There are hundreds of how-to guides out there about how to do street photography, listing step by step instructions – this post isn’t going to be that. I’ll instead be sharing some insights with you of what I’ve learnt from past experiences and what I would recommend to someone who is new to street photography. Let’s dive straight in!
Plan, but plan with room.
The best way to see a city, and of course to photograph a city, is to hit the streets and walk. Allow yourself to get distracted, go where your gut takes you.
I generally pick an area be it Chinatown, Financial District or another borrow, but I don’t plan anything else around it. I get off the train and I walk. This is my rule of thumb no matter which city I’m shooting in.
(The only thing I do plan to an extent is where I’ll be eating, because second to photography is food, food is life).
So this is one of the reasons why I generally go shoot alone, or with another street photographer who gets it because let’s face it, for someone who isn’t on the same page looping the same area again and again can become very tedious (Unless you have a instagram husband / wife / partner / friend who loves you enough to endure this).
Why loop? Because:
- The buildings may be the same and the road hasn’t moved, but the people have.
- I loop because the foreignness of the street becomes more familiar, you see things that you missed the first time, a window with an epic reflection or the light that now hits a different wall in just the right way, a person leaving a doorway that perviously remained closed. Whatever it may be there will be things that you will only see after having walked through an area before, and last but not least
- You get more comfortable with your surroundings, and being comfortable with your surrounds means that you will automatically become more comfortable and confident in shooting them.
This kind of goes hand in hand with the first point, plan, but with room. I find that if you don’t have a specific planed route or time to be somewhere else you get to slow things down. There’s a big difference between just walking and shooting, and slowing down to shoot. Cool, but what does this mean, Michelle? It means that you allow yourself to take your time and absorb your surroundings. Stand back against the wall, look around and see where you are, picture frames in your head and try and imagine which shots you want to take (just please don’t do this standing in the middle of the sidewalk because you will get kidney punched).
When you do see a frame that you think would be great, but there isn’t anyone in the shot at the time that you want to shoot, wait. Stand back, find a nook, make yourself comfortable, be patient and for the shot. Shoot it for 15min / 30min however long it takes to get it. Trust me, it worth it more often than not. (Again, not everyone finds this entertaining, so pick wisely who you bring along if you want a photo mission partner).
Okay, so it’s easier said than done. I still have moments where I think too much and miss a shot, when I see someone and I want to capture their expression but they see me and I freeze for second too long.
“Photography is a response that has to do with the momentary recognition of things. Suddenly you’re alive. A minute later there was nothing there. I just watched it evaporate. You look one moment and there’s everything, next moment it’s gone.” – Joel Meyerowitz
It happens so don’t worry if you suffer from the hesitation jitters when you start getting into street photography. It’s normal.
Street photography often crosses the line of being observant and also encroaching on someone else’s space. (Keep in mind that they are, however, in a public space…) but this is a topic that is constantly debated and could be an entire separate post so I wont be diving into it right now. Instead I’ll dive into some basic tips for how to get to a point of less hesitation.
Just start shooting
Confidence and your own style comes with the hours you spend on the street. You can read all the articles in the world, but they wont make you suddenly shoot with the confidence of Bruce Gilden, Joel Meyerowitz or Jill Freedman. So just start. It’s that simple, take your camera and hit the street. Take photo’s, click away like a mad hatter. The more you shoot, the more you’ll feel comfortable behind the lens.
Research other photographers, read about their work. Learn from how they capture, you can honestly never learn enough. Somewhere between all of that you’ll start to develop your own style. Some of my photography idols include Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Parr, Fred Herzog, Don McCullin (and obviously everyone listed above) as well as about a hundred other photogs. Read online photography journals – the likes of Lens Blog and LensCulture are a great start. Pick up photography magazines – the more you can absorb the better!
Go on photo missions.
We all follow other photographers in our cities. Just ask them if they want to go shoot. It’s that simple. I’ve made some incredible friends over the years by doing just that. You’d really be surprised how much you can learn from someone by simply observing the way they manoeuvre the streets while shooting, or how they interact with the people whom they are photographing.
Don’t get disheartened.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
― Henri Cartier-Bresson
It’s tough, sometimes you get home, amped up from a shoot so you plug in your camera and eagerly await to see your shots, only to discover that most of the shots aren’t as great as you thought they would be. Please please please don’t let that put you off. Street photography is a unique breed, a split second could be the difference between getting a shot, and missing it. Keep shooting!
And finally, gear…
I often get asked what gear I use, I shoot on a Canon 5D, and I have various lenses ranging from my 24-70 (which is like a favourite child) to pancake lenses. I basically have a lens for different moods. How so? Well shooting with a pancake / prime gives you no zoom, so you zoom with your feet. For example, if I’m shooting on a prime (say a 20mm pancake / 40mm pancake, 50mm prime) etc it forces me to get up close to my subjects, which means that my shots become a lot less furtive and a lot more intentional. I have to walk up to someone and get close to take a photo of them, it’s a lot more daring and I have to be in the mood for it. Whereas shooting on the 24-70 for example gives me some room, I get get a closer shot from further away without needing to get as close, but the result it vastly different. Another thing to consider is the weight of your kit, a 24-70mm lens is heavy, it’s also big and a lot more clunky than for example the polar opposite like a pancake lens (which is exactly that, a tiny little lens that looks about as flat as a pancake).
“[The small camera] taught me energy and decisiveness and immediacy … The large camera taught me reverence, patience, and meditation.” – Joel Meyerowitz
We can deep dive and debate which gear is best, which lenses are better, have less distortion, is faster, full frame vs cropped, mirrorless vs dslr, but I’m not going to. Do you want to get into street photography? Do you have camera that is capable of taking a photo? If the answers to both is yes then you can leave your house and hit the streets to take photo’s. If you don’t have a kit, and you’re looking to buy one you most definitely do not need to go and rob a bank to afford a top of the range camera and a million lenses. Yes having a good camera makes a difference if we’re talking professional photography, but I promise you – you can shoot equally incredible shots on camera that cost you a fraction of the price. Buy within your means and figure out your shooting style, then once you know what you enjoy photographing you can buy the right body and the right lenses for your needs.
All Images Copyright© Michelle Viljoen – Papercitylife