New Street Photography Workshop Dates!

Hello everyone,

My 2018 workshops in Vancouver (June & August), Paris (July) and Toronto (August) are now sold out.   Thank you!

I have been asked to add a third Vancouver workshop in September, which is now scheduled to run from September 14th to 16th.  Course and registration information can be found on this page:

Vancouver Street Photography Workshop – September 14th to 16th

I cannot thank you enough for your support.  I still have the same passion and enthusiasm for teaching that I did when I started 23 years ago, and I am looking forward to another summer spent with a wonderful group of artists.

Cheers,

Ian

Photography Saved Me

I know I am in the middle of a series on street photography composition right now, but June is PTSD awareness month and I’d like to talk about that for a bit.  This post is probably going to be a little bit long, but stay with me because I think it might be helpful to you or someone you know.  

By any measure my life is a success.  I am happily married to a wonderful woman and we have an 11 year old daughter who inspires me every day.  I am a brand ambassador for what I believe to be the best camera company in the world, I run a successful business and I work with amazing students and clients.  I am able to experience joy through art, both as a photographer and a musician.  Honestly, the list just goes on and on.  It is easy to look at my life, especially on the surface, and see nothing but kittens and rainbows.

Life is funny though, because there is always so much happening that people cannot see.  An analogy that is used often to describe this phenomena is that of a duck swimming: on the surface everything is calm and serene, but underneath the water that duck is kicking its legs like crazy just to stay afloat.  This metaphor definitely describes my life at times, especially in this busy day and age, and I would imagine it is probably applicable to a lot of us.   

Photography has been a large part of my life since 2004, but it wasn’t always my full time vocation.  For decades I worked as a paramedic.  Over a span of 20 years, through the chaos of day and the darkness of night, I responded to 15,000 calls for assistance.  I cared for the sick and dying.  I delivered babies.  I received praise for the lives I saved and the care I provided, but was also occasionally the target of violence and ridicule from people who were not happy to see us arrive on a scene or from people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Such is the life of a paramedic.  It is honourable, noble work, performed by a brotherhood of men and women that I am fiercely proud to have been a part of for much of my working life.

Few things come without a cost though…

Many years ago something started building inside of me.  It started with anger that would come without warning, directed without prejudice toward anybody in my way.  For people who know me, and know how much I love helping others, this is often hard to believe.  The truth is that I wasn’t even aware that these changes were happening to me.  During this time my young daughter, unbeknownst to me, became unsettled and uncomfortable around me.  Not for reasons of violence or fear of injury of course, but because I was rarely happy, because I was becoming increasingly impatient, and because I was quick to snap.  When I was not around she referred to me as angry daddy.  How crazy is that?

I didn’t know it yet, but I had PTSD.

The tipping point for me came years later when I started having panic attacks during the days leading up to work, on my way in to work, and yes, even when I was at work.  It is ironic that I am a skilled emergency health care provider, one who has provided care to people during the worst moments of their lives, yet I couldn’t see what was happening to me.  

Such is the nature of PTSD.  It can be subtle at first… silent… It can manifest in ways that you don’t even notice.

This went on for months before my world caved in.  When it finally did though it was a crushing, suffocating thing.  Nightmares.  Fear.  Panic attacks.  Tears.  Loss of hope.  Depression.  

It took some time for me to find the right trauma counsellor, one who had a long history of working with soldiers, police officers, paramedics, etc.  I spent a year working with this remarkable woman, who picked up the pieces of my life and helped me rebuild them one by one.  It was a long, slow process, but I came out the other side.  I’m sure that I still have a few demons of course, you can’t see what I’ve seen and not have a closet full of them, but they are no longer a factor like they once were.  My life is amazing again, though there are probably still times when I struggle a bit.

Now, this is supposed to be a blog post about how photography saved me and we haven’t talked about that yet.  It wasn’t just photography of course, because that doesn’t take into consideration my family, my medical providers, or my friends who had been there and understood what I was going through (one in particular, who has also battled his own demons). There is, however, no denying the fact that as important as of all of those people were, it was photography that became my salvation through those hard times.

