Street photography has gone hand-in-hand with graffiti as an art form for decades, and in many ways, it’s a positive symbiotic relationship. Since graffiti is by its nature a transient art form, photography can help capture graffiti before it’s covered up, immortalizing the graffiti artist and his or her message for historical posterity.
So how do you take photos of graffiti? To take great graffiti photos, it’s important to learn where to find the best graffiti, stand in front of the graffiti to avoid distortion, remember depth of field, shoot with a wide lens, keep your gear safe around fresh aerosol paint, and post-process to get the best result out of your final images.
Street photographers who focus on recording graffiti must be careful to respect the original creators of the art and remember that they are documenting someone else’s work. Read on to learn more about the art of street photography and how to get great shots of graffiti.
Supplies Needed for Photographing Graffiti
When it comes to street photography, the less gear you need to drag along with you the better. Not only do you risk less damage to your equipment, but you’ll also be less tired trying to drag your kit around the city with you, and you’ll be less of a target to muggers and thieves if you venture into sketchier neighborhoods.
To photograph graffiti in street photography, you’ll need the following supplies:
- Camera: Either digital or analog will work, but you’ll need different accessories and lenses for each type.
- Lenses: Bring a variety of lenses but bring a wide-angle lens for sure to get good photographs of larger graffiti panels.
- Backpack or shoulder bag: You’ll want something lightweight but sturdy to keep your gear organized and secured to your body, so you don’t lose anything, especially if you end up having to climb in more dilapidated areas.
- Street map: Getting a street map of the area you’re scouting for graffiti in can give you a way to pinpoint areas that seem rich with graffiti so that you can come back later and see if the artwork has changed. By marking up a map over time you’ll know exactly where to look for new inspiration for your graffiti photography.
Other than a camera, a few accessories, and a sense of adventure, there isn’t much else you need for street photography. That’s one of the most appealing aspects of it as a photographic medium.
Ethics Involving Graffiti Photography
Like many photography subjects, photographing graffiti comes with some ethical questions that aren’t present with other forms of art. The biggest question that involves photographing graffiti is the concept of artistic credit. When you’re taking photographs of graffiti and put those photos in an exhibition or sell prints, you’re essentially taking credit for another artist’s original imagery.
While the illegal nature of graffiti means that a graffiti artist is unlikely to pursue any kind of lawsuit with regards to intellectual property, the question of whether it’s ethical to photograph graffiti comes down to more of an ethical issue. Many artists see it as disrespectful to graffiti artists to take credit for their work and doing so can injure your reputation as a street photographer.
Even if you’re able to successfully exhibit street photography based on someone else’s graffiti, if you make a habit of stealing taggers’ thunder, you might find the artists much less friendly and willing to cooperate with you when it comes to documenting their work.
Here are some things you can do to make sure you are as respectful as possible in photographing graffiti for your street photography:
- Use graffiti as part of a larger composition. Making sure that the graffiti doesn’t make up more than half of the resulting photograph is one way to make sure that it remains merely a design element in your overall photograph rather than the subject of the photograph.
- Credit the artist where you can. Many graffiti artists will tag their work with recognizable tags such as SAMO or MUL. These tags act the same as an artist’s signature on the front of a painting and can serve to help offer credit to the original artist even if their real name is unknown. When showing graffiti art in photography exhibitions, be sure to include the artist’s tag in any captions.
- Get the artist’s permission. If you come across a graffiti artist working and want to document their work, ask their permission to photograph the piece. While this runs the risk of the artist saying no (and at that point you should respect the graffiti artist’s wishes on the matter) getting permission directly from the artist removes any ethical issues involved with the photos.
- Consider contributing to a graffiti defense fund. If you believe that graffiti is art and worthy of being a subject in street photography, you can contribute to the graffiti community by donating to defense funds for graffiti artists that have been imprisoned or fined for their work.
While it can sometimes be difficult to support or respect individual artists if you don’t know who created the work you just photographed off the street, supporting the street art movement at large can give you credibility in the graffiti community.
- Use graffiti as an abstracted background for portraiture and other types of street photography rather than making it the focus of the work. This is a more legitimate way to incorporate graffiti into your street photography without taking artistic credit for someone’s painting or mural.
