Catching your neighbourhood’s vibe in photos

Have you ever wanted to take better photos of your neighbourhood’s vibe? Whatever your goals may be — whether it’s documenting the hustle and bustle of Old Chinatown, the cool nightlife of Greektown, the medley of East Danforth, or your family in your backyard — it’s essential to match your camera’s settings to your subject. Let’s explore several tips that will set you on the right path.

1. Use tripods at night

Placing your camera on a tripod and taking a long exposure picture can make night scenes come alive. Vehicles and moving sources of light turn into bright streaks, and passing crowds become mere foggy hints of people. Try this technique facing the northbound Don Valley Parkway from the Riverdale Park pedestrian bridge or on a busy evening in Greektown (or during Taste of the Danforth, for better effect).

ROOSTER COFFEE HOUSE on Broadview Avenue

2. Slow down, move around, and define your subject

You’re walking about, and something catches your eye. Great! Before taking a picture, run through a few scenarios in your mind to visualize an ideal photo. Consider how large you’ll frame your subject and whether you’ll accomplish it by zooming, walking, or both. Move around to change your perspective. Be mindful of the background: avoid visual distractions that intersect the contours of your subject or protrude from the edges of your frame.

3. Mind your distance with portraits

Next time you’re taking a portrait, take one or two steps back and zoom in with your camera’s lens. Portraits tend to look best when made from distances of about 1.5 metres or longer. Your subject’s apparent facial proportions start to become distorted at closer ranges.

RIVERDALE PARK at the golden hour

4. Seek good light

Photography is all about light. Although defining what qualifies as “good” is mostly subjective, there are several rules of thumb for beginners to keep in mind.

• Soft sources of light are ideal for portraits. Look for sources at eye-level or higher (e.g., window light) that emphasize the contours of your subject’s features.

• For landscapes and cityscapes, wait for the golden hour, the period just after sunrise and just before sunset. One of the best views of Toronto during the golden hour is from the hill in Riverdale Park East. Pick any evening with a clear sky and join a dozen other photographers in capturing that unique view. Wait a bit longer for the blue hour with its cooler colour palette and subdued contrast.

• Avoid midday sunlight. The light is too severe and contrasty, especially for portraits. If you must, try moving your subject into the shade of a tree (and we have plenty of those at Withrow, Monarch, and Taylor Creek parks). In the absence of shade, use the camera’s flash to brighten the harsh shadows.

5. Mind your shutter speed when there’s action

If you’re a budding street photographer and heading to Old Chinatown or The Danny to practice your craft, be mindful of your shutter speed. Setting a fast shutter speed—a smaller fraction of a second—will help to freeze fleeting moments. You can set this directly using “shutter priority” mode, or in its absence, by selecting the Sports mode on your compact camera.


6. Have fun and keep learning

Every photographer started from scratch and learned how to take better photos in their own way. Decide what works for your personality. Are you social? Join a photo club or participate in photo walks that explore interesting neighbourhoods, such as Greektown or Old China Town. Are you independent? Borrow books from your local library. Are you in a hurry? Enrol in a photography workshop and expedite your learning in a guided environment. Whatever you do, get out there to shoot, experiment, and most of all, have fun.

Paul Kounine runs Exposure Therapy, a photography education project, which offers classroom-free group workshops proividing practical guidance for learning photography in a fun and interactive environment.