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August 08 2012

London street photography walk

A new guided walk of east London includes a hands-on photography lesson – and lunch thrown in – all for £30

"Always treat a jar of gherkins like a person." This eccentric piece of photography advice, from Eleanor Church of Fox&Squirrel Lifestyle Walks, struck me as deeply profound. At last: the key to taking great pictures! In hindsight, I may have got a little carried away, but at least it was a good reminder to get up close and personal with your subject, however banal it may at first seem.

In fact, that was one of the main lessons I learned on a street photography walk in east London: anything can make a good picture. What might seem meaningless now could be of interest to future social historians. (OK, it's unlikely that anyone will write a thesis on the Pickled Foods of Early 21st-Century Britain, but you never know.)

I took the pickle picture as part of a warm-up exercise at the start of the walk. Over coffee and a chat with Eleanor at Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch, one of London's excellent New Zealand-owned coffee shops, I was told to pick a colour (I chose green). The walk began on Brick Lane, where I had to take photographs of anything as long as it was green. Eleanor advised me to keep an open mind and be – or at least act – confident.

I felt a little nervous aiming my camera at assorted shoppers, cyclists and street sweepers, but most didn't seem to mind. Street photography is so common now, thanks to the ubiquity of cameraphones, that no one bats an eyelid. And in this part of London, half the population choose their outfits with "street style" photographers in mind. I was soon snapping every green object in sight: shop fronts, shoes, bikes, sunglasses ...

When we went through my shots, any embarrassment I felt at having an award-winning photographer and documentary-maker looking at my out-of-focus snap of a woman in green trousers soon dissipated. Eleanor was positive and encouraging about every photo, even finding something to praise in the most prosaic picture of a green door, and making gentle suggestions of how each could be made "even better".

I was on a private preview of the walk, a new one for Fox&Squirrel – they also run art, fashion and vintage walks – so I had Eleanor all to myself, which probably meant I got more detailed feedback on my photographs than the average customer. Usually there will be a group of up to eight with one guide, or up to 12 with two, and people will be encouraged to critique each other's photographs. At lunch, the guide – either Eleanor or Stuart Beesley, another professional photographer – will give feedback on each person's pictures. That kind of personal attention usually commands a premium, so this walk is remarkably good value for £30, especially as lunch is included.

Eleanor stressed that the experience is a guided walk, not a photography lesson, but I found I was focused entirely on finding photo opportunities rather than enjoying the stroll. I picked up lots of useful photography tips, but I didn't really learn anything new about London, as you might expect to on a city walk. On the other hand, I noticed things that I would usually stride right past: a sculpture of a crushed car high above my head; a clump of grass pushing through a sea of concrete; a cyclist with six baguettes poking out of his rucksack.

These details were important in the next exercise in and around Spitalfields, which was all about capturing a moment and telling a story. This was a lot harder than just photographing anything green. At the end of the segment I felt I'd done badly (not that it was a test). But actually my favourite shot of the day, of an elderly woman at a tea dance I stumbled across (pictured below), was taken during this exercise. It just goes to show that you have to take a lot of bad photographs to get one (relatively) good one.

After lunch at the Barbican's Foodhall, a modern cafe with light installations and tables out on the terrace next to the lake, my next brief was to use the arts centre's brutalist architecture as a stage for photographs. I tried to implement the things I'd learned: symmetry, the rule of thirds, straight lines, light and shade, colour, detail. The end results weren't exactly thrilling, but I felt I was starting to frame my shots with more purpose.

The walk usually ends with a photoshoot at King's Cross St Pancras, but Eleanor had been warned by a police officer that anyone taking pictures at a train station during the Olympics would have their camera confiscated and destroyed. On balance, we decided to skip that part.

A bonus feature of the walk is the aftercare: Fox&Squirrel send out instructions on editing your pictures for maximum impact, and there is a Flickr group to add to as you practise what you've learned. For as Eleanor says, good street photography ultimately comes down to a little bit of luck – and a lot of practice.

