Author Archives: John Free


Subject is everything. Without subject, there can be no photography.

Finding subject can be frustrating. The serious student of street photography knows that subject is everywhere. Subject is lying around outside and it is also inside the photographer’s mind. Everything we have witnessed in life or have learned is tucked away in our subconscious. We use all this accumulated information and emotion, combined with the situation, to build subject from these bits and pieces of life that make up our daily world.

Instead of walking around looking for subject, why not try to build subject from all the various elements, factors and details that are found anywhere? The brain and imagination must be trained and conditioned to notice these elements and details and how to put them together in some logical manner so that the viewer of the photograph is emotionally affected or moved by the image.

In my workshops, we play a Challenge of Three that I designed for photographers to keep in shape. In this challenge, photographers exercise their ability to use my Five F’s System (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) to find and photograph a subject very quickly and quietly. The photographer must include at least three things when building subject. These three things must be either visible in the photograph or must be something that the photographer was thinking when the photo was made. The back ground, the foreground and their relation to the center of interest, must be established visually.

Instead of looking for a whole subject, the photographer can now look for bits and pieces of a subject. A small detail can lead to a powerful photograph when it is combined in the frame with other relevant details and factors. The challenge is to find simple subjects quickly, quietly and effectively, using only the details in the subject area and the photographer’s vivid imagination to arrive at simplicity of expression.

I made these photographs during my recent New York and Chicago workshops that were held in April and May to demonstrate to the students how to build subject and then how I can get in close to photograph the subject without disturbing it with my presence. These photos demonstrate how I used Challenge of Three during the workshops. The Challenge keeps us warmed up, conditioned and sharp, so that when the big event or moment comes along, the photographer will be ready to react instantaneously to the opportunity.

1. The three things in this photograph that I wished to combine are the portrait on the wall, the man and his glasses. The glasses are relevant because it shows that he took them off in order to better see the portrait. All three things go together to create this subject. One of the important parts of this photograph is not visible, the fact that the man has removed his glasses for a better look. All of the factors in a good photograph do not have to be visible in the image







2. The comical nature of the man’s white feet combined with the child walking through the water in the background are included to create an entertaining photograph. I placed the focus on the center of interest, the legs and feet. I included the child in the background  but kept it out of focus so our eye would go to the man’s legs first.









3. I had noticed the boy doing handstands and waited for this instant, when the boy’s spread legs framed the girl in the background. The timing and framing of this shot were important, as was the placement of the focus on the boy’s legs. I wanted the viewer to see the boy doing a handstand first, then his sister in the background. When photographing strangers at close range, it is important to be careful about not disturbing the subject. A big smile on the photographer’s face always helps smooth the waters of life.








4. Two frames are visible in this photo. The window on the right has a man looking forward into life or backwards at life, while the child jumps through another door, or frame, without caring about the past or the future. The third element does not have to be visible; in this case it is the relationship between the child and the man. Darkness, light, black and white and square or rectangular frames were combined to form a visual mood.








5. The back of a junkman’s truck can be a special place to build subject from the junk. Diagonal lines, forms balance and light and placing the camera in the most effective spot, turn junk into abstract images that captivate the viewer’s imagination. This is a subject that requires a vivid imagination and a skill in quickly perceiving the details and forms that give the photograph meaning. We can find beauty anywhere, even in the back of a junkman’s truck.








6. The mother and child, the boats and the arm gesture of the mother, all add up to a special moment caught by the brain and camera to evoke a warm feeling. I moved in closer to eliminate some distracting elements (other people) in the foreground. Using a vertical formal also eliminated distracting elements. The question is always, what are we selling? What do we need in the frame to sell it and what must we eliminate from the frame that which is distracting to the image.



Posted in Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops Tagged , , |


My “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The fifth and final F is FIRING.

Everybody wants to hear the click.

That expensive and precise sounding click. The sad part is that most of the time the camera is not ready to make the photograph when the mind commands it to. The photographer is still thinking or adjusting the camera and misses the shot. The hands cannot keep up with the brain. Is this a case of fumbling and bungling?

Be hard on yourself, if you are being self-taught. You should know that even being late for ½ second and the shot is lost. The photo might come out okay, but it is not the shot your brain decided on and you missed because of slowness on your part. Slow aesthetically and slow mechanically. Sad but true as I have seen it over the years in many photographers including myself. When the brain is working well and fast and the hands can keep up, that is when the effective photographs emerge from inside the photographer. When everything is thought about and adjusted, the camera seems to go off by itself.

Taking many shots to get one good one can be very dangerous. Many photographers shoot, shoot, instead of concentrating on the subject with all its variables and being ready to coincide with the most effective instant when it all makes sense to the attentive and dedicated photographer. The digital camera allows the photographer to make hundreds of shots without having to buy expensive film. This is one reason that I advise photographers to go back to film. Thirty six shots of expensive film might make the photographer think more and shoot less.

