Note: Every Wednesday, I feature street photographers with great skill and soul. For this week, I decided to feature talented street photographer Jonathan Murray. I first met Jonathan Murray on Twitter, and witnessed his great images and thoughts on his blog. Not only that, but he generously donated 11 brand-new Canon Powershots to the photography class that I teach to under-privileged high school students. Oh yeah, also feel free to check out all of the other featured street photographers of the week here!
My interest in ‘street’ photography has emerged over recent years driven by both necessity and a desire to overcome my own personal limitations as a photographer.
For me, photography has always been a tension for me between the ‘Science and engineering’ of the tools we use and the ‘artistic’ intent enabled through the tools. That duality mirrors my personality. On the one hand I can be quite introverted, preferring time spent on my own or with family. On the other hand I am an ‘actor’ by profession spending most of my life on stage often presenting to a large audiences and communicating with complete strangers. This tension has historically been reflected in my photography. I’ve shot thousands of frames at family gatherings but my main interests were landscapes and architecture which avoided the discomfort of dealing with people I did not know.
It was a workshop with Bruce Dale the amazing and long time National Geographic staff photographer, which forced me to confront my own limitations. Bruce took one brief look at my portfolio and pointed out that not one of the shots contained a human being; an anathema to a Nat Geo photographer. In short my photography, while technically competent, lacked any ‘Soul’ or ‘Emotion.’ He made it clear that this was going to have to change. My journey towards street photography started with Bruce’s admonition and a very conscious effort to overcome the discomfort I felt when connecting with strangers through the lens.
The other challenge which I had to overcome was finding the right balance between my family, professional and creative lives. Finding enough hours in the day is always a challenge but was incrementally so given my professional commitments over the last ten years or so. In the last four years I’ve flown over 1.2 million global air miles for my ‘day’ job. That means often being on the road for three weeks out of every four. Taking additional time off to go shoot landscapes in remote locations became increasingly untenable so I increasingly tried to integrate photography into my business travel. Street photography became something to occupy the down weekends I had in these new and amazing locations I was traveling to.
I find it very difficult to flip my brain between ‘business’ mode and ‘visual’ mode. There’s something about the context switch between right and left sides of the brain that takes time, at least for me. For that reason I will often walk around in a new location for a day without any intention of shooting. I take time to just to look around and observe. Where are the places people meet, where is the interesting scenery which can act as a backdrop, where are the alleyways and byways through which life moves. A solid day of slowly walking around and really paying attention is the minimum time my brain needs before I start ‘seeing’ potential shooting opportunities.
For me street photography isn’t just about taking random interesting shots of people. I want to express something of the time and place in which the shot was taken. Capturing the context is very important for me so I’m looking for interesting human interactions or situations which reflect the culture and uniqueness of the particular location. I’m also increasingly trying to capture ‘life-in-motion’ where there’s a dynamic element to the shot which can be captured with a slight blur or movement in the final image.
I always shoot in fully manual mode and today with a single focal length lens; generally a 50mm. I’ll carry a second body with a 28mm on it as a complement if I’m in a location I may not be able to come back to; just so I have al my bases covered. However, I want to blend in when I’m shooting so I try to not carry a camera bag. I pre-meter either by finding some nicely balanced scene and taking a couple of test shots and checking the histogram or by metering with a little Sekonic Twinmate which I carry around with me. I use that meter reading as a reference and then adjust up or down from there based on how the scene looks to me.
I tend to shoot several frames of a scene in one go, moving around or in and out to change the angle and spacing between characters in the scene. I’ll review a sequence of shots only after the moment has passed or I’ve exhausted the different angles from which it could have been shot. Its amazing how often one interesting scene morphs into another so I’ll want to hang around and keep my eyes open even if it feel like the original moment has passed.
I love the fact that street photography forces you to slow down and observe life. We’re often so busy with our own lives that the rest of the world just passes us by. Street forces me to relax. It is amazing how often I can now correlate the quality of what I’m seeing or shooting with how stressed or rushed I feel. I have walked around some city or other and not seen anything interesting to shoot in an entire day and yet a couple of months later in the same location there’s an interesting shot on every corners. The only thing that changed was how relaxed and ‘open’ I was on each occasion. I also find my best shots in locations where I have some emotional connection. As I already mentioned I’m trying to capture something of the nature or soul of the place in a shot and I find that hard to do in a location where I don’t have some empathetic connection.
Can I offer three? The first is to turn off all the ‘auto’ stuff and work in fully manual mode. That means both for metering and focusing. No matter how sophisticated your camera’s systems are you will almost never get the exact result you visualized when you press the shutter button when using ‘auto’ mode. The second tip is then to know your camera controls inside out and backward. Can you set any combination of shutter speed and aperture with your eye’s closed (Or in the dark?) Do you know how to dial in or out two stops of exposure compensation without thinking? Things happen very quickly on the street and being able to react instantaneously often means the difference between a great image and no image at all. Finally, correct focus is always the priority. Today’s RAW files have amazing exposure latitude so if you’re off by a stop (Or more) you can still recover a great image. However, an out of focus image will always be out of focus.