The three-and-a-half-hour guided walk was provided by Fox&Squirrel (; it costs £30pp, including coffee and lunch. Next walks on 11 and 15 August. Suitable for smartphone cameras, compact cameras or SLRs; lomography walks also available © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 14 2011

Secret Venice - in pictures

Real Venice, a photography exhibition, opened at Somerset House in London this week. Fourteen artists were asked to create original images, capturing the beauty of the city, as well as the ravages of mass tourism
The exhibition runs until 11 December

Sponsored post

August 13 2011

Why digital photographs won't be around forever

The evocative Dear Photograph website only underlines the impermanence of digital photography

'Speechless. Tears. Read this," said a tweet in my Twitterstream. "This" turned out to be a website called Dear Photograph. It invites people to post pictures that incorporate photographs from their past taken in the locations featured in the original picture, much as people hold postcards of the Eiffel Tower so that the card obscures the actual view of the tower. It's a remarkably simple but powerful idea, and it does indeed evoke some of the responses mentioned in the tweet that brought me to the site. Here's a photograph of a smiling child. Behind her is a stocky man in a baseball cap, with his arms resting on hers. "Dear Photograph," the caption reads, "Dad is gone… but the strength of his arms will always be around us." It's signed "Holly".

Here's another. It shows a couple seated on a bench in a wood. One has an arm around the other. The caption reads: "I fell in love with a woman. I'm not ready to let go… but she is."

A third picture shows a crumpled snapshot of a woman, dressed in a 1940s outfit, walking along a street. "Dear Photograph," it reads, "If I could turn the corner in 1942 and walk right into my mother, I'd ask her, 'May I walk beside you one more time?' Love, Your Daughter."

Another shows two kids dressed in clown outfits. "We were inseparable for 26 years," says the caption, "till cancer came her way. Can you please give me my sister back?"

Not all of the photographs are about loss of a loved one. There's a picture of a young girl with a hula-hoop. "I wish I could still hula-hoop like I used to," says the caption.

Dear Photograph is a remarkable demonstration of the power of ordinary, humdrum photographs to evoke memories. Anyone who has ever found a shoebox of old prints in an attic will know this. They yield up images of ourselves when we were young, slender and innocent, of our parents with unlined, carefree expressions and unfurrowed, untroubled brows, of holidays once enjoyed, places once visited. Photographs freeze moments in time, reminding us of who we were – and, by implication, of who we have become.

But Dear Photograph is also a stark reminder of how threatened this power of photography has become. There is, for one thing, the brusque, matter-of-fact, upfront Terms and Conditions of the site. "When you submit your materials," it reads, "you grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free licence to use the work to be used, copied, sub-licenced, adapted, transmitted, distributed, published, displayed or otherwise under our discretion in any and all media". Or, to adapt the famous broken English internet meme, "all your memories are belong to us".

There's nothing new in this, of course. It also applies to the billions of photographs that have been posted to Facebook, under Terms and Conditions stipulating that "you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP Licence). This IP Licence ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

The other sobering thought triggered by Dear Photograph is that the site is only possible because of the relative permanence of analogue photography. The images on the site are, of course, digital, but they could only have been created using old photographic prints. All of which means that it will be very difficult to do something like this in 30 years' time.

The reason is that while digital technology has generally been very good for photography as a mass medium, it has also made the resulting imagery much more fragile and impermanent. Of the billions of photographs taken every year, the vast majority exist only as digital files on camera memory cards or on the hard drives of PCs and servers in the internet "cloud". In theory – given the right back-up regimes and long-term organisational arrangements – this means that they could, theoretically, endure for a long time. In practice, given the vulnerability of storage technology (all hard disks fail, eventually), the pace at which computing kit becomes obsolete and storage formats change, and the fact that most people's Facebook accounts die with them, the likelihood is that most of those billions of photographs will not long survive those who took them.

That's why Magnum photographer Martin Parr concluded his terrific piece last year on how to take better holiday photographs with a simple piece of advice: print your pictures. "We are in danger," he wrote, "of having a whole generation that has no family albums, because people just leave them on their computer, and then suddenly they will be deleted." He's right. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2011

Travel Photographer of the Year – in pictures

An exhibition of images from the Photographer of the Year competition is now on show at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Here's a selection of the winners and runners-up

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