Coming of Age – in street photography

For my last birthday I got a very special gift from my partner: a one-2-one half-day workshop in street photography with the Berlin-based photographer Martin U. Waltz (www.streetberlin.net). Since my birthday is in November the weather was the only uncertainty when arranging the date. And it didn’t dissappoint us: Martin and I met in a coffee bar at Potsdamer Platz and before heading out into the streets of Berlin we talked about a portfolio I had sent him a few days before. While sitting in the warmth, sipping coffee and talking photographs, we could see the rain clouds moving in. The light immediately faded and we decided to postpone the practical part to the upcoming week.

Then, the forecast showed a single sunny day with blue skies and we took our chance. Starting at Potsdamer Platz again we walked towards Brandenburger Tor and the government district. Alongside the river Spree we finally reached Friedrichstraße … and more than two hours of supervised photography were already over – within a blink of an eye. I brought my trusty Olympus 35 SP loaded with Kodak Ultramax 400. The film was okay-ish, but for such a bright day a slower film with less grain would have been the better choice. I shot a little more than one roll during the workshop, but finished the second one when walking back to Potsdamer Platz trying to practice what I just had learned during the past two hours.

The workshop was a fantastic experience. You cannot expect to come home with a set of brilliant street photographs only because a professional street photographer is hanging out with you supervising your humble beginnings. But what you definitely will learn is a different way of seeing. I learned more to see potential compositions than actually shot them during the workshop and this in my view is exactly what such a half-day course is all about. Seeing compositions which may make good photographs is not easy and being prepared to shooting them at the right moment is even more difficult. I missed a lot of shots, because I was simply to slow. And it was not a gear-related problem. The Olympus 35 SP is dead easy to use and I know it very well. It’s more that the untrained eye is not necessarily able to predict situations worth shooting and if you lift the camera to your eye only when the situation unfolds itself in front of you you’re almost certainly too late to freeze the perfect moment with your shot.

Looking at my results from the workshop it becomes clear that color plays an essential role in these photographs. The only exception is the image of the person walking against the sun. The color photograph was already kind of monochromatic and I changed it to b/w since the silhouette and the long shadow were the main subjects of the image.  Previously, I always thought that street photography is better in b/w, but this is complete nonsense. Celebrating the work of all the well-known documentary photographers from the 1940s, 50s and 60s we’re just biased towards street scenes in b/w, because most of these photographers shot the notorious Leica-TriX-combination. This is not to say that contemporary street photography cannot or should not be done in b/w anymore. Just the opposite! There are plenty of fantastic photographers out there who still shoot street predominantly in b/w. But if you restrict yourself to monochromatic images, you deliberately exclude the color dimension from your imagery. And this is certainly more challenging, because color-based releationships within a photograph cannot be used to compose an image. You’re left with structure, geometry, and spatial relationships as the main compositional elements. Maybe not a problem, if you’re used to (photographically) see in b/w, but definitely not as obvious for the beginner.

After developing, scanning and post-processing all my new street images, I sent another (small) portfolio to Martin and we met again to have a go at my results. As expected, there was still a lot to talk about composition-wise, but a few images work quite nicely and I was very happy to get at least a few shots which I liked and which also pleased my supervisor.

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