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24.08.2020 Polly Rusyn

Street Photography, Socially Distanced

Polly Rusyn

Polly Rusyn is a London-based freelance photographer and street photography workshop teacher. Polly never planned on being a photographer! Her background is in graphic design and travel; but it was while working in the travel industry that she discovered her love of photography. What started as a hobby turned into an obsession, so Polly ditched office life in the summer of 2015 with a very vague idea of how to make photography her business… After a little trial and error she now works shooting mainly personal brand style photography, alongside which she runs a street photography workshop business, The Photo Weekender, that takes small groups on street photography weekend adventures in European cities.

Polly’s street photography has been exhibited internationally at a number of street photography festivals, published in National Geographic Traveller and featured in Digital Photographer magazine. She has been a finalist at both the Miami Street Photography Festival and PhoS Festival in Sofia, and her work formed part of a launch campaign for the Sony World Photography Awards. Polly has been a speaker at the National Geographic Traveller Masterclasses in London.

When not making pictures, dreaming about photography or growing her business Polly can be found enjoying food (her love of cheese is well documented), approaching banter as a sport, and watching pretty much everything on Netflix. Back in the day you would have seen her skydiving over Las Vegas, learning how to be a Jillaroo on an Aussie ranch, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro!

As a street photographer the current need to remain socially distanced is challenging, especially as I like getting close to my subjects and I love places with lots of activity. Added to that my preferred focal length is 35mm, which is what the 23mm lens on my FUJIFILM X100V gives me, so getting closer to my subjects is a necessity. I refuse to use a long lens on the street – if it’s long it’s wrong! But of course that is another option for socially distanced street photography, but using a 35mm will make you work harder for your pictures, and your pictures will be better for it.

So like anything in life we have a choice between feeling like our hands are tied because circumstances aren’t ideal, or adapting to new situations we find ourselves in. I have had to adapt how, and what, I shoot in order to maintain social distancing. And I’d like to share three ways of capturing street photography whilst adhering to the new guidelines necessary during the coronavirus global pandemic.

Method One: Shoot wider scenes

This is of course obvious – if you can’t get close then you have no choice. But shooting wider scenes has its own challenges, as you have more space to account for in your frames, which means more space that could have distractions or elements that aren’t adding anything to your photograph.

Often street photographers walk and shoot, and at the start of your street photography life you may well walk, shoot, and hope for the best! A more focused approach is to explore the area you are in, look for interesting light, shapes and graphic elements, and when you find a spot that could work as a “stage”, wait for something to happen… It could be an interesting character passing through or several characters intersecting within the same location. Patience is not in everyone’s toolbox though, but it’s a great thing to practice, especially as a street photographer.

This technique is commonly known as “fishing”, and it’s a great way to shoot as it allows you to test your frame, which means you can check that your composition works, and that your settings are as you want them, whilst you are waiting for someone to come along. It also gives you the opportunity to imagine or visualise where you would like one or more human elements to be ideally positioned.

FUJIFILM X100V - F16, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec

The photo above was created using this technique. I’m generally drawn to colour, along with strong light and shade, and the red and yellow really jumped out at me in this location. After shooting a few different people passing through I was lucky to capture a woman wearing a face mask. The graphic elements that start in the foreground and lead you to her, also frame her as she steps out of a dark space into the light. A word of caution about photographs of people wearing masks – they are a novelty now, just as mobile phones once were, and the temptation is to think that something that is a novelty automatically makes for an interesting photograph for that reason alone. It does not, you still need to think about the content, context and composition.

FUJIFILM X100V - F16, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec

In the image above I was again looking for the same elements of strong light and shade, along with bold colour, and spotted how the light was hitting this red sheet at my local street market. I circled it first to see where I could get the best angle along with the best light. But on this occasion I didn’t have to wait for a human element, as a man was standing in a long slow-moving queue for the supermarket, so I had time to make sure I had positioned myself in the right spot to frame not only the scene but also him within it.

Method Two: Look for shadows

You will of course be restricted to sunny mornings and sunny late afternoons, but it’s a great way to make the most of the summer weather. You could look for other people’s shadows or simply use your own! This is something you can have fun with, and it also means you don’t have to worry about shooting people if you don’t want to, although you still have to remain aware of who is around you whilst you concentrate on getting your shot.

The trick is to overlay your (or someone else’s) shadow, with something else or someone else. Look for some kind of interaction that will make the photo more interesting than “just” shadows.

FUJIFILM X100V - F16, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec

For example, in the image above I noticed my own late afternoon shadow had lost its head on the wall, and that people were passing by behind, and realised that if I positioned my camera at the right height I could hide their bodies, and only capture their disembodied heads. I had to keep changing how I was holding my camera though to account for differing heights of people, whilst also being mindful that my elbows were away from my body so that my shadow was still recognisable as human. Then I tried on a few different heads!

Method Three: Forget humans altogether

The 100% safest way to socially distance is to stay as far away from other people as possible! So you could try your hand at street photography without people. You may be wondering how street photography can still be street photography without a human element… Well, as long as what you are photographing is un-staged, taken in a public space, and is an observation of life then it is still street photography. Street photography doesn’t need a street, nor does it need people! Of course if what you are photographing clearly belongs in another genre such as architecture or still life then it is not street photography.

I already mentioned working with shadows, and juxtaposing your shadow on something or someone else, and street photography without people can work in the exact same way.

FUJIFILM X100V - F9, ISO 800, 1/500 sec

In the image above I used a shop window that had a poster of a model inside. I noticed the light was really good, with the sun behind the shop lighting up the structures opposite, which were creating really interesting reflections on the window. I took a few shots before realising that depending on where I was standing I could make it look as though she is resting her hands on the reflected structures! This juxtaposition – the interplay between two unrelated things – is what makes the photograph more interesting.

FUJIFILM X100V - F16, ISO 1600, 1/4000 sec

And in this example above I knew a human subject was surplus to requirements as the colour was strong and the light was great! I had never seen Chinatown so empty nor noticed it so beautifully lit, and I didn’t need anything more than the sunlight illuminating the paper lanterns and the shadows they were casting on the ground. I took shots from both ends of the street – trying out shooting into the sun as well as with the sun behind me (you should always try as many angles as there is time for!), and settled for this direction as the shapes of the buildings were stronger, plus I loved the silhouettes of the chimneys.

In conclusion

• Shoot wider scenes by finding great spots to wait in, and create your composition being mindful of the edges of your frame for unwanted or distracting elements.
• Go and play with your shadow, making it either interact with things you find or juxtapose it on, or with, another person.
• Forget people altogether, or at least actual real people, and use shop windows with reflections or street scenes where light and colour are your subjects.