Category Archives: Street Photography Tips


My wife Wendy and I recently went to Cuba on a music tour which was organized by Wendy’s sister Nancy Covey, who operates Festival Tours International. It was a People-to-People delegation organized by Project Por Amor.  At first, I thought that there would not be many chances to make photographs while riding across Cuba in a bus. Usually I pick the spots where I feel I will find the best subject matter, and not participate in an organized tour, so I had resolved to make the tour, more for the music than for the photos.

The trip on the bus across Cuba with many friends was a fine way to spend two weeks and see Cuba at the same time. The bus turned out to be a great way for me to photograph. I could relax on the bus and prepare myself for the next stop and all the subject matter that I found almost everywhere.Nancy knew that I would always be looking for subjects and told me that I could always go off by myself to photograph, but I stayed with the group more times than not and was also able to find subjects to work with. Subject is everywhere in Cuba. Nancy planned such  great trip that I did not have to think much or worry about anything, because it was all taken care of by Nancy. All I had to do was think about photos and be back at the bus on time. The trip was wonderful and I made about 200 photos.

I have been back from Cuba for two weeks and in that time I have spent about 150 hours in the darkroom making prints from the six rolls of film that I used in Cuba. My friends who use digital cameras can have a good laugh knowing that I have spent the last two weeks in the darkroom making prints. I have made about 150 prints and now with Wendy’s help, we will put some of them up.

My approach to photographing in Cuba was to combine street photography with social documentary photography, which is why I carried two cameras. I have used Nikon F-3 film cameras for thirty years and I am too afraid to change over to digital and have to learn to be quick all over again. Also, the people who purchase my prints expect traditional fiber based silver prints, so I am still laboring with film. Part of the time, I carried three cameras, because I had done the foolish thing of bringing some color film with me. What was I thinking? I do not like color in my street or social documentary photography, because it is so hard to control in the real world. The person with the yellow hat will be seen first and the point of the photograph might be lost because of the distraction caused by a bright color. I use color when color is content, which is rarely ever found in street photography. I made about twenty color photos and felt silly making them. Who cares what color the car was as long as it’s shiny?

The Nikon F-3 camera was made for pro photographers more than thirty years ago. Pro cameras usually show 100% in the viewfinder, which is very important to me, because I do not like to crop. This is a very fine camera which is very durable and has the finest lenses that I have ever used. No one wants these gems and they can be had for $100.00 with lens. I still have a good laugh when I think that I am using one of the finest cameras ever made and I buy them for $100.00.

I do not enjoy using two cameras, because they slow me down. When I find a subject, I have to imagine it through a 55mm and a 28mm in order to decide which one to use. This is wasted time. Using just one camera with one lens solves this time problem. We must be quick. Using the two cameras worked out well for me. The streets in Cuba can be quite narrow and congested with life, so I used the 28mm much of the time. The 28mm is a sports car type of lens, in that it is very dangerous. The 28mm must be used up very close to the center of interest, or, the wide angle of view might provide too much information to the viewer, and the center of interest might get lost because of so much being visible in the frame. Up close, it is a valuable tool.

I tend to look for three things in a potential subject and then try to form some connection between these three elements, factors or details that when properly framed, make a visual statement about a subject or event in one well timed photograph. I found that the people of Cuba are lovely and will give the photographer no trouble at all. They are a relaxed and happy people and are very polite and easy to be around.

This photo was made while I played one of my favorite games, which is called the isolation challenge. The photographer must make a photo without changing position. This image was made from my seat at lunch with our group in a small fishing village. The image shows the condition of Cuba and the how the people are still rebuilding after the devastation to the southern part of the island during hurricane Sandy.

The photo of the young woman sitting under the photograph of an older woman was made from my chair at a musical event we all attended. This game forces the photographer to make the best of what is in the general area.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition

Los Angeles 2001

A man’s fingers hold a photograph that I made and gave to him in 1974 and he has carried it with him for 27 years on his meandering across the country, riding freight trains and living by his wits with just the clothes on his back and my photograph.

