Other than family and travel photos Laurent Bertrais did very little photography…until a year ago. That was when he decided to take up street photography.
A professional in the food distribution industry from the medieval city of Guerande near the west coast of France, Laurent spends much of his photographic time seeking interesting subjects in high contrast lighting situations.
He has a natural instinct for light and the feeling of an artist that serve him well on the street. In only a year, he has become highly proficient at the technical aspects of photography that enable him to forget about the gear and focus on the image.
Whether an old pro or a newbie anyone can learn from Laurent’s approach and philosophy. In the following interview Laurent gives us a revealing glimpse into how he thinks and what he sees as he shoots.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in Guerande, a medieval city in western France next to the sea. I’ve been working in food distribution since 1994 and my training in international trade, an area in which I have never practiced, has nothing to do with photography. I practice photography in general and have been doing street photography since December 2012. After my separation, I had the urge to explore the arts in order to escape and forget the worries of life. I tried sculpture and I also took photography classes online. I quickly realized that I liked photography a lot and I devoted myself entirely to what would become a passion.
I had never done photography before except for family photos I stored on a Flickr account opened in 2007. The training that I attended on the internet had created a group for its Flickr members, so I enrolled in this group and I posted my photos there.
I think that to have fallen in love with photography this fast is not an accident. As a child (and still being one) I was always very lonely, contemplative and dreamy. I loved walking and observing people, for hours, as well as shapes, the beauty of my surroundings and found this sensitivity when I put my eye to the viewfinder of my camera. I became aware of the opportunity to put in the box all these images I kept in my heart.
How would you describe your style of street photography?
I like to put in my pictures as much as I can, meaning, poetry and emotion. I have a sensitivity to loneliness because it is a topic that we often experience in street photography.
I mostly use black and white which goes well with this style. I use color only when it is strictly necessary. I love the strong contrasts in my photos, so I like scenes where the light is in strong in competition with shadows. I also like structures that break and scatter light and give texture to the composition.
My favorite times are morning time or late afternoons when the light is low and it penetrates buildings. I also shoot at night, which is more difficult but very interesting because I can play with artificial lighting.
I attach great importance to the characters, their looks and what they can offer in terms of meaning and emotions, but I also give great importance to the background, the scenery. They are elements that reinforce the meaning of the image. I avoid taking a picture when part of the frame simply does not suit me. I rarely compose my pictures because a scene caught my attention, instead I wait for a favorable light and interesting characters to appear.
Sometimes I shoot portraits but I have not yet mastered it. I’m working on it and I hope to improve in the future. I like to take a step back from the identities of the street in order to include them in a convincing setting and get a satisfactory result. By being detached I do not interfere with the characters, and get a natural picture.
My personal opinion is that street photography is not limited to taking pictures of people in urban environments…it extends to objects, buildings and lights. Scenery is a part of the street.
Where do you typically shoot on the street?
I like dark places, places with high contrast where the light is broken and scattered by the buildings. At night I like remote places with few people. I also like train stations, airports, large spaces and modern architecture.
But I force myself to photograph everywhere because it is good practice to learn to look in places do not seem suitable. It is important to change our way of seeing and to look closely at things we normally ignore… searching for something specific limits the possibilities.
If someone were to visit your city where would you tell them are your favorite street photography locations and why?
I live near a port city, St. Nazaire, and it is the place that I photograph the most. Saint-Nazaire was completely destroyed during the Second World War. The place I love the most is a big bunker of several hectares, which was a former German submarine base during the war. It was transformed into cultural center. The light here is amazing and I never get tired of it. I always find inspiration for new photos here. It’s made of dark concrete with very large windows which let in the sun 360 degrees. But it has very sharp edges which gives it a rather murky atmosphere for high contrast images.
What other types of photography do you enjoy?
I like to observe the work of other photographers of many different styles. Portraiture is one of my favorites but I have yet to master it myself.”
Where do you get your inspiration and what drives you each day?
My inspiration comes while I randomly walk through the streets. I listen to music in order to isolate myself from the world and to be in harmony with what I am doing at the moment. I photograph alone because it is very important for my concentration. I am interested in light and imagine its possibilities.
What motivates me is my passion, my desire to capture a beautiful scene and share it with other photographers and those who appreciate my pictures. Photography is an act of love and of sharing, simply to give pleasure.
On a personal basis it is a need to express myself through photos rather than through words. It is a passion that demonstrates itself in the ordinary, a need to witness life on the streets. That is also the essence of photography.
What do you do when you get the feeling that there’s nothing new to shoot?
I think that happens to all of us. In those instances, I go to the far reaches of my imagination since it may indicate that I have exhausted my capacities while in fact the possibilities are endless. It is perhaps an opportunity to give a new start to our cliches by changing the way we work.
It may also be useful to go for a walk and observe without using the camera. Observing is obviously very important. Focusing on what we observe may be a means to deal with a lack of imagination. Otherwise simply take a break.
Who is your biggest influence in terms of your photography?
Since I just began last December, I cannot say that there is a particular influence. My photos are quite personal and are inspired by my imagination. I am just learning about the history of photography, its trends, the styles and the famous photographers. Obviously I like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Brassai but I have an entire culture of photography to discover and it is very exciting and motivating to discover this new world.
There is a photographer I admire, Thomas Leuthard who photographs life on the streets. I like his images and his photos are of very high quality.
