenty other photographers and we are all taking the photo (below) because well, the light was awesome.
I then started to look around as the light was fading. To my left, I saw this ice cream kiosk and behind me St Thomas’ Hospital in that epic light, but it had a different quality as it fell on the buildings and the people scattering in different directions.
I thought to myself how beautiful the hospital looked as the sun faded. And I loved how the light inside the ice cream kiosk began to get brighter relative to the daylight, like it was glowing. Which is a better photo? It all comes down to personal taste, but for me the better photo is the one only I saw.
3. Look for the photographers
Although Venice is one of the top touristy cities, I was really surprised (or am I, having spent many years dodging them?) that tourists seem to confine themselves to a few well worn routes. Venice still has a quite serenity. But what happens if you want to shoot St Mark’s Square, for example? My dawn advantage was, for once, limited. It was the one place where photographers were already up and shooting. One morning I shot the square with the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen. A few Venetian Carnevale characters emerged, posing in front of the canal, bathed in pink light. In front of them was a scrum of photographers, snapping away like paparazzi. I didn’t want to miss this incredible light, and looking around I realised the best photo for me was of the photographers photographing. The less obvious.
(By the way, I went back to St Marks Square after a night’s rain and got a lovely shot. Rain puts photographers off in a big way!)
4. Shoot the third thing
I came across this quote about writing a few years ago and it struck me as a concept that could also apply to photography. Victoria Coren wrote about advice she had received from her father, the late writer Alan Coren:
“Don’t write the first thought that comes into your head, because that is what everyone will write. And don’t write the second thought that comes into your head, because that is what the clever people will write. When you hit on a third thought, pick up the pen. That one is just yours.”
5. Don’t be afraid not to shoot
Sometimes I go out with the intention of shooting, particularly for my dawn projects, and never take any photos. I took my family to Paris for several months to shoot my book Paris at Dawn and each morning I’d arrive home with warm fresh croissants. The first thing my wife would say was, not thank you for the croissants (!) but how many shots did you get? I think she was computing it all in her head, like hours worked = shots taken = % of project finished. I would often say none, didn’t even take out my camera, and her face would fall. Over time she realised what was going on. I did get all the photographs in the end. Some mornings there would be 3 rolls of film, sometimes none, and sometimes just a couple of shots.
Unless you are on assignment there is no pressure to shoot. I think telling yourself you will only shoot something that really inspires you is a great discipline and makes you work harder to find something unique and original. Getting you beyond ‘the obvious’.
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