Street Photography Rules Are Dumb
One of the unfortunate side effects of the street photography craze is the plethora of people trying to make a living from “teaching” the genre to the never-ending train of newbies. The problem is most of these teachers are uniquely unqualified to be teaching and are not only making up stupid content to teach, they are also causing monotonous repetition in the genre. One of the most popular things for these workshop leaders to do is to peddle a rule. Do this, don’t do that, and so on. Rules don’t produce art – not good art anyway. What informs art the best is the careful contemplation of, and familiarity with, master artists and their work. Study the arts if you want to be an artist, rather than fork over hundreds of dollars to listen to some inexperienced, self-fashioned expert read off a list of do’s and don’ts.
So what are these rules? Do any of them hold up? I took a look around the Internet and here’s what I found:
Rule: When in doubt, ditch.
Comment: Many, many treasure troves of unpublished negatives have been found in the estates of master photographers. Some of these, which the photographer initially second-guessed, have become highly popular images. Fashion photographer David Bailey comes to mind, for example. Furthermore, we have learned a great deal about famous photographs by looking at the surrounding images on contact sheets. Ditching everything except your very best will leave very little in your lifetime archive. It may also deprive posthumous study of your photography, should your work arouse such interest. Also, what you think is a bad photograph today may change with time. Time almost always smiles favorably upon photographs. As Susan Sontag claimed in On Photography, “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art”.
Rule: Never ever crop. Never!
Comment: Seriously? First of all, has anyone ever looked at the contact sheets of famous photographers? All they seemingly did was crop! If you take an otherwise fantastic image, but there is a tiny bit of a construction barrier or part of a stray head along the edge of the frame, for instance, are you really expected to leave it as it is because some workshop leader told you to never crop? Nonsense. Crop away! The point, perhaps, is that one should not rely on cropping to make good images. Cropping is just another tool in the post-processing toolbox and you shouldn’t be afraid of using it in the right situations and in the right way.
Rule: Post-process a photo until it looks about 80% good then stop.
Rule: Photographs shot on film are more respected.
Comment: No, good photographs are more respected. This is just another lame attempt to justify the use of film. Film photography is different from digital. Neither is better than the other, just different. Try both. Experiment. However, be warned, 35mm film is going to die, at least at the consumer level. This is not a debate anymore. Not only are most 35mm cameras no longer produced (or parts for them), but also the cost of developing film is increasing exponentially and rapidly.
Rule: Never shoot on programme or auto mode.
Comment: Why? Shoot on whatever mode allows you to capture the moment best. Besides, “P” mode stands for professional, not programme.
Rule: Shooting film helps the editing process.
Comment: No silly, learning to edit helps the editing process.
Rule: Street photography is all about getting up close, really close.
Comment: Okay, there is some wisdom here, but far too many street photographers have taken this rule way too seriously. Street photography is not defined (or should not be defined) by blowing a flash six inches from someone’s face. You’re to blame for this one, Bruce Gilden! Yes, before someone points it out, I too am guilty of this technique. But does every good street photo have to be so claustrophobic? Back up a bit, show us the rest of the story. Cartier-Bresson was, generally speaking, not all that close. And, when Robert Capa mentioned getting closer, he was not talking about six inches, just saying. Contemporary street photography (in a lot of instances, but not all) is getting more and more intrusive and the images are of subjects closer and closer to the lens. It’s to the point where it is not improving street photography, but rather causing a lot of imitation, which leads to more and more tired and boring images. Don’t follow a rule to make an image, follow your gut. You can also follow your heart too, not all street photography needs to be so raw and grotesque. There are other ways of shocking the senses.
Rule: Avoid confrontation when shooting street.
Comment: Now they’re just taking all the fun out of it! Although on a more serious note, yes, there could be some good advice here. It also goes hand in hand with getting in so close. All the conflict and intrusion we are seeing reflected in much of contemporary street photography is largely responsible for the increasing cries to criminalize the genre. There is a large divide between being legally allowed to take someone’s photograph and having their tacit permission to do so. If someone displays discomfort with your lens being aimed in his or her direction, my advice is to back off. Is it really worth it? Would you like it?
Okay, this is not a rant against street photography workshops, not really. I am, however, offering a warning here to beginner street photographers; there’s a lot of people out there willing and eager to take your money. My advice is to avoid workshops, unless your aim is to become a copy of someone, and study photography as an art, not a science. Look at the work that has come before you and follow inspiration, not rules. Spend your money on books or an art history class.