Why capture street art on your smartphone?
The Samsung mobile camera is my personal choice for street art photography. I love the rich and vibrant colours, sharpness and range of light captured. This combination helps the image to jump off the screen. However, great images are achieved through preparation, understanding how to best set up the image and the final, creative step - photo editing.
Street photographers quite often have some of their camera settings in auto, to allow for those opportunistic photos. A person walking past the graffiti wearing complementary colours will not wait for you to set up your perfect shot! The smartphone is discreet, unobtrusive and simple to use – making it perfect for capturing street art.
Planning a street art photography shoot
Capturing graffiti, like street photography as a genre – requires attention to personal safety. Situational and special awareness will help you identify any perceived or real risks.
Plan a route
Online searches, forums and social media accounts will help you to identify hot spots or street art hubs for a particular suburb or city. You may even find a self-guided street art walking tour of the city.
Once you find a location, check out photos shared by other photographers. Pay particular attention to the quality of the work and practicality of the location. When you arrive, there may be a surprisingly different piece. My favourite location Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia, is totally different each time I return.
Time of day
Lighting conditions and how it reflects off the surface of the artwork – can really make or break an image. Dusk and dawn are referred to, as the golden hours because of the warm orange colour cast. This is aesthetically pleasing for landscapes – however, can affect the colours in the graffiti. In most circumstances, my preference is to shoot on a cloudy day, when the lighting is softly diffused by the clouds.
Some locations may have an awning or some other object casting a shadow over the piece. A great way to remotely determine the direction of the sun (or the moon) at any given location is to use an app called Photo Pills.
The weather can affect not only your comfort out there in the elements – but it can also affect your image. A sunny day can produce harsh shadows on the wall and wash out the colours, having less impact.
The lighting in any image helps to convey a mood. Matching the lighting to the mood of the artwork can really help emphasise the feeling in the original artist’s intention. A dark, overcast day can add to a dramatic, grungy look. Conversely, a bright, sunny day evokes a happy, more uplifting emotional response.
After the rain, the walls can look very different. You will have noticed that everything looks better after rain – it looks fresher. The wet look can darken the colours and make them look more vibrant and saturated and smoother.
Street art photo capturing techniques
Let’s get started with some basic tips to get the most out of your smartphone:
1. Stabilise the iPhone on a tripod or resting against a steady object
2. Avoid digital zoom
3. Avoid using your flash
4. Tap the screen to focus – smartphones guess where to focus
5. Swipe up/down or left/right on the latest Samsung smartphone to increase/decrease the brightness. At times increasing the brightness can introduce more noise and can make bright spots irrecoverable in editing
6. Compositional techniques, such as leading lines and rule of thirds still apply to street art photography
7. Trial with HDR on and off. No it does not stand for High Definition Resolution. It is High Dynamic Range! This feature captures the details in bright and dark areas of a scene, over several image captures and automatically blends them into one image. The resulting image can reveal textures and details, otherwise missed in auto mode
8. If shooting RAW in Pro mode on the Samsung – or Adobe Lightroom CC camera replacement iOS and Android app, capture the image with the lowest ISO as possible. This reduces the amount of introduced noise and grain
9. Capture a close up image to highlight one section of the artwork
10. Introducing a prop (person, bicycle) can add scale to the scene
11. If you do not have a wide angle lens attachment - the other option is the panoramic capture mode.
Note: Perspective distortion in panoramic mode is caused by objects further away from the lens appearing smaller. Walk along the front of the art to keep the lens at the same distance as you record.
12. Shoot the street art from directly in front. Capturing from an angle will again distort the image. Objects closer to the smartphone lens look larger. Check out those arms!
13. Take a step back and change the angle to capture surrounding context in the image. You want to remember the location and context in years to come when looking back at your images. Including a street sign or restaurant entry can evoke those memories.
14. Check the background and look for any distracting elements that can easily be removed or reposition yourself
15. Take notice of dominant colours in the street art or surrounding area. Position yourself to capture anyone walking past that is wearing matching or complimentary colours
16. Look for the smaller details or opportunities that everyone over looks or misses. An example could be a bin full of discarded spray cans or a something attached to a wall.
When I arrive on location at Hosier Lane or AC DC lane in Melbourne CBD, I actually put my phone camera away and just watch. These locations are always full of people taking photos of the ever-changing street art, themselves and each other.
Walking up and down the lanes without your camera allows you the opportunity to step back and look at what other people are finding fascinating enough to capture. Look at how they are capturing it and experience with different perspectives.
Quite often the best shots are the people. Some locations, you may actually be fortunate enough to capture an obliging artist compiling their masterpiece.
Related article: Storytelling and photographic intention in smartphone photography
Planning and being prepared also requires having the right gear. You already own the smartphone – the most important and expensive component required. There are a couple of extra accessories that will expand your capability and options.
Struman Optics offers a full range of universal lens attachments that can fit most smartphones and tablet. Selected models also have a backing plate option to easily screw the lens into the precise location. The dedicated wide angle lens lives on my smartphone. The best value for money travel kit also includes a wide angle lens.
Normally, the go-to tripod that I recommend is the Sirui 3T-35K tripod with ball head. It can be used as a tabletop tripod and selfie stick.
However, similar to architecture photography, photos captured from a low angle will result in vertical convergence. This is improved by shooting at the middle point of the street art. You can find many more recommended tripods - here.
To connect your smartphone to a tripod, you need an attachment. There are so many options available. My preference is the Sunwayfoto tripod attachment. It can extend to accommodate the plus-sized devices, essentially making it future proof for your next phone.
If you are participating in a walking tour – you may need some extra battery juice. There are so many options available and most are very good. My preference is the Flux charger – purely because it has cables built into it. One less thing to leave behind!
A portable hardware light cast along the wall can produce some lovely textures. You can also isolate the artwork within the illuminated area of the wall.
If you want a smaller, more convenient option – you cannot go past the Lume Cube. These small bright LED lights are durable, dimmable, waterproof and can be controlled manually or via Bluetooth.
Graffiti photo editing tips to make the art pop
My go-to app to enhance any image - available on any smartphone or tablet, is Snapseed by Google. Below, is my standard six-step process to start editing and enhancing any image:
Straighten the photo and change the perspective. I avoid using either Rotate or the rotate option within Crop.
Crop the photo considering composition – selecting from an aspect ratio preset. This can change the whole story and feel of your image. Where will you be sharing the image? This may affect the crop aspect.
Identify issues that need to be addressed to the whole photo (global adjustments). Start with Ambience, then go from the top at brightness and work your way down. I quite often need to go back and add a little more contrast.
TIP: Hold the before and after icon in the top right corner to see your progress.
Tap on details to find two options: structure and sharpening. I rarely go beyond 15 in structure, because it becomes a little grungy; then increase sharpening to what I like.
TIP: Remember to pinch and zoom to have a closer look at exactly what sharpening is occurring.
TIP: Another option to sharpen the image is the Tonal Contrast filter.
Pinch and zoom into areas that need replacing. Swipe over an object and it will replace with similar content (pixels) on either side. If it doesn’t work very well, zoom in further or try swiping from another direction.
TIP: I use an iOS and Android app named Retouch by AdvaSoft for removing objects.
Lens blur filter is great for blurring a distracting background.
TIP: I use an iOS and Android app named After Focus by Motion One for creating the blurred background.