11 Photography Lessons 2016 Taught Me

In Street Lessons, The Creative Process by Chris FoleyLeave a Comment

Holy Crap, it’s 2017

How was your 2016? Into which worlds did your own photography journey lead you?

2016 took me on a 20-day non-stop photowalk that had stops in Barcelona, Southern France, Poland, and the Czech Republic. I held my first month-long exhibition resulting in the sale of several prints, I participated in a group showcase, and I was invited to hang one of my Iconic Santa Barbara images in the Mayor’s Office as part of the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative Art in the Mayor’s Office program. What have you done over the past year? I’d love to hear your stories!

All in all, it’s been one hell of a year. As I do at the top of each year, I’m currently ruminating on what I’ve learned, where I’ve grown, and where my growth has maybe been stopped or slowed. I’m not a big fan of listicles, but I’ve got one here anyway. What started out as a list of 3 or 4 items that I have learned over the year quickly Tribbled into a list of 11 items. Let’s dig in.

#1: Shoes matter

This year I’ve walked more than 850km in service of photography in all sorts of environments. I’ve worn out a pair of Nikes and a pair of Merrill Moab Rover street shoes (my favorite photowalk shoe) chasing my craft and I’ve learned that shoes matter more than almost anything else. If you’re serious about pounding the pavement you need to focus on form over fashion with regards to your footwear. I recently went out for a few hours in the pouring rain in order to get some shots that were rare and difficult to get (as it hardly ever rains in Southern California) and in doing so I very quickly learned that I had completely worn the tread off of my sneakers. I almost took a nasty spill at one point but recovered. Luckily, I had another pair of shoes in the car, which leads me to my next lesson.

#2: Change of clothes

I often shoot an hour or more from home. I live in Santa Barbara and I like to work the Santa Monica-Venice Beach area. Since it’s Southern California I never know what the weather is really going to be like, and since I tend to be a bit on the adventurous side I never know if and when I may find myself standing waist-high in the surf trying to shoot a dolphin or something. I always therefore have a change of clothes in the car and I cover all of my bases down to socks, underwear, and a dry pair of shoes. This isn’t only a preventive measure; I’ve found myself accessing my daypack at least 50% of the time. In fact I find that knowing I have a wardrobe with me affects the risks I’m willing to take in order to get a shot.

#3: Blend in but add flair

Disclosure: I’m kinda fashionista. My wife is definitely a fashionista so it sort of rubs off. When I go out I normally dress for going out.. but I’ve learned not to. This year has brought me to some rather dicey urban spots around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Prague, and Poland. On at least one of those occasions I realized rather abruptly that I was entirely overdressed for that part of the city after sundown. I’ve therefore learned to dress for my audience. Dress to blend in, not to stand out. I’m not trying to impress anybody with my fashion sensibilities. In fact I’m trying to not attract any sort of attention to myself at all.

Let’s talk about street photography psychology for a moment. With regards to shooting people on the streets, I’ve learned that I need to look like them in order to blend in but I also need to display a bit of credibility in case I’m caught taking the shot and that this varies from location to location.

For example, I wear street clothes in Los Angeles. Jeans, non-descript street shoes, a cap, sunglasses, etc. I blend in. But I will also wear a nice scarf. This is a step above how others are dressed and I’ve learned, as weird as it may sound, that a scarf totally disarms people who I approach openly. They look at the scarf and relax a bit. I look like they do but the scarf tells them (I have no idea why) that I’m not going to bother them for money or try to scam them in some way. They usually see the scarf before they see the camera.

In Paris this is different. People dress very well in Paris. I therefore have to dress well. If I were to wear my LA street clothes in Paris my subjects would actively avoid me. I need to dress up when working the streets of Paris and I wear an even nicer scarf.

In Poland, I found that my clothes need to be practical, not showy, but also a step above casual.

I’m not sure how much of this actually matters but you want people to ignore you in the best of times, not feel unsafe around you if they do notice you, and you always want to avoid becoming a target for aggression or theft. I feel more safe on the streets now that I’ve worked this all out. Your mileage may vary.

#4: Have business cards in your bag

This one speaks to credibility as well. Let’s say that I’ve just shot a candid portrait and the subject catches me in the act. I can slink off into the crowd like some dirty thief, or I could play the “silly Asian tourist card” that Eric Kim uses — he’s such a funny and great instructor. Working with him was a high point of 2016 for me — but I’m not Asian.., or I can walk straight up to my subject with a smile, say “HELLO!”, hand them a business card. While they’re busy being very impressed with my calling card (I have very cute little Moo MiniCards with images on the back) I chimp the best image of them and show it to them on the back of the camera. I always invite them to email me and I offer to send them their photos for free, no strings attached. I have only ever been met with enthusiasm and gratitude at this.

