First Steps – Landmarks

One of the first subjects with minimum stress levels are landmarks.


I am using this as a generic term for any interesting inanimate subject. It could be a sculpture, a sign on the road, a factory door, public artwork, graffiti – if it ain’t breathing (and is not just dead!) then it is a “Landmark”.

Landmarks are an accessible way to get your skillz going and get impressive results quickly and easily. Photographing someone else’s creative bits and pieces means that half the work has been done for you. Stuff that looks cool is easy to find, and one of the easier things to photograph.

There is a challenge though – you have to add something to it if you are going to own the composition.

Here is an extract from a Philosophy post :

“One question can help you, and change the way you photography landmarks, sculptures, architectural subjects and the like. Did you add anything in your composition? Maybe you took the shot from an unusual angle. Or you saw it in a new way and was able to translate that to the image. Were you able to capture a story around the subject? Was someone interacting with it that you captured in a way that says something about the moment, or the subject itself? 

A second question. Could your image be used for a non-ironic postcard? Answer yes? Then it is a “no”. Aspire to more.”

Jump on the interwebs and look up what local street art and sculptures are in your city. In Melbourne, there are many different opportunities sprinkled throughout the city. A great place to start is the Docklands precinct – download the guide here : Docklands_Public_Art_-_Art_Walk_Brochure

Landmarks are perfect for cutting your teeth on. They don’t move, are in predictable locations, and look great in early morning or late afternoon light.

Landmarks also attract people, and they tend to interact with the landmark. It is gives you a chance to ease in to taking pictures of people. Everyone expects a bunch of cameras to be pointing in all directions at a landmark. Pointing a camera in someone’s direction if they are near a photographic subject will generally be completely ignored. So, give it a go – point that camera.

Look at the people visiting the landmark. Can you find an interesting story in their visit?

Different Angles and Perspectives

Don’t take a postcard shot of the landmark. If that is what you want, just buy one from the souvenir shop. It will be technically a much better shot that you or I will take.

Start off by standing with all the other people and looking at what they are looking at. If the audience is a bit sparse, just stand in the spot most likely. Think about where you would take the tourist postcard shot from. This is the one spot you should not take a photo from. Walk around the landmark, look at it from 360 degrees. If possible, don’t only look at it from a single lateral plane – can you get higher to look down or a spot to look up to it? Move closer, move further away – do any interesting perspectives appear?

Look for geographic shapes – often a landmark provides regular solid shapes for composition.

Can you look through the landmark? Can you use it to frame a subject.

How are people interacting with the landmark? Are they sitting on it? Are they walking through it, around it, or on top of it? Are people happy, sad, disinterested, excited? There are many different options. Take some photos of them – they are unlikely to react as you are taking a photo of the landmark, just like a regular tourist.

Set and Forget Your Camera

This is not a highly technical blog. You can look up your manual or plenty of other websites to learn more about these things. A couple of things I find work really well for street photography on camera settings are :

Mode – Aperture Priority is always my mode of choice. Aperture refers to how big a hole you set in the lens to let in light. The lower the number the bigger the hole. A bigger hole enables more light in which enables faster shutter speeds and Aperture Priority lets the camera select the right shutter speed once you have set the aperture. A bigger hole means nice blurry backgrounds, but has the down side of needing more precise focusing due a very short depth of field. I usually leave my aperture at f2.8 or lower (big hole) for low light, and f5 – f11 for normal daylight without any significant shadows, giving a nice sharp image.

Mode (second choice) – Program or similar. Let the camera make the choices for you if you are in a stressful shoot situation and don’t want to second guess what you are doing. I occasionally still use this in challenging conditions.

Shutter Speed – should normally be no lower than 1/125. If you go slower than this (say to 1/60th of a second exposure length) the combination of a moving subject and the natural movement or shake as you press the shutter button will start to blur the image. I try and stay at 1/250th wherever possible, for sharper images. The only way to get super sharp images is with a tripod though. Resting the camera or your elbows on a natural stable foundation can also help, particularly when heading towards 1/30th.

ISO – The higher the number, the more sensitive your film or sensor is to light. A higher number makes it progressively easier to get the shot in low light. The trade off is the higher the number the more grainy or “noisy” the image becomes. Each camera has it’s own characteristics – and often lower megapixel cameras handle it better! Try setting the ISO at different levels and see what happens. I generally try to keep it at no more than ISO400 and down to ISO200 wherever possible. Maximum on my DSLR that I would allow is ISO1000. And that is on a pretty darn good DSLR with a wiz bang sensor…

To summarize, my recommendation would be to shoot in

Aperture Mode

Minimum shutter speed of 1/125

Maximum ISO1000

Pretty simple, huh? Some cameras allow you to program these parameters. Check your manual and do the same. If your camera can’t do some of these things, just check the data display as you shoot and make sure you are within these guidelines.

The interwebs can teach you all about what aperture and shutter speeds etc you really need in different situations. Look it up. It will help develop your skills.

Less is More – Bags and Accessories

You already know to keep your bag as small as possible. There are a few more tips on travelling light, but still being prepared for different situations, and a full day out and about.

reprtBags with a flat bottom work are my preference vs messenger bags etc. I have been on a quest for the perfect camera bag over the years – and have quite a collection gathering dust. The most non-descript, dorky looking one is usually the one on my shoulder.

The Lowepro Stealth Reporter is freaking awesome. It is big enough for a decent sized body with a lens, plus an extra lens, and various accessories. The size forces you to prioritise what you take.