To be respectful of graffiti artists, the most important thing to remember is that when you use street art in your street photography, you are using someone else’s artwork as a component of your own. Graffiti artists spend hundreds of dollars in supplies, spend hours of their own time, and risk imprisonment in order to pursue their work.
Street photography can be a great way to iconize graffiti before authorities (or other graffiti artists) have the chance to destroy it. But it must be done in a way that is respectful to the original artists in order to maintain a good relationship between street artists and street photographers.
The Legality of Photographing Graffiti
There are a few legal issues involved in trying to photograph street photography outside of the issue of intellectual or creative property. Many of the greatest pieces of graffiti are located in areas that are either difficult and dangerous to get to, or in areas that are illegal for people to travel in. In most cases, you’re free to photograph anything that can be viewed from a public space, but you can’t go onto private property to photograph those same spots without permission from the property owners.
Graffiti that can be seen from public places can typically be photographed without incident, but to get close-up photos of graffiti, you might end up having to trespass on private property. This can get you in almost as much trouble as creating the graffiti itself depending on where you get caught, so use common sense when it comes to finding graffiti to photograph.
In many cases, the areas where graffiti is found that are restricted are restricted for a reason—for example, subways and trainyards are notoriously dangerous and can lead to photographers accidentally being injured or killed in an attempt to get a good shot. Dangers aside, many of these areas are owned by businesses that don’t appreciate graffiti artists defacing their buildings or property, much fewer photographers going around glorifying the act.
If you want to avoid being prosecuted for trespassing activity or public mischief, it’s better to be safe than sorry. This is especially true in countries with stricter vandalism laws. Only photograph graffiti that can be viewed from a legal distance to avoid fines or jail time.
How to Find Graffiti to Photograph
One of the first things you must learn as a street photographer when you’re learning to photograph graffiti is to figure out where you can find graffiti that is worth photographing.
Those photographers that have any knowledge of graffiti as an art form at all will guess correctly that most graffiti to be found is usually found in urban centers. This means that some of the best places to find graffiti are the poorer districts of cities such as Atlanta and New York where graffiti removal is less stringently enforced.
The “nicer” the neighborhood, the more likely it is that vandalism laws are stricter. People will call the police on a street artist in a rich part of town. That means if you want to find graffiti to photograph, it’s probably going to be necessary for you to explore some of the grittier and run-down neighborhoods of a large city.
The safest way to do this is with a group of photographers since it usually involves going into dangerous and dilapidated areas.
Here are some other ways you can find graffiti:
- Check online forums for graffiti artists. Forums such as Bombing Science and Art Primo don’t just show you awesome examples of graffiti work. These kinds of forums can give you direct access to the artists themselves to do some networking and maybe get yourself a shoot of a graffiti-in-progress, or get an idea of where new local graffiti has gone up before authorities have the chance to paint it over.
- Go on a graffiti tour. Many of the larger cities which have a bustling graffiti community have guided graffiti tours that can take you to some of the best graffiti murals and tags in the city. If you’re not familiar with an urban center you’re visiting but want to get some great shots of graffiti in your street photography there, a guided tour can be a quick shortcut to good photos.
- Visit an urban trainyard, subway, or shipping port. Cargo trains and subways are often viewed by graffiti artists as the perfect low-risk “canvas” which gains them maximum exposure by traveling all over the city. This means you can usually see a variety of good graffiti in these areas.
Be careful if you go in search of cargo graffiti that you don’t accidentally trespass on private property in order to find it, however. Note that you’ll find a lot less of this sort of graffiti in New York City due to an increased focus on law enforcement regarding graffiti and vandalism, so you don’t want to get caught up in a trespassing charge trying to document it.
- Check online photo sites that feature graffiti. If you see a photo on Flickr or some other website that features a piece of graffiti, check the fine print and see if you can’t figure out the location of the graffiti or—if the photographer is local—reach out to them via an online message and see if they’ll give out the location of the art they found.
- Go exploring a neighborhood that is graffiti friendly. Certain neighborhoods in cities become known as graffiti-rich spots, so figure out where the taggers are working and check those areas often for new panels or material. If you catch artists in the act, you may be able to make friends with a few and get some pictures of a mural in progress, rather than just catching shots of the finished product.