O.K. now you can push the button.

I am using this photograph as an example of the figuring, framing and focusing that I thought were effectively adjusted so that I was ready to take the shot at the moment when the two people in the background were starting to shake hands, which I felt was a symbolic gesture.


Posted in Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops


Nikon , photography techniques, photography schools, street photographyMy “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The fourth “F” is FOCUSING.

Hocus pocus they took away the focus?

I believe that the focus should be on what the viewer should see first. For many years, the average photographer has not had to think about focus. That control was taken away from us with the introduction of autofocus. If you study the work of renowned photographers’ photos you will find that focus plays a big part in guiding the eye of the viewer to a spot in the subject area that the photographer wanted. The focus was placed on a spot in the subject area which made the most sense to the photographer at the time after considering many elements, factors and details that are a part of every subject. With autofocus, it is difficult for the camera to know where the photographer wanted the focus to be placed for the best effect.

My technique has changed very little over the last forty years. I have used many types and sizes of cameras, but the type I prefer for street photography is the manual SLR. This type of camera offers me a very accurate view of the subject in the viewfinder. The view shown in the viewfinder is made through the lens itself to give an exact picture of what the lens see’s.

Another very valuable aspect to the viewfinder of an SLR and that is the ability for me to focus anywhere in the viewfinder. Many cameras have the focus area only in the very center of the viewfinder and to accurately focus, the camera must be pointed at the spot desired and then reframed to make the shot. There is no time for that when photographing at the speed of life.

Many of my students had no knowledge of this “off center” focusing and that it could be done at all. When they understood and practiced this option, they were grateful for the information, because now they had learned a new way to control the effect of their photograph by the use of accurate off center focusing.

Reframing is another function that must be made when there is very little time to make the shot. My technique is to focus as I am framing, always adjusting the focus on the center of interest as it is always moving and constantly changing as the world whirls before us. Quick, quick we must be very quick and place the focus where it will do the most good.

In this photograph, I noticed the relationship between the toes of the man in the cart with the boys who were also lined up like the toes. To emphasize the toes, I placed the focus on them, without having to move the camera to focus off center. I also included in the frame the wheel which gives the viewer added information and at the same time there is a further relationship with the spokes of the wheel and the toes and the boys. With my Nikon F-3 film camera, I was able to manually focus on the toes without changing the framing by focusing off center to the right in the viewfinder.

Posted in Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops


My “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The third “F” is FRAMING.

Framing is the action of putting all the elements, factors and details together in a way that gives the center of interest its most strength. Framing is dictated by the second “F”, which is figuring.

Framing really is the act of putting it all together for the finished photograph.

Someone once said that there is no composition, only facts. For me, this concept makes framing much easier. I do not learn much from the word composition and how it applies to an effective photograph. I do not get a mental picture of anything from the word composition. Noticing and using these facts, or details that are always present in the subject area, is a method that I use to arrive at an effective photograph.

The subject can only be framed precisely if the camera’s viewfinder covers 100% of the desired subject, including the effective use of all the details. Many cameras only show about 95%, which means that the image will contain 5% more in the photograph than the photographer intended, so the image must be cropped later in the printing process if using film, or digitally if using a digital camera. I do not like to crop so I try to be very careful framing the shot. That’s why I prefer the Nikon F-3 which shows 100% in the viewfinder.

The object is always to get as close as possible to the center of interest. Getting in close is one of the biggest challenges in social documentary, or street photography. Remember that the photograph is always for others to enjoy and learn from. One way to get in close, but still use important details, is to use only a part of each detail.

For example in the color photo below, I can be seen in action, getting in close and using a vertical format to include the details that I desired in the photograph. I intentionally framed the photo to not show the man’s head, so that I could move closer to the center of interest which is the hand and cane. The boats in the background are out of focus, which places more emphasis on the hand, cane and clothing. john free in action, street photography tips, nikon

Posted in Street Photography Tips Tagged , , , , |


street photography tips, black and white film, street photography workshopMy “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The second “F” is FIGURING.

Hooray! You see a situation or subject that you think will make an exciting photograph. Now what?

Throughout a subject area, there are many elements, factors and details that when effectively combined in the photograph, help give the center of interest more strength. The only difference between the average photographer and Henri Cartier-Bresson is that Bresson considered every detail and he only included those that would enhance the center of interest and he excluded those that would detract from it.

To figure this out you must take an instantaneous visual inventory of what you have to work with and then you must consider which to include and what to eliminate. Ideally you will include at least three things to put together with the center of interest that will strengthen the photograph.

