Thanks to Instagram, many of us have rediscovered the urban art scene, not just for viewing, but as a backdrop for our social media photos. However, there’s an art to the art, posing wise, and some things to consider before you go out and give us your best selfie.
For starters, as we explore in the latest #PhotowalksTV episode, from Balmy Alley in San Francisco, many shots are simply way too busy, and suffer from calamities like trees growing out of our heads (you’ve seen this one a million times) or just not taking advantage of the ability to blur the background, something any camera or phone can do. By adding the blur, you emphasize the subject and bring it into the foreground.
Ant Pruitt, the host of the “Hands on Photography” podcast for the TWiT network, joined me in San Francisco recently for a photoshoot in the city’s Balmy Alley, which is in the historic Mission District. There are over 1,000 murals in San Francisco, and many are in the Mission, most notably Balmy Alley, where street art and murals have been a tradition going back to the 1940s.
Ant and I documented our shoot, with his son Jacob (aka “Hardhead”) on the S3:E1 debut of my #PhotowalksTV series, which can be seen on YouTube. On the show, we refer to the area as “the best free photo studio” in the city. Jacob was our model, as we demonstrated using the backdrop of the alley murals for great depth of field portraits minus the super sharp distractions that can come with posing directly in front of artwork and how to make the murals work for you.
I used Portrait Mode on the iPhone 13 Pro Max to get a really nice shot of the podcaster and photographer Ant Pruitt, who joined me on the photowalk. Portrait Mode, a feature in the camera app that’s also readily available on Android phones, lets you blur the background nicely.
One really fun thing about Portrait Mode, is that unlike a traditional camera (since this is computational photography) you can re-adjust the amount of blur after the fact directly on the phone. See below and compare to the shot above. Are you looking at Ant or the uniformed guy in the background? The blur (as shown above) makes all the difference in the world.
In putting this post together, I read one article that said subjects should dress with the murals in mind, and wear light, contrasting colors. Bright doesn’t hurt either. Ant’s orange shirt did a great job of making him stand out against the walls, which are usually darker hues.
I thought the red and black worn by Ant’s son Jacob did a really nice job of making him pop as well. Which brings us to tip #3.
I’ve seen way too many people just stand directly in front of a mural for their selfie shot. They end up with images that are way too busy, as noted above, in the tree growing out of the head boo-boo. So what to do?
You’ll notice we moved Jacob to the side of the action, for separation. It’s also good to step back, and have a wide look at your subject within the art.
If you want a close-up, and are lucky enough to be in an alley, use it to your advantage, and get the shot that way, with art on the sides.
Jump into the art
Or just go for it, but do it correctly. In this classic mural of women of multiple generations, I asked Jacob to kneel down, so that he was on the same plane as the bottom row, and to extend his arms, to really hug the women and the art. This put him directly into the mural.
The art itself
You have two choices. There’s the straight on shot, to capture the entire mural. Those of you on a smartphone will want to use the ultra-wide lens to pick up all of it. Or, you can just zoom in and focus on pieces that pop up really well when telling a story, as in a series of social media posts.
For example, which does your eye focus on here — the wide or the close-up?
Don’t always look at the camera
You’re in a moody arts district. Go with it — like Jacob did for us, at our direction. Your pick? Looking up in the sky or directly at the camera?
They never, ever go out of style, and a nice jump in front of a mural can’t be beat. Or in this case, down the alley. Especially at midday, when you can get a great shadow added from our friend Sol. (For tips on how to freeze the action, go to the video at 10:47.)
The Mission is a working-class neighborhood a few miles from downtown that has long attracted immigrants. Once in the city, they expressed their feelings about their new home, their love of the old home and the current state of politics through art. A current popular theme: artistic statements about the gentrification of the neighborhood via well-paid tech workers, which in turn raises rents and shuts out longtime locals.
San Francisco, sadly, has been victim to a rash of recent camera thefts, including yours truly in 2021, so Ant and I both shot are lower-cost mobile phones. I shot the video on the iPhone 13 Pro Max, and did stills with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, while Ant used the Google Pixel 6 Pro.