I asked keen street photographer Gill Prince for her thoughts on street photography . . .
How long have you been practising street photography? – and how did you get into it?
I attended a one day travel photography course in 2011 and part of that included the more ‘street photography’ end of the scale. I was fascinated but daunted in equal measure – having photographed primarily landscapes for as long as I have known how to use a camera, which is when I was about seven! The idea of taking pictures of random people was scary, particularly the concept of ‘engaging with your subject’ – and that’s something I’m not sure I’ve entirely adjusted to even now.
I didn’t play with street photography any further until I started to shoot stock for Alamy in 2014, and of course images with people in, for editorial use, are very saleable. So I began to look for those types of opportunities. A trip to Italy really helped me to focus more on it, when I started to take shots of people in places like Rome and Venice – where there is a ‘street shot’ round every corner. Since then I have become braver, and been on more workshops, getting to the point in the last year or so where I find I’m enjoying street photography more than landscapes, though I still do a lot of that as well.
What is ‘street photography’? What does it mean to you?
I believe that street photography is all about capturing a unique moment in time, and documenting a set of circumstances that will never be repeated. I love watching a group of disjointed elements create themselves into a scene, and being able to capture that moment at just the right time. It’s the perfect test for a photographer I think, and requires equal levels of artistic and technical skill.
You need to make the shot ‘work’ from a compositional perspective (which of course doesn’t always happen, as you don’t control the elements – and that can be what makes it so challenging!) but you also need it to be technically accurate as well. Sharp if it’s meant to be sharp, and with movement if that’s part of what makes the scene work. So understanding your camera’s settings and how to achieve the desired effect in any given set of lighting conditions is also vital.
How would you describe your own style of street photography?
Evolving and experimental! I know I am still very much a ‘beginner’ and I am loving the challenge of what is, for me, a totally new style of photography. I am also fascinated by all of the different styles and approaches that there are out there – and why, when looking at other people’s images – one thing works and another doesn’t.
One of the key things I have learned from the courses I’ve attended in the last year or so is the importance of making use of dramatic lighting when it comes to good street photography – and also the concept of choosing a location and then waiting for the right elements to fill it, rather than seeing someone who you think would make a good shot and then trying to set something up in a split second, in less than optimal conditions.
This approach really changed my street photography, and when looking back at my images I can see what I believe to be a real improvement after that point. Of course, there are many times when you still end up with the less well-planned approach, but I am now far more conscious of light as a factor in street photography, both when taking the shot and when processing it afterwards.
Has that style naturally evolved or have you made a conscious effort to steer yourself in a particular direction?
I think it’s been a natural evolution, based on inputs from various other street photographers that I have spent time with. I’m still ‘knowledge gathering’ if you like, and I suspect that my eventual style will be a mix of all those other influences. But I am aware that it’s probably getting slightly more abstract and impressionistic, and less ‘literal’ – though I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing!
I think I am also becoming more considered in the types of shots I take, where the lighting conditions are less dramatic. I know that I do tend to think primarily about the artistic and compositional aspects of the shot, rather than what story they are telling, which probably stems from my landscape photography background. I maybe need to try a slightly more journalistic approach, thinking more about the story than the image itself – even if this compromises the ‘perfect balance’ of the elements!
On a separate note, I have recently started experimenting with multiple exposure and intentional camera movement (ICM), taking influences from people like Valda Bailey and Doug Chinnery, but I think the jury is still out on all that. I have captured one or two images that I absolutely love using these techniques, but it starts to feel more like ‘art’ than photography – which somehow doesn’t sit quite right with me.
What challenges have you faced as a street photographer?
My biggest challenge by far is making the jump from keeping my distance and using my zoom, vs getting up close, which everyone tells me is what ‘true’ street photographers do! I have heard people say that you can tell the difference between a shot that was taken close up on a fixed 50mm vs one that was taken on a long zoom lens – not from a technical perspective, but just because artistically they look different, even if the subject still wasn’t aware of what you were doing.
