Easy Street – Photography by D.J. De La Vega

Easy Street – Photography

By D.J. De La Vega

I have just returned from my travels around Scotland and after a rewarding spell shooting the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I thought I would share a few thoughts on easy street photography. That is street photography for the bashful or for beginners.

I’ve seen helpful tips mentioned quite a few times in different articles here on Steve’s site; hints on how to build up your confidence in shooting the street so I apologise if I am stepping on anyone’s toes. I have also seen lots of people with legitimate concerns about shooting the street in their home towns as they may not be quite as accommodating and nonchalant as bigger or more affluent cities. So I thought I would gather a couple of my humble thoughts together to help anyone out there who is tentatively dipping their toes into the Street Photography pond. These thoughts are hardly revolutionary and are probably old news to a lot of experienced photographers (I do not want to teach Granny how to suck eggs), but for the people who are just starting out, it may just be that little push they need to send them over edge and delve into this wonderful genre.

It is unquestionably a daunting genre to try and get in to, but it is most definitely a worthwhile and fruitful one. I also surmised that as many of the readers of this site probably shoot with Leica or Micro 4/3rds etc., inevitably I believe if they have not already, they will at some point get the urge to try their hand at street shooting and utilise these wonderful little tools in this field in which they excel.

So here is my first thought that pretty much encompasses the theory of easy street photography: shoot a local festival or carnival or any other event in which people are out on the street and having a good time. Easy! Suddenly your local community (which from day to day may not be the most friendly place to walk around and get in strangers faces, especially with a Leica hanging around your neck) becomes a hot bed of joviality and opportunity. In some ways it is kind of a cheat, and sometimes like shooting fish in a barrel but it is amazing practice for building up confidence of taking photos of people.

These example shots were all taken at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is an organised event which runs through the whole of August. The city streets becomes swamped with thousands of performers, comedians, artists, musicians, dancers and pretty much anyone out there who literally want to put themselves on a pedestal.

The streets are packed, flowing with vibrant energy, music is blaring and there are tourists everywhere shooting snaps left right and centre. You are therefore an invisible face in the crowd and have licence to photograph anyone and everything to your heart’s content without ever been approached, questioned or frowned upon. For people without brazen confidence this scenario is an ideal training ground.

The advantage to shooting an event like this is twofold. Firstly the artists do not mind having their photo taken as they are there to perform, show off and get exposure and secondly the crowds of people are distracted and blind to all of the cameras around and would never suspect that you are taking of them and not the vibrant juggling jester next to them.

There are however challenges of shooting such a busy street environment. It can be hard to get unique or interesting results and you may find yourself simply ending up with straight forward touristy snaps. There is no right or wrong way to take street photos, but always experiment with interesting angles and compositions to transform what could be a throw away snap into a keeper.

Another challenge shooting on such crowded streets is being able to frame a subject without getting the backs of heads or people walking into your frame to spoil a composition or character you have spotted. Timing becomes essential and you need to constantly make and remake decisions on when to shoot, instantaneously on spotting a possible scene or wait a while, shutter half depressed, to see if a scene to develops. For example: although these next two images compositionally look similar in their results they were taken in two very different ways. The first one was a decisive reaction, I spotted the character and brought the camera up to my eye and shot without thinking. The second one took me a good three minutes to chase and trail this fascinating Highlander through the busy crowds and finally manage to capture this image through a gap that eventually opened up for me. Persistence can pay off but if you miss an opportunity its gone forever.

At a carnival or festival like this, the revellers can become part of the event and by dressing up or doing something to put themselves out there in front of a crowd, they will never mind a photographer getting up close to take a shot. For example: even a simple thing like sitting down for a portrait this guy has took himself out of the crowd and placed himself in front of it, so you have all the time in the world to compose, get as close as you want and take as many shots as you like. No one will raise an eyebrow.

Think outside the box and document not just the people at the event, but the event itself. How does a particular carnival or festival affect your town? What are the decorations, alterations or results of a specific occasion on the street that will not be there in a week? It may not be an amazingly spectacular scene, but it is ephemeral history that is begging to be immortalised by an observant eye.

