Category People

What it means to me (1) “People passing, never meeting”

I spend a lot of time thinking about photography. When I’m not taking photographs it’s a pretty good bet I’m thinking about taking photographs. More and more often I am specifically thinking about what my photographs mean to me. When I first took up photography I took pictures of nice things. Hopefully some of them were nice pictures of nice things but, over time, these images became less and less satisfying and I came to realise the problem was that they had no significant meaning for me. This post then is the first in an occasional series in which I attempt to crystallize my thoughts as to what a particular image means to me.

The image above, “People passing, never meeting” is part of my Modern Life series which focuses on the way we live our lives in a modern urban environments and how our technology, and that environment, impact upon those lives.

Human interaction is not my strong suit (to put it mildly). Since childhood I have had trouble interacting socially with new acquaintances or in groups of more than three or four people (even if I know them well). Over the years my quest to understand my own inability has resulted in my paying particular attention to how others interact (or don’t). For me escalators (and this image specifically) epitomise the impact of modern technology on the manner in which we live and interact. On the surface it is designed to make life easier as it whisks us effortlessly along a fixed path to our destination.

Unfortunately there is no pause button (unless you want to set off an alarm) and people are moved relentlessly in different directions down their own enclosed paths, with almost no way to interact. A fleeting glance or a wave to a friend is the best you can hope for before life hurries you off in different directions. The escalator here is a metaphor for the many technological wonders that should be a power for good but which in many ways limit or freedom to move around and interact directly.

Don’t let fear ruin your Street Photography.

There’s an awful lot of bad Street Photography floating around the Internet. Facebook groups and photo web forums filled with dull image of people walking down the street or standing talking on their mobile phones or, worse still, the backs of people walking down the street. Some of this, I’m sure, is simply the result of poor photography. The barriers to entry for Street Photography are very low. Got a mobile phone, live near a street? You can do photography in the street, even if you have no understanding of what makes an interesting photograph. But lack of photographic ability is not the only cause of bad Street Photography, at least it certainly wasn’t for me when I started out. One of the biggest causes is fear.

Fear of taking the shot

I spend a lot of time thinking about my photography. Not just about the pictures I want to take but also about the ones I have already taken. Am I getting better or worse? What did I do wrong and how can I improve in the future? One of the problems I recognised quite early was that, while shooting on the streets, I was afraid to take the shot. I would see something interesting about to happen but I would hesitate. I was worried I would miss the shot, I was worried my camera settings weren’t right, I was worried that my subject or someone else would notice me and react badly. All of this would go through my head and I would hesitate…. until it was too late. The moment had passed, the scene had shifted …. and then I pressed the shutter. The result was the back of someone walking away or a poorly composed shots of a potentially interesting subject obscured by the out of focus arse of a random passer-by.

Exception Alert: Photographs of people’s backs do work in certain situations.

  • Body Language – the subjects body language is clear enough to tell you what they are feeling.
  • You know something they don’t – Something interesting is happening that may impact on them but which they are unaware of – but you aren’t.
  • Joint viewer – They are not the real subject of the image but, like you, they are observing the real subject.
Street scene. Elgin Street, Hong Kong
The group at bottom right with their backs to the camera are joint viewers.

Luckily I have always been very critical of my own work. I am usually able to admit that I did not get the shot I wanted, that the resulting image isn’t as good as the one I envisioned…. hell just admit it, it’s bad. It is speedily despatched to the Recycle bin or locked away in a dungeon to be visited only when I want to remind myself of all the things that can go wrong while shooting. Unfortunately it seems there are many people out there who aren’t as good at burying their mistakes. The result is the vast array of bad photographs similar to those described above that are flooding onto the Internet daily. Many of these images are accompanied by something I refer to as the “post script”. An often lengthy treatise written by the photographer on all the interesting features of the subject or a description of the really interesting things  their subject was doing just before the image was captured; all of which are absent from the actual image. The post script is not a commentary/critique of what is in the image or why you like it, nor is it necessary context for the image; it is an explanation of the things you failed to capture that would have made the image good. As such it’s a clear sign that the shot was a failure.

