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!
Replacing the oppressive with opportunity, Polly Rusyn explains how you can reframe your street photography approach when faced with inclement weather
As sure as dawn follows night, grey skies are bound to come. When dark clouds roll over, they bring with them a frenetic energy. Pretences are dropped as sodden souls dash for cover amidst a cascade of great, fat raindrops. Opportunities to document a human element within street photography become scarce, though rewarding. And, before the heavens open, the world is plunged into a semi-darkness.
But in the midst of the drama, a more daring breed of street photographer awaits – open to the rich potential and artistic challenges before them. One such creative is X-Photographer Polly Rusyn.
While generally positive in outlook, this was no easy skill for Polly develop. “On overcast days, my will to photograph used to fade to a shade that matched the sky,” she muses. “Living in London, I’ve had more than my fair share. When it’s warm and bright, there’s more activity outdoors, people are always beaming and colours are brighter. Plus, you have shadows, silhouettes and pockets of light to play with and your own mood is elevated, too.
“The easiest method of getting better results on a dull day is to revert to monochrome. It’s a different way of seeing – and you have to be mindful of contrast, to ensure subjects stand out. But, I myself am married to colour!”
Polly’s distinctive brand of street photography is an enchanting mix of the tangible and unreal. She opens a doorway into a world of serendipity, with often surreal subjects displayed against a backdrop that we all recognise as the everyday. Her photography entices her audience to look twice, to question what they have seen. In order to achieve this, Polly relies heavily on hearty splashes of vibrant hues.
“What happens when you take away all of that sunny goodness?” she questions. “You have to work harder. The established aesthetic isn’t there to fall back on, so your observation needs to be directed towards story and content. I overcame my own aversion by setting mini projects dependent on poor weather. Now, I’ve settled on a handful of techniques to help me make better colour photographs when conditions aren’t ideal.”
First, there’s the matter of making sure your carry is equipped to handle the elements – and deliver the electric results you crave. With a desire to remain discreet, Polly typically opts for the FUJIFILM X100V, complete with Weather Resistance Kit. When requirements are more demanding, she reaches for the FUJIFILM X-T3. There’s a trio of XF Lenses ideally suited to these conditions, too. The XF16mmF1.4 R WR offers an expansive view and fast maximum aperture, while the XF23mmF2 R WR is incredibly sharp and remains lightweight. The XF27mmF2.8 R WR is the most compact of all, unlikely to draw any attention, even at the heart of the action.
Opening with practical advice, Polly shares a glimpse into her preferred settings. “With less light, you need to slow down to retain a deep depth-of-field without blurred movement – unless that’s a creative choice,” she adds. “I usually stop down anywhere between F5.6 and F8. I set a shutter speed from 1/250 sec to 1/500 sec, then bump up the ISO. That’s the setting I’m most willing to compromise on – and Fujifilm cameras handle high ISOs very well!”
To some, the colour in her photos seems to exude from Polly herself – each frame imbued with exuberant charm. In her eyes, it comes down to something decidedly more concrete. Attention.
“Inspired by documentary photographer Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow series, I seek out people wearing bright colours against a relatively monochrome backdrop on dreary days,” Polly explains. But, as humans, we tend to be a reactive bunch. Bleak weather is reflected by muted attire. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a relentless optimist or, as Polly does, you can rely on children. “Kids will wear lovely, vibrant clothing all year round. Plus, they’re always running and playing, bringing a lively sense of movement to street photography.
“Another technique is finding the most colourful backdrop you can,” Polly effuses. “A poster, a graffiti-covered wall, a row of painted houses, or a shop window display are perfect. Set up your frame, then wait for someone to come along and add life to the scene.”
In the absence of an appropriate background, Polly suggests a closer look at your subjects. “You can distract from the dull day entirely by focusing on an interesting detail, such as a piece of clothing or how they’re holding their hands. Get as close as you can, and remember, you can crop more later. Colourful details, especially, look fantastic as a set.”
While Polly’s tips thus far have been workarounds, there are unique benefits of cloud cover. Diffused light falls on everyone indiscriminately and, in the absence of harsh shadows, the opportunity for evenly exposed collective photos arises.
“On a sun-free day, there’s nothing to obscure faces. I like to visit busy places and see how many I can get inside a single frame. It’s tough, because there are a lot of moving parts, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t get astounding results immediately,” Polly assures. “Maybe play a game with yourself and see how many faces you can document clearly with minimal overlap.”
Certainly sutured to glorious sunshine, the carefree moments that can be observed in it, and the distinctive aesthetic she has found there, even Polly Rusyn isn’t steadfastly set against less temperate conditions.
“The challenge will make you a better street photographer,” she asserts, before ending with a laugh. “Who needs nice weather anyway?”