For example, when I saw the two boys in this photograph I realized they would be a great subject because of their movements and their excitement about bathing in the Ganges at dawn. I knew that there were other important details, such as the empty boats in the foreground, the crowded boats and the lighting, that I wanted to include. I wanted to emphasize that it was dawn so I wanted to show the light on the water which would give the photograph a mysterious quality. I also knew that moving in close to the boys was the most important thing of all so I eliminated parts of the boats. I also thought it important to include that the boats in the background that were crowded with the people as a contrast with the two boys in the water. I chose the vertical format so all three elements were visible and I positioned myself so that the boys were the center of interest and were between the two boats in the foreground and the crowded boat in the background was still visible.

Posted in Street Photography Tips Tagged , , , |


street photography tips, cartier-bresson, photography workshopsMy “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) system was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The first “F” is FINDING.

Finding a subject can be a frustrating process for many photographers. Subjects are everywhere. The eyes are not too important when searching for subject. The eyes are just part of the tools we work with. It is the vivid imagination that finds subject by noticing and evaluating various details that are part of the subject area, the photographer frames these various forms to make an effective photograph.

The subject itself is not the most important thing. What the photographer does with the subject is the supreme test.

A walk to the store will never be the same for the sensitive photographer, the mud puddle at the corner will provide a myriad of visual possibilities that can keep a photographer busy for hours. The reflections in the puddle, the passing wheels of cars, the feet walking by, the cop directing traffic all these and much more will facilitate the imagination to construct stimulating photographs.

Combining the smallest insignificant detail with other insignificant details can result in a significant photograph. These details, elements and factors are lying around everywhere for the attentive photographer to collect into an image that has the power to create an emotionally moving photograph. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, when asked how to do it, “It’s all in the details.”

Studying the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Gene Smith will demonstrate that their photographs always had at least three things, or factors, that they considered and then combined to make a wonderful photograph.

For example, in the photograph above the first thing I noticed was the tender scene of the father bringing the bicycle along as the children ran ahead. They ran ahead into their lives and dad was there to give support and guidance. The light and atmosphere at the day’s end was combined with the details that were needed to complete the visual story.  The focus was placed on the bicycle, which to me, was an important aspect of the image. The slanting light was emphasized to show that the day was ending and the people were headed home.

Posted in Street Photography Tips Tagged , , , |


Pershing Square, Los Angeles 2003

In the many years of teaching classes and workshops in street photography I have learned that most photographers face the same obstacles in their search for more effective photographs. Here are five rules, or tips, which I have discovered over the years that have helped my students become better street photographers.

1. No posing or anything contrived.

Follow the straight and narrow road of the great photographers. In my 43 years of study of “Street photography” I have learned that the most basic rule is that there should be no posing or anything artificially contrived. It is this main rule, which gives the genre its highly sophisticated reputation. Yes, it is very difficult to snatch something of value from the ever flowing and constantly changing flow of life, but with a determination to improve, and a lot of practice, you will be able to move about freely and unnoticed in the passing parade of life.

2. Prepare for the moment of truth

Practice operating quickly and effectively when a subject is presented to you. Most unprepared photographers seem to freeze up at the moment of truth because they are unable to follow a well practiced plan of what to look for and what to check when evaluating a possible subject. This must be a conditioned reflex action of great speed, if you to arrive at an accurate rendering of the magical moments that are found in everyday life situations.

3.  Rule of “3”

When evaluating the photographs of the greats becomes it is apparent that the best photographs contain many elements, factors and details that the photographer arranged only by careful evaluation and an awareness of how valuable these many details are when “framing” the subject and only including the details that give the center of interest added strength. I don’t look for one thing, but at least three things to combine so the photograph has the ability to “speak” for itself. Therefore, no caption and no explanation of why the photograph was made will be necessary. The only caption should be the place and date of the photograph. When showing photographs if you remain silent you will not dilute the viewers experience by talking about the photograph, so you will get a natural reaction.

 4.  No cropping.

Henri Cartier-Bresson used a black border to show that he did not need to crop his photos. The black lines are caused by enlarging the negative holder in the enlarger so that it includes the clear edge of the negative and makes it print black, thus proving that the photograph was not “cropped”. These black lines are etched into my mind, so that when photographing the lines are always there to remind me to be very attentive when framing the shot. No cropping.

 5.   Get in close

My favorite photographers, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson, where gentlemen photographers. They didn’t rush up to scare some old women to get a cheap shot of someone up close. They moved smoothly through life, mostly being invisible to those around them so they could get so close to their subjects. They worked with the greatest respect for the subject, for themselves and for photography itself. Be very strict with yourself and know that street photography is a very difficult and requires great speed from the photographer. You need to develop great speed in thought and great speed in the operation of your body and camera.

