I have been traveling a fair amount for work this year. My travel typically consist of me flying to the location the evening before, sleep, get up and rush to various events, hurry to airport to catch my flight home. These are quick trips and do not usually allow for time to do personal shooting of the area I’m in. That said, the last two trips have been more than an evening which has allowed me to take, like in Alabama, at least a couple hours to explore and capture what I see. My trip to San Francisco allowed me to take the opportunity for a couple short outings to capture the city.
This time around, I didn’t want to find myself stuck behind the viewfinder of my camera so I decided to use my phone – an iPhone 6s Plus. I know if I’m walking around the city I will be a snap-happy person but will also isolate myself from absorbing the city during my exploration. And, because you know I thrive on them, I wanted to give myself a challenge. Walking around a busy city means street photography jumped front and center in my mind. I didn’t want to travel to the ultra touristy areas only to capture the same images everyone else tries to capture, I wanted to grab the city as a whole and not (just) the iconic shots – yeah yeah I know the first image you see is of the Golden Gate Bridge, some things are just too good not to pass up. So street photography with my iPhone, that doesn’t sound overly complex, so I ramped up the challenge and wanted to focus more on nighttime versus daytime photography – less than a third of the final images were shot during the day. Phone cameras have made progress by leaps and bounds for well lit situations, it was time to put the phone to a dark, not well lit challenge. My tools for this challenge were headphones (gotta have some music – Pink Floyd Pulse) and my phone. I didn’t have a predetermined path or places I HAD to go, I just exited the hotel and would either turn left or right and then decide from that point on.
Before I go further, I know some might be saying ‘wait a sec, I thought you didn’t want to be disconnected with the city? If so then why the headphones?’ True, I might be limiting myself from the entire city experience of the sights, smells, and sounds. I can’t work without music. When I’m walking around a city, jogging, or doing any event on my own, I always listen to something, it is a soundtrack that helps me stop focusing on all the other things happening in my life and actually focus better on what I’m doing. The music provides a soundtrack to my adventures and more often than not I find there will be lyrics or passages of music that lends is paired up beautifully to something I see or experience while on that journey. The music that is chosen tends to be more relaxing or atmospheric than anything else, Pink Floyd, Covenant, Thievery Corporation, etc. you get the idea. Besides, when I go to the camera app, the music pauses so I do get to fold in the aural elements when I’m capturing images when out and about.
My goal was not to capture the glossy beautiful, postcard shots of San Francisco.
I wanted to relate something a little more moody and provide some more dramatic imagery, a stark contrast to what I did in Alabama.
I wanted to embrace that more street photography vibe.
There is something fun and exciting about getting ‘lost’ in a new city. Well, San Francisco isn’t new to me, I have been here a handful of time for work, but the area I was staying was new. Typically I stay near the wharf and this time I’m in the heart of the city. Venturing out without a plan or destination is a very freeing way to explore. I would take turns at streets because there might be something fun or interesting to see, sometimes I just ended up circling a block because no, I was wrong. Admittedly I did stay away from the streets that had a non-friendly look about them – I would certainly give them a shot if I was with another, safety in numbers and all that jazz.
By zigzagging the blocks and not focusing on the tourist traps I think I was witnessing the real San Francisco, not necessarily the one that people travel around the world to see but the San Francisco that local people see every day.
It is always different walking the streets at night versus the day. Sure it is the same city physically but the vibe is different. Gone are the office spaces and the warm embrace of neon entices you to enter the shop. The marquees and flashing lights guiding your way through the night.
I admit, what drove my decisions on what street to turn down a street was what the lights looked like. Were there a lot of neon signs? Were there shop windows all lit up? What action was happening not just with people but by the colors lighting up the night? One of the streets I ventured down had some street performers. Now I know that shooting street performers – buskers – is considered ‘low hanging fruit’ within many in the street photography community, but these guys were a little different from what I typically see at night. There was a drummer, a bassist, some horns, guitar and lead singer and they were wired for sound. There is a jazz band here in DC that does a similar set-up so I can’t say it is something I never see, but it is not the typical, true? So I stopped and watched them perform on the sidewalk and see how they were engaging the crowd. Getting people to dance, singing to people as they walked through the crowd, and everyone was having a great time. I was just one of the several faces in the crowd holding up a cell phone to snap a few images. After I had what I wanted I started the music back up and made my way down the block. Time to see what else the night had in store.
they made some popcorn and gave it to one of the yahtzee patrons while just refilling our bowl with generic bar mix #14
The first night I was there I met up with some co-workers for a fancy dinner with some of their friends that lived in the area. After we were all done with the meal people peeled off and went their own ways. I, on the other hand, was feeling the need to experience some of the city (big shock I know) and made mention that I was going to find some dive-lookin bar. One of my co-workers was also not quite ready to turn in so she joined me on the adventure. WE didn’t know where to go exactly so we set off, much like I was planning on the rest of the week, by walking in a general direction of activity and see what areas we stumbled upon. Now admittedly we didn’t want to walk forever trying to find some places that fit our criteria – dive looking, no high priced drinks, relaxed and not a pick-up place basically – so we turned to Yelp to help guide us. Within just a couple blocks we were treated to a couple options and we chose the option that looked less depressing – there were only two people in the bar and we wanted dive not abandoned. We ended up at a place called ‘Chelsea Place.’ It wasn’t a bad location. It was small and had that dive feel. You could tell the people who were there were all locals and this was a regular routine for them to be in there pounding out a yahtzee on the bar with one of the bar tenders, or drunkily dancing alone. We were the strangers there but we weren’t treated as such. We were left on our own to sit and sip and talk about work, and editing, and whatever else popped up. I will say though, they made some popcorn and gave it to one of the yahtzee patrons while just refilling our bowl with generic bar mix #14. Smelling the popcorn made the #14 mix seem more bland with each crunch. I also have to mention I enjoyed the graffiti in the bathroom. Who knew people were looking for me?
Regardless of the city I am in, or you are in, there is something that can be found and inspire the creative soul if you just take the time to go out and explore. Don’t explore with the mindset of “I HAVE TO FIND PICTURES TO TAKE” but go out with the idea of getting to know what is around you and when the mood strikes snap away. I would also say, don’t spend too much time on one subject either. Take a couple of pics and move on. The more you analyze what you are shooting then the more you can overthink. I think that is why I like street photography, because most of the time you only have a moment or two to capture that ‘thing’ and you can’t afford to linger too much, not at least without the worry of being pulled out of the moment that inspired you to grab the picture.
The pictures you see here are probably about 90% of everything I shot over the three days I had the opportunity to be out and about. I kept my phone in my pocket and when I saw something I would stop, snap and then walk on. The images not used dealt with the street performers and intersections. I was deliberate in my shooting because I wanted this to be spur of the moment and not that meant also not spending an eternity going through the photos editing and for hours.
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be
– Breathe – Pink Floyd
The only time these photos were manipulated on a computer was when I resized them for this post. All the editing was done on the phone.