What is the value of a photograph to a man who seemingly has nothing?

My documentary project in the Los Angeles freight yards, photographing tramps and runaways, ended after ten years in 1983, but in 2001 I returned to the yards just for old times’ sake. As I walked alongside the mainline tracks into L.A. a voice called out. “Hey Mr. Picture man where you headed?” I remembered the unchanged voice instantly and turned to see my old friend smiling at me. He hugged me hard with one arm and with the other, drew his prized possession from his pocket and held it up for me to see, a horribly mutilated, tattered beat up piece of paper. A photograph I had made and given to him in 1974.

We were two old guys hugging by the tracks, each with tears in his eyes as we looked at the tattered photograph that meant so much to both of us. I thought, how could this be? First of all, how could that little photograph have lasted this long carried in the pocket of a wandering man, a rough and tumble man of the road, super tramp among men. He did what most men cannot do. He could be anywhere with nothing and survive and be happy doing it. For 27 years he had been doing that with my photo there in his pocket, ready to be brought out to make him smile. He had tough times, but my photo brought a smile and some comfort to a poor, huddled and cold man who lived this very dangerous lifestyle and would take it out in good times to show off.

“The road is going to get you” the older men will tell you. The freight train is an iron beast that will beat a man to death in a few hundred miles. A boxcar door can slam shut on your dangled legs when the brakes go on and those big steel wheels take your legs away, leaving you to bleed out by the right-of-way. There is no right of way for the tramp, only for the railroad and “if the railroad don’t get you, a predator tramp will wait and hit you upside the head and you dead.” The road gets most men in five years at the most.

He survived, because he was not an alcoholic and he knew in his mind that he was doing something that most men and women could not do. “Put me down anywhere and I will find scrap metal and copper wire and I will be sitting pretty.” He lives his way along the railroad “right of way” and is at peace with himself.

The greatest and most emotionally moving shock that I ever got was when he pulled out my photograph from his dusty pocket. How could this be? What is the worth of a crumpled photograph of a group of bums sitting around together in a trash filled field hard by the main line tracks? They sat at the end of the line and I took a picture and then gave a print to my friend. He is not even in the picture that he loves so much. No one can ever take this experience away from me, or him, and that makes me cry.

My photographic journey has lead me on a search for truthful photographs that might speak to men of other men and each man to himself, and to make photos that could lead to a better understanding and love for others. Oh yes, the camera and my heart have led me to places where maybe some understanding is needed. The camera records the emotion and personal reactions of us as we make photos with the hope that something of value will result from this collaboration of heart mind and soul. This is my love story of my searching journey of love and understanding through photography, and with it reach out with visual poems that might have the power to sooth and make a smile.

During my ten years in the yards, I made photographs of men and women who I would meet again and again over the years as they passed through on the way to nowhere. Many became friends and I always tried to give them photographs, because I saw them swell with smiles and thanks as they held my photos. No one had ever given them a photo of themselves. They called me the “Picture Man” and I love them so. The photographs that I do on assignment are paid for and then go away, the photographs that are purchased by collectors give me money and pleasure, but the pictures I give away, are mine forever.

My photograph had come back to me and I wanted to make a photograph that would somehow preserve the feeling of that special meeting there by the tracks. . The question for me when making a photograph is always what to include in the frame and why? How much information do I need to show in order for the viewer to understand the situation in the photograph? What is the center of interest and what details should I include that might give more strength and meaning to the center of interest and result in a meaningful photograph. What do I need in the image to tell the story?

In this image the center of interest are his hands and the tattered and torn photograph that he held and that was so dear to him and to me. No face. Including the face would distract from the photograph and the face is not important to the story. There are no names when one is on the road.
The most important requirement for the social documentary photographer is to get in close to the subject. Close in with the camera and close in with understanding and compassion for the subject. Getting in close is always difficult in sensitive situations and the method I used to get close to the tramps is for another blog post.

