Colour Urban Street Photography — Be in the Flow of Urban City Life

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The street is full. A cop car pulls up to the lights, my camera is at chest height and I peer above the roof of their vehicle.

I’m standing on the curb.

On the opposite side of the street I see a structure of shadows punctuated by spears of light.

Two people at a cash machine, dressed in white. The folds and creases in their jeans appear like wrapping paper around their legs.

My mind reels as the light and darkness gently play. Shadows and light move and shimmer. The sun is slowly going down, the light is fading.

Light is splashed onto a wall inside the shadows. It’s a reflection from the glass building opposite. The sun is in the west, I’m standing in the east.

A woman in a white hat stops in a position that completes the composition, she now becomes the centre of my attention. She is illuminated by soft light. Her skin is tanned, this creates a wonderful colour composition.

The cop car is directly in front of me, two officers stare at me, they make me feel self-conscious; I’m staring intently, studying a city scene. I only want to understand it better. Maybe I look suspicious. Two cyclists pull up in front of me and place a foot on the curbstone. The cops lose interest in me and scan the bikes.

I relax and lift my camera to my eye. Square up a shot, snap, a quick look at the LCD display. I need more light, wind up the ISO, think depth of field, adjust; F14, ISO 1600. I keep the shutter speed fast.

The traffic lights turn green, the cop car pulls away. The cyclists bob up and down as they push hard into the pedals. The road clears for a moment, and I get a couple more shots in.

Those were the last shots of the day.

I turn away and walk into the shadows. Time to go home. I don’t look to see whether the shots are good or not — I’ll find out later.

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Street photography is a time to walk, stop, look. Some events happen so quickly there is no time to think with words, but only to react with feeling, and allow the mind to do its work.

The visual results can appear peaceful. People are stopped in motion, engrossed in their own worlds. Outside of the frame is a mystery.

The photo stops the world and makes it silent.

The street photographer, deeply engaged in a visual world that impacts the mind, can forget all else.

To walk the streets with eyes wide open and an empty mind.

When I set off along the road to do street photography, I try my best to get a couple of shots in before boarding the train to my location. That way I’ve tested the light, got a feeling, and above all I’ve stopped long enough to take an object or person seriously enough to get into my game. Then I forget those photos.

After a short train journey I start to walk, stop, look, think and finally see something worth investigating. People passing an arch where the shadows and light create an unusual juxtaposition.

Movement contrasting stillness is a place to start looking.

The flow of people. To watch strangers mingle and disperse, stop all together at the traffic lights, then quickly march across the road, they create all kinds of compositional possibilities. It’s hard.

The concrete street is still. Traffic lights, street signs, lampposts, like masts on a boat — people flow like schools of fish caught in the current.

Colourful arrays of light and shadow sweep past my eyes.

Crowds are difficult to figure out — that’s why I like them; I tend to spend my life making things hard for myself. The things that others might wave off as a waste of time turns my reverb up to number 11. I get all Voodoo Chile about big mountains.

People are herd animals. We tend to want the same things; food, shelter, and community. We find it in crowds.

Crowds of people shift against each other or with each other. Then they disperse and attach themselves to another group. Sometimes, one or two people stray and find a bench to sit on, a doorway to enter, or simply stand on a corner to orientate themselves.

People wait for trains and buses. They wait in queues for food, they sit on park benches and commune with friends and strangers.

All these are opportunities for a street photographer to seek out a composition.

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An evening taking urban street photos is time spent well, even when I return and discover that the inside of my camera is a mess of ideas.

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The black and white photo above; feels like a sketch of an idea to me. I took it while watching people cross a busy three lane street with lots of sunshine in their eyes. Wrinkled faces, hands up to their brow, and confused and flustered looks.

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Each shot is an experiment that may go wrong. I may have got it all wrong and tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Or, it may work out better than I thought. I can only know if I take the shot, and take it seriously.

Above, I liked the colours in the posters, the upright boxes created an immediate compositional factor. All I needed was a person to do something, like briskly walk past. The woman in the shot lends a feeling of determined hurry to the photo. Her skirt fits nicely with the posters, and the poster far left of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev sharing a sausage adds a little humour. (The poster is a manipulation of a real photo).

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Colour in photography is always a contentious subject. For many years in film photography it seemed like colour would never be a real thing. So many photographers stuck to monochrome.

Photographers worked with the nuance of tones. That allowed a street photographer to work with the balance of light and darkness — and not have to do battle with unwanted colours that distract the eye.

If you want to create a composition with an interesting subject in the frame, then black and white will allow you to do that.

When a street photographer walks along the street, eyes peeled for an interesting situation, colours might ruin the composition of line and tone.

You can photograph a person, or photograph their clothes. To do both is difficult and confusing.

But then I started looking at Harry Gruyaert’s work, Fred Herzog, and many others who have successfully used film photography to achieve great colour compositions on the streets.

Slowly but surely, I try. Again and again I try to get a few colour shots into the frame.

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Three posts in the street. I pass them each day when I leave my home. They fascinate me. Bright red colours, whites that pop out from the grey tarmac. There’s a good photo in there somewhere. I keep trying.

I’ve tried with people in the shot, without people. Sometimes, late a night a fox passes these posts. Red and white, a kerbstone,a fox and a shard of moonlight.

Maybe that’ll be the shot.