Street Photography Filtered through Berlin

Street photography in Berlin is a natural pursuit for many photographers. It offers an immediate opportunity to get out, with camera gear, and start working on some ideas for street photos that will put you through your paces as a photographer.

A good street photographer should possess at lest five good traits for success:

1. Creative vision to be able to see the artistic compositions around him or her.

2. Be able to judge the light and the detail so that they can adjust camera settings to get the best shot

3. Have the ability to deal with people so as to avoid conflicts on the street, and to help others understand what you are doing in street photography.

4. Patience to wait, to look and see, and to know that as time passes on the average street corner, something interesting is going to happen.

5. Above all, the passion to get out there and take photos regularly.

There are many different views on what street photography is, but really, it’s all about personal perspective. It’s up to you what you make of it. The best way to understand street photography is to practise it, and decide what is important to you.

Man leaning against a post in Bergmannkiez Berlin

The problem with the photography world is that there are photographers with big egos, and photographers who just get on with it. Those who just get on with it, take photos, don’t label themselves “expert”, and often because they are truly creative types, they love to investigate and photograph all types of subjects.

The big egos are always trying to sell us something we don’t really need; their point of view. For the egoists, everything they do and say is final as far as knowledge goes.

In spite of that, the photographic community online is full of gentler types who legitimately want to share their own experiences, and help others.

When I practise street photography, I tend to look for interesting compositions. If it grabs my attention it means that there’s also a way to frame it. So, I study the scene for a few moments, if there’s time, and then shifting my feet, I find the frame, composition, and set my camera to get the mood and feeling that I want. There might be a person in the photo, and there might not be.

As you practise, you become more adept. This allows you think more about what’s right for you, and what’s a load of bull. There are too many photographers who want to dictate that street photography must be a candid portrait. These people have been watching too many videos about Bruce Gilden, or don’t understand that a street portrait is really going over the limit in some countries; we live in times when to take a photograph, up close, of another human being is becoming a legal invasion of privacy – so, we have to respect people and the law.

Man sitting on a post in a Berlin Street Photography shot

Yet, in so far as the law is concerned in Germany, it’s okay to take photos of people on the street. So long as they are of compositional value, and represent some form of artistic/ creative contribution to your photos. Nobody is going to get jailed for taking photos in a public place. It’s perfectly legal – except intimate portraits of strangers.

It’s also important to be aware of your rights when those “know-it-alls” come running up to you and demand that you hand over your camera, so they can inspect it. They are often so adamant about their rights, that it can put you under pressure to do the right thing and comply with them.

Here’s the truth; it’s your property that they are demanding that you hand over. They have no right to snoop into your personal property nor into your photos. When you tell them that you didn’t take a photo of them, it should be good enough, and they must accept it as the truth.

If they don’t believe you, then they have to take a legal course of action and get an authority to reveal what’s in your camera. Otherwise, I tell them firmly and directly that they can go sling their hook, and leave me alone. They then walk away muttering to themselves.

Black and White street photography by Sean P. Durham, Berlin 2021

Street photography, just like any photography, should always be a personal view of how you see the world. That means you need to develop a strong intention about what you are seeking in your finished photos.

It’s not enough to just keep firing off lots of shots, and hope that one or two of them will turn out well; that is not the result of strong intentions in photography.

Personally, I come from a life grounded in art, painting, and writing. I try to find a way to combine those three and reflect at least a little of the painter in me into my photos.

I’d rather have soft edges than sharpness in my photos, and dampened tones that allow me to control a single colour in the photo so that it becomes more obvious where the centre is.

The composition is one thing, the frame within the photo is another thing. I think that many photographers, today, have misunderstood that there is a difference when thinking about compositions and framing the shot.

Much of the composition can be used to frame the point of interest in a photo. It could be a shape that is intriguing, or a face, a figure walking along a rainy street, or it could be a colour that seems to set the whole photo off into something abstract. The frame is surrounded by something. The entire composition should be used to support the point in the photograph that you want the viewer to pay attention to.

Berlin house wall with bare tree in winter
Berlin, Trees in Winter 2020

Sometimes we can look at our work and see that it is well worth keeping, even putting on display. But we can’t explain why.

remember, we are working with images, colour, lines, and all the various tones and shapes of nature, this means that those things will, and should, overwhelm any words that we have to say about the photo.

How can words justify the visual image of a woman walking up the stairs in a neon lit underground station? The photograph is interesting, subtle, and it beckons us to spend time looking at it. Not all viewers will be interested, it might not speak to their idea of visual language. But that doesn’t matter. You can’t take photos to please all the people, so you should just take photos to please yourself, and dig deeper into what you are doing. That way you can reveal those subtle layers of thought that help you take a better photo, ad develop your skills in seeing the world around you.

Ubahn Station in Berlin with woman climbing the stairs

As a street photographer I’ve already been down that road where I think I can define exactly why I do something, why this type of photo? And the result is that it leads to one question after another. It’s like walking towards the horizon, and believing the road ends where the line of horizon is. It doesn’t, and neither do the questions about all types of things concerning art, photography, street photography, still life photos, and portrait photography. It just goes on.

S-Bahn Train in Berlin underground station. Copyright Sean P. Durham, Berlin, Berlin, 2021

I like the above shot. It happened in a moment, as do many of the best photographs on the street. I think there is a lot of unconscious activity going on when you are really zeroed in on the task of street photography. After a few shots, you can feel the vibes rising, and the strong intention as you begin to search the street with your eyes, watching every movement, noticing the wind, the rain, and how it affects people moving about. The street is always changing, it can never stay the same nor can it become repetitive for you. Only your own mind can become dull, and tired if you allow it to do that.

Street photography is a long game. We hunt and search for a great shot, and sometimes we will have taken the shot before we know it. It’s when we sit down at home and check our work on a larger computer screen that it becomes obvious that we were paying attention to the street.

Street Photography – some photos and some words