The Myths of Street Shooting - explained and busted
I was incited to write this post because of a question posted on an Internet forum and the several answers that followed. The question had to do with the suitability of certain equipment for portraits of people – and the poster named three photographers specifically, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Richard Avedon.
Besides the fact that these three, while they all shot people, are as different in chalk and cheese and so their favored equipment was different, the kinds of statements that came out about street photography seem to cling to the same few myths that seem to prevail.
Before I get into the myth-busting stuff, a bit about myself. I think of myself as a street shooter; the spirit of street shooting is to capture something unique and interesting and present that to be seen. I think that good street shooting has something emotional and intense about it and I try to shoot and process that way no matter what subject I am shooting. I don't claim to be great or even good but only a practitioner with some opinions developed over the few years on effort.
OK, back to the myths I'd like to address.
Myth 1 – to shoot street photography you must have a small camera body and a relatively short focal length lens, generally in the 30-40 mm range. This kind of statement is like saying that all novels must be written on a yellow, lined pad with a number 2 pencil.
Shoot what you have, shoot what gets you the pictures you want and, most importantly, shoot a camera setup that you are intimately familiar with. For years I shot with a big, clunky Nikon dslr usually with a 24-70 lens, often with a 50 or a 70-200. This is a large bulky setup but, in my opinion, it worked for me. Yes, it was large and bulky and obvious but the tradeoffs were superb image quality and very, very fast autofocus.
Three or four months ago I switched to the much smaller, lighter Olympus OMD 5 with equivalent lenses. My reason for switching was that the bigger cameras and lenses were just getting to be too much of a physical burden. I came back from 3 weeks hiking around SEA with two bodies, four lenses, backup hard drive and I made a vow to either get a smaller system or to stay in bed.
Now I do have all the advantages of a lighter outfit with adequate image quality and speed but on balance I lost a system I could use without thinking and I'm still learning the new one – and not being particularly productive yet.
My point is that it isn't the equipment that is the overriding factor in success but your ability to handle it in the time or so that you have to get your camera into play.
Myth 2 – to shoot street photography you must get up close. I don't believe this either. I try to get as close as I can to get the shot I want but without injecting myself into the moment and affecting the subjects. Clearly I am not of the Bruce Gilden school where the photographer gets up very close and affects the scene and then the image is inevitably the subject reacting to the intrusion. So the eventual images look very much alike. I want to capture bit of life and excitement not create my own fake one.
Myth 3 – It takes lots of guts to do street photography. Well, if you're going to jump up in peoples' space with the intent of generating a response, yes, it takes nerve. But, if you are just going around documenting what you see, your attitude and interest becomes obvious and people's response is essentially to ignore you.
It does help if your physical behavior is workmanlike and here's where familiarity with your camera comes in. I work with my camera lowered, see a shot developing, make the camera adjustments before raising it, then raise it, take the shot(s) and lower the camera. Much of the time, people will see the motion but by the time they focus on me, the camera is back at my waist and they have no idea what has happened and the moment for them to react has passed.
If you stand around with the camera attached to your face like a huge nose for several seconds, then you will become the center of interest and the spontaneity of the shot will be ruined.
Myth 4 – street shots must be B&W. This is a cultural meme and I imagine that it derives from early shooters who shot a lot of B&W film because it was cheaper to develop and the number of keepers was low. But this is ignoring the purpose of photography which is to show people something. If the impact is best in color, let it be in color. If the impact is best in B&W, well then, convert it. Color is a tool as much as shape and content, use it. It shouldn't be thrown away because it doesn't fit into some silly, arbitrary 'rule'.
Myth 5 – shots of people in the street that are b&w are always 'street shots'. A few weeks ago I can across a website where someone was touting his presets for Lightroom that turned every shot into a 'street shot.' To this guy the content of the shot didn't matter, it was the look. How different is this from Instagram™- ing everything? A street shot, by my personal definition, has this meaning.
"an image can be snatched which is more than the sum of its parts - where some fleeting coincidence of expression, gesture, positioning, and movement come together to create an instant which holds some undefinable meaning."
It is more than the arbitrary scene, made B&W and grungy and filled with heavy shadows and fake grain.
Myth 6 – street shooting is hard. Well this one is sort of true. The the actual act of street shooting isn't so difficult but getting good street shots is very, very hard.
Street shooting, besides the various styles, gets done in essentially two ways. The obvious way - the shooter walks around and, when he/she comes across the great shot, just take it, one exposure, done, fame, glory. The not-so-obvious way – the street shooter sees a situation, can projct that the situation will provide a shot worth saving and then 'works' the situation shooting it from different angles, perhaps waiting for it to develop. IMO, the second is the more common and the more difficult.
Anyone can be lucky and grab a prize-winning shot once in a while but it is the photographer who can project a situation in advance, see in his/her mind's eye what it could be and get that shot consistently is the one who shows the judgment, skill and talent that makes great shots.
Baseball players have it lucky, good batters only fail 65% of the time. Good street shooters fail a lot more than that.
Eric Kim, a well known street shooter, who favors the 'jump up in their face and scare them' school of street shooting, says he gets a good shot maybe one out of a thousand.
I don't know my average, actually I don't know how many of many shots are good in any absolute way to anyone but myself, but it is very common for me to go out, walk 3 or 4 hours, take 200 or 300 shots and having nothing much I want to keep, let alone show.
One of my consistent disappointments is to cruise around on the web, looking at websites, hoping to admire and find inspiration in others' work.
This last week, however, I came across the work of two shooters I liked a lot who deserve some mention separately.
First I heard Kay Chernush speak and it was a minor revelation. Her work, although it was usually done on assignment, was beautifully composed and executed with an artist's touch. She worked at the shots but each one seemed just spontaneous light and lovely. In all that, she was relatively unconcerned with the technical aspects, assuming that technical competence goes without saying. Lovely work, nice person. Kay Chernush Photography
Second, I saw the Peter Turnley's site and was bowled over with his use of color and composition. This link is directly to one of the most beautiful pictures I have seen in my memory. Peter Turnley's site and the photo mentioned. Actually, Peter Turnley gave me permission to show the image but I want to force as many of you as possible to see his site.
These photographers both shoot, in what I consider, a 'street shooter' sensibility, using the image to capture and project the emotion and, to use Kay Chernush's phrase, a 'sense of place.'
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