Thoughts on Developing My Street Photography

(Dead Ends by Christopher Parsons)

For the past several years I’ve created a ‘best of’ album that summarizes the year’s best photos that I made. I use the yearly album to assess how my photography has changed and what, if any, changes are common across those images. The process of making these albums and then printing them forces me to look at my images, how they work against one another, and better understand what I learned over the course of taking photos for a year.

I have lots of favourite photographs but what I’ve learned the most, at least over the past few years, is to ignore a lot of the information and ‘tips’ that are often shared about street photography. Note that the reason to avoid ignore them is not because they are wrong per se, or that photographers shouldn’t adopt them, but because they don’t work for how I prefer to engage in street photography.

I Don’t Do ‘Stealth’ Photography

Probably the key tip that I generally set to the side is that you should be stealthy, sneaky, or otherwise hidden from the subjects in the photos that I capture. It’s pretty common for me to see a scene and wait with my camera to my eye until the right subjects enter the scene and are positioned where I want them in my frame. Sometimes that means that people will avoid me and the scene and other times they’ll clearly indicate that they don’t want to have their photo taken. In these cases the subject is communicating their preferences quite clearly and I won’t take their photograph. It’s just an ethical line I don’t want to cross.

(Winter Troop by Christopher Parsons)

In yet other instances, my subjects will be looking right at me as they pass through the scene. They’re often somewhat curious. And in many situations they stop and ask me what I’m taking photos of, and then a short conversation follows. In an odd handful of situations they’ve asked me to send along an image I captured of them or a link to my photos; to date, I’ve had pretty few ‘bad’ encounters while shooting on the streets.

I Don’t Imitate Others

I’ve spent a lot of time learning about classic photographers over the past couple years. I’ve been particularly drawn to black and white street photography, in part because I think it often has a timeless character and because it forces me to more carefully think about positioning a subject so they stand out.

(Working Man by Christopher Parsons)

This being said, I don’t think that I’m directly imitating anyone else. I shoot with a set of focal ranges and periodically mix up the device I’m capturing images on; last year, a bulk of my favourite photos came from an intensive two week photography vacation where I forced myself to walk extensively and just use an iPhone 12 Pro. Photos that I’m taking, this year, have largely been with a Fuji X100F and some custom jpg recipes that generally produce results that I appreciate.

Don’t get me wrong: in seeing some of the photos of the greats (and less greats and less well-knows) I draw inspiration from the kinds of images they make, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone out to try and make images like theirs. This differs from when I started taking shots in my city, and when I wanted to make images that looked similar to the ‘popular’ shots I was seeing. I still appreciate those images but they’re not what I want to make these days.

I Create For Myself

While I don’t think that I’m alone in this, the images that I make are principally for myself. I share some of those images but, really, I just want to get out and walk through my environment. I find the process of slowing down to look for instances of interest and beauty help ground me.

Because I tend to walk within the same 10-15km radius of my home, I have a pretty good sense of how neighbourhoods are changing. I can see my city changing on a week to week basis, and feel more in tune with what’s really happening based on my observations. My photography makes me very present in my surroundings.

(Dark Sides by Christopher Parsons)

I also tend to use my walks to both cover new ground and, also, go into back alleys, behind sheds, and generally in the corners of the city that are less apparent unless you’re looking for them. Much of the time there’s nothing particularly interesting to photograph in those spaces. But, sometimes, something novel or unique emerges.

Change Is Normal

For the past year or so, a large volume (95% or more) of my images have been black and white. That hasn’t always been the case! But I decided I wanted to lean into this mode of capturing images to develop a particular set of skills and get used to seeing—and visualizing—scenes and subjects monochromatically.

But my focus on black and white images, as well as images that predominantly include human subjects, is relatively new: if I look at my images from just a few years ago there was a lot of colour and stark, or empty, cityscapes. I don’t dislike those images and, in fact, several remain amongst my favourite images I’ve made to date. But I also don’t want to be constrained by one way of looking at the world. The world is too multifaceted, and there’s too many ways of imagining it, to be stuck permanently in one way of capturing it.

(Alley Figures by Christopher Parsons)

This said, over time, I’d like to imagine I might develop a way of seeing the world and capturing images that provides a common visual language across my images. Though if that never happens I’m ok with that, so long as the very practice of photography continues to provide the dividends of better understanding my surroundings and feeling in tune with wherever I’m living at the time.

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