I’m writing this in the airport lounge, returning home after six days in the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague. It’s a city of almost magical sights, with gothic fairytale spires reaching for the blue sky and chocolate box architecture. But let’s get down to street level . . .
Prague is a city of contrasts: rich, poor, hippies, perpetual travellers, digital nomads and tourists. Oh, the tourists. I’ve just finished running a street photography workshop with a documentary theme, based on the impact of tourism on a once-beautiful city; the tourists were to become the stars of the weekend.
Walk around the Old Town and everywhere you look are cheap trinket shops, donut stalls, touts for guided walks, beer tasting marathons or pub crawls, scammers, gangs of men or women on a stag / hen night ‘mission’, rip-off foreign exchange kiosks and beggars. All this is not exactly ideal for the locals but if you’re a street photographer running a documentary project it could be your lucky day.
My trip started with a flight from Manchester. Whilst I’m not normally one to say no to a beer, I was slightly concerned to be the only sober passenger on this morning flight. The plane smelled like a brewery; the bawdiness had started, even before we left the tarmac. This was my first taste of the following six days in Prague, the stag capital of Europe. And this was a Wednesday morning - it wasn’t even the weekend.
Having spent Thursday finding my street photography feet and ‘reccying’, I had a one-to-one workshop with a lovely lady who is taking the first steps on her street photography journey. We went through some technical basics, explored three approaches to street photography - based on the moment, the narrative and the aesthetic - then hit the streets in some glorious sunshine.
I’d decided to take my Fujifilm x100F and XF10 cameras on this trip, giving me the flexibility to work between 18mm and 23mm (28 to 35mm in full-frame terms). I nearly always shoot wide on the streets, rarely going longer than 23mm, which gets me up-close and involved, ultimately bringing something extra to the image in the form of emotion, drama or energy. And, as the trip had a documentary flavour, the ‘real life’ perspective of the 23mm felt just about right.
My settings for street photography
The weekend workshop started with an hour-long briefing in the wonderfully eccentric Globe Bookstore & Cafe before setting off into the Old Town. The weather was so-so, dry but grey - a disappointment after the previous day’s glorious sunshine. Except in the case of dramatic change to the light, my settings remain pretty much the same: my maxim is ‘set it and forget it’. This usually means aperture priority mode, f/8 and auto-ISO (with a minimum shutter speed of 1/320 sec). I’m quite happy to let the ISO run as high as it likes - these cameras can handle it well. The small-ish aperture is a good compromise - it lets in a reasonable amount of light whilst giving me a decent depth-of-field (which is essential as I use zone focusing).
These settings help me get it right 98% of the time. Street photography is not about perfection, it’s about getting the shot, capturing the moment. That means I need to be able to work quickly and without thinking or worrying about what’s happening with the camera. It’s a pretty failsafe, tried and trusted formula.
Before I leave settings, it’s probably worth a quick shout-out for the ‘snapshot’ mode on the little XF10. Press a button and the camera sets itself to manual focus (you can toggle to focus at either 2m or 5m) and the aperture resets to f/8 (at 2m) or f/5.6 (at 5m). I always go for the 2m option which, with this wide 18mm lens, gives me a massive operating zone, so I don’t ever have to think about focusing on the right part of the scene. It’s liberating.
In search of the moment
the first task for my five students was to learn to observe the ‘moment’. It’s that split second where something interesting, awkward, emotional, dramatic, peculiar or funny happens - and it’s what I consider to be at the heart of most good street photography. We spent half an hour in Staromestske Nameste, the Old Town Square, watching the tourists with their selfie sticks, their awkward poses, pints of beer and ironic bridal gowns. I could have spent the whole day there - you can’t fail to find ‘the moment’ in a place like that.
The street photography documentary project
All of this quest for the moment ran concurrently with our focus on the documentary project. To help the visualise how such a project might look, I asked the students to imagine opening a copy of, say, the National Geographic or Time magazine and seeing their images over 5-6 pages; what would those images look like? Would they be in monochrome or colour? How would they tell the story? How would they work together as a cohesive set? Pre-visualising an assignment in this way can help set some parameters - perhaps even the terms of reference for a project.
We spent the rest of the morning in the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, dodging a heavy shower over a beer and a goulash, before crossing the river to the quieter Maleo Strana district. Here we found lots of swans - great for more tourist madness - and a giant ‘beaver rat’. [Note: I’m writing this on the plane home and have just spotted a guy with a ‘Drink More’ T-shit and two black eyes] .
Layers in street photography
In Kampa Park we found the David Czerny sculptures (large bronze babies with enormous bottoms) which was perfect for an exercise on how to construct an image using layers. This is an important street photography technique and I try to incorporate a similar exercise into all my workshops. Using layers - say three - to construct an image helps to add real volume and depth to the image and is a technique used exquisitely by Alex Webb (see his book, ‘The Suffering of Light’ for examples).
There were three of four of the ‘babies’, all on different planes which, with a smattering of tourists, helped us to experiment with building layers whilst generating more material for the documentary project.
The Charles Bridge, a thunderstorm and another rat
At 5am on a clear morning, the Charles Bridge is a go-to destination for photographers. At 4pm on a grey Saturday afternoon it amounts to tourist hell - but with some more potential for our documentary project. I took a picture (discreetly, I thought) of a guy with a white rat, who went berserk and demanded I delete the image (which of course I didn’t); he was starting to get a bit violent but when a couple of fellow workshoppers surrounded me he backed off (thanks Andy and Tobias!). Still, it was a lesson for everyone to stand your ground and reaffirm your belief that it’s not wrong or illegal to take pictures in a public place (though not in every public place - I’ll write a separate article about the legalities of street photography).
On Sunday we checked out the smaller of Prague’s two railway stations, the photogenic Karlin tunnel, the ‘JZP’ church and square and Zizkov’s controversial TV tower, before catching the metro to Wenceslas Square. The Prague metro is an interesting place for street photography, with its quirky backdrops and no shortage of interesting people.
So, as a destination, Prague has lots to offer for street photographers, especially in good light. Travel light, be prepared to walk lots and make sure you use the metro and trams.