The discussion of editing has been left till now because it is, to me, of lesser importance than the rest. But it is also logically what follows what has come before it. Only after we have been out taking pictures do we begin the work of editing. It is for that reason, as well, that the next section on telling stories through a body of work comes after this one. It is only after we have culled and edited that we can begin to curate the finished photos into a coherent story, ready to show to others.
What will be notable by its absence is an in-depth discussion of the post-capture editing workflow. There will be no discussion about how to import photos into an editing application such as Adobe Lightroom. There will not be coverage of the concept of image organization, either on the hard drive via a folder structure, or in Lightroom or Adobe Bridge through rankings, keywords and other rating systems. We will not get into the process of creating editing presets, nor how to alter preferences. There will not be an examination of the minutiae of Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, or Bridge. Why? The intent throughout has been to try to concentrate on the theory, philosophy, mindset and approach of actually creating compelling photos. Consistent with that goal, this is an examination of the thought process behind the editing and how editing can help in telling the story you want your viewer to see. How minimal editing can help. Read that again: minimal editing. There are many other books and Internet resources that cover the above aspects of the entire editing workflow with great depth and accuracy.
Consistent with the idea of street photography as a form of documentary and, in some cases, an extension of photojournalism, that the final picture should remain as true as possible to the original scene, the extent of the editing of any of the photos used as illustrations here will be minimal. Editing should, for the most part, merely correct for the limitations inherent in digital photography or the digitization process of film and little more.
By necessity, that means no compositing, no layers, no masking, no complex brushing. It also means that not a lot of time will be taken on the editing of any single image.
A friend related an anecdote to me one day. He was speaking with another photographer who concentrated on landscapes. The landscape photographer was asking my friend about street photography, the fact that my friend still shoots film and the limitations that places on editing. My friend explained that editing is not a major part of what he does and that he does not spend much time at all, typically, in the digital darkroom. The landscape photographer responded by saying that if he spends less than three hours on any one image, he feels he hasn’t done it justice. If I spend more than about five minutes on a street photo, I feel I have probably spent too long. Any longer than that and either the image was not good to begin with and it is a lipstick on a pig scenario, or too much is being done and the line of remaining as true to the original as possible is being crossed.
The lipstick on a pig, or silk purse from a sow’s ear if you prefer a different analogy, phenomenon is one that is rife today. Some so-called street photographers are applying all manner of filters and effects to photos and creating a heavily stylized rendition of the original scene, or to try to create something that was never there. It is, largely, a result of the Instagram era and the desire for eyeballs. Likes, hearts, thumbs up signs or any of the various emoticons and emojis that come with acceptance on social media does not mean the photo is actually good. Witness the hullabaloo about overprocessed, hyper-real high dynamic range imagery. How much of that will have actual staying power? How much of that will people be talking about in 10, 20, 30 years or more from now? Fifteen minutes, or 15 seconds in the Internet age, is not what will make for a truly classic image. Recall from the first essay the discussion around the low number of truly great and memorable photos that are being made today relative to the past, even though so many more photographs are being made and available to be seen.
Cropping is the biggest point of contention that we should have to deal with as street photographers. I will crop an image when I cannot get the framing I wanted at the time of shooting. Either because I had to take the picture too quickly that I could not change the framing, or because I could not get the position I wanted and have distracting elements that I would otherwise have left out at the time. Having shot for a good number of years with Mamiya twin lens reflex and 4×5 cameras, I also have a soft spot for the square and 4×5 formats. The square has been around a lot longer than Instagram. When I do crop, other than to square or 4×5, I will maintain the original aspect ratio. Before Instagram permitted non-square images, I would use an app that placed a border around the image to create a square, allowing me to leave the original aspect intact. Even Bresson, who is reputed to have been nearly pathologically opposed to cropping, is known to have done it when absolutely necessary. His man jumping over the puddle photo, is an example.
