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An Introduction to the Dark Side of Street Photography

By Adam Waltner on June 23, 2016


The New York Institute of Photography is one of the world’s largest photography schools and because we are, we often publish fun and useful photography tips on our photography blog. Please enjoy!

©Daido Moriyama

The world of street photography is one of brutality. The inhabitants of which are often distorted, hostile, or outright monstrous.

This is a genre that lends itself to imperfections. Techniques of of the grotesque such as: the blurred shutter speeds of Antoine D’Agata and Daido Moriyama, silhouettes of Bernd Schaefers, dutch angles of Anders Peterson, and the distorted wide lenses of Jacob Aue Sobol, all work to blur the line between reality and a world of nightmares.

©Antoine D’Agata

Street Photography is the opposite of Landscape Photography---the former being as volatile as the latter is serene. Traditionally, the beauty of nature requires a tripod and crystal clear resolution. Conversely, images of the city are amplified by rawness and the lo-fi grit that 35mm is famous for.

Perhaps shooting on film has been a favorite of street photographers for decades because of the drama it adds. Not just any stock of film though… for those that dare into the dark side, the only real option is Tri-X. A grainy, high contrast film that makes the images appear as if they'd been dragged through a cave of shadows and fear. The texture, shadow and latitude of the film renders animals into demons and people into ghosts. The stills become visual fossils, postcards from the edge.

©Daido Moriyama
©Daido Moriyama
©Daido Moriyama

While nothing beats the feeling of film, its aesthetic can be mimicked with the proper editing.

One can still achieve the Tri-X look through experimenting with various softwares such as Alien Skin’s Exposure X or creating your own presets in Lightroom. Some modern cameras even offer presets that mimic this style. If you’re a novice in street photography, or you’re simply looking for a new way to approach the craft, the Tri-X concept is a worthy technique to consider.

©Anders Petersen

Here are a few things to remember when embarking on this dark path:

Pack Light- Put down that five pound DSLR and grab a weapon that’s less conspicuous. Nothing beats an original 35mm Ricoh GR. But the digital version of this classic Ricoh is true to the design and vision of the original line. If you prefer zoom lenses, the Sony RX series currently offers several models that are even smaller than the GR. Other camera contenders include: the Fuji x100T, Sigma DP2, Canon Powershots, Leica M’s (if you can afford them) the list is endless. Mirrorless is the obvious choice for its form factor and the ability to shoot subtly. Cell phones are also fantastic since people often assume you’re a tourist and ignore you. One shooting tip is to smile into your phone and pretend your taking a selfie while you’re really capturing the scene in front of you. This is an effective way to disarm any squeamish onlookers or subjects.

©Sohrab Hura

Don’t be afraid to get a bad shot- Shooting on the street is challenging. Subjects are impossible to control. Moments are fleeting. You may not be able to get the perfect composition or dial-in the proper exposure settings, but you must take the shot anyway. Take several shots if possible. There will be time to worry about the revision process later at home when you can be more objective. Sometimes it’s best to remove the technical restraints of manual mode and be present in the process of taking a photo. The best work may come from what seems like a mistake in the moment.

©Bernd Schaefers

Passport to the Netherworld- To be a Tri-X practioner is to embrace a kind of personal journalism akin to a rap song or a journal entry. Every city and street is bustling with stories and characters living on the edge that you can translate from your own perspective. Use your street photography as an excuse to delve into the places you’re normally too afraid to interact with. Explore a dark alley, peer into that abandoned building, go walk the streets after the bars let out Downtown.

©Jacob Aue Sobol

The Tri-X look is a concept in photography that lends itself to the streets. If you find yourself becoming one of its practitioners, realize you are working in a hallowed tradition amongst good company. As you tread the left hand path, keep your senses alive and open. You never know what you might encounter around the next corner. It might just be a great shot!

Check out NYIP instructor Adam Waltner's website here!

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