Street Photography and Covid-19
20 Things you can do now . . .
This is a naturally frustrating time for street photographers (and I do appreciate that there are far worse things than being ‘frustrated’ at the moment) and I thought I would share some thoughts about how to make good use of this ‘downtime’. Personally, I won’t be shooting on the streets during any ‘lockdown’ period and I would advise other street photographers to do the same. But if we don’t have our beloved streets, what’s left for us?
Well, there’s plenty we can be doing so let’s look at some ways in which we can make the best of a bad situation. Here are some of the things you could be cracking on with during the quiet weeks or months ahead – let’s not waste this opportunity!
1. Take stock
Go through your archive of images. With the benefit of time, you’ll almost certainly find some undiscovered or forgotten gems on your hard drives (or in those lever arch files full of sheets of negatives). Looking at old work in this way, where’s there’s distance between the taking of the image and the viewing of it, helps us see our images dispassionately and in a fresh light.
Look for patterns or trends; perhaps there’s enough material to form a project – or maybe something which will give you the idea to kickstart a new projects once conditions have improved. Also take this time to sort out your archive; it can be enormously satisfying – and quite therapeutic – to have a ‘de-clutter’.
2. Make art
What are the walls in your home like? Time for a re-fresh? Whether you print your own work or use a lab, this could be a good time to get printing and bring some images to life. Think frames prints, posters, acrylics, canvases – even an ‘exhibition’ in one of your rooms.
3. Create a book
Many of the people I meet are ‘in the process of’ making a book. Take this opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and actually do it – make that book you’ve been thinking about for months. If you’re new to making photo-books, online services make the process very simple and are reasonably cost-effective. If you’re new to this and don’t know where to start, Blurb is a good entry point.
4. Refresh / re-organise your workspace at home
Many of us will have an ‘office’ area dedicated to photography – whether it’s a desk in the corner or a separate room – and it can quickly get out of hand. My workspace is in the loft, which I’ve just started to reorganise; this has meant finding new homes for things, throwing loads of stuff away, taking unwanted gear to the charity shop, painting walls in new colours and generally having a good spring clean. And it feels good!
5. Do a gear audit – get unwanted gear onto eBay
If you’re anything like me you’ll have drawers stuffed with things you’ll never use again: old bags, lenses with the wrong mount, incompatible flashes, scratched filters, old instruction manuals, straps . . . in my loft I found all sorts of junk which just had to go.
The good news is that there’s a buyer out there for just about everything and most gear, even damaged, will sell on eBay. Alternatively you could offer (working) gear to charity shops or the excellent Disabled Photographers’ Society.
This is the time to be brutal with yourself and get rid of what you don’t need. You’ll thank yourself later.
6. Give your gear a refurb / deep clean
When we’re so busy taking pictures, it’s easy to neglect our gear. Cameras seem to attract dust in hard to reach areas, particularly around dials and lenses can suffer from a build-up of grime around the edges of the front element. For your cameras use an airbrush (or aerosol duster) to blast away surface debris, then grab some cotton buds, tissues and a small pot of warm, soapy water and get into those unloved areas. Treat your lenses more gently, maybe using a moist lens tissue (I use Zeiss lens wipes) and carefully clean the front and rear elements (again, blasting away any debris first with air); when you’ve done this, use the same tissue to clean the lens barrel.
If you have a small, portable hand-vacuum cleaner, get it into the corners of all your bags and camera cases and get rid of the inevitable dust and debris which accumulates.
7. Refresh your website
Do you have a website to showcase your work? If not, this could be the time to build one; it’s never been easier or cheaper to build a photographer’s website from scratch, using template driven platforms such as Squarespace, Format and Smugmug (here’s my personal website, built over a weekend using Squarespace).
If you do have a website it could be due for a spring clean. Consider updating the homepage, get your latest projects online and make your all your best – and some of the most recent – work is on there.
8. Embrace social media
Whilst I accept that not everyone is a fan of social media, my personal view is that it does have a role to play for street photographers. And, in times like these, it can be a good way of staying connected and engaged with the outside world.
When it comes to street photography, Instagram is my first port of call (you can see my feed here). Provided you carefully curate who you follow, you’ll be looking at a constant stream of good, inspiring street photography which can gives you ideas and motivation for your own work. Don’t obsess about the number of followers you have – it doesn’t matter one bit and I’ll talk about this more in a future article.
Then there’s Facebook: if you go beyond pictures of fingernails and people’s lunches, there are some really good street photography groups you can join. Like any form of social gathering, you get out what you put in and if you really engage with people in some of these groups you can get some real benefit from being part of a community.
9. Revisit your post-production
When it comes to image editing, approaches change and techniques improve. Whilst I personally believe that post-production has a fairly limited role to play in street photography, it does have a role and the editing and file management tools are getting better all the time.