Editing and what is permissible is a personal choice. It is a component of the ethics and integrity of the street photographer. What I have outlined is my choice and no one else’s. Some people think I go too far. Others go much further. It is up to you and how you wish to express the vision for the story you are trying to tell. But ask yourself this: Are you trying to portray the story as it actually was, or are you trying to influence a viewer’s interpretations of what happened? Or are you even thinking at all? Are you just trying to make the picture look ‘cool’, or do something that will garner lots of those hearts and thumbs up? Are you trying to make up for a lack of care and thought at the time you took the picture?
The Associated Press ethics guide for photographers opens this way: “AP pictures must always tell the truth….” I would amend that to say “as closely as possible.” I make that distinction consistent with the thoughts outlined before that no photograph can truly express reality or the truth. The best we can hope for is to do so as closely as possible. What it also means is that doing anything that alters the authenticity of the original scene is not permitted. Like creating a heavily stylized rendition. Interestingly, The AP does permit some dodging and burning. This is can be a quick slide down the slope of integrity and it can be difficult to determine how much is too much, so none is better than any. The AP does not allow blurring of backgrounds. This too is interesting because backgrounds can be blurred with depth of field. The purpose of this rule is, of course, because such blurring can alter the perception of the image as discussed previously. But if it can be done with the camera…..? You see why discussions on ethics and integrity, both at the taking and editing stage, can be so confusing, contentious and, at times, heated.
The focus here is not on what was done to the images, or how, but rather why. We want to look at the aesthetics and ethics inherent in our editing decisions.
This first picture was taken in a popular area of Toronto known as Kensington Market. Kensington is made up of an eclectic collection of shops ranging from one of the best butcher shops in the city, to an army surplus store, to chain, no-name grocery stores and everything in between. One very popular spot is a shop that sells sunglasses and hats. Cheap sunglasses and hats. On sunny weekend days you will find scads of people clamoring in front of the shop trying on all manner of funky hats and knock-off sunglasses. One day, this young woman was very intently searching for just the right pair, trying on several, looking at herself in the mirror, hogging the mirror, really and not being quite satisfied. As I watched her, my mind went to the ZZ Top lyric “But what really knocked me out was her cheap sunglasses.” Trying to keep myself out of the way of the throng, as well as to keep my presence hidden as much as possible, I couldn’t get the framing I wanted with the camera and lens I had. My goal was to try to isolate this shopper and eliminate other, distracting elements. This was all about her and her search for just the right pair of shades. Because I wasn’t able to get the framing I wanted with the position I had to take, this shot had to be cropped quite tightly. The original and the finished version are shown for comparison. Consistent with the the ethical consideration of remaining as true to the original scene as possible, little else was done except to adjust the tonality of the highlights slightly.
In this second example, I also had to crop quite a bit. I could not get as close to him as I wanted to get the tight framing desired, so had to crop. Aside from that, once again, only minor tonal adjustments were made.
In both cases, cropping was necessary because I could not get the framing I wanted with the equipment I had with me at the time. These are examples of how we choose to tell our story with composition and framing. We choose what to show our viewer. In so doing, we choose to direct the story as we want. These decisions can have a powerful impact on what our viewer takes away from our imagery.
Black-and-White or Color?
When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black-and-white, you photograph their souls
The origins of street photography are black-and-white. The reason is simple. That is all there was. Even as color film became more available and as the technology of color film improved, most street photography was still presented in black-and-white. Why? Most probably because this is how the genre started and as new street photographers came into the game, they wanted to stay true to the origins of the art. Some will say that black-and-white is cooler or that it is edgier. That is a bit of self-aggrandizing claptrap. Something that photographers are well known for. The quote above by Grant is relevant and we will address it as we move forward. Color can be a distraction in some cases. In others; however, it is elemental to the picture.
