How to photograph graffiti
This is going to be a small tutorial on shooting graffiti, based on my experience with shooting many graffiti artists at festivals or when they are working on the street. The actual photography part of shooting graffiti artists is easy, but dealing with graffiti artists is completely different.
So let’s start with the technical details with shooting graff. Shooting graff is a lot like shooting landscapes with regards to depth of field. You usually want a lot of depth of field when shooting. You usually have to make sure that you have the artist and his wall is in focus. Most artists don’t just want portraits of themselves, they want their work on the wall to be in the shoot. For most graffiti artists, it is the art that is important. They want people to see what they are writing. So when shooting graff, stopping down your lens is very important. If I am shooting during the daytime, I am usually shooting at F8. This will usually give you enough depth of field to keep the artist and his wall in focus. If you are shooting in some dark locations, up the iso and drop the shutter speed but maintain your depth of field. Even if you are getting some motion blur in the shot, that would be better than missing focus on the wall.
When shooting graffiti, one of the biggest problems is space or the lack of space. Graffiti is still considered illegal in many places or frowned upon so lots of graffiti painting or writing gets done in small alleyways or in tight corners, hidden away from the general public. As a photographer, shooting in such confined spaces is not easy. Your lens selection is basically reduced to a very wide lens. You need to be able to get to the 20mm range for a lot of the shots, or you will not be able to capture the complete wall. The wide-angle lens helps with regards to the depth of field though. So if you are shooting at F8 with a 20mm focal length, most things will be in focus. But fisheye lens can distort lines too much. Graffiti artists put a lot of pride into painting their lines in their work and if you are distorting the line work then they are not going to be happy. I use fisheye lens a lot in my music photography work but I leave them at home when shooting graffiti artists now.
But getting too close to a graffiti artist while he is working does come with some danger to your gear. The paint that a writer uses tends to become paint dust or particles in the air and your gear can get covered in paint dust that sticks to everything. If you are shooting graffiti, you have to a UV filter on your lens as the paint dust can be almost impossible to get off the glass, so make sure your lens is safe. I have thrown away nearly a dozen UV filters already but my lens has survived. The paint dust can get onto your camera body or your lens body as well but this can be scrubbed off with a bit of pressure but the glass elements seem to be impossible to clean. If you have to change your lens during a shoot, do it far away from the artists and protect both your camera body and the lens elements during the change. Imagine you are changing a lens in a sand storm while you are in the middle of the desert.
The second thing that you have to keep in mind with graffiti artists is that not all of them want their faces to be photographed, and they will hide them or even ask you not to shoot them. As with all photography, you should respect your subjects’ wishes. I have had a few artists ask me not to shoot them or to hide their faces and I always agreed and complied with their wishes. Sometimes the artists don’t trust you and will warm up to you with some time, but other times there is nothing you can do about it. If an artist asks you not to shoot them, start to talk to them about their work. Talk about his piece that he is painting now. Complement his linework or his color selection. Remember that they are artists and talking about their work will warm them up to you. As a side note, when you are shooting graffiti artists, they will often critique your work. Not all of them will know a lot about photography but they will know a lot about composition, so make sure your shots that you post or give them are good or you might get told off by them.
The paint particles that can get onto your camera can also be dangerous to your health. Lots of graffiti artists and writers wear masks to protect their lungs, and if you will be shooting lots of graffiti, it is smart to get some kind of mask as well. If I can shoot the artists with a longer lens, I will as it keeps me away from the paint dust but if I am forced to get up nice and close to the artist, then I will put on a mask.
If the artists do warm up to you or trust you, you will get the option to shoot more portrait type of shots of them. This is where you can play with your depth of field. I tend to shoot these kinds of portraits with a long lens as it can blur the background out nicely. But at the end of the day, most of these shots will only be used on social media and they are not very important or popular with a graffiti artist. Graffiti artists care more about the artwork they are creating, and their own images are not so important to them.
Color or black and white is also an issue that you have to consider when shooting graffiti. The way I have worked around this issue is that I tend to shoot black and white with my film cameras and these shots are mostly behind the scene shots of the artists working. But once the graffiti artists’ work is finished, then I shoot those shots in color. Color is important to many artists and they want their vision to be seen the way they painted it. They select their colors carefully so it is best to show their work off the way they created it.
Shooting graffiti can be fun, especially at graffiti festivals such as Meeting of Styles as you don’t have to worry about the legalities of what you are doing. Whether graffiti is legal or illegal depends on people’s opinions and I am not here to comment on that. I am a photographer and I love all forms of art. But when shooting graffiti artists, just be prepared that not everyone will friendly to you or think what you are doing is legal. If you do get approached by someone, just play dumb. Say you are just taking photos and you know nothing about what the artist is painting or who they are. I’ve had a few run-ins with people in Thailand who were not happy about people painting on a wall and they called the cops. The artists ran as soon as the cops arrived so the cops decided to come to chat with me. I pretended that I was just a photography tourist and I saw them painting and decided to document it. Remember that photography is not illegal in most countries so as long as you keep your hands cleans, you have no paint on them, you should be fine.
The money shot for most graffiti artists is their work that is sitting on a wall. When you shoot it, you might not be able to read it(learning to read the different graffiti writing styles takes a long time) but take care that you shoot the whole piece of artwork. Most artists will paint their vision on the wall and put their artist’s name somewhere towards one of the corners of the painting. Make sure you get everything and when you are editing the shots and make sure you keep the contrast and vibrance under control so that the picture represents the artist’s work.
If you are lucky then the artist will want to pose with his artwork, remember to make sure you have enough depth of field to make sure that both the artist and the wall are in focus.
The last thing that I want to cover with shooting graffiti is bombing and tagging. Bombing has nothing to do with explosives but it is the activity of writing the artist’s name very quickly in a public space. This can be illegal which is why it is usually done late at night. Shooting this is risky as you are documenting a potential crime but the biggest problem is the fact that most bombing is done at night, in very dark locations so shooting this is extremely difficult. Sometimes you would need to be shooting at some crazy iso’s with a fast prime lens. I have done this before for a graffiti artist who asked me to follow him around one evening, and I was shooting him at ISO 10,000 with my Nikon DF and a 50mm f1.2 lens. These pictures where obviously very grainy and where just for the artist, which is why I will not post any of them here.
A word of warning when shooting graffiti. The graffiti community is a small, closely knitted community and everyone knows each other. If they let you into a shoot, they can help open many doors to future events and opportunities but if you screw them over, you will most likely have the door shut on you in the future and you will not be able to really shoot them again. Artists can be temperamental at times, but that is part of the game. I deal with many difficult musicians all the time and I have learned that sometimes it is best to get into any conversation with an artist, by praising their work. It helps establish rapport with the artist and gets him to lower his guard around you so that you can create the type of shots you have in mind.
The last bit of advice that I will give is with regards to money. Most graffiti artists are not rolling in cash, they will not be able to buy any pictures off you and even trying to sell them photos will leave a bad taste in their mouths as you are taking photos of their artwork. So how to make money off of graffiti. Well, the best way, in my opinion, is with graffiti festivals and the paint companies. Graffiti festivals usually have sponsors so they will have some cash for media but it is the paint companies who make the most out of graffiti. Each can of paint is not exactly cheap and the paint companies compete for the artist’s cash. So I usually target the paint companies and I make it very clear to the different paint companies if you use my photos or videos on your social media or in advertisements, you have to pay me. But don’t try and squeeze cash out of the artists, I can only see that ending in a bad way and you will lose access to future events or painting excursions when it happens.