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Hit the pavement: 5 lessons landscape photographers can learn from street photography

Find a new appreciation for landscapes in the noise and movement of the city street.

When was the last time you tried something new? When did you last challenge yourself to go beyond what you thought you were capable of?

I like my comfort zone as much as the next person, whether that’s ordering the same coffee from the same cafe each morning (a strong flat white, thanks), or listening to the same bands I loved when I was a student. But when I found that comfort extending to my landscape photography, it was time to give it a push.

As landscape photographers, once we know enough about exposure and composition, it can be easy to slip into simply going through the motions. Like using the same tried and true techniques and revisiting familiar locations. It’s a safe, low-risk approach.

Slow and steady refinement can be incredibly powerful – especially when compounded over time. But when we pursue our craft on autopilot, we risk becoming stagnant.

I remain a landscape photographer at heart. Yet from this street photography experience, I’ve learned several lessons and skills that I’ve been able to apply in my landscape photography.

To counter this and gain new ways of seeing, I like to give my photography a challenge every now and then. Last year, I gave street photography a crack. I picked up a Fujifilm X100V and hit the streets of Melbourne.

Then, I froze. I didn’t know what I was doing.

I felt like a beginner – and it was great. I found it both humbling and rewarding to have to grow my photography toolkit and solve new challenges. I watched hours of YouTube vlogs through the streets of London, Malta and Istanbul. I tested new composition ideas, like shooting window reflections and embracing harsh contrast in direct sunlight. I even shot JPEG for the first time in eight years.

It was a hard slog at times, with many missed frames and soft shots. But I kept at it. With each outing, I honed my eye and expanded my capabilities. And when I travelled to Vietnam recently, I captured some street scenes I’m proud of.

I remain a landscape photographer at heart. Yet from this street photography immersion I’ve learned several lessons and skills that I’ve been able to apply in my landscape photography, that I’d like to share with you. Let’s jump in.

Adapt to conditions as they unfold

We landscape photographers often travel to locations – both new and familiar – with preconceived ideas about what we want to shoot. Perhaps we’ve tracked the clouds all day and the sunset is scheduled to explode in color. Or recent rains promise that a nearby waterfall will be flowing nicely.

But then we arrive. And too many low clouds roll in, blocking the evening light. Or the sheer volume of rain has churned the river into rapids. It’s easy to become frustrated. Particularly if we’ve come a long way, or if this was our one chance to shoot the scene before we have to return home.

Whether in nature or in the city, all we can do is adapt as conditions change.

Street photography has taught me a different approach. On the sidewalk, conditions are constantly changing. The experience is fast-paced and highly variable. Your only option is to adapt. Yes, you can find a compelling frame and wait in place until a stylish subject eventually walks past. (And I have done that.) But the best balance, I’ve found, is to adjust to the conditions you’re given and follow your nose.

Weather and light are largely out of our control. So as creatives working in external environments, we need to adapt and work with what we’re presented with.

For example, rain might momentarily dampen my spirits. But when it passes, it will have provided colorful reflections and deeper blacks. (Not to mention, it will clear out tourists in scenic spots and offer me more open frames to work with.)

Weather and light are largely out of our control. So as creatives working in external environments, we need to adapt and work with what we’re presented with.

Landscape lesson: Go with the flow. If the sunset fizzles out, don’t pack up your bags – look for textures and patterns in the rocks. If the river is flooded, look for abstract details in the flowing water or shift your attention to the surrounding trees and ferns. You might not get the shot you originally envisioned – you might get something better.

High sharpness is better than low noise

Clean, noise-free images are overrated. I know that sounds like heresy on DPReview. (Please play nice in the comments section.) But it’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from street photography.

Out on the street, moments pass you by, often disappearing as quickly as they arise. You might see a flicker of a smile in a dimly lit storefront. Or hear a classic car zipping down the street.

To capture these fleeting frames, I often push my ISO to 2000 and beyond. In the rapid-fire nature of street photography, having a faster shutter speed is necessary to allow me to freeze moments before they disappear. I’ll regularly use smaller apertures too, limiting my light even more. I might default to around F5.6 – instead of the X100V’s possible F2 – to help ensure my moving subject falls within the greater depth of field.

But hold up there young whippersnapper, I hear you say. I photograph quiet scenes in nature on a tripod. I would never go above ISO 200.

A noisy image can still tell a compelling story if its subject is sharp.

Fair point, but let’s consider two scenarios.

Scenario A: You’re shooting a waterfall. It’s overcast, the light is soft and you’re happy with a one-second exposure for silky smooth water. But what about the foreground ferns swaying in the breeze? You’ll need a faster frame so they’re not blurry. You could try widening your aperture – but then you’ll run into depth of field issues, like trying to focus-stack moving objects. I’d rather bump my ISO to get the faster frame with my foliage in focus and avoid unnecessary hassles in post-processing.

Scenario B: You’re shooting a seascape at dawn. The sky is exploding before sunrise and you’re able to get a clean, balanced exposure at two seconds. But to retain texture in the moving water, the shutter speed will need to be closer to a quarter second. So I’ll bump my ISO to 640 to get the faster frame, capturing the force and energy of the crashing waves.

