My guest on today's episode is Valérie Jardin. She's a fellow French person, she lives in the US and she also has a podcast. We have a lot in common!
But the reason I decided to interview her is that she's a street photography educator. Most of us love to look at great iconic photos of Paris. Maybe we have one hanging in our home? But could we possibly one day take a photo that captures a Paris moment perfectly? It turns out there are some techniques to taking THE photo of your trip and Valérie explains how she goes about it.
In this episode we discuss the ethics of street photography. There are some things you should not do when taking photos in France. And we talk about Normandy where Valérie grew up!
Photo Credit: ©Valerie Jardin
Paris Street Photography with Valérie Jardin
Street photography is also called documentary photography. It's about telling a story in a frame. It is the most difficult type of photography because you control your eyes and your camera, but you don't control what your subjects are going to do.
Valérie Jardin Rules of Street Photography
- Don't set things up. Maybe you can choose your location and wait.
- It's not about the gear and the settings. It's about seeing.
- When doing street photography you normally don't shoot either in full manual or full auto. Aperture priority works well most of the time.
- Aperture priority lets you control where the camera is going to focus and what's going to be left blurred.
- It's about anticipation and being able to anticipate when something cool and unique is going to happen.
- There's a lot of psychology in Paris street photography. As you observe people you might get to the point where you can anticipate what they're going to do.
- Valérie shoots with a 23mm lens, so she's really close to her subjects. Even though her camera is silent, if she takes dozens of shots people will notice her, which defeats the purpose.
- You want candid photos in street photography, the photographer needs to blend in the scene without being noticed.
- Paris street photography involves a lot of walking and observing which is the same thing as what you do when visiting Paris actually!
- Sometimes you realize that the light is interesting, then find a great backdrop quickly and wait for the right subject to walk by.
- It's about discerning the right time, place and subject.
- Tourists walking by is not interesting, but if you can find a subject that's authentic, that makes it a great photo.
- You need to be patient and observe your surroundings.
- Remember: you want to capture the beauty in ordinary life in Paris!
- If you learn how freeze ordinary life in a frame, you will have the best vacation photos!
- Shoot up-close, no long lens, no hiding.
- You can shoot in any light, learn how to make the most of whatever light the weather and time of day gives you.
Is Street Photography Ethical?
Will people get mad at me if I take their photo without permission? 99% of the time the answer is no. Street photographers are not trying to hide but they need to be discreet as to not influence what the subject is doing naturally.
If people know they're being photographed they will change whatever they are doing and you don't want that. But it's OK if they realize after the fact that someone took their photo, most people don't mind. However, don't be sneaky, don't hide. There's a big difference between being discrete and being a voyeur!
Explain Why this Was a Beautiful Moment
If people notice Valérie and ask what she's doing she will explain that this was a beautiful moment. She might mention they way the light was hitting their hair or the beautiful way they dress. People are flattered that you saw the beauty in their person and setting.
If asked, tell your subject that you're doing a story on Paris today or documenting life on the streets of Paris. That makes it easy for them to accept and understand. Most people will neither notice nor ask because the street photographer has moved on to the next spot.
Don't shoot street photography with a long lens. You must be close, in the scene with people while at the same time not influencing the subject of the scene. Folks who shoot with long lenses are paparazzi, a different "genre" altogether!
When NOT to Share Photos
If someone is uncomfortable with you doing street photography, explain what you're doing, but remember that it's not worth a fight. You can tell them that you'll never post or share the picture. It's never gotten to this point with Valérie in years of practicing and teaching this art all over the world.
Be Respectful of Others
If you wouldn't like someone sharing a photo of you in this situation, then don't do it to other people. Photograph the beauty of every-day life. Valérie is not looking for moments of crisis. Don't photograph people in crisis, embarrassing or vulnerable situations. That's a job for news photographers, again, another genre of photography.
What Can You Photograph in France?
In France you can photograph anything or anyone in public. It's what you do with the photos that matter and what your intentions are when taking the photo.
You are not supposed to take photos of people in vulnerable or embarrassing situations. You must not take photos with the intention of belittling another person.
