Photography guide

Photography can be a very important asset for Streetwise Opera for the following reasons:

  • It allows us to publicise our work in digital and print formats and platforms.
  • It places Streetwise performers at the centre of our marketing and comms.
  • It communicates the joy and empowerment of taking part in our activities.
  • It helps change perceptions of what people affected by homelessness look like and what they can achieve.
  • It provides participants or performers with tangible memories they can save and share proudly.

We live in a world overloaded with images. Just in 2016, about 2.5 trillion images were shared online. Most people are visually fatigued, distracted and have a decreasing attention span. If we are going to make them pay attention to Streetwise Opera for even a second, we need great and memorable photography.

What makes a "good" photo?

Photography is subjective. What is considered a “good” photo is based on a mix of social conventions, artistic and cultural heritage, and the very specific objectives of the person or organisation producing or sharing a photo. 

At Streetwise Opera we believe that a “good” photo is one that: 

  • Captures a moment or tells a story, engaging our audiences and making them stop and think about our work.
  • Communicates the joy and empowerment of Streetwise performers.
  • Is faithful to our values and respectful of Streetwise performers and anyone else in the image.
  • Is artistically and technically ambitious and beautiful, because people affected by homelessness deserve to be portrayed as beautifully as anybody else.
  • Meets the technical requirements for its intended use: enough resolution for online or print. 

How does photography work?

No matter how expensive, affordable, old, new, complex or simple your camera or smartphone is, the principles of photography are the same.

The camera’s shutter opens and closes for a specific period of time, allowing the light that bounces off a subject to travel through the lens and to make an impression on either a sensor or a piece of film. Basically, we are capturing light. And how much light we capture depends on four things:

  • The lighting of the subject. Allow yourself to take control of this. Can you move the group next to a window? Can you ensure all artificial light is turned on? Can you make sure the sun or another light source is not behind the subjects?
  • The sensitivity of the sensor or film. The higher the ISO setting, the more grain there will be in the image – and unlike analogue photography grain, digital photography grain is not nice! 
  • The shutter speed. Set this higher for moving subjects and lower for static ones; but don’t go too low (let’s say 1/125 handheld) or your subjects will have movement blur either from their movement or your hands holding the camera.
  • The aperture of the diaphragm. Set this as low or open as possible for low light and shallow depth of field (that very attractive blur in the background and foreground of some images).

If you are using a smartphone to take photos, you won’t have much control over the last three points (unless you install a manual control camera app). That forces you to work even harder to make sure the lighting of the subject is as good as possible.

A general recommendation is that unless you have access to an off-camera flashgun that will allow you to bounce the light, you should avoid using the flash on your camera or smartphone. This just produces harsh frontal lighting with deep shadows that is unflattering and unfair to the subject in the photo. 

Tips: Before you take the first photo

  • Respect. Ask yourself if this is the right moment and place for photos. Has a new person arrived in a workshop and is nervous enough as it is? Will taking photos make them even more uncomfortable or self-conscious?
  • Consent. Tell everyone that you will be taking photos and what you intent to do with them. Ask them to let you know if they do not wish to be photographed, and inform them that they can withdraw their consent later on by contacting Streetwise Opera.
  • Objective. Why do we want photos of this activity? What will we use them for? Social media? Print? Internal use? These factors will affect the kind of photos you take.
  • Location. Are you sure the room you are going to take photos in is the best one? If that space is not adequate, can you wait until the group moves to a better location?
  • Moment. When is the best time to take photos? Do you want to do it throughout an activity? Or will you choose a specific moment to avoid becoming a distraction?
  • Your position. As we said above, photography is about capturing how light bounces off a subject. Take control of the lighting to ensure the group you are photographing is well lit. That means the most powerful light source (be it artificial or natural) must be behind you and shining on to the group. 
  • Holding the camera or smartphone. Most of the images we share on the Streetwise website are horizontal or landscape, which is better for capturing a group of people. However, the occasional vertical or portrait photo is great for Instagram stories, or can be cropped as a square image. Keep a firm and stable grip on the camera or smartphone, take a deep breath and get ready to press the shutter button as you exhale slowly. This will help you get more stable shots. 

Tips: Compose the photo you want

  • Take control, take your time. On most occasions you will not be in a hurry to take a photo. Take a deep breath, look at the scene through your camera or smartphone, ensure you are happy, get closer or further back, move to another side. The best photographers never remain static. They are always moving around the room looking for the best angle.
  • Consider the rules of composition. As we said above, what makes a “good” image depends on several things, including a mix of social conventions, and artistic and cultural heritage. For centuries, artists have been framing scenes or subjects in very specific ways, sometimes breaking the rules, and other times making up new ones. Find time to look at great paintings and photography to remind you what makes a “good” photo.
  • Don’t try to tell all the story in one image. This is very difficult to achieve. If you fit every single performer on stage in a photo you will have a nice polite picture that includes everyone, yes, but their faces will look tiny, you will capture people who were not “in the zone” while performing and might look bored or tired, and anyone who looks at the image later will probably find it too busy and dull.
  • Watch your background. Whilst you are focusing on that one person or element that will make the photo interesting, do a quick scan of the background. Is there anything or anyone that creates a distraction? Is there a performer that looks upset or unengaged? Is there someone who’s asked to not be photographed?
  • Focus on one element. The human brain requires a degree of simplicity to process new information. Some of the best photos have one main person or element that captures your eye. Once you focus on it, you understand what the photo is about and your brain can then move on to process everything else. Even the photo below, that shows a group on stage, has one person who clearly is the main focus of attention.
  • Consider the rule of thirds. Since Western culture moved on from Egyptian symmetry, our image composition tends to respond to the rule of thirds. Instead of placing your subject in the very centre of the photo, divide the frame in thirds horizontally and vertically and ensure that the focus of attention is aligned with one of the intersections.
  • However, don’t be afraid of symmetry. Sometimes a composition with the subject at the very centre of the image adds dramatic tension.
  • Respect the “looking room”. As a result of using the rule of thirds, the main subject in a photo will have more space on one side. It is more common to leave that space towards the subject’s front instead of back. The so-called “looking room” is the space that the subject is looking at. This tip, like all others, is not absolute. Sometimes leaving more space behind a subject can have a powerful dramatic effect.
  • Use lines or shapes to frame the subject. Keep an eye out for perspectives, furniture or other elements that can create a visual effect that helps to frame the subject in a unique way.
  • Don’t be afraid to get close. We are are a charity that brings joy and empowerment to Streetwise performers. Sometimes you need get very close in order to capture their facial expressions. This is best done during dress rehearsals and not proper performances.
  • Change your view point. Sometimes an event is better understood with a wide shot that allows you to capture as much as possible of the scenery or environment.
  • Blurred shoulders and heads are your friends. In general, blurred foregrounds or backgrounds are great because they help the viewer focus on the main subject in the photo. In the photo below, the blurred man and woman in the foreground help frame the main subject while also suggesting an interaction between them, adding dramatic intensity to the image.
  • The same thing happens with a blurry background. In this photo the faces of people in the background are blurry but the viewer can still see enough of them to understand a bit more about the story.
  • Try playing with negative space. We are usually tempted to fill the frame completely. Leave empty space in a photo sometimes. This will allow a graphic designer to use the image for publications or other marketing artwork.

Tips: When to press the shutter button

You’ve come up with an amazing composition and are ready to take a photo. You raise the camera or smartphone, look through the screen or viewfinder and take the photo, right? Hopefully not. 

  • Wait for it. The fact that you have a great composition does not mean you’ve also got a great photo. Be patient and wait for the people in the frame to add a bit of magic to the shot. It can be a smile or a dramatic gesture if they are on stage. The best photographers will spend a good 5 to 10 minutes in one composition, waiting to take that one shot that will be amazing.
  • Ensure perfect focus. If you are using a camera, make sure the focus points in the viewfinder are on or near the eyes of your main subject, and if you are using a smartphone just tap the screen on the point where you wish to focus. This is critical as clear focus is important so that the viewer can understand who or what is the main subject in the photo. 
  • People blink. When the magic happens, make sure to leave your finger pressed on the shutter button. Take a good burst of shots of the same moment so you can choose the one with the best energy… and avoid people with closed eyes or awkward expressions.
  • Check and move on. If you are happy with some of the pics from your burst, find a new composition you like and, once again, wait for the right moment. At the end of a workshop, rehearsal or performance, the ideal scenario is that you have a series of bursts from 8 or 10 very good compositions from different view points and focusing on different individuals or small groups, as well as some wide shots.
  • Pay attention to the music. If you are photographing a group of people singing, pay attention to the song. See when it has its most exciting moment, notice how the singers repeat certain parts. Understanding this will hep you predict when a good moment for a photo is approaching.

Tips: Sharing your images

If you’ve shot bursts for several compositions, you will most probably end up with dozens of images. Choose the best ones (the ones with clearer focus and more interesting action) and discard the others.

  • Retouching. Photos straight out of the camera usually require some editing or retouching. If you are passing on your photos to Streetwise Marketing and Comms, you do not need to retouch them. We will do this if necessary, which might include alterations to colour temperature, tint, exposure, contrast and the intensity of highlights and shadows. At Streetwise Opera we do not use cosmetic edits, like softening skin tones, or edits that significantly change the content of a photo. Here is an example of acceptable editing of a photo, to correct overly-warm stage lighting and add a bit of contrast and clarity.
IMG_0283_non_edited IMG_0283_edited
  • Sending your images. Avoid using WhatsApp or other messaging apps to share your photos, as this will compress them and affect their quality. Email them or upload them to a Google Drive or some other file sharing service and then share the link.

Photos and text: Rey Trombetta @ Streetwise Opera