Fear of missing the shot

Unfortunately, once you have overcome your fear of taking the shot there is an even more insidious enemy laying in wait at the next street corner – Fear of missing the shot. It’s a little more difficult to diagnose because it shares some of the hallmarks of bad photography – namely poorly composed or boring images. But it is not a lack of photographic skill that is causing the issue, it is fear of missing the shot. I remember being worried that if I took the time to compose the shot I wanted, or moved to eliminate a compositional problem, I would miss the shot. But the counter argument to that is that if you don’t wait for the decisive moment and you don’t compose the image properly you end up with a mediocre photograph that doesn’t properly show the decisive moment.

But what happens if, while you are composing the shot, the subject moves off or stop doing whatever it is, before you can get that great shot. Well, you just saved yourself from taking a mediocre photograph.

3 Hours in Mong Kok

One of the best bits of photography advise I ever received was “buy an iPod”. This advise turned out to be especially useful last week when I spent 3 hours in Monk Kok.

Men relaxing and taking a smoke break in a Mong Kok alleyway

Mong Kok is a densely populated area of the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong. The area has everything from the glitzy jewellery shops and brand name stores of Nathan Road all the way down to the counterfeit handbag stalls of Tung Choi Street’s Ladies Market.  The crowded side-streets are lined with stalls, shops and hole in the wall restaurants; and all manner of interesting alleyways run between them. In short, Mong Kok is a wonderful place for Street Photography – 3 hours in Mong Kok is worth a week anywhere else.

The shops, the stalls and the thronging crowds are all a great source of interest but I particularly like the traditional Hong Kong butchers and fish shops. You will often see traditional Hong Kong butchers standing on the street stripped to the waist in Hong Kong’s oppressively humid summer heat, serving customers from the open front of their shop; while the fish mongers fillet fish with a practised small flick of the cleavers they wield.

If you are not careful the conditions for street photography can be challenging, especially in summer. Not only is it hot and very humid (98% RH) but you can also find yourself constantly moving between wide streets/bright sunlight to narrow streets, covered market stalls and dark alleyways which will require constant adjustments to your camera settings. The key of course is not to keep moving. Find a good location and wait, looking around constantly in order to see opportunities before they present themselves. In other words, wait for the picture to come to you – which is where the iPod comes in. Yes, I realise they have now been discontinued but the advise was given to me back in 2011. Technological redundancy aside, the point was that patience is as important in street photography as in any other genre. Instead of walking around, stumbling on an image and then trying to grab a shot. Find yourself a good location, turn on some music and wait for images to present themselves. Keep looking for interesting people before they are right in front of you, see where they are heading, re-position if necessary and wait for something interesting to happen, that way you will be ready to press the shutter when the opportunity materialises.

If you would like to see more of my Street Photography check out my Projects page or look me up on Instagram

Then and Now

Some years ago I wrote about the first Street photograph I ever took In that post I mentioned that, while I like the image, the composition and content was pretty much luck. In other words almost nothing that I like about the image was down to me. The key word here is “took”. As a wise person once said “good photographers takes photographs, great photographers makes photographs”.

For me that means that anyone can take a good or even great photograph if you give them  a camera…. but probably won’t know how they did (what makes it good) and would be unable duplicate it. A great photographer is one who makes a photograph by thinking about it before they even set out to take it. They know the type of photograph they want, the subject, the type of processing they will use. They will deliberately put themselves in a position to capture the photograph they want and they will think about what they want to include in the image before pressing the shutter. Now I doubt I will ever be a great photographer but I do think that it is worth making some effort to think about your work, to strive to make photographs rather than take them and to hopefully improve over time. To that end I thought it would be interesting to look at the first Street photo I made and compare it to one of my more recent images in a Then & Now comparison.

Note: The word make doesn’t feel right when talking about capturing a photograph. Take is the commonly used verb and so hence forth I will use the word take, even though I mean make.


Back in 2011 I attended a photography course given by photojournalist and documentary photographer Michael Coyne. I didn’t take any interesting or worthwhile shots during the course but I did learn a lot that helped me develop as a photographer over the coming months and years. Read More

The Gin Drinkers Line

It can often be the case that an intended photo opportunity doesn’t pan out. Maybe the light isn’t right or a potential subject turns out not to be as interesting as you had hoped. It is equally true that if you look around you can stumble upon an alternative opportunity. This was the case with my latest Hong Kong photo walk/drive, which was initially intended to be a landscape shoot around the south of Hong Kong Island (Cape D’Aguilar, Shek O and Stanely). Unfortunately the sun was particularly harsh and the views we found were uninspiring but, while driving, we came upon the Sai Wan War Cemetery; an allied war cemetery dedicated primarily to those who died during the defence and occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. By a strange coincidence my fellow photographer on this photo walk is a former serviceman whom, just that morning, had received, in the post, his veterans pin from the Ministry of Defence.

