A Dublin Street Photography Course

Over the last week, I’ve done a few things for the first time. Firstly(!), I attended a photography workshop. I also enjoyed some ‘street photography’. I had an operation to remove a piece of bone that was floating around in my knee joint, and in a separate, and unrelated incident, missed a connecting flight.
All firsts, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll stick to just the first two of these… firsts.

You might have read a post from a couple of weeks ago when I was preparing for this upcoming workshop by shooting our surroundings on a Saturday morning trip to the Milk Market in Limerick and trying understand what exactly street photography is, and why I find it so difficult to enjoy. You may also have read (and listened to) the story of my conversation with Pulitzer Prize winning photo-journalist Cathal McNaughton.

Well, this post is where the dots are joined as it’s a write-up of the street/reportage photography workshop that I attended last weekend, that was hosted by Cathal. I’d decided to attend whilst listening to him speak at a camera club presentation a month or so before. I may have got carried away in the moment by signing up (and paying for) a workshop in street photography while he was still talking, as I’ve never much fancied workshops or photography courses. I imagined them to be a load of people men, lining up their tripods and shooting a scene that was being presented to them by a photographer of questionable abilities, with everyone ending up with the same shot.

Having listened to Cathal speak for an hour about his career and experiences, shooting some of the most important news of of our era (and taken a look into his eyes), I knew a course run by him was unlikely to fit to my stereotype.

I also didn’t see how a street and reportage course could follow my vague preconception either. The one thing that ‘street’ seems to be about, is reacting to whatever might occur in front of your lens while you’re out and about. Cities, especially those as lively as Dublin, are rarely predictable.

As for why I’d sign up for a street photography course given my low opinion of the genre, well that was more about the rut that I continue to find myself in with my picture making. I’ll try anything at the moment and this seemed like a pretty exciting potential solution.

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And so, last Saturday morning, I drove the two and a quarter hours from home in County Clare to the meeting point in Dublin. The country was being battered by Storm Dennis (my Dad’s dog is Dennis. No, really.) and I passed through torrential rain and hail showers on my way east, a pattern that was to continue. After parking and setting out for the rendezvous point, Cathal sent a message that he was running a little late, but as I arrived at the Chocolate Cafe, I spotted two guys with photo backpacks and knew I must be in the right place.

We chatted about our expectations and experiences as we waited. It seemed that both Kevin and Ryan were experienced street (and wedding) shooters and seemed confident in their abilities to take on the streets of the capital.

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Cathal made a fairly spectacular entrance, driving his converted Sprinter van, with its massive off-road tyres, onto what seemed to be Dublin’s busiest pedestrian street. We all jumped in, like movie gangsters off to rob a bank, but instead set-off to find parking.

Van abandoned, we headed for another cafe for a pre-match briefing. Cathal explained that we were going to start the day on one of the ‘edgiest’ streets in the city centre, which was right outside the door of the cafe; we’d be straight in at the deep-end.
Moore Street seemed to be home to a half-arsed market, some ‘international’ supermarkets and a cast of local characters. The idea was that we’d go our separate ways and start shooting the street, while Cathal observed from a distance. We’d later re-group and get some feedback.

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And so we did. After 45 minutes or so, we met in the Starbuck’s (there’s a theme here) and handed over our cameras for Cathal’s verdict on our early efforts. He was pretty harsh, but it was exactly what we all needed. We’d all played very ‘safe’, struggling to get up to speed quickly.

After the feedback, we received some ideas and things to try, which I’ve included in the list below. There was probably nothing in the advice that I didn’t already know, having read a little about the history and techniques involved in street photography. The difference was that the advice (and the feedback on our pictures) was still ringing in our ears as we returned to Moore Street and it’s never ending stream of personalities (and ‘crazies’).

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In no particular order, some of the suggestions I received from Cathal were:

The idea of ‘working’ an area.
If I’d have headed out to shoot in Dublin on my own, the chances are that I would have covered many times the mileage we did in the six hours of this workshop. In Poland, when I’ve wandered a city to photograph it, it’s not unusual for me to clock-up more than 20km of walking in a day. I understand that I wasn’t out to see the sights during this course, more to come away with pictures that represent the people of the city somehow, and so there wasn’t the need for that sort of distance.
Instead, we spent more than two hours shooting on a street that was little more than 300m long. We became part of the scenery and got to understand the flow of people in the space. Because we’d hung around, we spotted the guy selling knock-off fags from a carrier bag and learned to see his customers from a distance as they approached him.

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Stand still – let people pass.
This was a really interesting (and fun) exercise. We picked out a busy crossing beneath Dublin’s impressive Spire and as people crossed the street, we stood still on the other side of the road. This meant on occasions that there were a flood of faces moving past us at very close distances. We ‘held the pose’ and kept the camera pointing back past them and so for the most part, they were unaware that they had just been photographed.
Not subtle perhaps, but some of the expressions caught of people lost in their own worlds as they moved through the crowds was interesting to see and record, and something very different for a street photography beginner.

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Find a scene or a backdrop…
…that works and wait for an interesting character to walk into it. Wait long enough and they will come. For example, in the third picture on this page, the poster with ‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE’ was just waiting for the right person to pass. I must have shot eight to ten people passing in front of it, but the picture I chose from the sequence was the one of the girl who seemed to follow the poster’s advice and so was gazing off to the rooftops. Or beyond.

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Shoot more.
This was a tough one for me. Perhaps because 50% of my photography is shot on film, I’m very conservative with the quantity of pictures that I take. My digital and film cameras are very similar, being Leica Ms, and I’ve tried to carry over those good film habits into digital. I tend to shoot aperture priority, turn off the screen and avoid making changes as I go – just like if I loaded a roll of film that I couldn’t change until it’s finished.
However, as I practiced during the session, often the more interesting picture, such as the subject looking at the camera or multiple, moving elements aligning in the frame, happens just after (or even just before) the one shot I might have taken. While this might mean a few more seconds of editing later on, it certainly yielded one or two better pictures by holding that shutter button down. (My M9M shoots at a paltry 3.7 frames a second and so I won’t have the problems that others might. Although it also lessens the chances of me hitting that perfect split second.)
But I tried, and as an indication, I came away with 272 pictures on my SD card from the six hours we spent on the streets. That’s more that I shot in two weeks touring the Canadian Rockies last year.

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Adapt to the weather…
…or other outside factors. As Storm Dennis arrived later in the day, and with it torrential rain, my camera was tucked away and I didn’t take many more pictures. What I did try and take were either with my phone (bottom of the page) or pictures from the safety of doorways, or inside the cafe (yes, another) instead (above). As it grew darker, I began to look for details, rather than wider scenes.

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So you might read these (indented) pointers or learnings from the day and think that surely I didn’t need to pay for a workshop to learn these basic points. However, as I said earlier, actually practicing these things and being reminded of them while out in the streets worked well.

And it was FUN.

It was a long way out of my ‘comfort zone’, and I’m still not happy that I got beyond taking random snaps in public, but it’s a start. I was introduced to things that were new to me and that I’ve never practiced before. I write this a week later in a hotel bar in Florence. Tomorrow I have a day free to wander the city and plan to practice some of these techniques again. Having taken the course, I expect that I’ll shoot some quite different pictures to what I might have done otherwise…

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I very much enjoyed the way Cathal ran the course (he’s not given his feedback on the pictures that I took yet, so I may change my mind!). He observed how we worked and gave suitable advice to help us each get the most from the day. If you’ve seen his work, you’ll understand why his opinion is one that should be listened too.

To find details of his future courses, check out his site here.

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