Black and white or colour?
Traditionally street photography has been exhibited in black and white. Everyone has their own preference. Personally, I love the way black and white images look. They encourage the viewer to concentrate on the shapes within the frame because the complication of colour is removed. The lines and composition of the image can be seen more clearly. However, not all images work well in black and white. The image needs to have areas of lighter colours and areas of darker colours to work in black and white, this will give you a spread of contrast. If your image is one flat colour, black and white is going to do nothing for it. Try taking a picture of a grey wall and you will see what I mean. However, if that wall has some texture, the deeper the texture the better, then under the right lighting conditions black and white will work. It will emphasise the darker and light areas caused by the way the light falls on the texture and often results in a great black and white image.
There are some very high-profile photographers exhibiting their work in colour these days. Steve McCurry being perhaps the most well-known. It appears to be working for him, where on the other hand Sebastião Salgado is as far as I am aware still printing and exhibiting all of his work in black and white.
Remember, there are no rules. If you like to see your images in colour and you think they work best presented this way, then show them in colour. If like me you are firmly in the black and white camp, then shoot with black and white in mind.
The digital darkroom
This part of book is predominantly aimed at photographers who are using digital cameras rather than film. I do not intend to cover any aspect of processing film although I know a good number of photographers who are still using it. Good for them, I often romance the idea but the convenience of digital soon brings me to my senses.
For those that have been brought up on digital, believe it or not it used to be that it was not possible to see your image in a screen on the back of the camera immediately after shooting it. It was necessary to shoot a number of images without knowing at the time what you actually had. Added to this generally speaking you could only shoot 36 images before needing to manually roll back your film, open the back of your camera and insert a new roll. The only real upside was that your camera battery usually lasted years! Once you had your shots it was still some time before you could see them. It was first necessary to process the film and produce a negative. Incidentally this had to be done in the dark! If you exposed any light to the film at this stage all your images would likely be lost forever. Once you had your negative you could then get a glimpse of what you had captured but it was still pretty difficult to see until you went through a fairly lengthy, often messy and expensive process to print each of your images, only then would you find that 35 of the 36 images that you had shot were terrible!
Thankfully those days are gone, and we can now all enjoy the delights of digital photography and software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop which provide all of, and sometimes more than the magic formerly available to us in a darkroom.
There are several applications designed to allow you to catalogue and edit your images. Some of these applications are even free. Some are good, some are better, and some are really amazing. I am not intending to go in to all the pros and cons of the various programs, nor is this book going to cover how to use this software. There are plenty of other really thick books on the subject, as well as countless video tutorials available online.
What I will say however, is that most serious photographers I speak to these days are using Adobe Lightroom, me included. It’s available on monthly / annual subscription meaning you get to use it and get all the updates as part of your monthly payment. I am not a great fan of this since once you stop paying of course you lose access to it, but it is what it is. These companies have us over a barrel and until there is a viable alternative to Lightroom, I like thousands of others are just going to have to suck it up and pay for what is in fact an incredible tool at a perfectly reasonable price.
Lightroom will provide you with the facility to catalogue your images and ‘develop’ them to make the colours pop, or the black and white images sparkle. With just a few clicks you can often take a poorly exposed image and make it look amazing. You can darken skies, you can emphasise a subject’s eyes, you can even straighten up an image to make the horizon horizontal if you have unintentionally shot it out of line. The possibilities are endless.
It takes some time to learn how to use the software to get the best from it, but it is well worth the investment. What will help speed up your learning and get you to a point where with just a few clicks you can produce sometimes great versions of your images are what are known as ‘presets’. These are effectively pre-programmed settings that someone else has taken the time to produce (which is why if they are good, they are worth paying for) that will allow you, with just a few clicks to set the variables in Lightroom to work on your images.
Instead of you separately increasing the contrast, lowering the exposure, setting the white balance, tweaking the highlights and using all the various sliders in the develop module of Lightroom you simply use a preset that does all the work for you with one or two clicks. In most cases the results can be quite remarkable! There are lots of presets available from various web sites and in the resources section of the book I have included links to some that I have found to really work, particularly if you are wanting to output your work in black and white.
However, bear in mind presets do not work for every image. They are ‘general’ settings that might work for some of your images, but since every image is slightly different in terms of colours within the image, the lighting, the contrast then no preset can be perfect. If you really want your images to ‘pop’ then you need to take the time to learn how to use Lightroom at a much deeper level. At first it seems really daunting but once you have learnt a few techniques it’s actually really easy.
You will also find a link to a Skillshare course that provides a really easy to understand tutorial of how to use various sliders and manual settings within Lightroom to take your images to a professional level of post-production.
If you are anything like me you are rarely going to be completely happy with your work. Some of your images will stand out from the rest and hopefully you will get supportive and sometimes even admiring comments from people who see them. This is always nice and should be gratefully received but street photography is personal, it’s often a solitary pursuit and we mostly do it for ourselves. It’s us, the photographer who wants to be happy with our work and if someone else also likes it then that is a bonus.
Just to say though that street photographers do not shoot in a studio where things can be carefully placed, where you have plenty of time to compose your shot having already got the lighting just right. Street photography is not like this, it’s manic, it’s uncontrolled, unpredictable and lets face it often a bit hit and miss. Therefore, you must accept the imperfections. Your shots are not always going to be exactly as you had hoped, in fact, more often than not might be closer to the opposite. You must accept this otherwise it will paralyse you. In my twenties I stopped shooting any photographs because I thought I was wasting my time. I was never going to be any good, I was spending a fortune on film and printing (pre-digital) and it was all for nothing. A decade went by before I picked up a camera again and re-discovered my passion. This time however I was not so worried about my results. I accepted that if I fired off fifty frames then I would be lucky if even one of them was any good. I lowered my expectations and released myself from my former demanding mindset.
Guess what, my hit rate went up. If you do not worry so much about getting every shot perfect then it frees you to think about other things that in fact make a difference to whether the shot is going to be good or not.
Another thing I assumed in the early days of my photography was that those photographers I admired had sheets and sheets of perfectly exposed, faultlessly composed negatives. Each frame being every bit as likely to be seen in an exhibition as the next one. I have since learnt of course this is far from the case. Even the pros and those photographers you admire so much have to shoot a lot of frames to get the shot that you eventually see and wish you were good enough to capture.
Show only your best work
So this follows on really from the previous chapter. You are inevitably going to shoot a lot of images that will never see the light of day. Do not worry about this. It’s all stuff you need to do to lead up to that one shot that you can and should proudly hang in a gallery. It might not be the V&A in London, but a gallery somewhere nevertheless, a gallery where other people can look at and hopefully admire your work.
Of course you may never want to show your work. That’s OK too. But if you do show it make sure you select the images you display carefully. There might not be many but show only the best in any case. One or two bad images can dilute an otherwise impressive selection of work.
After nearly three decades of shooting street photography I might only actually have about 30 or 40 images that I would be happy to exhibit. I am OK with that. If I can get just one image a year that is a stand out, exhibit-able image then that’s enough for me.
If you have found this interesting, all I ask is that you tell your friends and spread the word through your social media channels, and please consider making whatever donation you can to a fund created to help photographers around the world dedicate time to interesting and often essential projects.