#5: Watch that Bag

If you’re anything like me you have a penchant for nice camera bags. I own no fewer than 5 camera bags of varying size and fancy-pants-ness and no matter how much I covet that wonderful full-leather ONA Bowery or Prince Street bag, I’m never going to buy one. Why not? Re-read lesson #3 about blending in. Carrying a very expensive leather camera bag puts a target on our backs that I’m not willing to wear. My everyday carries are an ONA Bowery or an ONA Prince Street bag in waxed canvas with leather accents. They’re beautiful bags and they do great in foul weather (the leather bags obviously do not.) And what’s best is that these bags could conceivably be a (AHEM) man-purse. I do not attract very much attention wearing these bags which for me is entirely the point.

A note about camera straps.
Hopefully you’re not carrying the strap that came with your camera and has an enormous CANON EOS 5DS-R logo printed on it. If you are, come on. Only tourists do that. A mugger can see that logo a mile away and you’re just asking for trouble. These straps are awful anyway and will contribute to neck and shoulder strain. Get yourself a Black Rapid sling strap or better yet anything from Peak Design. Better gear, better experience on the streets means that you’ll shoot more frequently with more comfort and fewer obstacles. Ditch the branded stuff.

#6: Be able to hide the evidence

This one is really an adjunct to the last lesson. I always carry two camera bodies for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. It’s important that the bag you carry can accommodate ALL of your gear. Here’s why: I used to carry a small bag with either a spare body and lens, my phone, wallet, car keys, etc. That bag would be full and I’d then wear my main body on a strap. Travel light, right?!

NO. I have come to appreciate the ability to stow all of my gear into my bag and become just another tourist in a moment’s notice. This practice has served me in several cities around the world. There are times when I want no evidence of carrying a bunch of rather expensive camera gear on my person. I’ve gone so far as to stow all of my gear and drape a sweater over my bag, through the straps, in order to look like a tourist with a day pack instead of a photographer carrying $6K worth of highly desirable and easily re-sellable equipment.

Imagine how you look to a mugger in Barcelona carrying 3 months pay on your person. That’s a lot of temptation and you’ve got to think about this sort of thing if you’re going to be out in the world.

#7: Gear pack

I keep a small waterproof camera bag in the trunk of my car with a few items in it. There’s a small flash unit, a set of Allen wrenches, a box of AA batteries, a Peak Design Cuff hands strap with some replacement hardware in case I lose the bottom mount or one of my anchor clips breaks on me. I also keep a MeFoto Walkabout monopod (in fire-engine red, of course) in the car in case I need it for something or in case I need a bludgeon. No joke.

#8: Always a backup

I bring two bodies with me on all planned photowalks and trips. I’ve come to realize that changing lenses in the field is a huge pain in the ass and exposes one to risk of theft, damage, and increases wear and tear on my gear. Thus two cameras. Also, I have had a camera body die on me while on a photo trip. Replacing it was not an option at the time and the entire trip would have been forfeit had I not been carrying an exact duplicate of my main camera. I put a wide lens on one body, a long-ish lens on the other and that’s just how I work. My hit rate has increased dramatically since I employed this habit. For those of you who argue “one camera, one lens”… yeah, okay. That’s fine. That’s also hobby-talk and there’s nothing wrong with hobby-talk. There are days when my second body never comes out of the bag at all and I do work with “one camera, one lens.” The difference is that I have it when I need it. I’m shooting for prints and projects and being unprepared against equipment failure is simply unprofessional.

I can’t imagine not having a foolproof backup system for my files and I can no longer imagine not having a backup for capturing and creating those files.

#9: Plan your walks

This one’s a little bit banal but has made a big difference for me. There is something to be said for just losing oneself in an unfamiliar city. I advocate this and enjoy doing it myself. When I’m working an area that I’m familiar with I do tend to make a rough game plan instead of leaving it to chance.

I figure that I’m going to shoot in zone A for a certain period and I’ve got a good idea of what the light is going to be like at that time in that area. I plan out zone B and I know what sorts of things I’m looking for and I know where the light will be coming from. Zone C is almost always a café or restaurant that I’ve been looking forward to trying out, and I will hang out, rest up a bit, and review my images. That pit stop becomes an oasis and a point to look forward to. I’ll change out my lenses if needed and then head off to Zone D. And that’s how I plan my photowalks. I leave plenty of room for improvisation but I know what I’m after and my eye is calibrated against the natural light.

