Like many of us, Travis Jensen spends his lunch hour taking iPhone pics.
Unlike most of us, however, his moody urban landscapes and punchy black-and-white portraits have been the object of two photo books, shot with fellow street photography veteran Brad Evans, Tenderloin U.S.A. and the #iSnapSF Field Journal.
Jensen, who works at a law office in San Francisco’s financial district, also wanders the city at night and on weekends. He spent a lot of time roving the gritty sidewalks of the Tenderloin and Haight neighborhoods after moving to the city post-high school to be a part of the local skate scene. His peripatetic career path includes a book on skateboarding and a stint at The San Francisco Chronicle, where he caught the photography bug.
You can meet Jensen and Evans and check out photos from the book tonight at Hipstamatic headquarters in San Francisco. A big fan of the app’s dramatic, retro look, Jensen prefers using it to the native camera of his iPhone 4. (If you can’t make it, you can also check out the #iSnapSF Field Journal online, proceeds go to charity.)
Here are some tips he shared with Cult of Mac for getting a tighter focus on street photos.
Get close, be bold. Jensen says that iPhone “street photography is the best cure for shyness.” A lot of it is luck, he says, being in the right place at the right time – just being comfortable walking up to people. He doesn’t recommend shooting on the sly and says that in his years of street photography, taking photos has rarely lead to confrontations. “Every once in awhile, someone will yell at me. I just tell them ‘Calm down, it’s not that big of a deal.’ And that tends to work.”
If the light sucks, walk on by. Jensen’s dream add-on for the iPhone camera? A portable, hand-held flash. Barring that, he says the best thing is to avoid shooting if the light is bad. “The key to good photography is light. If I see something interesting and the light isn’t right, I walk right past it. Look for even light…. The iPhone handles harsh light really well – the complete opposite of digital camera. A photo of garbage cans look great under the right light.”
Embrace imperfection and keep it simple. The good thing about shooting with Hipstamatic, he says, is that the results are unpredictable and the app forces you to get really close – because you can’t crop.
“When you’re shooting on the street with an iPhone, you get better at appreciating wabi-sabi – the beauty in imperfection. I like photography that looks more documentary-style, really straightforward. There’s a lot of wizardry now with apps – crazy colors and layering images – everyone’s fascinated with that in the beginning, but as you progress as a photographer, that changes. You go back to the basics.” If, on the other hand, the shot needs some real fixing, Jensen uses the Camera Plus app.
But line that sh*t up. Jensen admits that framing can be a challenge when shooting with a phone camera. “[Framing] is tricky. You have to get close…. I always try to line something up horizontally or vertically so there’s one even plane, that helps a lot…. If there’s a building in background, I’m going to be lined up with the side of building. That usually does the trick.”
Consider your iPhone the greatest portrait camera. Ever. “The iPhone is very unobtrusive so it’s great for getting portraits on the street. The average person doesn’t take a camera phone that seriously, so people are more at ease. You get a more natural reaction.”
His method for getting those portraits is to simply ask people – “being sneaky on the street can backfire.” Jensen introduces himself, mentions his blog, shows them previous portraits. Once they are OK with it, it’s not a problem to move them to a less cluttered backdrop or where there’s better light. He also offers to send his subjects the portrait from his phone on the spot. “It’s kind of like a Polaroid, people love it.”
Don’t leave the photos on your phone. After all that pavement pounding, make sure to get your pics printed. If you want to make your street snaps “sizzle” – whether you’ve shot them in black and white or color – try printing them on metallic paper. “They pop right off the page,” Jensen says. He gets his from mpix – he says they offer affordable prints in metallic, standard matte or gloss and up to 30×30 in size.
You can see more of Jensen’s work here or check out the book here.