- Become integrated with the local art community. Hanging out with local artists is the best way to find out who the local underground artists are, and graffiti artists are often found within this crowd. You can get much better access to fresh graffiti by getting to know the artists than you can from wandering around downtown and hoping you get lucky enough to see a new panel.
If you’re a street photographer who wants to specialize in shooting high-quality graffiti and murals, you’ll probably need to integrate into the graffiti community to a certain degree to learn the best places near you where graffiti goes up.
This can also give you the social connections you need within the graffiti world to find artists willing to let you document their work right after it’s completed before it can be defaced by authorities or other graffiti artists.
Techniques to Photograph Graffiti in Street Photography
In order to present graffiti well in a photograph, there are certain things that need to be taken into consideration from a compositional standpoint. Graffiti often features bright colors, abstracted patterns, and larger-than-life design elements that can add a large amount of intrigue and beauty to a street photograph but can also flaw a composition if it isn’t incorporated well.
- Incorporate local weather conditions. Shooting photos of graffiti in sunny versus shady conditions can drastically change the look of the resulting photograph, and wet conditions can add reflections that incorporate new highlights and other compositional elements into the picture. If it stays up long enough, it can pay to shoot the same piece of graffiti in several different weather conditions to achieve different kinds of atmosphere in the pictures.
- Be sure to show up in good lighting conditions. Some graffiti is located in areas that are dimly lit, such as subway tunnels or the nooks and crannies along the tops of buildings. Not only are these locations sometimes dangerous and good lighting for sure footing, the added shadows can make getting good photographs difficult unless you use a flash or catch the graffiti in broad daylight.
- Incorporate human subjects or other focal points in the shot. Even if you’re making the graffiti the main subject of the photograph, adding in human subjects or objects in the foreground can help establish a sense of scale and can help lead the eye around the composition. Consider using these elements in your street photography of graffiti to make the compositions more interesting and better balanced.
- To get shots of long graffiti murals, be sure to use a wide-angle lens. Many graffiti pieces are very large and can be designed long and horizontal to make use of a wall or train’s natural shape. The best way to catch a graffiti piece in one continuous shot is to utilize a wide-angle lens.
If you don’t have a wide-angle lens, don’t try to shoot down the length of the graffiti on a diagonal, as this can distort the image. Instead, shoot the graffiti in sections, standing directly in front of each one. This can break up the composition of the entire graffiti piece in a way that can be difficult to correct in post-processing, however, so a wide-angle lens is still the best.
- Try using HDR technique for shooting graffiti. HDR can help deep shadows and the texture in surfaces such as stucco, cement, or asphalt. One way to create an HDR image is to use automatic exposure bracketing to create a three-burst exposure shot of an image, then combine the three exposure combinations into one image in post-process editing. This can lend a rich, velvety feel to street photography.
- Keep depth of field in mind. Depth of field can influence whether graffiti you’re photographing from a distance comes out blurry or sharp. Depth of field also comes into play if you are photographing a graffiti artist in action.
Adjusting depth of field can allow you to shoot the graffiti without blur while blurring the artist in the foreground to protect their identity, or graffiti can be shot as a blurred-out background to utilize its abstracted color to highlight a foreground subject.
- Try using 100-speed film. This is film that is designed specifically for still objects rather than action shots and can allow you to achieve strong color saturation and richness in your graffiti photographs. It’s important to shoot with 100-speed film in well-lit areas, or you’ll end up with dark or blurry shots.
- Focus in on one element of the art. One way to reframe the graffiti as your own composition is to cut out only a single part of the graffiti to photograph as the focal point rather than trying to capture the entire image. Using post-process editing, you can even collage together multiple cut-outs of graffiti to form an aggregated composition.
Staying Safe When Shooting Graffiti in Street Photography
While street photography of graffiti can be almost as exciting as executing the original (illegal) artwork, there are several safety considerations you should think about when you decide to take photos of graffiti. Here are some of the safety tips you should keep in mind on a street photography shoot:
- Dress inconspicuously. To access a good photograph of some graffiti, you may have to travel in areas that are technically not legal for you to be in. Staying low-key by wearing dark nondescript clothing and moving with purpose can prevent people from stopping or questioning you. Graffiti is often found in low-income and high-crime areas, which means they can be dangerous places to wear flashy clothing or expensive jewelry.