I still remain to be convinced by this, although I have seen some brilliant shots by travel photographer Jacob James which were taken very close up, and actually with a wide angle lens! That feeling of being ‘in amongst the action’ vs viewing it from afar does have an appeal, but I’m still wrestling with the whole concept of making people aware of what I’m doing, or even going to the next level and engaging with them first. Though as I said before, I’m still not sure that’s the type of street photography I would actually enjoy so much, as for me it’s about the ‘thrill of the chase’ in terms of capturing a naturally evolving scene.
What camera / lens do you like to use?
I use a Panasonic Lumix G7, which is a mirrorless or ‘compact system’ camera (CSC). I switched from SLR to digital around 2000, initially with a variety of bridge cameras – and then when it came to moving back to something with interchangeable lenses, I couldn’t quite give up my electronic viewfinder, which is one of the main reasons I opted for mirrorless at the time. I still find it fascinating that DSLR users are happy to squint hopefully at their LCD screens in bright light, to try to get an idea of whether their latest shot looks anything like they were hoping for!
My favourite lens for street photography at the moment is my 35-100mm f2.8, which is a 70-200mm equivalent in analogue terms – as the Lumix is a micro four thirds system, which has a 2.0 crop factor. I love the fixed f2.8 aperture, and it really does make all the difference for street photography, being able to knock the background out of focus so effectively. I also have a Leica Summilux 25mm (50mm equivalent) f1.4 which I love, as it’s razor sharp and gives incredible shallow depth of field, but I know I’m not getting the most out of it at the moment from a street photography perspective, due to my fear of ‘getting up close’!
What’s your workflow and preferred post-production method?
I use both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements. I probably do about 90% of the work in Lightroom, and then I export straight into Photoshop for a ‘final tweak’. Primarily for any cloning out of random objects (though I try to do as little of that as possible) and for any precise selective adjustments, where I find Photoshop so much more controllable than the adjustment brush in Lightroom.
I’ve always shied away from any type of heavy processing in my landscape photography world, but I’ve found myself experimenting more with this for my street photography. Things like desaturation, increasing contrast and adding grain, or mono conversion and split toning, can all really enhance the mood of a street image – and I’m now trying to find a balance that feels right without overdoing it. Still an evolving style there I think!
How and where do you share or display your images? Any plans to do more?
I have a website at www.gillprincephotography.com, a Facebook business page which I also use to promote my ‘off auto’ tuition services, and a fairly active Twitter and Instagram presence. I’m also quite involved in a variety of Facebook photography groups – some for my own education, and some beginner groups where I give advice and support.
My image display activity to date has been more on the landscape side, including exhibiting at Light and Land on the Mall in 2015, and publishing a book of landscape and urban images called Unexpected:MK in late 2016, as part of Milton Keynes’s 50th birthday celebrations this year. I would love to do more in the way of exhibitions, and particularly in the street photography arena. It’s not something I’ve really investigated so far, but definitely something I’m going to look into in the future, to see what opportunities might be out there!
You wrote the majority of this article for us just before attending a workshop with Brian. How did that session change your perception of street photography, and how you approach it?
Quite significantly actually! As I’ve already mentioned, until now I have very much ‘observed from afar’ with my zoom lens and not tried to capture shots from a closer and more involved perspective. Going out onto the streets in London armed only with a 35mm equivalent wide-angle really tested my skills, and made me look at street photography in quite a different way.
I think I’d always assumed that the people needed to fill the frame and be the majority of the shot, but I now realise that the context of their environment is equally important, which also gives me the ability to bring architectural and urban elements into the frame as well. A whole different ball game! I do think this approach might be more challenging in a less touristy location – for example my home town of Milton Keynes, where people do not habitually walk around with cameras – but I’m looking forward to the challenge, and to trying out the new techniques I have learned!
What about the future of street photography – where do you see it going?
I think that new possibilities for street photography are opening up all the time, and that the rise of the smartphone camera – and the ongoing technology improvements which are happening in that area – will really make a difference. Street photography can be a planned activity, but it is also very opportunistic, and so I think the smartphone camera will play more of a part in this over time.
On that note, my iPhone 7 Plus has a multiple exposure app that is far easier to use than the corresponding capability on my Lumix G7, and I find myself using the phone for this type of thing even when I have the camera with me! So who knows where we will be a few years from now, when ultra-thin ‘flat lenses’, and hence true optical zoom, becomes a reality on smartphones? It’s going to be an interesting time . . .