A few colleagues and clients know that a combination of personal health issues and serious family matters have conspired over the past two+ years to draw me away from nature photography. Traveling back and forth multiple times across the country to support family members with life-threatening health conditions, move elderly parents into an assisted living facility, and visit grandchildren as often as possible on the other side of the country leaves little time for adventure in the great outdoors. However, I am able to make time to shoot in my own backyard, that is, I concentrate on urban photography.
In my opinion, photographing cityscapes can be as challenging, exciting and rewarding as nature photography. I believe I visibly demonstrated that in the two books I wrote: Photographing Baltimore, Annapolis and Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Washington DC Memories. In outdoor photography, be it nature or urban subjects, one has to get up early and stay out late to capture the ideal light; seek out the best vantage point; compose a strong image; etc.
One subject in the urban environment I find particularly intriguing to photograph is art in public spaces. I recommend taking a close look at this artwork, be it sanctioned or not. You will discover it is akin to visiting a gigantic open air museum. You will find the array of artists staggering, the range of talent and mastery of technique captivating, the palette of colors and media fascinating, and the motivation behind their creative expression as varied as the artists. That gamut extends from a simple expression of energy all the way to the need to attract attention to the complex political and social issues affecting life in the local community and around the globe. You will find the ephemeral nature of street art challenging. Time is limited before Mother Nature adversely affects the artwork or a second artist paints over an existing piece.
Oops, it looks like I am spending more time talking about why photograph art in public spaces instead of describing how best to photograph it. For those of you who prefer more time exploring the why a little more, I strongly encourage you to read several articles on my blog Charm City Streets. For those of you eager to learn if this old dog can teach a few new tricks, read on.
Well, pause a moment for this bit of fine print. Graffiti writers, muralists, and street artists have their own vocabularies. They are too busy creating cool (kewl) artwork to write a definitive dictionary (lexicon or thesaurus), so the discussion on the street about what to call what continues. For the sake of simplicity, in this article I will use the term street art as a catch-all phrase.
When I head out to photograph street art, I try not to rush things; rather, I keep an eye out for the unexpected. I find I get better results by first investing time and energy looking around for the best subject; angle of view; and lighting conditions. Let’s explore how this look around first process works. Keep in mind that your camera stays in your bag while you are looking.
You have done a little online research and found several locations in town where street artists are active. When you wake up one morning, you discover Mother Nature has smiled upon you. There is a clear overcast sky providing nice even light, so you grab your camera gear and head to a likely good spot in town. Atop an old parking garage you discover some cool graffiti reflected in a large rain puddle. What do you do?
Well, before you grab your camera and start shooting, you look around and examine the scene. Ask yourself what angle of view will give you the strongest composition. You notice that if you shoot perpendicular to the graffiti, the resulting image will lack depth of field and appear as a flat façade. That is probably not the best image.
You move a few steps to your right and see that, if you zoom in a bit, you can emphasize the more colorful graffiti, still include a reflection, and downplay the skyline.
TIP: If the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower were in the background, you could consider leaving them in to lend a sense of place to your image. Since the background buildings in this example are not iconic, you image will be stronger when you minimize their role in your photo.
When you also notice the left edge of the puddle forms a leading line into the composition (generally a great way to enhance the composition of an image), your camera shutter finger gets itchy. However, you resist the temptation to get out your camera, because you see some weird-looking stuff in the mid-foreground interferes with the reflection. If you were to use a stick to move this grody glob away, your composition would be a bit stronger. However, when you see the puddle reflects only part of the graffiti, you continue to look.
You move a bit more to your right, and voila the elements of the scene fall into place. The scene includes a full reflection of Fobek, the skyline is a mere background element, the red rag in the puddle lends a bit of grittiness to the image, and the scene is well-balanced. I suggest this is the strongest composition of the three. Finally, get out your camera and use an aperture in the range of f/5.6-7.1. The graffiti and reflection will appear tack sharp, and the background will have a pleasing soft blur.
After seeking out and capturing your first image, you explore a bit more and discover a really cool mural (the artist Indigo created this for the 2012 Articulate Baltimore Mural Project) reflected in a large rain puddle. What do you do? As in the first example, you begin to move around, evaluate the quality of various viewpoints, and photograph the strongest image.
Hopefully, you are wearing waterproof shoes or boots. The puddle is 3-4 inches deep, and you will be walking around in it.
The initial scene is full of distractions: the bright skyline, the dilapidated building to the left, the scraggly tree on the right, etc. Walking a few short paces to your left removes most of the distracting buildings and the scraggly tree from your image; but now a large cardboard box disrupts the reflection. For a wildflower composition, you may do a little judicious weeding and remove old dried leaves. Here, you wade up and toss the box far outside your scene. Wait for the ripples in the puddle to quiet down and re-evaluate your composition from this viewpoint.
You see the mother and child are too far to the right in this composition. Stepping a bit to your right eliminates the tall brick building and boosts the role contrast of the mural and reflection. What, if anything else, do you do? Well, you could go ahead and shoot this scene. However, you would need to use post processing software to tone down the white building on the right and remove the white gunk floating in the water.
It is more efficient to get it right first in the camera. Thus, I suggest walking a bit more to the right. Now the white building disappears; the scene retains a sense of downtown; the angle of view lends dimensionality to the image; and you can center the mural and its reflection to give each equal emphasis. In other words, you can avoid clipping off part of the mural or the reflection. Here too an aperture of f/5.6-7.1 will serve you well, so pull out your camera and shoot.
TIP: A polarizing filter would diminish and possibly eliminate the reflection, so leave it in your camera bag.
A final note: remember that a successful photo is one that pleases you. If you like the flat façade or the cardboard box and grody stuff in your photo, by all means shoot those compositions. You will see the photos as a success. However, if your goal is to create images others find successful, I suggest you first seek out the best angle of view, eliminate distracting elements, and simplify your composition.