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TNH Travels: Capturing London

Anybody can photograph the typical sights of European cities such as cathedrals, castles, bridges and monuments. Not everyone has the guts to approach strangers on the streets and ask them to be in your photographs. That, folks, is exactly what I did.

Over winter break I headed to Europe to backpack and photograph my travels. I started my journey in the Czech Republic and traversed through Germany, France, Belgium and  England. As a street photographer, I sensed a static charge of intrigue the moment I walked aboveground and took my first steps onto London’s gritty streets. A foreboding sense of peculiar opportunities seemed to linger just out of sight; A whisper of mystery, an urge to begin my urban exploration, enveloped all thought.

Street photography is my style. I am enthralled by urban exploration and the opportunities it holds. As I set out in search of unique street shots, I realized I needed to up the value of my photos. Sure, the photos I took looked awesome, but they lacked something. They were missing people. I needed somebody in my shot to make it truly unique.

But how does one achieve such a feat? Well, with a smile and a dash of confidence, of course! Many people love to be photographed, you just need to make them feel comfortable first. You can’t just pounce from the shadows of an alleyway and shove a camera in their faces.

When I came across a location that I wanted to photograph, I’d snap a few shots and review them immediately. This is where I would decide whether or not to add a person into my shot. But every location had a different style. Which meant that I needed someone who would fit that specific look.

I’d casually hang out near my chosen scene and watch and wait. I was picky; I knew the right subject would come sometime. The moment I spotted my desired model, there was no looking back. It was a “now or never” situation. The tricky part is that the initial encounter is the most crucial. I only had split seconds to make eye contact, flash a smile, judge their reaction and beckon them to me. Any hesitation during this rapid-fire succession of body language would result in failure.

Amazingly, no one I approached ever turned me down. I was polite and genuine. When I asked if they were busy, most said no, but some said yes. I guess their curiosity got the best of them. I explained who I was and had an example of my photography ready on my phone. I’d show them the shot I wanted to take and tell them how perfect they are for the shoot. Subtle compliments work best. Some were shy and timid, but with encouragement, directing and positivity they’d perform elegantly. Other people were willing and ready from the get go. It was fun for both of us, which is the most important part. We would exchange contact information so I could send them the photos once I finished working on them. This usually led to invites for drinks and nights out on the town with my new friends.

Carlos Martens/staff
A sampling of snapshots captured on the streets of London. For the story behind each of these images, as well as more of Carlos’ photographs, check out his Instagram @long_shot_los.

The ability to make strangers feel comfortable in front of my camera lens is a skill I’m constantly honing. It’s a crucial, delicate art any urban photographer should learn. I left London with no material souvenirs, only memories, friends and photographs; a collection of unique moments exclusive to me that I immortalized by wielding my camera.

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