On Consistency and Street Photography

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Lansing, Michigan 2013

Photos in this article are from my on-going “Suits” project.

One of the things I notice a lot at my workshops and when I see work online is how there tends to be a lack of consistency in people’s images.

I think while it is great to experiment and try out new things– at the end of the day to create a personal style and vision– you need a sense of consistency.

For example, when you think about Martin Parr, do you think black and white or color? Color of course. But he also did a lot of black and white work early-on in his career. But once he discovered color and flash– he stuck with it for the last several decades of his work and now you can easily identify a “Martin Parr” photograph.

When it comes to Daido Moriyama, do you think black and white or color? Black and white of course. He has experimented a bit with color, but he has made his entire career by having a consistency of his black and white images– gritty, grungy, out of focus, and full of emotion and energy.

Below are some ideas you could work on consistency for your street photography in 2014:

1. Consistency of black and white or color

suits-1
Hong Kong, 2013

I think it is fine to shoot both black and white and color– but you should keep them separate into different series. Very much like a movie director, if you are going to shoot a film– do it all in black and white or in color. Try not to mix both.

Our lives are very short– and I think if we want to make an impact with our photography, we need a consistency of the aesthetic of our images.

Can we easily identify a “Henri Cartier-Bresson” photograph? Of course, because he consistency shot with a Leica, a 50mm lens, and black and white film his entire career– and specialized in his “decisive moment” type of photography.

Personally I started all of my street photography in black and white digital– as I never liked the way color looked in digital. I shot like that for 5 years, but once I switched to film and discovered color film (Kodak Portra 400) I have now stuck with it the last 2 years.

What I personally experienced is when you are focusing on either black and white or color you see the world differently. With black and white I tend to look for abstractions, light, shadows, geometric shapes, and forms– whereas with color I literally look for colorful things.

Now that I have been focusing on only color, I find it difficult (if not impossible) to shoot in black and white.

So for 2014, I would recommend it is a good idea to stick with either black and white or color– and focus on developing your vision for one.

2. Consistency of shooting

Istanbul, 2012
Istanbul, 2012

I think one of the most difficult things in photography (or any other art) is to stay consistent in terms of creating. The best violinists in the world practice for around 3 hours every morning everyday– and this “deliberate practice” is what leads them to become great masters.

I think taking photos is like training a muscle. You need to do it consistently to keep it fit and in shape. And even more important is to keep your eyes sharp and ready to look for photographs.

When I am abroad and traveling it is easy to take tons of photos. After all, a new and novel place is always interesting and exciting.

However when I am back home or in the suburbs– of course it is difficult to shoot (as it is difficult to find what is interesting at your own home).

I have begun to force myself to shoot even though I don’t see things that are interesting. I just carry my Contax T3 with me everywhere I go (small and fits in my pocket) and as I just have it with me– I start seeing more photo opportunities. I have therefore taken lots of “urban landscapes” in the suburbs (which are quite interesting to me) as well as portraits of people I have met in restaurants at family dinners.

So perhaps for 2014 you can make it a point to click everyday. You don’t have to upload everyday, but try to be consistent with taking photos everyday. After all, if you don’t exercise everyday– what happens to your health?

3. Consistency of projects

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

I think with Flickr and social media, we are too focused on the single image. I love single images to death and think they are very important in photography. However, I think single images should be used in conjunction with the idea of working on projects.

There are very few photographers who are able to make an entire career off single images. Even photographers like Steve McCurry who has tons of great single images, has worked on many books on different locations or on portraits.

When I look at someone’s body of work and it tens to be too cluttered and not consistent in terms of subject matter (sunsets, photos of cats, shoes, street photos, etc) I find it quite frustrating as a viewer.

One of the things that I learned in cognitive science is that we humans are pattern-recognition machines. Meaning that we like to see consistency both aesthetically (the type of focal length, black and white or color, digital or film, etc) as well as subject matter (literally what you decide to photograph).

Of course there are photography styles like Daido Moriyama and many other Japanese photographers who embrace the “stream of consciousness” style (just photographing what you see and feel instead of making it conscious) but they still end up editing and sequencing their work into books, exhibitions, shows, etc.

Therefore in 2014 I would recommend you to work on a project if you haven’t done so before. Choose a simple idea like street portraits, urban landscapes, your neighborhood, self-portraits, hands, etc– and stick with it for a year. Then make a final edit of around 12-15 images and put it on your portfolio site when it is ready.

Conclusion

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

I am a huge fan of experimentation and I think we should embrace it. Try using black and white or color. Try using film or digital. Try using different film formats (35mm, medium-format, large format). Try shooting different projects and in different locations. Don’t just shoot “street photography” try landscapes or even macro photography. Try everything.

But I think there needs to be a certain point that we need to start focusing on one thing and getting really good at it– and being consistent along the way.

I would say embrace depth over breadth. Meaning, focus on getting really good at one thing– than being so-so in many different things.

After all, our lives are short– so let us use our time wisely while we are still on this earth and create beautiful photography and art that inspires others.

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