Digital Photographer – interview with an urban photographer

black-and-white street photography by Markus Hartel, New York City

The Digital Photographer published a 12 page special on urban photography, I got an excellent 6 page article with a few images of mine. If you are in the UK, pick up a copy of “Digital Photographer” Issue 74. This is the interview the article is based on:

How long have you been taking photographs professionally (or semi-professionally, if applicable)?
My grandma used to give me her rangefinder camera to take family pictures when I was a kid, later on she gave me my first camera. I started getting seriously into photography when I was a teenager and bought my first SLR kit.

Did you undergo any training to get to where you are today?
I’m self-taught through books and internet forums , but I also work in the graphic industry as a graphic designer and photo retoucher, that sure helps with composition etc.

What camera gear do you use?
Right now I’m using a Canon EOS 5D and a Sigma DP1, where I prefer the Sigma on a day-to-day basis due to its size. The EOS gets used for longer outings and assignments.

What inspired you to take up urban photography?
When I moved to New York City in 2002, I was inspired by the energy of the city and immediatedly started taking photographs of strangers, not knowing that the genre “street photography” existed. It quickly became a very serious hobby of mine and I purchased a Canon EOS 10D.

What are the typical preparations that need to be made before a shoot? (Both in terms of camera equipment and researching the location itself / weather etc.)
I normally shoot with one body and one prime lens only, preferably a 28mm lens. In terms of weather I try to avoid harsh sunlight, so I either go out later during that day or carry a flash for slight fill light. In the event of rain I would carry a ziplock bag to protect my camera. For all-day shoots I carry two or three different cameras, a set of lenses, several memory cards and a flash. Comfortable shoes are a must! TIP: use multiple smaller memory cards, instead of putting all of your eggs into one basket!

What sort of locations would you recommend for this type of photography?
New York City is historically the Mekka of street/urban photography, but any place in public is fair game. I personally love to shoot in busy areas and on the subway.

What are the main problems I can expect to encounter?
People got extremely wary of photographers in public after 9/11 and oftentimes would get very suspicious what you would do with their photograph. Officials like the police or public transportation personnel are also not informed about the do’s and don’ts. Security personnel would almost all the time ask you not to photograph around their premises.
**I never ran into serious trouble, where I hear from other photographers, especially in Germany, the UK or France that they’re constantly getting into trouble, but that may have to do with their carelessness or attitude.**

Where does a photographer stand in terms of the law, with this type of photography?
In the US it’s perfectly legal to photograph anything in public, and one can use their photographs for artistic/personal purposes. For commercial work, model releases and property releases are required, but they’re pretty much impossible to obtain with this type of candid photography.
In NYC it’s against the law to photograph bridges or government buildings, tripods are not allowed without a permit either.

Lighting is a key factor in any successful photograph: are there any rules that you follow when considering the lighting for your shots?
I’m pretty limited with what the urban jungle has to offer, but would almost never shoot against the sun, unless I’m looking for some sort of flare effect. I love to find spots where sunlight gets bounced of buildings, acting as huge reflectors, especially in the morning or late in the afternoon.

What should I be looking for / working towards in terms of composition (generally)?
Avoid centered compositions like the plague, unless a photograph is asking for a very symmetrical composition. Generally many photographers would refer to the “rule of thirds” and I can say out of experience that this rule is off by far. I’d recommend the diagonal method, normally a pleasing photograph has some key elements falling along those lines.

What’s the most inspiring location you’ve visited so far?
Coney Island being an icon with all the New York characters and old school attractions has been the most inspiring spot so far, unfortunately most of it gets torn down and replaced by condos and a mall.

How do you go about taking candid shots of people in the street?
When I walk the streets I’d watch out ahead of time for a subject, after a while it’s possible to predict certain moves, but something can easily destroy the moment as well. in case of a possible shot, I frame quickly like I’m minding my own business and walk away. Sometimes I’d shoot walking by, framing from the hip – TIP: stay with one focal length for hip shooting to learn about framing w/o a viewfinder.
I always carry my camera with the strap wrapped around the palm of my hand and keep a constant eye on my shutter speed. I like to shoot faster than 1/250th of a second to avoid motion blur, unless desired. With the excellent metering systems of modern cameras I normally shoot in aperture priority mode (AV) along with exposure lock (AEL) in trickier lighting situations.
On most cameras I’d rely on the zone focusing method, ie. setting the focus of my lens manually to my working distance at around 6ft. (2m) and rely on depth-of field for subject sharpness.
Do you use any specialist tools to control your lighting? (Reflectors / diffusers / artificial lighting / flash etc)
as mentioned before, a flash with a diffuser is great for fill light

Your style of photography seems very distinctive, favouring B&W – how do you achieve this?
I used to achieve a certain look of my photographs with film. Tri-X, pushed to ISO 1600, developed in Diafine. I pretty much emulated this look with the excellent b/w conversion and curves in Photoshop CS3. Recently I’m using Lightroom for “quick and dirty” work prints and posts to flickr. On keepers I would work in Photoshop on a separate dodge/burn layer.