Nothing bigger than a shoebox sized bag is a good place to start. Again, go for something with a thicker and preferably padded strap. The best straps have a way to fix the padding to the strap either permanently or temporarily to ensure it stays in the right spot. I have plenty of dud straps where it moves around – mostly to any spot on the strap that doesn’t make contact with my shoulder!

Once you develop a preference for a particular strap and shoulder pad, don’t be afraid to change the straps around on your bags. I have one strap that I often move from bag to bag as it is more comfortable than the standard strap that the Lowepro bag came with.A great bag is the cornerstone of your kit.

I am constantly placing my bag down during the day – the first siuation where a flat bottom is critical. Squarish or rectangular bags with a flat bottom are inherently stable when placed on a surface. The second advantage is the relatively flat top to the bag – which can be used as a work surface, if you are careful. Use the top to hold your spare lens mid-change. Yes, you need to be careful… Flat bottomed bags also seem to protect gear better by having a clearly defined space, preventing gear rubbing together etc.

I also have a Domke F2 Classic Bag which is significantly bigger, but also has flat bottom.

crumsMost importantly, don’t take out a bag that screams “expensive camera gear inside” – anything branded Nikon or Canon is an absolute “no”. Plus they are incredibly dorky. That also goes for camera straps with brands on them – unless worn ironically.

Another groovy option is an “inner” which can transform any bag that you like into a camera bag.

The one to the right is the Crumpler version. There are plenty of others. Most bag manufacturers also make inners which you can buy separately and just stick in any old bag that you have.

What’s in my bag? Hmmm, let’s have a look…

  • A resealable glad wrap baggie of individual dust free disposable cloths for one off lens cleaning. I am a bit OCD on the cleanliness of my lenses, viewfinders etc. I only use these for dry cleaning
  • A little spray bottle of lens cleaning fluid
  • A microfibre cloth in a resealable bag. I chuck these as soon as they get a bit dirty. They are cheap as chips and it is false economy to keep them too long. This cloth is for wet cleaning with fluid.
  • Spare battery for the camera in the bag.
  • Spare film / memory card
  • Plastic shopping bag if the bag doesn’t have a wet weather cover. In a pinch the plastic bag will keep most of the rain out in an unexpected shower.
  • Some spare cash – just in case.
  • Notebook and Pen
  • “Business” cards. If I ask for a someone’s portrait, I always give them a card so they can email me for a copy. These ones are cheap, great quality and you can set them up directly from your Flickr stream last time I checked, but I am sure there is someone local doing them too.

Take only what you need… The bag gets heavier and heavier the longer you are out!

What If Someone Approaches Me?

In the whole time I have been shooting, I have been approached proactively by one person. Aussies tend to be a very reserved bunch. An old duffer came up to me and asked if I was taking photos – he was little overly interested for my liking, so I just grunted and moved on. Occasionally you will get an “official” asking you to do something. If you are in a public space you have every right to photograph with some exceptions. But just agree and move on before they have a chance to engage.

A lot of the time they are more concerned about “professional” photographers – a tripod will always get the wrong kind of attention as it suggests you are taking a “professional” shot for commercial purposes. Big ass lenses have a similar effect on officialdom.

Taking photos of kids is probably something you want to avoid for the time being if you want to keep a low profile.

In the unlikely case that you get approached by someone who is overly interested in what you are doing – again, it is very unlikely unless you are a naturally creepy person – just be upfront and delete the photo if they demand it. It is just not worth the effort. If you have a film camera, just explain that it is old fashioned film and cannot. Then move on before they can engage again. If they engage again, just ask them to call the police. Whilst this is not ideal, you have done nothing wrong if you are in a public place.

9/11 has made the world paranoid. Deal with it.

There will be more guidance regarding dealing with the public in later weeks as you start to focus more on human subjects without the excuse of a landmark to point your camera around…

Assignment – Landscapes

It is much harder to capture a composition that you can “own”, but let’s not get worried about this yet. On this trip out, borrowing “cool” from someone else’s work is exactly the objective.

To start with, do a web search on “public art” and other similar terms to find some spots to visit. It could be a museum (providing the light is good!), sculptures – preferably more modern, architectural oddities etc. Anything that will offer some interesting composition options. Check them out on Google streetview if you are unsure.

Maybe even jump onto or google images and see what other photographers have been able to achieve at the location. Get inspired by others’ images. Don’t be afraid to very directly take the inspiration and create your own version of a particular composition. Mimicry is a great way to learn through the vision of others.

Pick two or three locations. Spend at least thirty minutes at each spot. “Camp” out and watch people coming and going. Start to develop your ability to predict shots. Take a couple of shots of people interacting with the landmark.

Once you get a feel for what people are doing, spend some time walking around the landmark. Shoot it from each point of the compass. See if you can find a spot which changes the perspective by getting higher or lower. One of the problems with a lot of street photography is that it is all captured from head height – the images are being captured from the same perspective that everyone sees everyday. Getting lower or higher can offer a new perspective on a subject.

Stop at this point and get out your journal. What has worked so far? What shot haven’t you got yet that you wished you had? Is there another composition that you can quickly sketch out in your journal. Is the light good in certain spots? Write down what you think is going well, and what you would like to get better at in the second part of the shoot.

After you get back home and have your images, review them in your journal. Print out ten that you like, stick them in your journal, and write some notes on the “why”. Do the same for five that you don’t like.

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