So if you have stuck with me this far I would like to thank you for reading my probably incoherent ramblings. I will wrap this up with this final image which is my personal favourite. It is not particularly interestingly composed, attention grabbing or extraordinary but what it is, (and what you can achieve if you head out for the day with your camera with the sole objective of taking photos), is a decisive moment. An interaction for a fleeting instant between two people. A connection that took place by chance when the moving statue accidentally dropped her mask and a helpful but cheeky little girl teased for a second before handing it back. Priceless.

I would like to thank Steve for letting me share my thoughts on this great site, to an excellent community of photographers. As his site is all about inspiration, I hope I have inspired even just a couple of people to go out and try something different and most of all build up a little bit of confidence to try to photograph something may not otherwise have.

You can check out some of my other Leica X1 experimentation and photography here:

http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2011/06/22/user-report-a-photographic-road-trip-with-the-leica-x1-by-d-j-de-la-vega/

http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2010/09/03/daily-inspiration-142-by-d-j-de-la-vega/

http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2011/01/06/daily-inspiration-183-by-d-j-de-la-vega/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/djdelavega

(Sorry I’ve been away from Flickr recently and I do aim to get back into the swing very shortly)

All the best

D.J. De La Vega

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26 Comments

  1. i love your street shots. They are great. what iso and stop do you use most of the time? I was told to use 2.8 and iso 400. i was bothered by blur on my x1 Thanks Neal

    • Thanks! It depends on the light and what I want in focus. I would just reccomend experimenting and find out what works for you.

  2. @bernie and Bobby B

    Thanks for looking guys and your right these aren’t proper “street” shots. Like I said in the article these are something totally different. They are candid photos of charactes on the street but they are kind of cheats, almost staged as they are in a carnival atmosphere so anything goes! The puropse of this series was a way to show people who may want to get into “proper” street photograph that there are places you can go to practice getting close to people, buld up confidence and capture candid photos without fear of causing offence etc.

    You could argue all day the defination of what is or isn’t street but it wasn’t my intention to raise that debate here. Infact that would make a good article; hands up who would like to tackle that one?

    Like I said at the start of the articel I didn’t want to offend anyone with more knowledge or experience than me.

    D.J. 🙂

  3. Although I would love to go to Edinburgh for the festival, the shots that you show are really not what “street shooters” would call street photography. Go to http://www.500px.com and sort by “street” in the top pull-down menu, and then you will see great shots.. street shots.

    My view is street shooting has no calendar.. it just *constantly* occurs… and then that moment is gone. Usually, these moments go unnoticed.. maybe a gifted street shooter is there to capture it, maybe not.

  4. I know I should resist, but when you say “this guy has TOOK himself out of the crowd” I wish to say that I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of grammatical skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for a sentence like that … if you know the movie that famous (though slightly altered) speech came from, you will understand why I have TOOK the time to correct you … 😉

    • lol, thanks Damen. I don’t have money or a very particular set of grammatical skills. I’m pleased that with my poor spelling and grammar I’ve only made one mistake bad enough for you to highlight 🙂

      • I’ll take any excuse to use that quote from “Taken”. Unfortunately, they are the only memorable lines in the movie, but what glorious lines !!

  5. .
    Dear DJ, I know how much you love your X1. But just set aside that love for only five minutes, and have a little think about these few topics..

    1. Your pics of the ‘human statue’ and the ‘Highlander’ (just to be specific about a couple of these): the main ‘subjects’ of your pics – the statue and child, the Scotsman – get lost in all the surrounding people. Don’t you think they would have benefitted from having a -s-h-a-l-l-o-w-e-r- depth-of-field, to isolate them and make them stand out from the blur and hubbub all around them? ..The statue was shot at f2.8 – the widest which your 24mm (aka a 36mm on your X1’s APS sensor) will open up to. But your Highlander was shot at f5.6 with your 24mm lens. Your beloved X1 just cannot separate foreground from background sufficiently with this wide-angle lens and not-very-wide aperture.

    2. Imagine these were audio recordings, not just visual records: the foreground sounds would have been swamped with all the hubbub from around them if recorded with an ‘omni-directional’ microphone ..what you’d need is a ‘gun’ or ‘rifle’ mic to disregard the surrounding noise, and to home in on the sound of the child and statue, or the kilted Scotsman in the crowd.