The Battle of Hong Kong

It must have been particularly hard for the commonwealth soldiers tasked with the defence of Hong Kong. The territory was considered by the British government to be an outpost, likely to be indefensible as it could and would be quickly cut off from possible reinforcement.  The soldiers tasked with its defence were largely untested in battle and (in the case of the Canadian forces) also under-equipped. It’s the sort of stuff that movies are, and should, be made of. Soldiers surrounded and cut off, without hope of reinforcement or relief, doing their duty.

The Gin Drinkers Line

As mentioned in my last photo walkabout post, the territory of Hong Kong is made up of a number of islands, as well as an area of mainland China known as the New Territories. With typical British humour the defences constructed in the New Territories, just prior to the war, were christened The Gin Drinkers Line. A network of bunkers, artillery positions, reinforced machine gun nest and trenches stretching from Gin Drinkers Bay in the west across the Kowloon peninsular to Sai Kung in the east. The aim of the defensive line was to stall any Japanese advance for several weeks. Unfortunately a lack of manpower and resources meant that the defensive line was ineffective and was overwhelmed by the Japanese on the 10th of December 1941 (just two days after the commencement of hostilities) and, following some intense Japanese artillery bombardment and a Japanese landing on Hong Kong Island, the allied forces were forced to surrender on 25th December 1941.

Given the impromptu nature of this shoot I was surprised how emotionally powerful it was. War and death are never particularly pleasant but seeing the large number of graves to unknown soldiers “known unto god”, plus the mix of young and old killed in the conflict was very thought provoking. I normally don’t add titles to my images as I think a photograph should speak for itself but in this case I felt they were appropriate.

My first photograph

I guess if I am going to write something about learning photography I should start by talking about my first photograph. By that I don’t mean the first photograph I ever took – I mean the first photo I took which interested me, beyond being just a simple snapshot. For several years I took photographs without a camera. I was constantly stopping and thinking “that would make a great image” but I didn’t actually buy a camera. I did this, at least in part, because I remembered my father owning, and never using, a rather nice Pentax film camera. I didn’t want to invest in a nice camera and then never use it, so I just carried on taking mental images.

street scene. Mong Kok at night.
Night scene. Mong Kok.

Then one day I took a snap shot with my Blackberry mobile phone, which actually interested me as a photograph. I was walking through Mongkok, Hong Kong on a Saturday evening and paused to grab this photo looking down Sai Yeung Choi Street. It was the light, colour and busy crowd that first attracted me to the scene but, once I had taken it,  the actual image had more to it. In addition to colour and light it also has mystery and movement. What are the young couple on the left of the shot looking at. Are they simply waiting for a break in the traffic or are they looking at something happening further down the street? What about the (what appears to be) family group on right of shot. What are they discussing and where are they going? There is also lots of movement in the image. People in the background are on the move; in couples and on their own. What about the man in the centre of the shot – where is he going hurrying down the street so that he is just a blur? On a technical level the image quality isn’t great but the image itself is well composed. The frame is filled with action and there is very little empty space. At ground level you have people everywhere and above them the buildings and neon signs. In addition the image draws your eye inwards because the yellow street markings and the buildings on either side act as leading lines, guiding you further into the image. I have to admit that the composition of the image is mostly down to blind luck. I did try to centre the image so that I was looking directly down the middle of the street. I also raised the camera angle a little so that I didn’t get too much empty road  (I now know just how important it is to avoid empty/dead space in the foreground of images). But, as for the content, that is all luck. I didn’t see the man who was about to walk past, I didn’t see the taxi about to stick its nose into shot and I hadn’t noticed the people on the far right of the frame who, I feel, counter balance the young couple on the far left. I didn’t immediately jump into photography after taking this image. I kept coming back to it and looking at it, without really understanding why. Time to pinch my girlfriend’s point and shoot and start learning…..

Note: The above image was taken several years ago. This post has been back dated slightly to maintain a coherent time-line for posts that discuss images/events which pre-date this blog.