10 Tips For Photographing the Back Alley (and other Public Art Spaces)

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Photograph by Bill Dickinson

Photograph by Georgie Pauwels

Photograph by Kenneth Gaerlan

Photograph by Jon Paterson

Photographers have been snapping photos of artwork pretty much since cameras have been around, but there’s something about art in unexpected places that creates amazing photos. The Back Alley in Lismore opens up hundreds of possibilities for photographers–which it’s why we’ve dedicated the July Photo of the Month Club to the Back Alley theme. But whether you’re exploring the Back Alley or shooting graffiti in another corner of the world, there are a few tricks to getting public art to really pop.

Play it safe.

Before you head out to shoot street art, make sure to do your research into the area–it probably goes without saying, but some street art isn’t in the safest place. The Back Alley in Lismore is not only a good place to photograph graffiti, but a safe place to explore as well. If you’re unsure, never go out alone and pack your gear into a bag that doesn’t look like it’s hiding lots of pricey equipment.

Shoot in RAW.

The colors and contrast in graffiti can sometimes use a boost–whether it’s because of the lighting or because the paint is aging, some street art photos will need some extra oomph in post. If you shoot in RAW instead of JPEG, you open up quite a few more possibilities after you’ve returned from the Back Alley.

Think light.

Light comes into play in every single image, but lighting can get tricky shooting inside an alley. Depending on the time of day, the artwork could be half in the shade and half in the sun. While that mixed lighting can work in some cases, if you’re trying to capture the detail across an entire piece, you’ll need an evenly lit art piece. If you’re hoping to shoot a specific piece, scout out the location ahead of time to plan for the best light.

Consider depth of field.

If you’re shooting the artwork straight-on, you won’t need to worry about the depth of field much. But, if you’re shooting the artwork at an angle or incorporating the scene into the shot, pay attention to what’s in focus and what’s not. To get the entire piece sharp while shooting from an angle, you’ll need to treat it like a landscape shot and use a narrower aperture. Or, if there’s one element of the artwork that draws your attention, highlight it by blurring out the rest with a wide open aperture.

Show context.

One of the best things about street art? It’s on the street. Besides making the work easily accessible, incorporating the surroundings into the shot creates a dynamic image. Just like where the art is placed matters for the street artist, it matters for the photographer too. Use a wide angle lens to capture more of the scene for artwork in unusual places. Or, try incorporating other objects into the scene like a bicycle, car or even a person.

Or show detail.

Not finding inspiration in the surroundings? Try getting in close. Street art is often done on rough surfaces like brick and metal that add another level of interest to the work. Try shooting with a macro lens on a smaller portion of the graffiti, highlighting the way the paint clings to uneven bricks or the swirls of the artist’s hand.

Add a sense of scale.

Street art isn’t limited by the size of a canvas. Often, a piece of public artwork is larger or smaller than most–and that size often plays a role in the message the artist was trying to convey. If that’s the case for what you’re shooting, try incorporating another common element into the shot to show just how big (or small) that piece is. People are great for showing scale, but so are cars, bikes and street signs–the possibilities are nearly endless. Take a look at the scene and see if there’s something that helps show the impact of the work.

Try a filter.

Filters may not be as popular with digital cameras, but there are still filters that even the best editing programs can’t imitate. Polarizing filters are one of those, and while they’re normally used to enhance or reduce reflections or play up the blue in the sky, they will help create more contrast in even colorful graffiti too.

Shooting black and white film? Green and orange filters can help make public art pop even without the colors.

Watch your exposure.

Since cameras base exposure on an 18 percent gray, the built-in meter often won’t expose colorful artwork properly. If you shoot digital, use your histogram to check and make sure you don’t clip the highlights or shadows. If the images are too dark or too light, use exposure compensation or manual mode to get the shot right in-camera.

Get creative with technique.

Street art is a subject that works well with many different techniques, from simple shooting to long exposures. Blurring pedestrians helps create a sense of motion in the image, and still adds to that sense of scale–you’ll need a good set of neutral density filters to avoid dampening those colors if you’re shooting during the day though. Graffiti is also a good subject for trying out HDR–merging multiple exposures can help bring out those colors even more.

The Back Alley in Lismore is a great place for street photography, whether you’re a beginner or have been shooting for years. The public art space is always changing, providing plenty of opportunities for colorful art shots–there’s just a few things to keep in mind, from adding a sense of scale to watching your exposure.

Get some great shots or can’t figure out what’s missing from your images? Join us for feedback and friendship at this month’s Photo Exchange Club where photographers of all skill levels will share their best Back Alley images at the Lismore New Camera House.

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