    3. What would isolate these people from their surroundings a bit better, and make them really the subjects of your photos? Either a longer lens, or a wider aperture, or – preferably – both. If you’d had a 90mm f2.8, or a 50mm f1.4 (on a 35mm camera) you could have blurred away all the confusing activity around and beyond these people, and actually concentrated our attention on these characters amidst the milling throng.

    4. But you can’t do this with an X1 ..the lens is fixed and unchanging, and its 24mm (which has inherently deep focus) won’t open wider than f2.8. That’s great for scenery, landscapes or static shots – as on your Flickr pages – but it can’t really isolate one nearby person from the surrounding people nearby.

    5. I know it’s a heretical thought, to you, but what you could do with for these particular photos – only in my opinion, of course – is a compact camera the size of an X1, and with a similar imaging chip, but with a longer lens (or interchangeable lenses, or – heaven forfend! – a zoom) and with a wider aperture ..which means a Sony NEX, doesn’t it, and its interchangeable lenses. Or an m4/3 camera and interchangeable lenses, for example a 20mm f1.7 (behaving like a 40mm), or a short wide-aperture zoom. I know this really is anathema to you, but it seems to me that you’re using the wrong tool for the job here. The X1’s great for all your other shots on your Daily Inspirations and Flickr, but for these ‘candid’ or ‘street’ or ‘opportunist’ shots it’s like using a screwdriver to knock in a nail, or a bicycle to row across a river: the 24mm f2.8 cannot do what you want it to do.

    OK. I’ve finished now. But do think about it: calm, static shots; the X1 is great for those. Hustle-&-bustle, and isolating one person in a melee; nope; look at a NEX 7 or even a NEX 5n. Or a little Olympus or Panny. As Panasonic’s sufficiently refined for Leica to put their badge on several of those, just think of a Panny as being a Leica “in disguise”. There’s so much more versatility there, and you could choose a lens that’s appropriate for what you’re shooting.

    Yours, really honestly and sincerely: you deserve a more versatile camera,

    – David.

    • Thanks for your expert and detailed analysis as always David. I really appreciate it.

      As I mentioned, on such crowded streets its very hard to get a good shot sometimes. And you are right in principal, I would get way better and more veritile shots carrying for e.g. a Nikon D3X with 24mm 1.8 50mm 1.4 85mm 1.4 and 100mm N Macro, but some how I don’t think I’d even leave the house if I thought I had to carry that kit with me all day. Plus even with a little camera, they get bigger by carrying multiple lenses and IMHO you lose the moment interchanging them.

      I accept the X1 is not the best camera for street photography (speed and manual focus etc), but a 35mm lens is a brilliant all rounder and ideal for street photography. Longer lenses wouldn’t be as versite and lack intimacy as you dont need to get up close or involved with the subject IMHO. And lets not get started on zoom lenses lol 🙂

    • Dear David– I don’t think the subject has to be isolated from surrounding with s-h-a-l-l-o-w-e-r- depth-of-field in EVERY street photo. As a matter of fact sometimes the blur and hubbub tell half of story–they put the character into context. Look at the statue and child picture; in my opinion a shallow dof would have ruined that picture–look at the old woman in the background smiling at the kid. It shows the normal reaction of an adult to that situation. It is another dimension in the whole story. The picture with the guy standing on his head with other dude seeming like he is looking down at between his legs–ok you tell me what a shallow dof does to that picture. So many people shoot wide open just because they spent so much money on an expensive lens, and if you look closely all of their images look the same. A nice bokeh can help the mood of an image, if used in the right place. I would not use f0.95 for most of my street shootings. I would not even use f2.8 for most of my street shootings.

      One other thing. Did you read his post? He was presenting suggestions for taking better street shots. You made it all about the gear he shot with. On top of that, you suggested that he should use a zoom camera instead of his unobtrusive X1. I’m going to say you dropped the ball.

  6. Oh man, another fantastic series from one of my fave photographers from this site. I love the rendering the of the black and white. Great eye for details. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks. I usually shot a lot of colour but I think as it was a bit overcast I had my black and white head on 🙂

  7. first.. 😀
    good narrative.. simple & straight to the point..
    the ‘highlander’ man is your best shot..! your patience really paid off..
    keep it up..!

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