street photography 1 - by subroto mukerji

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One doesn't need a huge DSLR or complicated gear to get started in street photography !




IntroductionMan evolved into a sentient being about a million years ago. A chain of events and discoveries drove this gradual process of evolution from ape to homo erectus, among them the discovery of fire, clothing, tools, weapons, cave shelters, man-made dwellings, and communication. Famous historian Arnold Toynbee, in his monumental work A Study of History, maintains that it was settled agriculture, as opposed to the slash-and-burn, nomadic food gathering lifestyle, that laid the foundation of civilizationprobably in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that is today in the country known as Iraq. However, I would take issue with him on that last point, it being my firm conviction that it was the initial evolution of increasingly better means of communication spurred on by a meat diet that enabled Neanderthal Mans brain to grow to 1,500 cc or more in volume, that drove the agricultural (and concomitant cultural) revolution that accelerated the evolution of human society.So whats all this got to do with street photography, you may well ask. We will come to that in a moment. Let us first briefly touch upon communication, of which painting and photography are vital components. Why so? Because a picture can swiftly convey an idea, an emotion, a mood or even entertainment without the need for words. Thats exactly what a photograph does. Now I think you are getting what Im driving at.

And so it was with caveman art. Observe the Lascaux caves in France or, nearer home, the Bhimbetka caves in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, a UN Heritage Site, with caveman art 30,000 years old (picture below).

If cavemen had cameras, Im sure they would have used them very well, for the paintings referred to above are marvelously detailed, the work of unknown geniuses Paleolithic Leonardo da Vincis. Did you know that these men, 30,000 years ago, rode on horseback? Take a closer look at the Bhimbetka art, above ! The painting tells us something about the dress, weapons, and means of transport prevalent 30,000 years ago. Now thats communication !Now take a gander at the photograph below. What does it tell us? It tells us that men of the 21st century rode on iron horses that were able to transport them and their produce across vast distances swiftly, safely and possibly economically !


For exactly the same reason as those remote ancestors of oursto communicate ! Any artistic representation is as powerful, if not more so, than the spoken or written word when it comes to idea and emotion transfer. We ourselves make a pencil sketch of something when explaining a complex idea to someone. Teachers do it all the time, on blackboards or their digital replacements. We take pictures of a place we visit while on vacation, to show our friends back home. We document our lives with the help of photographs. And aportrait is much better than a verbal description for conveying what a person looks like. Caveman art tells us that 30,000 years ago, Man had learned how to represent literal reality as an abstraction. In any case, all art is abstract, it being an abstraction of reality. The more abstract it is, the more advanced it is considered to be. Thats why abstract styles of painting like cubism and impressionism are considered to be a notch or two above the realistic style, which is a mere albeit very subjective representation of reality. Thats also why a photograph may have layers of meaning beyond the literal surface one.

A good street photographer is able to extract underlying layers of meaning / significance in a scene while, at the same time, conveying the obvious visual impression sharply and clearly. He knows that action is life, and that there is a photo opportunity at every turn. Two grandmasters of painting, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent van Gogh, can teach us a lot, as can Romanticists like Velasquez and Delacroix. Wherever there is light, there is the possibility of a photograph and as you know, photography literally means writing with light. Lighting is crucial to any photograph, and prevailing lighting can make or break it.


Street photography is about LIFE itself, capturing the swiftly changing landscape of human social behaviour and enshrining it for posterity. It therefore has historical, documentary and socio-cultural value, being the living record of human development. Dorothea Langes Migrant Mother is a poignant one-photo commentary on the Great Depression in USA in the 1930s. There are so many masters of street photography, people of the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, WeeGee, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Alfred Steiglizt, Jay Maisel, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Gilden et al, that it is hard to name them all. The record they have bequeathed posterity is invaluable, a montage of images that mirrors their eras as they saw it. But while street photography is always spontaneous and never studio contrived, I do not see any reason for not stopping a subject and asking for permission to take a picture. The portrait of the pandit ji with his ochre scarf and vermillion caste mark on his forehead was shot like this; I stopped the sprightly 70-year old as he was about to stride past me, took his permission (happily granted) and clicked his picture. Words could not have done justice to his handsome visage and upright bearing.Traffic had been reduced to a crawl by construction work related to the Metro subway system, near Chandni Chowk. I happened to spot the little boy, obviously an only child, and fell for his orange jacket.

