Street Photography: How I got closer and closer...

Nowadays it seems like if you're not photographing from close to very close distance, you're not a good street photographer. To me that's a load of crap. This subject is taken into extremes on the internet lately. As I've described in my previous blog, I think one should just photograph who you are. If you're not comfortable shooting people on the streets from close distance, then don't. Although it is my believe that you have to try that in order to be absolutely sure that it's not your way to go. Try this while shooting an event on the streets where a lot of people are photographing anyway...

When I started shooting the streets in 2011, I was very uncomfortable. I went out with my 2kg Canon 60D, a 3kg 70-200 zoomlens and a tripod to shoot the streets. Imagine that! Absolutely insane... :-)

When I started taking some workshops in street photography I thought my pictures were quite nice. The guy who was handling the workshop at that time told me several times that my shots were nice, but I needed to go 'into the people' more to make my shots interesting in stead of just nice. Of course I refused to do that and kept arguing with him that it really doesn't matter how big my distance is, as long as my pictures are good. He told me that the viewers would get the feeling to be present at the scene themselves when watching them. These discussions went on for a long time and I guess he just had to give it up at some point. I just didn't have the guts to go closer because of my fear ad stubbornness.

Like the audactic as I am, I kept reading the internet about street photography, viewing shots from old masters and current street photographers. While watching hundreds of photographs, I started to grasp what he ment. Shooting from a closer distance does make the image more interesting. Reading quotes like "Photograph who you are" and "If your photo isn't good enough, you're not close enough" from Robert Capa forced me to rethink my way of photographing the streets. I connect easily with strangers, so why not try it and see if it's my way to go? And above all, does that kind of photography really make my own shots more interesting?

So I did... I went out to the streets with my wife and fellow street photographer Sandra (how awesome is that?) and started shooting with a 17-55mm lens from very close distance in Rotterdam. I must say, I really felt uncomfortable noticing those people looking at me like I'm some kind of freak. At least, that's how my brain interpreted their facial expressions towards me... Later on you will find out my brain (and yours, if you take on this kind of photography) was just fooling me. When I got home I imported my shots into Lightroom and noticed that I didn't get any decent shot at all... Why? Because I let my brain fool me into anxiety again! Your brain imports millions of bits of data through your lenses (eyes) per second and is projecting a very tiny bit of that into your reality. This tiny bit of data projected is what you are/feel at that very moment. That is basically your projected reality... So if your grasped by fear in that moment, you will project that into your reality as you see it and ultimately as you photograph it. One of my future blogs about "Ethics & Authenticity" will go into the subjectivity of the brain a bit more... Although that needs a bit more research...

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The next weekend there was a street festival in Rotterdam (World of the Witte de With Kwartier) and we went. from the start I felt comfortable shooting from close distance. Just because there where so many people shooting with their camera... How your brain can fool you! What does it actually matter if there are more camera's on the street? In this case, it helped me a lot to let my brain fool me ;-) Later on my wife's battery went low and I had to go to the store to get another one since we didn't have another spare. I took my camera and went to the store... There I was on the streets, not getting any comfort of more camera's shooting the street and I took this shot from maybe 50cm (2 ft) on my way to the store... Nothing happened. No agression, no yelling, nothing... That amazed me and I was convinced. If you want to take a look at my photographs I took that day at that very festival, just take a look at this gallerie...

Enough with the story about my journey to get there. Let me show you the difference  between a shot from a far away distance and a closeby distance and let you decide which is more interactive to you as a viewer...

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Click to enlarge

The photograph on the left has been taken from about 40 meters (120 ft) and the one on the right at about 1 meter (3 ft)...  Do you feel more at presence with the photograph on the left or the one on the right? Do you notice that there is more connection and interaction with the subject?

Now these photographs are quite static, so I want to show you two more examples which can easily be categorised as street portaits. The one on the left has been taken with a Canon 70-200 f2.8 @ 200mm and a distance of about 20 meters (60 ft). I cropped this one to get the image as it is shown here. The one on the right has been taken with my Fuji X-T1 camera with a 23mm f1.4 pirme lens and has not been cropped. I took the latter at a 60 to 70cm (1,5 to 2 ft) distance. Do you see the difference?

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Click to enlarge

What do you think? Does taking a photograph from close distance bring more personality and interaction to the shot? Do you feel more as if you where there yourself? Do you notice the interaction that I had with my subject on the right?

As my last blog and as my future blogs will often be about my personal experiences in street photography, this is by no means an 'attack' on those who just keep on shooting from a further distance. I just wanted to show you, that you as a photographer, can enhance your results by getting closer to your subject. Personally I think, the above examples are all nice photographs, but to me the ones shot from a close distance distinguish themselves from the other ones. By shooting from a close distance, you as a photographer, will have a connection and some kind of social interaction with your subject. If only for a brief moment, but there's some kind of connectivity and to me that's just awesome to experience. When a subject gives you 'the eye' because they notice you, it makes the shot more powerful I think...

Whatever you do, never get in contact before taking a shot and shoot very fast so they will not have the chance to pose for you. That'll definitely ruin the shot!

Invading someones personal space can be a very strange experience for people. According to American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall there are four personal zones to differentiate; public, social, personal and intimate spaces.

Public space: 7.6 - 3.6 meters | 25 to 12 ft
Social space: 3.6 - 1.2 meters | 12 to 4 ft
Personal space: 1.2 - 0.45 meters | 4 to 1.5 ft
Intimate space: 0.45 meters or 1.5 ft towards you can imagine...

I think, as a photographer the personal space area is as close you can get for obvious reasons ;-)

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If you want to take it to the extreme, go even closer with a 10mm or even wider. As you can see in my last example, this is as close you can get, besides going full macro on your subject of course, which I do not recommend :-)
This one has been taken with an 8mm fisheye objective where my feet were almost touching his. See the connection, the brief close interaction, the eyes from the subject and the people on the right? If I would've taken this from a far distance with a telezoom objective, they probably wouldn't have noticed and the image would be merely a registration of people sitting on a bench and much less interesting to watch (and shoot for that matter).

Now if you should a scene where people are interacting with each other, some kind of happening is taking place, something funny is going on or whatever, I would not interfere by getting this close because I would disrupt the scene. Going this close is thus not always applicable, but if you shoot a static scene or someone walking the street with a nice face, funny hat or whatever, getting close definitely adds to the result.

One very inspirational quote that I never forgot from famous photographer Mark Cohen...
"There's this definite social interaction that happens. Somekind of thing between me and the people that I take the picture of. I invade their space and try to make something happen with the camera when I go in very close"

There are many approaches to street photography, whereas shots taken from a larger distance can really be awesome. I watch many hunderds of pics per week and see awesome work from photographers who keep their distance and also great work shot from closeby. In one of my future blogs I will showcase some inspirational and fantastic photographers of hour time and their different approaches.

Just a funny note to conclude this blog... The guy who taught me that shooting from a close distance would make my photographs better, told me that he would be full of shame if he would shoot the streets the way I am today... The irony!

Shoot from a far distance, shoot from close by... Just try to push yourself to your own limits to get the most out of yourself. As long as you keep having fun in what you do, since that matters the most and will show in your work!

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Willem