The fact that we have the option of either color or black-and-white today is terrific. Personally, I make the choice based on the intent or subject matter. How important is color to the feel and intent of the photo? Does color detract from that intent or does it enhance it? Would the picture lack energy without the color? When color will detract or distract from the intent, or is immaterial to it, I will convert to black-and-white. To concentrate on the soul of what I want people to see. Otherwise I tend to leave the color in. We live in a colorful world and the colors we see help us frame our experience with the world. How powerful and effective would a Holi photo be in black-and-white? Would a Carnival picture from Rio or Trinidad be as impactful without the color? These are celebrations where color is integral to the festivities. To remove it out of some slavish adherence to tradition, or because black-and-white is hipper would be silly and thoughtless. Think about the choices you make and how those will impact the perception of the story you are trying to tell. Don’t just do something because many others do and the popular photographers do it. We need to make our own choices, do what is right for our own art and to tell the stories we want to tell and not just do what everyone else is doing or what fits a certain trend at the moment. There are veteran street photographers who continue to work with black-and-white film, but they do so as a conscious choice. It is a part of the story they want to tell and how they want the story to be received. Many of those newer to the genre shoot in black-and-white, or convert to b&w because they think that’s what street photography is. In reality, they aren’t thinking at all.
Some examples will help illustrate how I think about color or black-and-white and you can then apply your own thought process to your pictures.
The image below was shot on black-and-white film. I had a digital camera with me as well, but consciously made the choice to shoot it with film. Why? The young woman’s look reminded me of the late 60s flower child, summer of love era. While color film was certainly available then, most what was shot was still black-and-white. Because of her look, I wanted the look of this picture to have a similar feel. The incongruity being the now-ubiquitous @ symbol to ground it squarely in the 21st century.
With this second one, I also made the decision to shoot it with black-and-white film. Color does not matter here and we can imagine the colors without explicitly seeing them. We know what the colors of Superman’s costume are. Also, this is not about the color of her shirt. Rather, it is about this young woman reveling in her own superness. Color is immaterial to the expression of emotion and the feeling she conveys.
With this third, I left it in color because color is integral to the shot. The metal rope across the front of the legs and skirts – so they don’t escape? – I found humorous. The bright color is necessary to show the vibrancy of the fabrics. Without it the shot would be drab and the fabrics would just blend together. The metal rope would not stand out as well either, making the intent of the shot much less evident, or not at all apparent.
A similar reasoning was used with this last one. I titled it Channeling Escher because the network of staircases and walkways in the front courtyard of this apartment complex reminded me of an Escherian drawing. With all the similar shades or red, converting to black-and-white would have resulted in much of this shot being a mashup of similar gray tones, blending with the black paint on the stair rails, making the shot much less visually interesting.
This is the kind of thought process I recommend when you are deciding whether to present a particular image in color or black-and-white. Try both. See which looks better to your eye. If the color is an important component, it will stand out immediately and you will know which way you need to go. It truly is a process of thinking, though, and not just accepting a default position. You are your own artist. You are telling your stories. You are expressing your vision and trying to convince your viewer. In order to do that, it must be your decision all the way through from the taking to the presentation. This is not a part of the creation of your vision that you can afford to simply be lazy with or fall victim to a particular current movement on the Internet.
We’ll end with a couple more examples.
Here, again, because I could not get the framing I wanted with the gear I had, cropping was necessary. I chose the square format because it allowed me to leave enough of the surrounding elements for context, but still concentrate on the cheese-monger. A regular 2:3 crop would have eliminated too much of the contextual components to achieve the desired concentration on the subject. In this case, context is important because we do not see his hands. We do not see him working with his product, but by including some of the surrounding background, we are told who he is and what he does. This is an example of how we do not always need to be given the story explicitly. We can infer it implicitly if we are given enough information.
The important point in all of these images where cropping was done is that the crop was not made to create a subject. All of the images already had strong subjects. The cropping was done simply to make up for deficiencies in equipment and a physical inability to get the exact framing desired, not to try to make something from nothing. We can debate the subjective appreciation of these and any others, and that is a valid discussion. But there can be no debate about the objective intent, or subject matter. Crop to enhance, not to create.
In this last one, black-and-white was chosen because color is immaterial. While the scene is quite colorful, it is another example of how we do not need to see the color to know it is there and we can imagine it even when it is not present.
