A chance shot takes planning:
observing life with and without the camera
Taking photos in public places has a long tradition, and one that is closely entwined with the invention of handy, compact cameras. People take snapshots to document everyday life in our streets and squares, hoping to capture typical scenes or forms of behaviour. Sometimes they’re also trying to tell a story. This is why the term street photography covers such a broad spectrum.
Street photography ranging from abstract compositions filled with light and shadow right through to intimate shots of courting couples taken – somewhat unromantically perhaps – using a telephoto lens. Common to all these subjects is life on our streets. Streets and squares are an ever-changing melting pot of locals and chance visitors, and that’s what makes it so exciting to take photos there. But I also encounter scenes that repeat themselves over and over again and run into certain people practically every day at the same crossroads or in my own neighbourhood. I make a motive out of these scenes as well. Which takes me to the basic question I’m trying to answer: what do I regard as interesting and important when I’m taking photos? Or to put it in more general terms: what am I trying to express with my photos or photo series?
This begs the question whether a photo can be technically perfect without making a statement. In the case of postcards, of course, the sole intention is to capture what a certain building looks like. A postcard documents a visit to a particular location, and an individual touch is achieved by adding certain details of the trip for the folks back home. A good street photo, however, should speak for itself. It should awaken the viewer’s curiosity and raise further questions. Naturally, all this assumes that the photographer has observed the scene precisely, and has pressed the shutter button at just the right moment.
Many of my photos were taken in situations where I’d spent a long time beforehand simply observing the scene. Which routes are people taking when they’re walking and crossing the street? What are they doing in this location? Which direction is the light coming from? How are people reacting to the camera? And how can I use the photographic means at my disposal to capture the typical aspects of this situation?
The result of all this observation may be that I see a lot of stuff, but take no photos at all – maybe because there are too many people around, because they don’t want their picture taken or because the light is too hard. So what can happen is that I just move on and try to find a different location. Alternatively, it sometimes helps when I change my own position and view the scene from a different perspective. It’s only after such a lengthy period of observation that you can identify the typical patterns and structures of life at a particular location.
On a recent visit to Prague, I was fascinated by a theatre building erected in the 1980s. It’s a glass-tiled cube resting on a somewhat smaller cement base. Surrounded on three sides by the complex of buildings, the square in the middle makes the people look small without totally crushing them. The simple façade of this otherwise bombastic building forms an interesting contrast to the old National Theatre occupying the fourth side of the square. I tried to observe the behaviour of the people as they moved around the square.
It was still a pretty cool day with few people prepared to hang around for longer than necessary. And the passers-by indicated they didn’t really want their pictures taken. So I decided to give up for the day and return the next morning. This time I approached from the other side and stood in the street looking at the building. There was a tram stop in front with vehicles arriving every couple of minutes. Some of the trams were old Tatra units dating back to the 1960s. The idea for the shot came to me while I was gazing at this scene: a blurred image of the tram against the backdrop of the façade, with people waiting at the stop. The only thing I had to do was set a long exposure time and wait until a Tatra tram came along. The adults did me the favour of waiting at the stop and actually managing to stand still at the moment the tram arrived. In this photo, the otherwise dominating building seems to take a step back, acting as a tapestry in front of which human life is being acted out. The tram suggests that Prague is the location, but not the Prague we normally associate with the Old Town Square or the Charles Bridge.
In public places like streets and squares, life seems chaotic much of the time. People cross the street in a seemingly aimless way, and we have no idea who’ll be coming around the corner next. Nevertheless, life does follow certain rules. And I don’t just mean traffic rules that bring an element of predictability with things like pedestrian crossings. It’s also the fact that people themselves behave in regular ways: getting up at the same time, preferring certain things to eat and wearing certain forms of clothing. I exploit these regular forms of behaviour when taking photos. If I want a shot of a person running, I only need to wait for a tram to arrive. A lot of people will run for an approaching tram even though the next one is due only a few minutes later.
By positioning myself at a certain location and waiting for expected behaviour I am planning that seemingly chance moment. I can’t influence exactly how a situation pans out of course, but I can help it on its way. As I’ve already said, this often takes time.
Because I’m well acquainted with this location, taking a photo of a person in this situation was pretty easy. I know that the morning sun is still low in the sky over the street in March, casting long shadows. I also know there are few cars around at this time of day at weekends. And I didn’t have long to wait for the person running in the photo. I take a lot of photos at this crossing. Although the motives vary according to the time of day, it always remains an immediately recognisable location. Early in the morning, you can see the people streaming to work. In the evening, it’s full of people on a night out. And the light is always different depending on the season or time of day. I always tell people to take photos at places they know well. This trains their own perceptive skills. They can spot the things that change every single day and the things that always remain the same. Many people say that a lot more happens at this crossing in Berlin than in their own towns and streets. Although that may well be true, I believe street photography deals with things that are familiar. My best photos are taken at familiar places, not at locations where I don’t immediately know my way around, don’t speak the language or are unsure when the best light is.
The first LUMIX I owned was a GH4. Before that I had spent some time practising street photography with a smart phone camera. The GH4 was superior in quality to any smart phone, but it was also more noticeable. I am currently using a GX8 and a GX80 for street photography, and I recently starting working with a GH5. To some extent, each camera influences my work, and this doesn’t necessarily have to do with any technical parameters such as megapixels and sensor sizes. It’s more to do with the size of the camera, where the viewfinder is located and how intuitive the controls are. I feel more comfortable carrying a small camera because I think people are less likely to identify me as a photographer in street situations. And, although I’ve just said that I observe a place for quite some time before taking photos, there are situations in which I need to hit the shutter button in a hurry. So the camera must be immediately ready to use and I have to be capable of making the necessary settings quickly. I find I can do this best with the GX80.
My advice to anyone principally interested in street photography is to start out with a small camera you can take wherever you go, rather than a large, heavy device that you’ll rarely take out of the cupboard. While it’s true that a good camera is no guarantee of a good photo, a camera that meets our own personal needs can sharpen our perceptions. We need to take photos every day to develop our own personal way of looking at things – acquiring a feeling for how street situations change due to the prevailing light or the behaviour of passers-by. Familiar places can be exciting locations!