Landscape lesson: Sometimes, you need to make compromises. A sharp image at a high ISO is better than a blurred one at ISO 100. Too often, the fear of noisy images becomes a bigger impediment to good images than the noise itself.

Don’t let imperfection impede your photography

I once believed the aim of landscape photography to be the pursuit of perfection. To capture the perfect sunrise. The perfect waterfall. Or the perfect wave.

Street photography has truly shattered that false goal. Strolling down sidewalks, my eye would dart towards appealing features like colorful doors or historic buildings down cobbled lanes. But then I’d notice parked cars, rubbish bins or garish signs that detracted from the scene.

Spontaneous moments never come at an ideal time.

At first I often wouldn’t take a shot, as I was stuck in the mindset that one imperfection ruined the entire photo. Yet over time, I decided to take the shot regardless, even if only as a reference frame to revisit later. As I did, I began to accept and work with these distractions.

Perhaps I could blur out the bin with a wide aperture. Or take a few steps to reframe the shot without the car. Or obscure the sign behind a tree. Or darken the distractions and subdue harsh colors in Lightroom.

Photography isn’t about perfection. It’s about using your creativity to overcome challenges as best you can.

Landscape lesson: The world around us – both natural and urban – is often messy and unscripted. So work with distractions when they arise. Try wider apertures to turn an unattractive foreground into an appealing blur. Or switch to a zoom lens to isolate your subject from competing elements.

Pay attention, it’s free

Cities can be chaotic working environments.

Beyond the buzz of sensory inputs swirling around you, you also need to be aware of pedestrians, driveways and tripping hazards on the sidewalk. And that’s before you even start looking for and taking photos!

So to help pay attention to the scenes unfolding around me, I’ve been treating street photography as a cellphone – and headphone – free zone. (That is, until I inevitably wander too far and need to consult my local tour guide, Google Maps.)

This helps me be present in the scene, and notice what I otherwise might have walked past. Color contrasts. Patterns and reflections. Light and shadow. With a single prime lens and no tripod I’m unencumbered, free to find and follow those hidden shots as I see them – if I see them.

Put the phone away and be present in the moment.

In nature, follow your eye as it’s drawn to different scenes. Perhaps it’s the way that backlight illuminates the moss-covered branches. Or the interaction of flowing water and solid rock. Before expanding your tripod, take handheld test shots of those features and forms. Then once you’ve gone through the freer, trial-and-error process, you can be more methodical. Go through your technical workflow to finesse your focal length and dial in the optimal shutter speed and aperture.

Landscape lesson: I recommend that when you step out of your car at the trailhead, you zip your phone away in your bag. Be present when you enter an environment. Remove external distractions and freely take snapshots as new scenes catch your eye. Sometimes your ideas won’t work. But sometimes, they’ll be a compelling capture of your experience.

See beyond the sights

Let’s say you’re planning a photography trip to a new destination. You’ll likely have a few sights in mind that you’ve already seen on social media, and you might have searched online to find what scenic hikes are nearby.

Street photography has reinforced and strengthened the notion that frames every bit as compelling await discovery off the beaten path.

But photography can be so much more than recreating what came before. Now don’t get me wrong. I find Instagram tags and Google Street View incredibly powerful as I research new locations. And I was just as guilty as the next photographer when I took that sunrise snap of Yosemite’s Tunnel View when I passed through in 2016.

Yet street photography has reinforced and strengthened the notion that frames every bit as compelling await discovery off the beaten path.

In Vietnam, I did explore the top spots in Ho Chi Minh City, like the old post office and opera house. But then I made time to wander down lanes and narrow alleys. And I sought out distant cafes, from which I’d then amble around the suburbs, gaining a richer understanding of the city beyond the main attractions.

Famous tourist attractions are fine but endless possibilities await on less-travelled streets.

In these wanderings I didn’t always find a portfolio image. But when I did find a frame I liked, I walked away with a more memorable image for my efforts.

Landscape lesson: Check out the main sights. But make time to go beyond those. Hike less popular trails or explore forests near where you’re staying. You don’t always need a giant sea stack or a thunderous waterfall to make a strong image.

Final thoughts

I’m not a street photographer. I’ll escape into nature away from the chaos of the city any day of the week. And I have high regard for the pros who’ve honed their craft over the years. How they enter unfamiliar cities to capture compelling frames from the get-go is a feat I truly admire.

Learning to shoot on the streets made me a better-rounded photographer when I was ready to head back into nature.

Yet I have enjoyed the challenges that street photography presents. For me, it’s about the learning process and starting from scratch. It’s about pushing myself beyond what I know. It’s about trying – and sometimes succeeding.

So if you’re a landscape photographer looking to expand your skill set, I encourage you to become a beginner again.

I can’t guarantee you’ll become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt. But I can guarantee you’ll be a more rounded landscape photographer for trying, failing and growing on the streets.


Mitch Green is an Australian landscape photographer.

He can be found via his website, on Instagram, or down by the beach at 5 am waiting for sunrise.


Author:
Mitch Green
Source: Dpreview

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