Discards, revisited

A couple of years ago I wrote about sitting on your discards as I learned that immediately following a photowalk was not the right time to do selects and delete images. That’s stuck with me and I teach it to this day. I’ve since taken it a step further however. I now work my shots quite more than I have in the past.

I wrote about this one image I got of The Princess and the King. That was frame #13 of 15 shots. In the past I’d have taken 2 or 3 shots and moved on, missing out on that perfect shot that has made a wonderful print and has sold a handful of times.

There’s another image, currently one of my personal favorites, of a heron that I worked for 10 minutes before finally getting what I wanted. I enjoyed a lengthy interaction with the bird whose natural distrust eventually turned into curiosity. My rapport with this heron (if you can call it that) enabled the image to be far more than it would have been otherwise. And to make things even more magical a pelican flew right into my frame adding even more magic than had been there before.

The resulting print came from frame #69 of 75 total shots. There’s an argument for doing the work and sticking with an idea if ever I saw one.

I have found that I like to have a record of the “misses,” a sort of digital contact sheet, if you will. It’s incredibly instructive to save those images which before I’d have considered rejects; discards. I now save them and I learn from the “contact sheet.” This contact sheet also serves as an excellent teaching tool for me as I work with others.

#10: Projects, always Projects

Think about your favorite television shows. Some episodes tie together into a larger narrative told over several weeks or months and some episodes stand by themselves and deliver their story arc in a single sitting. I think of photography in this way. I like to have an ongoing project that I’m shooting for because it changes how I shoot.

I’m all for heading blind into a town and getting what I can. It’s fun and as an exercise, serves to train my eye, hone my skills, and sometimes even results in an image or two that I can be proud of or even turn into a print for sale. This is like one of those stand-alone television episodes.

However, the larger narrative approach is far more rewarding for me and I generally tend towards having multiple open projects at a time. It’s like going into the grocery with a list. A shopping list doesn’t exclude the acquisition of items not on the list but helps you get through the grocery more effectively while ensuring that you don’t leave without essential items.

People ask me about being overwhelmed with too many concurrent projects and the truth is that shooting for one project has me shift my thinking about how I shoot for another of the projects. Having multiple ongoing projects is an enormous benefit for me as my results are better and bigger than the sum of all parts.

Projects I’m working on:

  1. Knockers and Knobs. Format: Photobook. A coffee table book of door knocks and door knobs shot over 6 years on locations throughout Europe and USA.
  2. The Other Santa Barbara. Format: Photobook. A socio-policital photo essay covering a fuller story of beautiful Santa Barbara, California than is normally conveyed.
  3. The Origin of Food. Format: Photobook. A story of agriculture in California.
  4. The Now Bostonians. Format: Photobook. Still conceptually vague. First location trip to occur May 2017.
  5. Iconic Santa Barbara. Format: Collection of Fine Art Prints. Ongoing project resulting in regular product updates on my store.

Each one of these projects takes up space in my head and what I learn in support of one of the projects acts to enhance and improve the work I do on other projects. I highly recommend conceiving a project and holding space for that whenever you go out to shoot. This leads to the pursuit of Voice, which I intend to expand on a lot more in future articles.

#11: Wetter is Better

I never thought having water resistant gear would make much of a difference for me until Fujifilm starting releasing WR camera bodies and lenses. I do not like being wet and I do not like being cold. Therefore I used to have no photos that were taken in wet or cold conditions.

Well, look: If you want images that are different than what everyone is shooting you’ve got to be different than everybody else. My WR gear has encouraged me to go outside in the rain and capture some truly unique images and a range of subject matter that I otherwise would have no access to.

Images of Santa Barbara in the rain are very rare given both people’s reluctance to go out in the rain and the infrequency with which rain actually falls in Southern California these days. Another huge upside of being out in the rain is that the rain will sometimes stop and when the sun comes out through the clouds the resulting light is unbelievably gorgeous. And rare. Very rare. An entire new world has opened up for me and I’m enjoying it. See Lessons #2, #3, and #9 from above as they’re related.

Well. Wow. That’s all, folks.

Thanks for reading, and if you want to chat, let me know what’s going on for you.

Cheers, and Happy Shooting.


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