Photo credit @2010 Bradley Olson
I met Jim Karsh at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. He was the loud mouth in class always giving us a good laugh. He also sold me my very first DSLR. His final project had most of our class in tears. We both share a love of broken down disintegrating buildings and things. His sports photography is pretty slick too. Over the past few years, he has been a constant source of inspiration. I have already tried out a few of these tips and I hope they will inspire you to hit the streets with your camera. You can find more of his images at jimkarshphotography.com
I’m a pilot for a U.S. airline and for the past 17 years I have flown international flights exclusively, mostly in Asia. Going overseas every month has given me the opportunity to satisfy my photography addiction by wandering in cities I might have never visited if not for my job. In doing that I have found that I most enjoy street photography, capturing the faces and ways of living that are quite different than what we are used to in America.
The first task I undertake when going to a foreign place with my camera is research. Bangkok, for example, is a huge city. I may be able to get good shots just by leaving my hotel and wandering at random, but with only one day to shoot on most layovers, I don’t want to waste time on a fishing expedition. The internet is a great resource for information on places to photograph and I make liberal use of Google Earth to scope out areas that may produce good photos.
The other preparation I recommend is to be familiar with your camera. Opportunities in street photography are sometimes fleeting, here one moment and gone the next, so you want to make use of all your tools to get the shot before it goes away. Know your autofocus modes, how to shoot in aperture and manual modes, and how to use autobracketing and auto ISO.
When you’re in the area where you want to shoot, be patient. If you find a compelling background, stick around for awhile and see who or what happens by. When you move, move slowly and pay attention. A compelling image may be a few steps down an alley or just inside an open door.
Of course, most of the best street photos include people, a fact which raises the question, what is the best way to approach a person and get a great photo? Should I ask or not? Even after shooting in a number of Asian cities, this is a question I don’t have a definitive answer for and I go with what seems right at the time. One thing I have learned is as a foreigner in a local area, you have already more than your share of attention and when you bring a camera to your face, every eye in the vicinity will turn to you. So I’ve learned to shoot from my hip or chest or with the camera on a table or other surface and I’ve gotten excellent pictures that way.
If there is a subject whose attention is fully trained on me, trying to sneak a shot is pretty futile and may bring anger instead of acceptance, so I find the best approach for me is to learn “hello” and “thank you” in the local language and approach with a smile. Pantomiming a shot always gets your request across and if I get a no, I walk away. More often than not, I get a yes if I approach with a hello, a smile and a compliment with hand signals on how interesting the person’s face looks, and I often get a thank you if I show the resulting image on my camera’s LCD.
There is a famous photographic axiom, “f/8 and be there,” and in street photography you’ve got to get out and shoot. The images won’t come to you as they would as if you owned a studio. You’ve got to go out and get them. One of the best shooting experiences of my photographic life happened because I overcame a huge desire to stay in a warm hotel room instead of going out in a cold windy Shanghai with sore feet to shoot. I forced myself to go and had a magical day and got some of the best images I had ever taken.
The last bit of advice is if you want unique images, get out of the normal tourist spots and go into areas where the locals are and where “real life” in that city is happening. Be safe, but a local market or artisan working on the street is much more interesting to me than the gazillionth photo of the Eiffel Tower.
To sum up, know your camera, research the city you want to shoot, learn a few local phrases, wear a smile and a positive attitude, take your time, be patient and most of all, BE THERE.
About the Images
1. While walking through a crowded market on the street by Wat Mahathat in Bangkok, I stepped into a restaurant because it was an open front and the inside looked interesting to me. This man came over waving his arms and talking animatedly and with a big smile, welcoming to the restaurant. When he realized that I was there only for a photograph his attitude changed completely, but he allowed the photo and stayed still while I took it, but it was apparent he wasn’t happy about it.
2. This was also in Shanghai and this man was reading the paper in front of his store. I loved the way his face was lit and started taking pictures. He looked up at me briefly but didn’t seem to mind that I was taking pictures and went on reading his paper.
3. On a trip to Manila I visited Payatas, this girl sat behind the bars on the front of her house and looked at me impassively while I photographed her. She never moved anything other than her eyes and never said anything to me.
4. I was wandering in the alleyways in an old neighborhood of Shanghai and passed this gent sitting in a doorway. I had the camera down by my side and snapped a few pictures as I stood near him. The light is very diffused and soft in these alleys making for good conditions for this kind of photography.
5. In Payatas, the mother of all garbage dumps, I walked through a neighborhood where squatters make their living by sorting through garbage from the dump. This little boy stood frozen against the wall of a small store while I took his picture several times. Shortly after I took this he burst into tears and ran down the street to his mother, crying at the top of his lungs.
6. In a Shanghai street market, this man was chopping up fish on a board on the ground. I took several shots of him doing that but didn’t like them much. Then he stood up and with the camera at my chest I took one shot, which I liked much better than the other ones.
7. This lady was working in a ticket window that also sold gifts at a shrine in Nagoya, Japan. I don’t speak much Japanese and she didn’t speak much English but she sat in the shadows of the office and held out the little rabbit doll and managed to make me understand that it was for luck.