Three Ways I Photograph Graffiti

I find myself on occasion photographing graffiti as a meditative practice. Normally, it doesn't interest me because actual people aren't the primary subject matter.

Recently, I photographed a series of panels along one of the back roads of my neighborhood. I hadn't planned it. I was testing a new wide angle lens, an 18mm Samyang 2.8 for Sony E Mount. What better way to test a wide angle lens than to capture some wide panels of graffiti?

What I realized during the 15 minutes or so I spent photographing these works of art is that although I don't go out of my way to photograph graffiti, I do typically have three ways that I do so.

Fill the frame

This is by far the most pleasing way, in my opinion. The point in this method is to capture what the artist created as opposed to how the visuals interact with the surroundings.

This header image and the above are both representative of the full size graffiti works. There is no surrounding wall or clues that there are physical structures present save for the fact that the wall is visible through the paint.

To achieve this, one usually must shoot wide and then crop in during post to cut out the non-painted bits. I'm someone who likes to keep the original dimensions whenever possible - I refuse to free crop because I like the dimensions of my images to be either true to the original aspect ratio or custom-fit to 4x5 or a square crop for Instagram.

Additionally to cropping, one may have to check the Content Aware box, which is a crop function in later Photoshop versions, to adjust the frame to fill in the artist's work where wall would have existed otherwise. Further still, one may have to use Content Aware Fill or the spot healing brushes to clean up duplicate patterns and other unruly results.

Focus on just a section of the artist's work

This image is actually a select portrait view of the artist's full work. The below is the original, out-of-camera shot.

There could be several reasons for focusing just on one section of the artist's work. One could be framing issues. Either the image is too large for the camera's lens or there's not enough room on the sidewalk to capture it in its entirety.

Or it may boil down to preference. As I did shoot the entire work, I only wanted to show a 4x5 portrait view of the final image focusing on the man and the girl. There's no right or wrong here. As photographer, it's my own image I'm creating and I've no moral obligation to pursue another's viewpoint nor to represent "reality", which is a fool's errand if one is being serious about the prospect.

Capture subjects interacting with the artist's work

This method is common in street photography. What the photographer will do is frame up the shot in advance and wait for the right person to walk through the scene. In the above example, I wanted to show this angle because my new lens was capable of including a lot of the scene with a 100 degree viewing angle.

The straight-on view is likely the most common form of this type of street photography, and in my opinion, the least interesting. What the photographer will attempt is to line up the subject within the frame to logically interact with the art. This borders on super cliche, for me. I don't find it creatively challenging nor interesting. The best one could say is "Wow. That's clever." To me, it's like writing a parody for a song. The best you could hope for is a pat on the back and a "clever" or a "haha lol" response from your audience. It's a low form of art, if it's an art form at all. Parody is like sarcasm - the lowest wrung of humor. Shooting photography like this should be avoided unless you're into shooting ironically as a niche or for a project.

There are likely other ways to photograph graffiti. But the point of this blog initially was that of an epiphany. When I shot these images, I thought it out and concluded there were three common ways that I photograph graffiti on those rare occasions that I do. And this should be the take away: figure out why you photograph something the way you do. Determine if it's worthy of exploring further or branching out in a new direction. This is one of the ways we grow as photographers.

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