The woman has been purposely placed toward the edge of the frame because she is not the main subject and is secondary to the message of the image. Earlier I noted that graffiti was too easy. And often it is. As a subject on its own. But as part of a larger dialogue, it can work. There is a lot of graffiti on the windows of this store. The tagging is not the main subject either; however. What this picture is about is perseverance. The store owner, despite the vandalism, puts his product out every day and goes about his business. He soldiers on. He is resilient. It shows the impact of the environment on the owner and his actions in spite of that impact.
You may look at this photo and not get that story. You may take something entirely different from it. You may look at it and say that the woman is not on a traditional thirds grid line so it is technically a bad picture. You may say there is nothing interesting about a woman shopping for produce. Technical perfection does not automatically correlate to aesthetic appeal. Nor does it necessarily convey the desired message. Insofar as traditional guidelines of composition, the prominent row of boxes in the center acts as a leading line to the tagging on the window. From the woman shopping for produce, the eye goes back to the other customer in the back of the shot and he is on the left side thirds grid line. Did you even see him? These three components allow the eye to move around the image and form a triangle to direct the viewer’s attention. It also utilizes the theory of odd numbers which says that images with odd numbers of elements are more dynamic than those with an even number. None of that is obvious at first glance. Remember that street photography is often not obvious. It is slow photography and it requires the viewer to pay attention, to see not just look and to think about what she is seeing. It also requires of the photographer to think about what is in front of you and how you can use what is in front of you to tell a story. We will come back to this concept of telling stories in the next essay.
John Free is a Los-Angeles-based street and social documentary photographer. He has been working at his craft for more than 30 years. Free has been influenced by the work of W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. The ability of a photograph to strongly affect the viewer’s emotions is a motivating factor in his photography. You can see more of his photography on his website and read about his work on his blog. If you are interested in learning from him, look into his workshops.
Pictures are used with permission. Click on the images for larger versions.
How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?
Anything photographed that is not posed, or contrived.
What are your thoughts on candid vs. non-candid?
Same as before. Posing is for fools trying to make things easy for themselves. Always try to make things more difficult. Like anything of value. Easy is not worth anything.
What are your ethical boundaries?
I don’t push or shove. I try to do what is best for the photography and for myself.
What motivates you to undertake a social documentary project?
The importance of it and my ability to make sense of it through photographs. What is best to serve mankind.
You have said that, in a documentary project, sometimes turning yourself into a “photo machine” is necessary in order to complete the task and keep focused. There is also the idea that street/documentary photography requires empathy. How do these two concepts – the “photo machine” and empathy – conflict, or coexist?
The machine is to keep me on track, so that I don’t forget any function in the excitement of making an image. My work serves to demonstrate my empathy.
What changes have you seen in the practice of street photography over the course of your career?
Young fools trying to bend it to their lack of knowledge, or skill.
How do you feel your photography, and by extension, your thought process, or approach, has changed over your career?
I’m still trying to make the process more difficult. No other change really. Work harder.
You have said that you don’t go out necessarily looking for specific things. What strikes your eye? What causes you to bring the camera up and press the shutter release? What will cause you to bring the camera up but not press the shutter release?
The subconscious mind. Not to press the button is determined by the visual information I have. If there isn’t enough, I don’t take the picture.
(Ed: Mr. Free added this additional commentary that I feel is important to include. I agree with him wholeheartedly on the power of photography and the lack of respect that many show, for the art and their subjects. As a nobody in this game and someone who doesn’t gauge validity by Likes, or thumbs up, or popularity on internet bulletin boards, I’m honoured that Mr. Free agreed to be a part of this project.)
Short answers don’t mean that I’m bored with the questions. I am only trying to make it clear for others to understand. I have studied what others who have come before me have said and done. I have seen too many young, foolish people trying to bend street photography to their way with the idea they can make things easy for their simple-mindedness. This type of photography is very difficult for me to do. Study, study, study. Practice, practice, practice. I have noticed so many would be photographers treating photography as some lark with their friends and using silly cameras that do not work well, but seem to look cool. No respect for something that is a very powerful medium which can serve man. Not some frolic in the street to look cool. Simple answers to make things clear. Photography is the greatest thing my life has provided me, except for my family.
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