My workshops are designed to show photographers my technique for getting in close, without disturbing the subject and without getting into trouble. I have worked the streets of the world and have developed methods for avoiding any trouble and also methods for getting out of any trouble. The street can be a dangerous place for the unwary or unprepared photographer. I enjoy sharing my technique and philosophy about this wonderful medium.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , , |



Veterans Day makes me think of Joe, a tramp who I knew and photographed for ten years in the Los Angeles freight yards. He had fought in Korea and had severe PTSD, which was not really recognized in those years. He made rice pudding by going through the dumpsters in Chinatown for leftover rice and in the trash of coffee shops for the last of the non dairy creamers that had been thrown out. It was actually pretty good!


He survived because he was a loner and didn’t drink, unlike the other tramps I met. He didn’t talk to anyone else but talked to me because of my dog, Casper. When the tramps saw Casper, they knew I was not a threat. That made it easy for me to get to know them and photograph them in a non-threatening way.

I knew Joe for several years in the seventies. One day, I noticed that he had gone. The spot by the electric tower where he cooked, he had left two books on the cement platform. The books were old and had come from the San Diego library. “How to Make Money with your Camera” was the title of one book and the other was called “The Study of Man”. I did not take the books because I did not want to disturb anything and as a documentary photographer, I never disturb things. I thought that Joe had left me the books, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe he would return, but I never saw him again.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition


dorothea lange, social documentary photography, human condition, framingElements, factors and details.

He has been kicked off his land where he has lived for many years, a sad time for him.

I wanted to make a photograph to display the sadness and despondency of the moment. The level that is leaning against the wall, by the door, is not level. The scale that is visible in the lower area is broken as is the record that can just be seen at the very bottom of the photograph. It was a sad coincidence that these items where in the area of my potential photograph. I was lucky that these elements were there.

To make the best use of these items, that add so much to the situation, I decided to use a vertical format which would allow me to include all of these elements, factors and details. That the man is holding some American flags adds to his effectiveness and the irony of the photograph.

Elements, factors and details that can be found in any potential photographic situation must be noticed and included in the frame without distracting from the center of interest. Anyone can do this, but it takes constant practice. The name of the game is the relationships that can be established in the photo because the photographer was aware of the situation and was able to notice and include these important elements which add meaning to the finished photograph.

For this photograph, I used a Nikon F-3 film camera with a 50mm f-2 lens. The F-3, with its 100% viewfinder coverage, allowed me to frame the photograph to include those important elements, facts and details that provide so much more strength to the center of interest.

The excitement and the heartfelt exhilaration that I felt at the time of making this photograph cannot be described in words. The true and valuable purpose of social documentary photography is to show man to man and each man to himself.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Tagged , , , |


homeless woman, human conditionThe place is Venice, California in the mid 1980’s. A sidelong glance revealed “Dear Mom” on the much read letter dated September 26, 1977. The gloved hand, the dirty coat and the shopping cart told me the story that I wanted to record in a photograph. As a son, I was captured and my heart was melted by the “Dear Mom.” Two quick shots and I was gone. Nothing was interrupted and no invasion of privacy as there was no intent. It was not until later in the darkroom that I was able to read the contents of the letter. Here are the fragments of the letter that are visible in the photo.

Dear Mom.

Thank you for your letter telling us where you are….Happy to learn you are well….although Gloria…me that you have a high blood pressure problem. That concerns us. I hope it’s not serious.

You know I was in Los Angel.…places looking for you. I….you in advance becau.…usually tentative….Los Angeles more….is base….weekend you arr….

Karen was….baby girl….She had….and she….defect.

Archie….corresp….in a pho….

Just last year in London, I was showing the photo to a friend and he asked where it was taken. I told him it was taken in Venice and he asked the specific location. I told him it was on the boardwalk in front of the Jewish Center. He was very surprised and said that coincidentally, he was building a house just a block away.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography Tagged , , |


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.



Also posted in 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.


Also posted in 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.

Also posted in 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

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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.

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