Street Photography Under Lockdown

· 30.April.2021

One of the most famous quotes in photography is from Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. So there is this idea, especially in street photography, that to have great photos, you need to get really close to people. Yet, how can you get close to people when the streets are empty in the middle of a lockdown? How can you get close to people when social distancing of two-meter separation is in place?

I know what you’re thinking… zoom lens? No, just no. In street photography, while I am certainly no purist, telephoto/zoom lenses are very creepy so better to strike that off the available options list straight away! 

In the UK, most folks are familiar with the usual restrictions and warnings during stricter lockdowns such as keeping a two-meter separation, walking once a day from your abode, only one person per household going grocery shopping, only making trips that are essential and allowed, etc…

Central Cardiff is like a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic. Normally, I’m based between London & Cardiff, however, I have been in Cardiff for all the lockdowns since the pandemic started. I’ve only gone to London when the rules have allowed. It’s an eerie feeling to walk through the high street of Cardiff and see maybe five to ten solo walkers in that time. Everyone alone, with solemn faces. I’m sure this is a bit different in larger cities like London, but where I am during the lockdowns in Cardiff, things look a bit empty and ghostly. 

Does this mean street photography cannot be practiced during lockdowns? Well, as I wrote about previously, photography can really help with balancing mental health. It does for me. To take that away would not bode well for my mental state, especially in pandemic times. So I would say, keep those cameras out and keep shooting. If you love street photography, it can still be practiced, even in lockdowns where there are less people on the street. It might just take a different form and have a different result. 

For example, during this past lockdown from Christmas until now, I started a project called Insignificance. It involves making photographs of usually one person, dwarfed by their surroundings, usually tall buildings. Since I’m located in Cardiff Central, while the buildings across the city are generally shorter than say London, they are still tall enough to evoke the mood I’m looking for, shot in a certain way. The main element of the project is that it can be done within the Covid-19 restrictions.

To me, these photographs carry the emotion of feeling really small and powerless in our surroundings. This is how I have felt a lot of the time during this pandemic, powerless. Powerless to have control over the situation. So this project is my attempt to combine street photography along with conveying this feeling about the lockdowns.

This series has been great to work on during lockdown because it can be made with few people on the street while keeping my distance from others. If you are usually a close street shooter, the lockdowns would be a really good time to practice more environmental styles of shooting. I’m usually shooting up close or from the hip, so I’ve had to adjust my style. However, this has been quite enjoyable! Trying different things can spark more creativity which is good for a creative practice overall.

I’m finding that shooting from further away has become a more meditative practice. Rather than seeing a moment coming together in a very short time frame and reacting to it with the camera, I am thinking more about the composition and the subject I’d like in the frame. It’s a slower, more intentional style of shooting on the street.  

From my point of view, there are many different styles of street photography and there is no one right way. Close ups are not necessarily always better than environmental ones, sorry Robert Capa! Each style carries different emotions, meanings and effects on the viewer. 

Prepping & Fishing

In addition to trying a different style of street photography, there is something else that can be done during lockdown. Prepping! 

Not like apocalyptic preppers though! 

I mean prepping for when the people are back, finding locations and times where the light creates interesting shadows or compositions. 

This is useful for a technique that I learned in street photography called “fishing”. “Fishing” is where you find an interesting location or composition and you wait for the right person to walk through the frame to make the image powerful. It could be any kind of person that you are looking for that would suit the image. I usually look for people wearing accessories like hats or any garment that creates an interesting shape.

This is something that can be done without people, and while it’s not the end result, it’s still a practice. It is also a research of locations to remember for when people start going out more. I really love something I heard from John Free (an American street photographer) that relates to this. He talks about how street photography isn’t just a one and done thing. We can’t expect to get brilliant shots when we go out into the street straight away. It’s something that requires practice. Practice, practice, practice. Knowing where there are great locations that would be powerful and impactful for a street photograph can be a part of that practice.

Fujifilm and Street Photography

As always, and I’m sure everyone here would agree with me, I love using my Fujifilm cameras for street photography. I use them pretty much exclusively with the exception of 35mm film cameras I like to play with sometimes. The mirrorless X-series cameras are perfect for being on the street, even if shooting from further away. Discreet and subtle but capable. I’m normally carrying either an X-Pro2 with the 35mm f2 or the X100V. In the past I’ve used the X-T2, X70, X-E2, X100T, X100S, etc. The smaller weight has helped during the lockdowns when I’m walking more often and further distances as well to try to maximize my time outdoors. 

The last thing I’ll say is that street photography has always been a challenge and a therapy for me. Before getting into street photography, I used to be incredibly shy, painfully so. I would never have the courage to take photos of strangers. But I loved what I saw from other photographers work and I wanted to be able to break through this barrier of fear and do the same. Having the Fujifilm X-series cameras really helped me feel comfortable on the street, with the silent shutters and the small size, among many other things. So here I am, continuing this practice several years on. Even during a pandemic, when the streets feel empty, there are still ways to practice street photography!