What is the creative process you go through to create your work and what tools do you use?
I like to give my photos a high contrast and meaning, a soul, a sensitivity. To do this I prefer areas that are dark, lit by small points of light. Sometimes I’m able to take a picture that captures the moment and feeling but I also compose pictures where I have to wait for the right elements to occur.
Since I often work in dark places, I use aperture priority mode to adjust my exposure. Depending on the light I am often between F2.8 and F8. I use the ISO automatic mode, which is convenient. That way, I’m able to concentrate on the essential elements of the scene.
For a long time, I used a Fujifilm XPro1 which was stolen during my trip to Berlin. I remind my photographer friends to always watch their hardware, so this does not happen to them :-). I worked mainly in still pictures. I had a 60 mm and 18-55 mm. The Xpro -1 is outstanding in low light thanks to its xtrans sensor but in my opinion is not reactive enough for street because the focus is too slow. After the theft, I moved towards the Olympus OMD1 which is remarkable, really perfect for street photography, focus is very fast, I use it with a 12-35 mm from Panasonic with a constant aperture of F2 .8. I also use the Olympus 45 mm F1.8.
On the processing side I work with Lightroom, Photoshop and Niksoftware suite. I use a lot of the Niksoftware U Point technology which is very practical, fast and efficient. Since I work a lot in dark places or at night I need to enhance my photos so I use Dfine2 .
What advice or tips can you give to someone who is new to street photography?
First of all, really get to know your camera, its faults, its qualities, and become one with it. Then spend some time exploring your environment, with love and tenderness . It is very important to be consumed by the environment and the feelings it that it gives you. To capture a strong image, you must feel what you see and perceive.
You have to be quick and responsive, you have to anticipate the picture to come, feel the event, the light. You must love what you do, which seems obvious, but is not always true. Express your sensitivity, take pictures that you like in the places that you like. Have some audacity, courage and an appetite for some risk; beautiful pictures are not always in the safest places.
Travel light. Street photography does not require having heavy equipment , a discreet camera and lens will suffice.
Do not hesitate to return to the same place at different times because it’s never the same…the light, the time, the people change.
Knowing your camera allows you to anticipate. Watching a common scene, one can imagine the creative aspects with the possibilities of our camera, of the light and the post treatment solutions at your disposal.
Be innovative and imaginative. Take multiple frames and angles of situations . Feel free to take pictures.
Tell us about some of your favorite images
This photo was taken on the former German submarine base in Saint-Nazaire. I saw this group of young people who were doing a “street jump”, my eye was drawn to type of day it was, the perspective and the three silhouettes. I perceived the opportunity for a great photographic prize. I positioned myself on the left side of the first person with a focus at the center to increase the sense of depth, so I had a lateral position and not facing the center of the group. I stopped down the aperture enough to increase the depth of field but not too much because I also needed it open enough for the low light late in the day. So I had an lens aperture of F5.6 and 1/400 at ISO 200, which is more than enough for this situation.
This photo was taken in Strasbourg, France, it is the Europe Bridge spanning the Rhine. I wanted to get the impression of what it was like to move from one world to another in a matter of minutes and it’s really impressive. I was surprised by a downpour, so I took shelter under the bridge. There was this lady that was in a greater hurry than me who braved the wind and rain. I liked the scene and took the picture.
I cropped in post-processing and reduced the darkness with Dfine2 ,my 35 mm lens did not allow me to be close enough to the portion of the scene that caught my eye.
I love this picture because it is timeless and beautiful. I took it during my photo trip in Berlin in the tram at the end of the day. I noticed this girl and I liked her allure.
The old world scene provided a beautiful black and white picture and the neutral background reinforced the portrait.
I wanted to capture her expression and had to be discreet so I did not use my viewfinder as I was sitting in front of her and did not want to disturb her. So I pretended to adjust my camera and used the retractable screen of my Olympus. It is very useful because I had my head down which did not show my intention to take her picture.
This kind of opportunity, where everything comes together to make a beautiful picture is quite rare. You must be prepared to use your camera in a discreet way, like this.
I took this picture in Nantes, in western France. This photo is a good example of anticipation. I noticed a little boy, from a distance, who was walking with his grandmother near this red wall. I approached the wall and waited for the right moment, the child approached and then passed by me, he turned slightly around to look at me and then went running off to his grandmother, and “click” he was in my box! I tried to capture the child and the vitality in his movements, his departure, and the colors.
I opened the lens to F/2.5 because I did not need a large depth of field. I was so close to the scene and needed light and a fast shutter speed because a child like this moves quickly and I didn’t want the picture blurred.
This photo was also taken in Nantes at the time I started to do some street photography. I still had my Xpro1 at the time, I regretted it a little. That day I was mainly taking photographs of architecture. I noticed this building that pleased me and I climbed up its outer stairs to get a good angle. I noticed this man who was looking at nothing in particular and the scene seemed mysterious to me.
I tried to get this enigmatic character in the picture, leaving a large part to the stairs in the frame and a smaller to the character.
Where can people go online to see more of your work and to learn more about you?
For now I publish my pictures on Flickr and Facebook.
I want to thank the team of Street Photography Magazine for giving me the opportunity to make my work known and share my passion. I thank Bob for his kindness and curiosity.
To all my photographer friends, I wish them beautiful photos and to continue together this great passion and sharing together.