The key to successful street photography

September 07, 2013  •  2 Comments

A casual remark today by a friend started me thinking about the circumstances under which I get inspired to take good, by my own standard, street shots. We are going out tomorrow morning to shoot a large street market and I reminded him to bring his phone because we'll inevitably get separated. He replied that when we shoot together generally I wander off right away.

I realize now that, when I am with other people, the conversation and the interaction diffuses my concentration and I am not as aware of the situation around me and, more importantly, I am not sensitive to the possibilities.

Taking good street shots means, not only responding quickly to an ephemeral situation, but, even more important, being away of scenes that are funny, ironic or in some way interesting to capture. It takes concentration to be constantly filtering out the things that don't matter and 'seeing' the parts of the visual field that do matter – at least in terms of a possible good picture.

I carry a camera virtually all the time I'm out of the house; at most times it's a semi-sophisticated P&S the Oly EP-3 with a 20mm Panasonic lens. This is not an ideal lens because it doesn't change focal length through mind control but it is fast and very sharp. I often shoot from waist level and can steady it against my body so 1/40th sec exposures are usually fine.

wegman-P9070419-Edit More important I try to be aware of what I'm seeing and thinking. This shot is a good example. I was trailing after my wife in a large supermarket with an embedded bakery and I saw this really big guy walking down the aisle towards the bakery case. I knew if I could catch him in front of the case with luxurious, colorful baked goods, it would be a picture with a point.

So I slowed down, got in position and when he slowed, lured by the siren call of cupcakes I shot a couple of frames.

I don't mean this to say this picture is a great picture of earth-shattering moment, but the photo happened because I was looking and concentrating and framed the subject and background in my mind even before the picture happened.

'The photo happened' - a telling phrase. Most successful street photography is a scene captured from a specific angle with specific content that shows the photographer's point of view. 

It is not that the photographer is necessarily  completing the idea, making a value judgement, but merely presenting this as if to say 'here are the things that I saw and I see them related to each other. What do you think?' 

To gather up these things to show, the photographer must be thinking and seeing - and, even more important, must always be on the lookout for the potential of arrangements of people, things, places that make some sort of interesting point when gathered together photographically.

OK, not always people.

I was in San Francisco and, being on East Coast time I woke really early and went into the living room to look out. I was staying in a house at the very top of the hill where Castro Street is crossed by 22nd and there is a typical small city intersection busy in the day but quite quiet very early in the morning. Since I was in a house slightly above that level, I was looking down at the intersection and across the street at a storefront. There was a very light fog and the light was peculiarly luminous.  It reminded me of Edward Hoppers painting -(http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/nighthawks/6AEKkO_F-9wicw?projectId=art-project&source=kp&hl=en).  So I took a few exposures, hoping to catch a car going through but had to settle for a symmetrical view of the street.  I processed this for that deep rich color and named it 'Intersection of Castro and 22nd and Hopper'- sometimes a hint to the viewer is necessary.

2013-08-23 SF-_8240043-Edit A street photographer must always be open to seeing things and making connections and the capturing to show that to the viewers.

If there is one physical skill you must develop to be successful, that is knowing your camera well so that you can raise it to your eye and instantly shoot, then drop it down. If you peer through the finder forever, people will become aware that you are pointing the camera and, much of the time, the spontaneous situation you desire situation will dissolve before your eyes.

This comment by Amolitor deserved to be appended so that viewers actually do see it:

Your final point about physical skill is spot on, but not quite broad enough, I think. You need to be able to manage the camera, as well as your own body. You need to have an instinctive grasp of how the arrangement will change when you step slightly left or right, stand tall or squat down.

You need to predict the future, as you've essentially said, while simultaneously positioning yourself in relation to that future, and then as the moment closes in on you your adjustments need to be quicker, smaller, and more instinctive. The earlier parts are more conscious, as with your picture of the man and the cupcakes. You think it through, albeit quickly, and set up. The latter part is more instinct and muscle memory, your body and the camera driven by some sort of spinal mastery of composition. Ideally.

I totally agree and, ingraining that instinct to get to the right place, requires first analysis and conscious attempts and then lots and lots of practice.

 


Comments

Andrew Molitor(non-registered)
Your final point about physical skill is spot on, but not quite broad enough, I think. You need to be able to manage the camera, as well as your own body. You need to have an instinctive grasp of how the arrangement will change when you step slightly left or right, stand tall or squat down.

You need to predict the future, as you've essentially said, while simultaneously positioning yourself in relation to that future, and then as the moment closes in on you your adjustments need to be quicker, smaller, and more instinctive. The earlier parts are more conscious, as with your picture of the man and the cupcakes. You think it through, albeit quickly, and set up. The latter part is more instinct and muscle memory, your body and the camera driven by some sort of spinal mastery of composition. Ideally.

I can handle a little street in a coffee shop, where the interactions are repeated over and over. It's easy to predict the future, since everything goes loosely in cycles. I can experiment with positioning. Doing it on the fly and at great speed in the real world is quite another thing entirely, and I have essentially no skill there.
Leonore(non-registered)
For what it's worth, when I saw that picture on the Photo Forum thread, I didn't pay much attention to the title but immediately thought, "Hey, is that the actual diner in the Edward Hopper painting?"

I too always feel the need to have a camera with me, and I agree with everything you said here about the need to be aware and analytical of our surroundings if we want to get a shot that actually says something. The only thing that's missing here is the need for the guts to take the shot after we see it! That's one of my challenges whenever I'm out looking for my decisive moment.
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