*Side Street Series ventures off the beaten city streets. Many times, the photography ventures away from Street Photography too.
Shooting Smaller Cities in Poltava, Ukraine
So while shooting some work in Ukraine, I made sure to visit my good friend Rita in Poltava for a few days (that pretty girl pictured below).
Poltava isn’t a city that attracts tourists or is known much outside of Ukraine. With a population under 300,000 it’s no village, but it’s not the big city either.
Many times, in the world of Street Photography, we are looking to shoot in the biggest and most famous cities where the streets are always full of life. This makes sense since it provides so many opportunities to capture people in everyday life, but sometimes we neglect all the life that happens in smaller cities around the world.
While the big cities bring their own perspectives on life, smaller towns can bring other perspectives that are just as important and interesting. Visiting and shooting in Poltava provided a great example of how true this can be.
So I’ve compiled a list of reasons to photograph smaller cities too, with a bit of my experience in Poltava mixed in.
(A big thank you to my friend Rita too for helping me experience so much of her wonderful city!)
7 Reasons to Photograph Smaller Cities: Poltava Edition
1. Different Perspective & Feel
Small town life has a completely different feeling and way of life than the big city. The people are different, the scenery is different, everything is different.
Things like popular fashion, the newest technology, and flashy nightlife aren’t as important or visible. Life isn’t as fast paced and rushed and people tend to slow down and relax a little more. They also tend to focus more on older traditions and culture.
It’s not that one way is better than the other, but much of the time people in smaller cities have different priorities and a different perspective on living life.
With Street Photography, you are capturing life and being able to capture such a difference in life is both refreshing and interesting.
Also, while it can be an unfair stereotype at times, many people, especially if you ask the locals, find smaller cities more friendly than bigger cities.
The big city can cause people to put more of a wall up towards strangers and add a little more of a serious no-nonsense attitude. It’s a busier lifestyle. You don’t know everybody so you don’t trust people as much and the different lifestyle and environment can harden people’s attitude.
There was definitely a difference between Poltava and the bigger cities in Ukraine. While I found all of Ukraine very friendly, there was a little more of an openness in Poltava. They weren’t always as dressed up too, with many wearing more traditional clothing. Life seemed more simple. You could feel the smaller city vibe and way of life just by walking the streets.
In Poltava, life was definitely a little slower paced than Kiev, but it didn’t feel any less full of life. It was just different and different is almost always good when it comes to photography.
Many locals like to say that if you want to see the real culture and people of the country, you need to get out of the city. This might not always be true, but big cities can tend towards having more similarities among each other than to the smaller cities in their own country. They get more developed, attract big business, buildings, people, westernization, Starbucks, McDonald’s and many other common things.
People take on the busy, fast paced life style of the big city and leave many of their traditions behind in the smaller cities.
While Poltava did have a McDonald’s, they weren’t on every corner and most restaurants and shops were more traditional compared to Kiev. Shopping malls haven’t taken over the older buildings yet. You really feel like you’re experiencing the country even more than you do when you’re in a bigger city like Kiev.
Many big cities have outside markets too, but they’re not the same as smaller town markets. Many photographers like markets and bazaars because it’s guaranteed photo opportunities, but many times they turn into tourist attractions and lose much of their appeal.
In many smaller cities, they have outside markets every day and they are the real deal. They’re not crowded with tourists, only the locals. The markets feel like more a part of the community and everyone’s daily life.
One of my favorite parts of Poltava were the markets. There are smaller ones all over the city, but the big one in the center was especially amazing. The people, colors and life of the markets in Poltava just had something more to offer than the ones you find in bigger cities.
4. No Tourists
A place overrun with tourists isn’t always the best thing for Street Photography, or travel in general. In many of the bigger cities, especially during high season, it can feel like all you see are tourists, instead of the actual city and life you came to see.
In the smaller cities, it’s a different world. No selfie sticks or tour groups getting in the way. Nobody constantly hassling you to buy something. Just you and the locals going about their life.
I might not have seen one tourist during my visit to Poltava and it was a great change of pace and scenery after living in Istanbul for the last few months. Not knocking tourism or tourists, I’ve been one plenty of times, but it’s still nice to get away from all of that sometimes, especially for photography.
5. Light & Walkability
I’ll put these two reasons together under one. Smaller cities are usually smaller in both area and height, when it comes to the buildings. This can make the city easy for walking and for finding natural light everywhere.
You can get lost in smaller cities without really ever getting lost. Most things are condensed into one area and you can just wander around seeing everything.
With the shorter buildings in smaller cities, most of the streets and squares are full of light instead of shadows covering everything. If you’re someone who looks for light, this can be a very good thing.
In Poltava, I walked everywhere. The way the city is set-up, there’s basically one major road that circles around the center, which was perfect for walking. Once in a while, we’d catch a bus, but it was rarely needed.
When it came to light, I was already lucky with the weather of nonstop sunshine, but Poltava was also the perfect setting for allowing that light to shine everywhere we went. No sky scrapers or big buildings, just light everywhere you needed it.
6. Go Back in Time
Going to smaller cities can almost take you back in time in a way. Back before all the changes took over the bigger cities. Less developed isn’t always a bad thing, especially for photography.
This can go along with authenticity a little, but with the world changing so fast today, it’s nice to see places that aren’t in quite as much of a hurry for change. Looking at old photos is interesting partly because of nostalgia and partly because you can’t see the same thing today anymore.
Going to the smaller cities, you can still see what life was like years ago before it changes there too. This was the case in Poltava, especially in the smaller neighborhoods and down by the river. It was a beautiful thing to observe and experience.
7. Few Have Captured It
Cities like New York City, London and Paris are famous for Street Photography for good reason. There’s endless opportunities to capture life and feeling in these unique cities. On the other hand, everybody knows this so there’s also been an endless number of photographers who have visited or even moved to these cities to capture them.
Many photographers have done amazing work in these cities too. You can quickly check google and see thousands of their photos over the years. You can’t do that for smaller cities, but that can be a good thing too. You can more easily capture what hasn’t been captured yet. You can show a place and life that most people have never seen before.
Being able to capture a smaller city that others don’t know about is exciting and can provide photos that are even more interesting because they aren’t like ones from the cities everyone has seen before.
When it comes to Poltava, I’ve yet to talk to someone outside of Ukraine who has heard of the city. Before going to Poltava myself, I had no idea what the city looked like or would be like. This provided even more of a feeling of exploring something new. This all helped make it a great experience for photography.
Big Cities or Smaller Cities?
So does this mean smaller cities are better for Street Photography? Not at all. It mostly depends on what you’re going for. I was lucky enough to have a friend from Poltava to show me around, which I think is more important in smaller cities. In big cities, you already have so much information at your fingertips online so it makes it easier to get to shooting.
Bigger cities are also usually more ready for you to come find a place to stay and get around comfortably. And of course with a bigger city, you’re going to have more people and more places to explore and capture. Big, famous cities are famous for a reason.
That being said, it’s at least nice to mix it up once in a while and venture out to those smaller, untapped cities of life. Poltava was a great experience for that reason.
Hopefully, some of the reasons I gave in this post can help attract others to capture smaller cities too so we can all see more of the world.
Next week I will also post 33 of my favorite street photos from Poltava so stay tuned!
So tell me what you all think about visiting and photographing smaller cities in the comments below! How do you like it in comparison to shooting in the bigger, more famous cities?