His parents were delighted to have me click their precious Little Lord Fauntleroy and, even more so, to get the jpegs by email a day later !But people arent the only subjects one can shoot on the street. Here are two cats ! One is a feral cat, the other a mechanical feng shui good luck charm

Both cats, both shot on the street but what a difference between them ! One was shot through a municipal park fence, the other through the glass of a shop window, handheld at a very slow shutter speed to accentuate the movement of the cats paw as it swung back and forth. The possibilities are endless !WhenIts now or never goes an old Elvis Presley hit, and its message is clear: theres no time like the present ! As I said a while back, possibilities await the eager lensman / lenslady at every turn. Just be on the lookout for photo opportunities. They are there, you just have to spot themseparate the visual dross from the essence, focus, and click. At night ? Sure, why not?

It was quite late, well after dark, but the momo stall was doing roaring business. I took this quick shot before trying out these Tibetan delicacies. Disappointment ! The originals I gobbled in Manali, on my first motorbike trip there in 1968, were far better: there was no comparison. So yet another oriental dish bites the dust in Delhi, joining chow mein, which has now been transformed to just another chchole bhature or raajma chawal ! Delhi is a great leveler; it could reduce Pat de Foie Gras to the level of dosa vada with consummate ease ! Chicken Manchurian? Theyve never heard of it in Manchuria !How

Okay, gear. For starters it would be great to have a Leica M 240. No ? Then how about a reasonably good compact. Even a slow, obsolete compact like the Sony DSC H70, with its sluggish reflexes, 1 /2.3 16.2 MP sensor and 25-250mm (35 mm equi.) lens would do the trick. In fact, all the pictures here, in Part 1 and the forthcoming Part 2, were shot with an H70. Its excellent IS (aka as Image Stabilisation, or SteadyShot in Sony-speak) allowed me to take all the shots handheld, no matter that some exposures had to risked at 1/10th of a second or even slower. Flash was only used for the milkman (fill flash), and Autoflash for the chow mein guy. I insist that a small camera will not intimidate your subjects like a DSLR is sure to do. A model with a fast lens, like the Panasonic Lumix LX7 is ideal provided you dont hit 400 ISO; stick below that: the sensor generates a lot of noise, being an obsolete 2008 edition. I wonder what got into Panasonic to mate that fabulous Leica-designed 24~90 mm, f. 1.4~2.3 zoom with such an incompetent (as of today) sensor. I think if youve got the will, youll find a way. First find the pictures, theyre there waiting for you. Never make excuses, find workarounds. Next, be like a chameleon. Blend into your surroundings. Dont dress inappropriately for the occasion: look harmless and out for a little fun shooting (which is your standard response if asked what youre up to). Dont dress for the street and end up in a plush mall or five star hotel. Or vice versa. Leave your flashy wrist-watch, jewellery and shades at home. Dont skulk around: be natural and relaxed. Your body language should not convey tension or apprehension. Be bold and fearless, itll convey to anyone watching you. Spot your picture, aim and shoot as many pictures as you think meet your goals, then keep going as if you were just clicking on impulse. That means your camera will need to focus and shoot fast (which the H70 does not do). If you shoot surreptitiously, guiltily, people will get suspicious and may turn hostile. However, in all my various street shooting excursions, only once have I been asked by a man what I was doing shooting his house, and politely asked to desist. No big deal, it was a wreck anyway, being in a very early stage of construction (it looked more like demolition!). I got the shots I wanted, though I didnt have any clear idea as to what I was looking for ! And the guy didnt know enough to ask me to delete the pictures. Most of my subjects have been cooperative, even eager for me to take their pictures. The paamwala stood stock still on my request, letting me take a picture that is so sharp you can read the brand name etched on the razor blade Wilkinso