- Minimize your gear. This goes along with dressing inconspicuously. While you might be used to toting around a bag full of expensive cameras and gear to your normal street photography shoots, shooting in high crime areas that have a lot of graffiti can leave you vulnerable to having your gear stolen. For that reason, you should only carry essential gear with you.
- Consider a respiratory mask if photographing a graffiti-in-progress. If you get the opportunity to film a graffiti piece in progress, you’ll notice that a lot of the artists wear respiratory masks. They wear those masks for good reason—the raw fumes from aerosol paints are toxic and can be very bad for your lungs and respiratory system. That means you should probably invest in a mask yourself if you’re shooting up close and personal with a graffiti artist who is working.
- Keep your electronics away from the aerosol. It goes without saying that if raw aerosol paint fumes are bad for your lungs, they’re pretty bad for your digital equipment too. Be sure to keep your camera and lenses far away from any graffiti in progress to avoid overspray or other debris that might damage your equipment.
- Travel in a group. One way to be safer when traveling in gritty areas to photograph graffiti for street photography is to go out as a group of photographers. Not only does this lend a bit of legitimacy to the operation, but it also helps keep you safer in questionable neighborhoods. One way to find a group to travel with is through a photography class.
- Maintain situational awareness. If you’re traveling in dangerous neighborhoods or areas with a lot of street or foot traffic, make sure that you don’t get so caught up in taking photos that you aren’t aware of the people who are around you or where you are. Otherwise, you might end up mugged or in an accident.
- Don’t be a daredevil. When looking for that perfect shot, you might be tempted to disregard safety (or legality). For example, there is some really good graffiti art to be found in subway tunnels; however, climbing down into a subway track for a shot can potentially lead to your death via train strike or electrocution. Don’t be stupid for the shot, or it might be the last one you ever take. Be extra careful if photographing graffiti in dilapidated buildings or high spots.
- Be careful around moving trains (subway or otherwise). Trainyards and subways can be great places to find new and interesting graffiti, but more than a few photographers and photographer’s models have been struck and killed by moving trains on train tracks.
- Do not draw attention to a working graffiti artist. It’s important when you’re photographing a work in progress with a graffiti artist that you maintain a low profile and don’t draw extra attention to the graffiti. This can lead to the artist being arrested. You can be arrested for trespassing as well if you’re documenting graffiti work on either corporate or public property.
Because it’s not legal to create in almost all cases and is often found in dangerous areas, graffiti can be a tricky subject for street photographers. With just a little preparation and common sense, however, you can still manage to get some great graffiti shots in your street photography.
Use Post-Processing for Best Results out of Graffiti Photography
Post-process editing is one area of graffiti photography where you can put your own personal stamp on the photographs and make them your own work of art versus just documenting the artwork of someone else.
While there is some ethical divide amongst street photographers on appropriating street art for street photography, the post-processing edit is where an image can be manipulated to the point that it truly becomes your own work.
Here are some of the things you can do in post-process programs like Lightroom or Photoshop to enhance your graffiti photography:
- Adjust exposure
- Reduce or enhance contrast
- Adjust color saturation, hue, and vibrancy
- Sharpen the image
- Add gradients
- Remove objects you don’t want in the shot
- Create composite photographs
Using digital tools, you can edit and manipulate graffiti imagery until it becomes your own composition, solidifying your claim on the image as part of your own work versus appropriating someone else’s.
Graffiti is a Great Source of Inspiration for Street Photography
As long as you’re careful and respectful of the original creators of the street art, photographing graffiti can be a great way to add color, pattern, and atmosphere to your street photographs.
There's a lot of story, environment, and soul to capture out there. This is one way to share the creative works of others that are usually squelched.
Even if you don’t end up profiting from graffiti photographs out of respect for the graffiti artists, the photos can still make a strong addition to your portfolio that can lead to further opportunities in the photography industry.
Overall, be respectful and stay safe if this area interests you!