In the darkest of days my camera was where I found solace.  Something happens when I pick up a camera and go out to shoot:  I become mindful and focused, the process of photography bringing me an inner peace.  My mind doesn’t wander, and, during that dark period of my life, I didn’t think of my demons when I had a camera in my hand.  Photography became the thing that got me out of the house when I didn’t want to leave.  It became the thing that brought calm to my life.  It was one of the few things that I still found joy in while I was learning how to live again.  Photography became the light at the end of my tunnel.

The camera brought joy back into my life again.

When I came to the realization that I couldn’t be a paramedic anymore it was obvious what the focus of my artistic and professional life needed to be.  By that time, so much had already happened:  this site was experiencing high volumes of traffic,  I was guesting on podcasts, I already had a small group of clients, I had a wonderful circle of friends from around the world (you) that I had made through the photographic community… all of the pieces were in place to make a transition to being a full time creative.  It is fair to say that photography didn’t just sustain me through the process of healing, it also gave me an entirely new life that allows me to be an artist, work with my amazing students and clients, represent a camera brand that I love, travel the world and have more time with my family.  It is an incredible thing.

In some ways it is hard to write an article like this, to put yourself out there naked and vulnerable.  In other ways, however, it is the easiest thing that I have ever done because I know that there are people still suffering, people who are in the same dark place I was in, and I want them to know that it gets better.  It takes time.  It takes work.  It isn’t easy, but it gets better.  You might not have PTSD, maybe you have depression or anxiety or something else, but please know that you are not alone and that things can and do get better.  

My life now is truly wonderful and has been for quite some time.  I get to be a husband, a father and an artist.  I spend my time shooting, teaching, writing, traveling and of course just living.  And yes, I am sure that I still have off days occasionally too.

I have had a photography project related to PTSD bouncing around my head for almost a year now and I think I finally have it worked out.  I probably won’t get to shoot it until the winter, but I am excited to share it with you.  And, if any of you are feeling stuck, I hope this article helps just a little bit.  Please know that many of us have been there and can help.  

My thanks to all of you for everything that you do and for everything that you have given me.  I love this community of people and look forward to sharing photography with you for many more years.

Best wishes,

Ian

Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part One

There is no genre of photography that brings me joy like street photography does.  When I explore the streets of a city I see photos everywhere, the world a stage filled with wonderful people and interesting moments.  It has been said before that a street photographer only needs a decent camera, a comfortable pair of shoes and the ability to see images on the streets.  I love that.

Vision can be a tricky thing though, can’t it?  Two photographers can walk down the same street, side by side, and see completely different images.  I see this often during my workshops and I think it happens for a variety of reasons: artistic choice, differing skill levels, past experiences, etc.

As visual artists, we should always strive to see in more effective and creative ways.  We can improve our vision.  Gaining clarity on what you like as an artist is important; you shouldn’t create blindly, without purpose, but instead should understand what you value in a photograph.  Once you know this your photography will become more focused.   Another way to improve your vision is to have a solid understanding of composition as it relates to street photography.  In this five part series we will take a look at both of these things, always with the underlying goal of learning to see more creatively when we are out shooting.

I think we can all get behind the idea of understanding who we are as artists, but I have occasionally found the topic of composition to be a four letter word for some people.  When we discuss this, I find that they often think of compositional theory as a set of rules that must be followed, which of course is untrue.  This is art after all, there are very few absolutes.

Having a strong understanding of composition simply allows you to see things more clearly and more efficiently.  It is like expanding your vocabulary;  just because you know all of the words doesn’t mean you have to use them all the time, but they are there when you need them.  I am a guitar player, so let’s use a musical analogy:  I practice scales with a metronome, I study chord construction, I practice arpeggios, etc.  I think of these activities as building blocks in my development as a musician, in much the same way that a boxer hits the bag, skips rope and shadow boxes.  When I play music I am not consciously thinking of these things, but I know that little snippets of them will find their way into my playing at the right time.

Compositional theory is the same idea.  It is just a tool.  Use it when you feel it will serve the photograph well, but don’t be afraid to break “the rules” when it is better for your image.

So, with that said, let’s get started by discussing the most important thing of all:

What really matters in a photograph?