10. Learn a new skill
Every days is a school day! Photography is a fast moving world and there are always new skills to be learned. For anyone who didn’t grow up in the world of analog photography I would strongly recommend going back to basics and learning some theoretical stuff. If you’re a musician, you start with the theory; if you’re an artist, you start with the theory. The same goes for scientists, lawyers, astronauts – just about everyone who takes their expertise seriously. But I meet many street photographers who pick up a digital camera and start shooting. They often do it very well but they could realise more potential with a bit of theoretical knowledge.
Learn about light, composition or colour theory. Read books and articles on street photography and work on your weaknesses. What about video? If you’ve always wanted to learn how to shoot and edit the moving image, now’s the time.
11. Try analog photography
If you’ve never shot film before – or maybe you have an old film camera lying around and have never used it – get some film and start experimenting (there are lots of places online who will send film through the post).
No analog camera? Just go on eBay and there are thousands for sale, from less than £10 to £thousands. I would go for a ‘classic’ SLR from the 1970s such as a Pentax K1000, Nikon FM, Canon AE1 or Minolta SRT101. If you fancy something simpler and more compact, you can’t go wrong with a little Olympus Trip – the entry point into photography for so many people.
If you’re looking for some good value used gear, have a look at my gear store.
12. Actually READ some of the street photography books you’ve bought
I’m a photography book addict and I’m a sucker for the latest glorious body of work from one of the big names. But, leading a busy life, I flick through them and they end up back on the shelf without giving them any serious attention. So, now is the time to catch up! Read the narrative, study the pictures, get into the photographer’s head. And, more importantly, be inspired!
13. Practice candid photography with the people around you
Most of what I would call ‘street photography’ is candid photography shot in public places. Although we won’t have any public places to make use of, we can still practice shooting candidly and can work on our ability to anticipate – and capture – the ‘moment’. You could even turn this into a documentary project about daily life in your house, capturing all those unguarded moments which make up family life.
14. Plan some projects for when you can go out again
Let’s look on the bright side and assume we’ll be out shooting again by the summer. Wouldn’t it be great if you could hit the ground running and immediately start work on some projects? Well, now is the time for planning! Start to write down ideas and work them up into plans. If you’re new to the idea of projects, I made a short video on YouTube which may help.
15. Fully get to grips with your camera
How often do you buy a new piece of kit and say ‘I’ll read the manual later’? There’s no-one more guilty of this than me and I think many of us don’t exploit the full potential of our gear because we don’t read the manual. So, over the next few months, I’m going to dig out the manuals for the recent cameras I’ve bought with a view to understanding that gear, inside-out.
16. Enter competitions
There are lots of street photography competitions around and, if you’re not careful, you could spend lots of money on entry fees alone. I consider some of these to be a rip-off and purely a money-making exercise for the organisers. Others, however, are more altruistic and what I would call ‘genuine’ competitions. Generally, if you avoid anything with high entrance fees, you should be okay.
17. Consider stock photography
If you’re one of those photographers who has many thousands of images tucked away on hard drives, there could well be a market for those images via stock image libraries. Yes, I accept that stock has had a bad press in recent years as supply has gone stratospheric, causing prices to plummet – but there is still a market there, particularly if you have something niche. This is all about the numbers game and if you have high stock levels you can make this work. I know plenty of photographers who have a nice little monthly income from their online image library sales.
18. Start a critique circle
Critique is essential to how we all develop as photographers and ‘good’ critique can be hard to come by – people are either too kind or the complete opposite in the form of online trolls. So why not start your own critique circle?
Get together a small group of friends (say between 3 and 8) who share the common interest in street photography and have an online critique session. This is so easily organised with the likes of Skype, Facebook, Zoom, WhatsApp etc – it’s almost as good as being in the same room together. Before you start, agree a structure; critique is much more efficient and effective if there’s a consistent approach applied to each image. If you decide to do this, let me know and I’ll suggest a format for you.
19. Explore the wider world of street photography
If you dig deep, there’s a wealth of information and knowledge out there. Think YouTube videos, podcasts, online magazines, discussion forums and blogs. In the case of the latter, there’s just so much material to be absorbed on the more prominent blog sites such as Fstoppers.
20. Develop your ‘voice’
Like singers, photographers have ‘voices’ and we need to make sure our voice is clear and distinctive – in the same way that you can distinguish Elvis Costello from Frank Sinatra. Your voice plays a key role in defining your style as a photographer and it’s something we should all actively work on.
Try starting with the end-point: how do you see yourself as a photographer in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time? What will your body of work look like? What’s your contribution to the world of street photography? What’s your legacy? Imaging that in front of you is a book of your life’s work; what will that book look like? Use these thoughts to frame your aspirations – this is the start of finding your voice. Then start to think about your preferred approach to street photography: are you motivated by capturing the moment? Are you a light-chaser? A storyteller? Be true what drives you and work towards an approach that works for you.
Try to find a voice – a style – that you can apply consistently to your street photography, one which could ultimately be recognisable as ‘yours’. This might all sound very aspirational but it’s relevant. Use the time you have now to think deeply about where you’re going.
So, these are 20 things you can do to ensure that when you emerge from this situation you’ll be a fitter, stronger and more rounded photographer and well positioned to bounce back in style. We have a great window of opportunity here – let’s make the most of it!