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Interview: Street photographer Alexander Tsoi

Growing up in Hong Kong Alexander Tsoi got used to have people around him everywhere he went, it became his comfort zone. He started to see interactions between people on the street, small things. Hence his interest in street photography started at a very young age. He moved to the US in 1992. He studied architecture and worked as one for about 6 years. After architecture he was working other jobs, working the midnight shift. He was in a depressing place and photography took him out of that. He was able to create again, and to see those beautiful fleeting moment on the street corners of Manhattan. Now he works in construction in New York. The perfect backdrop to street photography.

What makes a good picture?

There are so many rules out there for photography, rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, composition,

symmetry, foreground, triangles, soooo many rules and they are there for a reason. Years and years of study and science are behind it You can spend hours trying to perfect every little detail before the shot is taken. Two things I learned while I was in architecture school were: “Learn the rules so you know how to break them.” There’s a thought process behind it and not just chance and luck. The second thing was “You can get a hamburger anywhere" Why are people coming to you and not them? There needs to be something different with your shots. If you do everything by the book.. by the rules.. sure.. it’s a great shot.. but everyone can technically take that same shot. These two principles I try to apply it not just to photography but to everyday life.

What is the biggest challenge when shooting on the street.

When I started out I shot a lot of back of people’s heads. I wanted to get the timing, the composition, the settings right before approaching someone head on. It was a challenge. You have to see and apply all these rules before you take the shot within the fraction of a second. Most people think that street photography is mostly luck just stick your camera out, put it in burst mode and hope for the best. There’s a lot more that goes into it.

How do you get so close to people without them knowing you are taking a picture?

I normally shoot at eye level it’s overcoming that fear of getting in confrontation that gets me closer. Your personality and body language helps to be confident in your shot. To not try to be sneaky, that to me is creepy. Like shooting street with a 70-200mm lens sniping someone from across the street. I have nothing to hide. I’m just trying to capture the raw emotions on the streets.

Do people get angry?

Not everyone wants their photo taken. You do get some yelling and cursing your way every so often it’s to overcome that fear. That’s probably the most challenging for all street photographer starting out. I’m lucky that my backyard is NYC so people don’t mind as much. If they ask why I’m taking their photo I just explain to them that I’m a street photographer and if they want.. I’ll delete the photo. My subject’s comfort and privacy comes first. Sure I have the right to take their photos but I don’t want them to have a bad experience with a street photographer. One thing I absolutely will not shoot is homeless people, out of respect I won’t. They are down and out. And instead of helping them you are taking advantage of their misfortune in the name of your art.

Is the choice of camera important when you shoot street photography?

I think so.along with your choice of lens. Most say 35mm or 50mm. I’m a 35mm guy. I don’t mind getting closer and really want to capture more emotion behind my shots. Prime lens are always the way to go for me. I know my distance. I don’t have time to mess with anything else. A smaller camera also helps too.. the bigger your gear the more you appear to be a pro. I shoot in manual mode with auto focus so the camera’s auto focusing system gotta be a good one for me since I tend to shooting very shallow at 2.8 and under.

What camera do you use and why?

I use the Sony a6300 it’s got an amazing auto focus system on there and the camera is small enough to get me into tight crowds. I carry with me a Sigma 16 1.4, a Zeiss 24 1.8, a Sony 35 1.8 and a Sony RX100 M3. I can pretty much shoot everything I ever need with this setup it’s super light and compact. I carry it in my backpack.

What’s your advice to aspiring street photographers?

Learn to use your camera beforehand.. the streets is not a place for you to be fumbling with your settings. Shoot a lot. We are in the age of digital cameras, shoot til your card is full and then go shoot some more, it’s the only way you’ll grow.. Pay more attention to your surroundings there’s beauty everywhere. Don’t be afraid.

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