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Using Crosswalks For Better Street Photos

by Chris Gampat on 05/27/2011

The Flash

Crosswalks: every city, town, and suburb has them. Everyone crosses the street and everyone stops there. What many don’t realize is that they’re perhaps one of the most under-utilized areas for you to capture candid photos. Here are a couple of tips on using them to your advantage.

Choose a Perch and Wait 

There are often two approaches to street photography: walking around and looking for the right moments and waiting for the moment to come to you. Since crosswalks are ripe for better street photography candid photo opportunities, the best advice that I can give is to sit and wait it out. You don’t literally need to sit, you can stand around and pretend to look cool while going through your phone or if you’re around a park area you can simply just sit. You can also simply just walk around an area and look like you’re waiting for someone.

Using the perch method is perhaps best done with a telephoto lens of some sort or at the minimum a 50mm equivalent. I’ve got a lot of recommendations at my posting on the Best Budget Lenses.

Have a Selected, Calculated, Pre-Focused Area with Your Aperture Set

Mickey in Times Square

Another word for this type of shooting strategy is hyperfocal length shooting. In plain language, this is when you pre-set your aperture and use the distance scale on your lens to shoot photos. For example, when I shot with the Leica M7 I often set the lens to F/8 and focusing the lens out to 7 feet away from me. Then when someone or something that I was interested in shooting was that distance away, I quickly just composed and shot.

Similarly, I sometimes do this with my 5D Mk II. With this camera, I’ll often use the right of left most focusing point, let the camera focus, and then shoot. Each time I reset the focusing point I’m also rewiring my brain to think and compose the image differently. This saves time vs using the center focusing point and recomposing.

Note that this method also has a strong emphasis on speed, timing, and concentrating on subjects that are a certain distance away.

Learn to Read Body Language

Reading body language can help you to determine what someone is going to do. For example, if mom and her 15-month year old son are out and at a cross-walk, she is probably going to hold his hand and try to ensure that he doesn’t run out into the street. So let’s consider all of the things that may happen that could make for a great image:

- She may look down at him with a bit of concern and/or a smile. This will show the connection between son and mother.

- The child may try to get his mother to let go of him.

- Mom may go to pick him up.

- The child may grip onto and hug his mother’s leg.

- The child’s attention may wander and he may try to interact with something.

All of these are potential situations for great images.

Capture a Feeling

Belle is beautiful

The photos that capture feelings are oftentimes the ones that elicit feelings in the viewers. Different feelings may happen at crosswalks or near them and these feelings won’t be as fleeting since the person is staying still and waiting to cross the street. In fact, people may even try to take pictures or do something that keeps them around that area even longer.

Here in NYC, everyone is bound to fight or get angry with someone while talking on the phone. These are prime times to capture emotions. Plus there are also times when someone may do something that will elicit emotions out of you. Try to fight your instincts and put the viewfinder to your eye instead.

Put a Spin on the Familiar

Red Riding Hood as Marilyn Monroe

Simply put, if you see something that looks familiar to you, snap it. The above photo reminded me a bit of those famous photos of women having their large skirts blown up. Crosswalks are famous for random things like these happening. The more random the moment, the potentially better the image.

Learn to Shoot Blind

Woman with cup

If you have a wider length, consider shooting an image from the hip. What I often do is:

- Sling your camera around your body.

- Pre-focus my lens to a certain area as stated above

- When someone is in range, press the shutter button on your camera while it is still slung down by your waist. You can get some very interesting results this way.

or

- If you camera has a tilting or flip-out LCD screen, you can hold the camera down by your waist and flip the LCD screen out to compose your images.

The Sony NEX 5 with 16mm pancake lens is great for this method.

Remember That You Can Save Your Photo In Post-Production

The Swine Flu in NYC

I always say that each photo you shoot can always be tweaked to no end to become better. Once you snap that photo, you’ll have nearly endless editing abilities with something like Lightroom 3. You can turn your photo in a black and white, give it a vignette, cross process it, crop to your heart’s content, etc.

When I shot street photography with the Fuji X100, I remembered that not every photo I shot will always be amazing. However, I did remember that I can work to make it better later on.

With all this in mind, remember that even though your chances of snapping a better photo can increase at crosswalks, it’s still you that needs to work to capture the image.

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