To be able to do this work is the gift of a lifetime that most people are unaware of until they see great photographs that have the ability to provide a more compassionate understanding of our brothers and sisters all over the world. Visual documents that give the viewer hope, joy and a better sense of self.

Posted in Street Photography Tips Tagged , , |

The Human Condition

I have had numerous questions about our trip to India.

Wendy and I had a wondrous time in India. The people there are so warm and friendly that is hard for me to describe them. They are constantly smiling and India 2very comfortable to be around. The sensitive and respectful photographer will have no trouble at all photographing in India. I found the people to be the best that I have ever encountered. My main interest in photography is the human condition and its relationship to the environment and India proved to be the perfect location. I have posted some of my photographs on my Facebook page.

Many of the questions about our trip were technical in nature, so I will attempt to describe how I photographed there. I took Dorothea Lange’s advice and went in stupid. I agreed with Dorothea, that to prepare studying India would not serve me as would as my own personal reaction to whatever I encountered.

For equipment, I relied on my Nikon F-3 with 55mm Micro 2.8 lens. It’s very sharp and needs no lens shade. I also used my 40 year-old Nikon F with a 28mm F-2 lens. I usually just carry one camera with the 55mm lens, but this time I knew that I would be working in very close quarters and that I would need a wide angle lens. My 28mm is one of the best wide angle lenses ever made and is extremely sharp. For film, it was Arista premium 400 speed black and white film, developed in Kodak D-76 1-1 at 68 degrees for 11 minutes.

I use the Nikon F-3 for the simple reason that the viewfinder shows 100% of the image being photographed. That is very important to me, as I do not crop my photos later in the darkroom. Most cameras do not show 100% in the viewfinder. The F-3 is very easy to handle and operate. It’s quick, smooth and precise. Focusing is a must for me. Manual focus is for me, because I hardly ever focus on a spot in the center, but usually at the center of interest which is usually off to the side. I have tried rangefinder cameras in the past, but their poor focusing controls and their not so accurate viewfinder made it difficult for me to be as quick as I am with the F-3.

When I photograph, I am not just looking for possible subjects, as much as I am looking for three things at once. I am always thinking of three or more elements and factors that I can assemble into a photograph. Three things. Maybe one item will catch my eye and I will work with it to try and find other elements, factors, and very importantly, the details that are always present in a subject area. By a thoughtful and logical process, I try to build something out of all the details. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “It’s all in the details”. Proper use of the details provides extra strength for the center of interest.

Photographing in India was one of the great highlights of my 43 year career as a social documentary photographer. What made the trip even more pleasurable was the fact that the love of my life went with me and we both enjoyed the trip together. Hooray for the wonderful people of India.

#The Human Condition

#Street Photography

#Social Documentary Photography

Posted in Uncategorized


This is a photograph that I made in Central Park in New York during my recent Street Photography Workshop. I took it so that the students in the workshop could observe how I get in close without disturbing the subject.

I arranged myself next to the subjects so that I could include the elements and details that would help give the photograph meaning. I was attracted by the arms of the couple in the background and also the arms of the woman in the foreground. The two children in the stroller, I considered were another “pair” of elements, or factors, that I thought would help the photograph. Two of a kind, three of a kind ect., similar to some card games, are considered more valuable.

Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote “Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact.” This advice was very valuable to me, as it explained to me that a composition is not for balance or beauty, but is a way of collecting the important details, elements and factors in the frame of the viewfinder. The effective organization of these facts take the mystery out of the word “composition” which to me means very little in the way of explaining what to include in the frame.

Accurate framing is very important to me, because I do not like to “crop” my photographs later in the darkroom because I messed up the framing of the photo in the first place. Cartier-Bresson’s photographs have a black border so that the clear edge of the negative will print black to show that the image was not cropped.

Choice of a camera that shows 100% in the viewfinder is also important to accurately frame a subject. Unfortunately, most cameras don’t do this. That’s why I use a Nikon F-3 that shows 100%, so that I can frame as precisely as possible so that I don’t need to crop.

To achieve the black border in the darkroom I take a small metal file and slightly enlarge the rectangular hole in the negative carrier of the enlarger, which allows the clear edge of the film to show black in the print. To eliminate the black line, I can raise the head of the enlarger slightly and the black line will disappear.

Posted in Street Photography Tips


APRIL 13-14, 2013

“John Free’s photos are a revelation. He tells stories in the way of Walker Evans, full of grit, but full of passion too.” – T.C. Boyle, author

World-renowned street photographer, educator and social documentarian, John Free, is teaching a workshop in Los Angeles on March 16-17, 2013. Continue reading »

Posted in Street Photography Workshops