The keys to good street photography

I will soon be heading north to teach a class in “Street Photography” at the Maine Media Workshops. I was organizing my lessons, assignments and the images I will show the class, when a photographer who wanted to attend but could not, wrote me with some questions. I realized that answering his questions would help him grow AND help me improve the class I am about to teach.

Though I work as an editorial photographer, much of what I do is in fact street photography, assuming you accept the definition I found on Yahoo:

Street photography captures an instance of history or a random moment that will not happen again while being good for studying and documenting the human condition.

My work in India, Guatemala and many other places fits that definition (and aligns with the idea that I have in my own mind about what exactly is street photography.) The class that I am teaching runs August 23rd – 29th and can be seen in greater detail at: http://www.theworkshops.com/catalog/courses/coursepage.asp?CourseID=3186&SchoolID=20

The question that the writer posed was:

I do understand that Street Photography has a serendipity aspect to it, but I am also looking for guidance on channeling my project rather than putting everything on chance. On a macro level, I want to capture the essence of New York City, but on a micro level I want to show more emotion and connection between an individual and the city around him. I love to do human stories. I am fascinated by different cultures and styles of people. Can you please suggest some specific places I should definitely check out?

I replied:

Normally, I tell folks to take a class or I tell them I charge for imparting “wisdom. ” Unfortunately, I have to make a living, just as you do. Instead I am going to turn your query into a blog post. It is a great question. I think answering it will help others.

So here goes:

On an obvious level, street photography has its own unique set of problems and challenges. You are usually working in a place that is not that familiar. The activities in the street are rapidly changing. The people involved are usually concentrating on something else and/or may not be interested in being photographed. The light is often quite rapidly changing. All these issues test any photographer’s skills.

On another level, street photography is like other kinds of photography. The technical, conceptual and aesthetic skills required are similar to most other genres of photography. The same rules apply in terms of composition, exposure, how you use of white in the frame, and finding the right moment. The finished photographs need to have a starting point that draws the viewer into the image and they need to tell a story that holds the viewer’s attention.

The difference is that in street photography you have to do ninety-five percent of the work in advance, before you even think about composing, let alone taking a picture. That probably seems obvious, but it is the key to street photography. It also at the core of what I will be teaching in my upcoming class.

So what does this entail?

First, as a photographer, you would be well served to look at a lot of street photography so you know what you want your photographs to look like (or not look like) before you even frame your composition. While each situation is unique, the more photographs you have seen, the better you will be at planning your composition. To better appreciate that, you might want to read: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/04/27/the-art-of-editing-the-editing-of-art/ What you want to do in all kinds of photography, including street photography, is to internalize how successful images are put together and how the photographers who produce those images move the viewer’s eye through their compositions.

You also need to think about how you as a photographer learn and how you adapt to changing situations. You will need to be flexible, as your image and the thinking behind it will inevitably change. This happens in all kinds of photography and doubly so with street photography. To better appreciate that, you might want to read: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/02/27/learning-how-to-learn-photographically/ You need to be open to changing the idea of the image as the situation unfolds. This happens in all kinds of photography and is especially so in street photography. Most photographers start with one idea for their image. But once they start working, if they were open to it, the image changes. For example, a minor element in the “initial” composition could become the best part of the final photograph. Being too strongly wed to the first approach to a given image is the surest way to make sure that you do NOT get to the best possible photograph.

You need to have a very clear idea of what is it is you are going to photograph and what you want your images to say. Equally or more importantly, you should be clear about all the images you are NOT going to take when you are out working. In my experience the hardest part of any photographic effort, including street photography, is not just deciding what you want to say with your image(s) but also restraining yourself from photographing things that do not further that idea. A good way to appreciate that would be to read: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/04/13/the-important-process-of-naming-a-project/ In my experience, the hardest part of any project is defining the project and clarifying the point of view because, relatively speaking, “photography is easy but defining your project is hard.” Ironically, you also need to be open to changing your idea, based on what you have in front of you, what is working, what is not working, etc. In fact, my experience is that if any photographic project does not change between when start and finish, the photographer is not working hard enough.

Among the most important things you need to do with all photography, especially street photography is to fully “work” the situations you encounter. Meaning, you need to make a variety of images of a given subject, by changing your position, the camera’s orientation, the focal length of the lens, etc. To see examples of this see: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/06/03/working-a-situation-when-photographing/ and http://thewellspoint.com/2009/07/29/some-thoughts-on-photographing-reflections/

Though things are moving fast when you are doing street photography, I find the best images result from when I organize a composition where the activity is ongoing and ideally repeating. Then I wait and when something happens, make many images, continually experimenting with various focal lengths and compositions as I change my shutter speed and aperture, all in order to get a wide variety of images. I explored this further in: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/02/27/learning-how-to-learn-photographically/

Finally, like in all photography, you have to practice. I mean to practice both the art of photography on a grand scale and knowing how to work your camera gear on a smaller scale. You can read some of my thoughts about that at: http://thewellspoint.com/2008/12/12/the-role-that-practice-plays-in-good-photography/

So at first blush, street photography looks different from other kinds of photography, but in my own experience, that is not so true. Most of the skills that great photographers apply to different subject matter, whether portraits, nudes, landscapes or sports apply equally to street photography. The one difference with street photography is that you need to practice as many of these as you can as far in advance as you can.

The best street photographers work intuitively, knowing exactly what their cameras can do, how they want to organize their compositions and what they want their images will say. They know how to pay attention to the idea they have in mind while being open to other possibilities. They do all of this amidst crowds and chaos, showing that arguably the ultimate skill required for street photography is a talent for multi-tasking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *