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Tips for City Photography On The Go

©istockphoto/xavierarnau

©istockphoto/xavierarnau

Taking great photographs while you’re on the go in a foreign city is challenging. Cities are cluttered, constantly moving, and people often don’t want their photo taken. Equipment needs to be both capable and light. Here are some tips for making great images of daily life in foreign lands.

What’s the Story?
As with all photography, the critical element is a story. Snapshots of the Eiffel Tower are a dime a dozen. If you don’t have a clear story to tell, your image will fall flat. Try finding things which are definitely unique to the area, but also have more meaning behind them than just their aesthetics.

How Obtrusive ?
Street photography requires some decisions about equipment. Speed and the ability to control exposure are essential, but digital SLRs stand out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, the image of Mao’s portrait could never have been made without precise exposure control, and phones or small point-and shoots would have failed. (I improvised a tripod by balancing the camera atop a garbage can). Since I already stood out as an obvious foreigner in China, I didn’t mind a big camera. But that’s not everyone’s choice, and not what I’d likely have done in Europe or places where I was concerned about becoming a target. Many travel photographers like mirrorless camera systems as a compromise: they accept multiple lenses and have a decent mix of creative control, portability, and are less attention-grabbing.

Control Depth of Field
The hardest part of city photography is that there’s almost always a busy background, and it’s very difficult to find a simple background that doesn’t distract the viewer. The other option is to blur in the background via a depth of field, as in this image of a motorbike on the streets of Beijing. This means you need control of the cameras f-stop instead of auto settings, also usually not possible with phones or simple point and shoot cameras.

Wait and Smile
Getting permission to take people’s photos can be difficult when you don’t speak the language. But ask. When I saw this worker building a path in a modern city with a hand-pushed wooden cart and a trowel, I simply sat nearby on a bench with my camera on my lap for a few minutes. Then I looked at him, and pointed at my camera, and shrugged. He nodded with permission. (The direct stare isn’t considered rude in China.)

Leave Room For Mystery
Cities are fundamentally mysterious places. They’re where millions of people go about their daily lives, often laden with rich history, and where a vast number of stories lie undiscovered in nooks and crannies. Photographing a traditional hutong neighborhood, which are rapidly giving way to identical concreate apartment blocks, I deliberately blocked the view into the courtyard, making the viewer wonder what’s around the corner.

Look for Contrasts
Contrasts abound in cities: rich and poor, modern and ancient, the everyday lives and the iconic things that symbolize a city, nation, or religion. This image juxtaposes two forms of communication: the eternal and the mundane: one person prays to a statue of the Buddha (off-camera to the left) while another text-messages.

Turn the City into a Landscape
Cities are faced-paced and crowded, which often lends itself to a sports or photojournalistic style of shooting. However, its fun and often innovative to break this pattern and photograph the city as if it’s a scenic landscape. It’s a way of capturing verticality or depth, and of making images in a new style. Find clear spaces where you can shoot wide-angle, and put the camera somewhere other-than head-high.

But most of all, experiment. And you’ll never make great city images if you leave your camera at home.

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