I think it is important to have a clear understanding of our goals when we are making images.  I am going to borrow from my fellow Official Fuji X Photographer, Kevin Mullins, because I think he did a brilliant job of summing up what really matters in a photograph:

  • Subject 
  • Moment
  • Light
  • Background

Kevin once said (paraphrasing) that a “perfect” photograph would have a compelling subject, who was experiencing a genuine moment, in beautiful light and in front of an appropriate background.  

These “perfect” photographs are exceedingly rare of course, especially on the street, but I think that they are a good goal to have.  I’m sure that we have all made photos that are “just okay”, or ones that are “almost there”.  Maybe there is great light or a nice background, but the subject doesn’t fit the background.  Maybe the subject is amazing, but the background is cluttered, the light is poor, etc.  When a photograph only has one or two of these elements that Kevin describes it usually doesn’t make my final cut.  I don’t want to present images that are “just okay”… I want to present images that capture what I was trying to achieve when I clicked the shutter.

How does composition fit into this?  Well, when we learn “the rules” of composition, what we are really doing is training our eyes to see these elements on the street.  We are expanding our vocabulary, if you will.  This allows us to both identify a picture when out on the streets and to bring the important elements of the photograph together more effectively and efficiently.  

Breaking it down

There are few things more nebulous than trying to define street photography, but over the years that I have been studying, shooting and teaching in this genre I have come to realize the following:

  • I tend to use two different approaches for my candid street photography:
      • I set the stage first, then bring different elements together to form a final image.  Or,
      • I react quickly and spontaneously to a moment that is happening in front of me
  • I tend to use two different approaches for my street photography that is more interactive:
      • Street Portraiture
      • Detail Shots

We are going to dive deeply into these different approaches throughout this series, but let’s start with a quick overview:

Setting the stage

I consider myself to be more of a deliberate photographer than a reactionary one, so this is definitely the approach I use most often when I am shooting on the street.   I will see something in a scene that attracts me at first, perhaps amazing light or a beautiful background, and then I build an image from there.  This is analogous to setting the stage first and then bringing out the cast of actors.

This approach is exciting to me as a photographer because there are so many classic compositional techniques that can be used when doing this, such as using the direction and quality of light in a creative fashion, using the juxtaposition between a subject and background to tell a story, using leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, etc.

The possibilities really are endless once you know what you are looking for.  In part two of this series, coming next week, we are going to explore this approach in depth.

Reacting to the moment

This is the opposite approach to setting the stage.  There are times on the street when a moment is happening right in front of you and it is magical.  Or, maybe a subject is approaching that looks amazing and you just need to react.  There is no time to set the stage, so you do your best to quickly compose something in a split second and then boom… the moment is gone.

In part three of this series we will look at several images captured this way and discuss what happened when they were captured, what my thought process was, why I made the compositional choices that I did, and perhaps what I wished I could have done better.

Street portraits

I have been drawn to people most of my life and have always worked in professions where I had the opportunity to interact with strangers (photography, music, paramedicine, teaching).  It isn’t just how people look that draws me in, though that is often the first thing I notice about somebody as a photographer of course.  It is their story and their life experiences that really intrigue me.  People are amazing and street photography presents us with unlimited opportunities to meet new friends and make portraits of them.

I know how nerve wracking this can be for some photographers though, so part four of this series will be dedicated to learning how to approach a stranger and make a portrait of them.

Detail Shots

A compelling street photograph doesn’t always have to include a person, their face, etc.  Indeed, sometimes what you don’t include in a photograph tells as much of the story as what you do include.   Purposely cutting off part of a building, or part of a person for that matter, may create tension or mystery in the photograph.  Creative use of light and shadow to hide certain elements of a photograph may also have the same effect.  

In part five of this series we will talk more about this aspect of street photography.

Summary

I was originally inspired to write this series after a conversation I had with a new street photographer, in which they expressed how hard street photography was.  We talked  about the fact that it isn’t necessarily hard, they just don’t know the language yet.  Once they understand what they value in a photograph, and once they have a strong foundation to work from (an understanding of basic things like camera operations and compositional principles), they too will realize that the street is a wonderful blank canvas with which we can create art.  That is where the fun really begins and I hope this series will help them.  I hope it will help you too!

Cheers,

Ian 

Click here to view part two of this series