What attracts you to your subjects?
Mostly I’m interested in the human element in my photographs, I’m looking for the out-of-the ordinary within the ordinary – a funny element or a juxtaposition makes the picture even better.

Do you sell many of this type of image?
I have sold licenses to art buyers, publishers and got published in print and online. I’m selling prints every once in a while through my website and plan to add a shop when I find a moment.

I love the look of your “after dark” images – how can create my own night-time street shots, without camera shake or unsightly noise?
I shoot handheld at high ISOs and the widest aperture available on my lens, many of my night shots are taken at ISO 1600 or 3200 with apertures between f1.8 and f4.0 (the EOS 5D has a very low noise to signal ratio)
another approach to avoid noise or camera shake with small(er) sensor cameras would be the use of a monopod or tripod at lower ISOs with a longer exposure, keeping in mind that those long exposures will reveal motion blur.

How do you create your digital collages?
I sandwich multiple shots in Photoshop and use layer masks for the desired detail in a specified area.

Do you have any tips on how I can begin to make money from my street shots?
Frankly, I think street shots age over time and will get more popular the more aged they are, just like a good cheese or wine…
edit, edit, edit your shots – in case of any doubt, don’t use it/publish it in any way
Promote your photos on your website/blog
sell a photo book on a self-publishing site like blurb/lulu etc.
Visit/solicit galleries to present your portfolio
Submit your photos to photo contests

If you could give someone just 5 tips on this type of photography, what would they be?
– carry a camera at all times
– get close
– lose your fear
– go out and shoot
– wear comfortable shoes 😉

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19 Replies to “Digital Photographer – interview with an urban photographer”

  1. Markus
    Your work is always inspiring, it’s wonderful to see you get some recognition. Great interview. Still using the DP1? I’ve heard people complain about its slowness to work with. How are you finding it?

  2. thanks ;D
    the DP1 is an excellent street shooter and works pretty well with a few adjustments… I turn the preview display off, use manual focus (zone focusing) – with that the DP1 is pretty responsive, even though the camera blacks out during write to buffer and SD card, which is weird because it *can* take 3 consecutive shots in one second.

  3. Well done on the article, i like looking at your shots, but i should say that there is no confusing shots with film, even with the CS3 software.
    Of course digicams improve every year and are better than film in almost every way, but somehow all my favorite photogs shoot film and all my fave shots of yours are when you where shooting film, how is that?
    Maybe its just my personal preference, I’m not saying you should change, if you enjoy what your doing just go with it.. But if you could post us a film shot once in a while.. just for ole times sake :-))

  4. Congratulations Mark! Nice interview. Love the “5 tips for street photographers,” especially the comment about wearing decent shoes.
    I learned about this one the hard way while shooting in Europe.
    Also, your advice about getting close cannot be over stressed. I earn my living as a consumer video editor, and some of the photos my clients bring me are shockingly WIDE. (You must get the entire mountain or skyscraper in every shot, you know?)
    Lastly, your comment, “Edit, edit, edit your shots – in case of any doubt, don’t use it/publish it in any way” is terrific advice. I would also add, “Does the image your considering say something to other people, or are there personal reasons for selecting the photo?” Objectivity is hard to come by. Sometimes it’s best to tack a photo on the wall and look at it for awhile before making a decision.
    All the best!

  5. thanks!
    “Does the image your considering say something to other people, or are there personal reasons for selecting the photo?” Objectivity is hard to come by.
    very true indeed, just recently I gave a lecture to a bunch of photo students and that’s just what I said “don’t get emotionally attached to a photo that you just took”…
    one of the reasons why Winogrand edited his stuff months after he took the picture.

  6. In response to S.D.s comment: “somehow all my favorite photogs shoot film and all my fave shots of yours are when you where shooting film, how is that?”
    This has all been said previously, but is worth repeating: Some artists paint, others use film, and some rely on digital technology. All that matters is “The Art of Seeing.”

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