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FALL 2005

Traffic Calming Techniques for Photographers
Photographing the House, Street and Town

One of my favorite places to photograph houses is Mackinac Island, Mich. The architecture is gracious and the setting bucolic, but what makes the place unusual is that no cars are allowed. And cars are the bane of the streetscape photographer.

Why? They can block the buildings, they can introduce unwanted colors, and their shiny surfaces reflect light and draw the eye to them in a photograph. Unless you're photographing cars, these are terrible distractions. So you should always be aware of where cars are and what they are doing to your scene. Fortunately, they move, you and your camera move, and just as crucially, the light moves.

Think about what you want your image to convey. In my work, I want to highlight the beauty of the architectural environment and at the same time show how downtowns have been abandoned for the sprawl zones. So a streetful of cars is the last thing I want. In this century, half our new motor vehicles are SUVs and other "light trucks," bloated to block our view as never before. You may want a few cars in your scene to indicate activity, but if you're emphasizing the pedestrian environment of traditional urbanism, don't let them dominate.

A street shot in Pasadena, Calif., with emphasis on the buildings, not the cars.

Here are five strategies to minimize the visual effect of cars on your streetscape.

1. Wait till moving traffic goes by. Be patient and watch for changing traffic signals to cue you to the flow.

2. Position yourself so that there are no cars, parked or otherwise, in the immediate foreground. The wide-angle lens settings used for streetscapes will exaggerate anything in the foreground.

3. If one parked car in particular is ruining an important shot, don't be afraid to ask a homeowner to move it. In retail areas, just wait, or come back later; parking on downtown streets is meant to turn over quickly.

4. If you're using a tripod, set the shutter for a long exposure (quarter-second or longer) so that moving cars become blurs or even disappear. You may need a neutral density filter to enable that.

5. In photographs, the viewer's eye tends to go first to the lightest part of a picture. Cars that are in shadow are much less noticeable. Work early and late in the day and you can use the on-street shadows to suppress the reflectiveness of cars. The image illustrating this column was made on a busy morning in Pasadena, Calif. But the sun highlights the buildings, not the cars.

Sandy Sorlien is author of the upcoming book, "Photographing the House, Street and Town."