Street Photography is not as complicated as you may think. You don’t need to have a Leica to be a street photographer. You don’t need to carry 50lbs of lenses, flashes, reflectors, tripods to make a picture. The scenes are there waiting for you to capture onto your film or whatever the media you use to shoot with. One lens and any brand camera are enough to give you the thrill of being a street ‘tog.
If you are curious and having a desire to be a street ‘tog, I have few tips for you.
- Smaller is better—The advantages are speed and discretion. These are the main ingredients in street photography. I’ve been using digital compact cameras to walk the streets for quite sometime now and I love them. They are light in weight, easy to fit in my cargo pocket, they are fast and quiet. Unlike DSLRs, people rarely protest when they see you pointing a compact camera at them.
- Not the Manual mode—Shooting in Manual mode will not make you a pro. It’s only give you more control over your exposures. By combining the Aperture Priority mode with Exposure Compensation you can precisely get your exposure and faster than toying with the Manual mode.
- Screw the AF mode—Autofocus mode means you have to wait for the lens to focus before you can press the camera shutter. Why not learn to shoot instantly with zone focusing technique?
- No zoom lens—A zoom lens does nothing but slows you down. An extreme wide angle lens may get you slapped. That’s why 35mm, 50mm and 85mm quickly became street ‘togs and photojournalist’s Holy Trinity in the 60s and 70s. When you are more comfortable with getting closer to your subjects, a 28mm should get you some great urban shots.
- Know your gears—How do you get the most out of your gears when you don’t know enough about them? Spend sometime reading the manual book so that you know exactly where all the features are and what they can do for you. Then, try them out a few times. Take notes of the differences. Learn what you like or dislike about your gears. No camera is perfect. No lens is the best. But knowing the pros and cons of your gears will help you to overcome obstacles.
- Know your rights—Street photography means you are shooting a person or someone’s property. Knowing your rights will protect you from getting into trouble with the law as well as avoiding harassments. Flickr Photographer’s Rights group has a very informative discussion about this subject. Also check out Bert Krages, an attorney who has been recognized as an advocate of the right to take photographs in public places. He has published in Popular Photography, Shutterbug, and Wired magazines. You can download his The Photographers Right in pdf here.
- Know your pavement—In case you must shoot in Manual mode, use the pavement as your gray card. +1 f/stop to lighten skin tone.
- Look at the shadow. Not the light—The shadow will tell you exactly how strong or how weak the light is.
- Have no fear—Fear and shyness are your biggest enemies. Don’t be timid by anyone or anything or you will never get a decent shot.
- Blend in—Don’t wear your $2,000 leather jacket to a dark alley and don’t dress like a hoodlum when you are in a nice neighborhood. Use common sense. Clothes that fit the scene will make you (almost) invisible and give you more chances to grab the pictures you want.
- Be patient—Any experience street ‘tog will tell you that patience, anticipation and persistence are the grass roots of street photography. Walking up and down the street make you weary and may cause suspision. Sometime you will need to pick a spot, relax and wait for that one shot to come to you.
- Be an observer—True street ‘togs would never shoot random people or things. They observe. They choose. They focus on gestures, emotions, lives and the interactions between people. When you pay attention to the existence, you will be able to suspend time and immobilize actions. This is what I called the decisive moment.
- Get closer—Not the in-yer-face type. But once you get closer to your subjects, you will be able to see the detail of the shot you about to take. It also helps to avoid distracted background.
- Be polite—Be polite to the people in the streets. Respect their privacy. If someone doesn’t want you to take his/her picture, smile, say thank and walk away. Remember, you’re on the streets to take photos, not to look for troubles.
- Be a great photographer. Not a snob with camera—A great photographer will be rewarded with many great shots. A snob with camera will earn nothing but frustration and… flipped-fingers.
- Relax—Why the rush? If you don’t have time, stay home. Street photography is all about fun and leisure. When you rush yourself to take the shots, you won’t get anything special but a bunch of snap shots.
- Eye contact—Eye contacts and smiles will change the social interactions with your subjects. They are the passport for you to get pass objections. But sometime, you need to avoid eye contacts to get your shots. It’s just common sense. You will find out when an eye contact is needed after you spend a week or two on the streets.
- Get the story—Will you enjoy watching a movie without a plot or reading a book without a story? Your viewers would feel the same when they look at your photo.
- Various angles—Shoot it from the hip. Snap it from the ground. Snipe it from a tree branch. Eye level are boring; especially, when you shoot with a lens that is wider than a 35mm. Be creative.
- Dutch shot are for amateurs—While dutch shots are fun to capture with wide angle lenses and images of your kids, they are difficult for the viewers to look at. How many dutch shot have you seen made it to galleries or museums? None.
- Be precise—Save your time in post processing by getting your exposures, crops, compositions at the time you take the picture. Precision will bring your work to a higher level. It also trains you to be more decisive in street photography.
- Shoot at sight—See it. Like it. Shoot it. Bear in mind that you only have one chance to capture the occurrence. There is no remake in street photography.
- Be the eyes of the viewers—That’s right. Photographers are the eyes of the viewers. Think about what your viewers see when they look at your photographs.
- Shoot less of everything and more of something—You don’t want to snap a thousand pictures and hope for one useable photo toward the end of the day. Make it a habit to shoot only when you see a scene or subject that worth your attention. That’s how you learn to become a pro.
- Treat your gears like your lover—Clean your gears after each photo walk. If you use your gears in a dusty or wet environment, have your cameras and lenses CLA at least once every two years.
The hardest thing for street ‘togs—or any artist—to do is to be the eyes of the viewers. You can’t just shoot randomly at things you like or pretty women you see on the streets. Those are meaningless to your audience. And if you need your audience, don’t bore them with something they don’t understand. It’s a huge sacrifice to put yourself last, but you have to first think about how your viewers interpret the hidden messages in your photographs. Then you think about the best angles to depict your stories and all those compositions, lights, exposures… How are you going to do all that while you only have split seconds to capture one shot? Don’t give up, my friends. Be patient. You need to train your mind, eyes and body. You need to make plan before you leave home to the streets each day. You need to master all those composing elements. Lot of trainings but you will make it. Like they said, Rome wasn’t build in one day.
In case you’re curious, The compact cameras I use for street photography are Olympus XZ-1, Olympus PEN E-P2, Olympus PEN E-PL3, Fujifilm X10, Fujifilm FinePix X100, Leica D-Lux 4, Leica X1 and currently, the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. These cameras gives me different feels and effects and yes, I do like them equally. If you have question about the settings I use for any of these cameras, drop me a line. I will share any information I have experienced with these tools with you.
Time for me to hit the streets. Happy shooting and be safe, my friends.