If your purpose is never to do damage to another person, then you've done nothing wrong. It's extremely rare for photographers to get taken to court and even when they do, in France at least, so long as they don't use the photo to make fun of someone or give them a bad name, then it's allowed.
Be really careful if your subjects are kids, you don't want to be creepy and it's a fine line to walk.
Best Area for Paris Street Photography?
Valérie likes to walk around the 5th arrondissement (that's Latin Quarter / Saint Germain des Prés) because that's her neighborhood. Sometimes she takes the metro just to take spontaneous shots in the metro. You should get lost on purpose by walking wherever looks interesting to you.
If it's a sunny day, focus on finding shafts of light. If it's overcast look for emotions on people's faces. As long as there are people, there are stories. There is no bad place to take pictures. You need to find the places where you can see the stories and the people.
What About Travel Photography?
When you're visiting a place and visiting sites, ask yourself how you can take a photo that's not been done before. This is actually a great challenge to take on that will get you thinking. It's about seeing famous monuments with a different point of view as discussed at length in episode How to Capture the Best Vacation Photos, Episode 220
If it's so touristy that the photo has been taken a million times, then looking for every-day life in that setting can give you your own iconic shot of that landmark. If you can find a moment that has never happened before and never will again in front of a famous monument, you've got a great photo!
Because people are the soul of a place, if you do travel photography without anyone in the shot, then you're missing the soul of the place. It's about capturing interesting action in front of a famous monuments. Always try to include the human element in your photos.
Why Is So Much of Street Photography Black and White?
Sometimes the color is a distraction from what you want people to notice. If there is something super bright in the shot but you want people to notice the action, then take the shot in black and white. But sometimes it's all about the color. It just depends.
What Can Non-Photographers Do to Get Better Shots in Paris?
Try to photograph an iconic landmark in a different way.
- Look for reflections in puddles.
- Look for reflections in a scooter's rear view mirror.
- Incorporate people in your shot, especially if they are doing something interesting or different.
- Maybe there's a bicyclist zooming by with the iconic landmark in the back?
- Think of things you haven't seen before in this place.
Good Place to Get Paris Cityscapes
- Tour Montparnasse, but you need a long lens or everything will look tiny.
- The Eiffel Tower, but then the Eiffel Tower won't be in your shot.
- Go to the top of Beaubourg where you see the blue roofs of Paris Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Episode 42
- Notre Dame will give you some great shots if you include the chimeras in your shot. Notre Dame Cathedral, Episode 4
- The top of the Arc de Triomphe is also good. You can do a fun time-lapse of the traffic at the crazy roundabout called Etoile.
- At CDG you can take photos of the silhouettes of the workers taking their cigarette breaks outside.
This list is not exhaustive, you don't have to go very high in Paris to get nice shots. Could be there's a lovely view out of your hotel window!
Valérie’s Camera Gear
Valérie's camera has a fixed lens, so there's no carrying extra lenses around (nice!). She shoots the Fuji X 100F, it has a 23mm lens. It is very small, it's quiet. It looks like an old-fashioned camera. People think it's a film camera because it's very retro looking.
Valérie’s Advice for France Visitors
Valérie is originally from Normandy but spent her summers in the Chamonix area. She spends a lot of time in Normandy still and teaches a workshop about visual story-telling in Normandy. On this tour they go to D-Day beaches and Honfleur, etc.
In Normandy you should see Honfleur and Cabourg. The romantic film festival is in Cabourg, it's a beautiful romantic place. Bayeux is a nice little town and a good home-base to explore Normandy. Then rent a car and you'll be in close proximity to lots of beautiful places.
It rains a lot in Normandy, but in that case look for natural reflections in the rain, in the windows. Rainy days are still great for photography. Just look for puddles!
Favorite French singer: Renaud.
French thing she will never do again: She doesn't want to complain like a French person again. But it goes against her nature!
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Discussed in this Episode
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Robert Doisneau
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In street photography it's the eye that matters, not the camera. You even do this with a phone. It's a bit limiting, but you can do it once you have an eye for it. Focus on seeing not on settings!