Street photography is one of its kind in photography. And is among unique genre of photography, it seems to be easy, one can think anything keep shooting on street becomes street photography. But no, and here are 10 lessons from the masters of street photography everyone should be following and yeah later do on their own.
1. GET CLOSER
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”- Robert Capa
One of the common mistakes that many beginning street photographers make is this: they don’t get close enough. We have many fears and provide a lot of excuses for not getting close enough in our street photography. We are worried about pissing people oﬀ, we are worried about making other people feel uncomfortable, and we are worried that strangers might call the cops on us (or even worse, physically assault us). Realize that this is all in your head. By getting closer to a stranger, you won’t die. In-fact, I have learned that in photography (and life), with physical proximity comes emotional proximity.
It isn’t enough to use a telephoto or zoom lens to get “close” to your subject. By using a telephoto lens, you compress your image, and visually your photo feels less intimate. It feels like you are more of a voyeur looking in; rather than you being an active participant of the scene.
In street photography I generally recommend using a 35mm lens (full-frame equivalent) for most photographers (Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, and Anders Petersen shoot with this focal length). The human eye sees the world in around a 40mm ﬁeld-of-view, and I ﬁnd that shooting with a 35mm lens gives you enough wiggleroom around the edges of the frame.
A 50mm is ﬁne too (Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using it for nearly his entire life), but in today’s crowded world, I ﬁnd it to be a bit too tight. A 28mm is fantastic too (William Klein, Bruce Gilden, and Garry Winogrand have used this focal length), but realize that you have to be close enough with this lens to ﬁll the frame. As a rule-of-thumb, I try to shoot with a 35mm at least two-arm-lengths away (or closer). 2 arm-lengths is 1.2 meters (around 4 feet). Therefore I always have my camera pre-focused to 1.2 meters, set at f/8, ISO 1600, and I simply go out to ﬁnd moments to shoot.
2. DON’T SHOOT FROM THE HIP
Another common mistake that aspiring street photographers make is that they try to overcome their fear of shooting street photography by shooting from the hip (photographing with your camera at waist-level and not looking through the viewﬁnder).
“[Don’t shoot from the hip], you’ll lose control over your framing.” – Garry Winogrand
In my experience, I found that shooting from the hip was a huge crutch. The more I shot from the hip, the less conﬁdent I was as a street photographer. Not only that, but as Garry Winogrand said, I lost control over my framing. My shots would be poorly framed, skewed, and any shot that I got that looked half-decent was because of luck.
. As a street photographer, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are trying to make images that people can empathize with. If it weren’t for street photographers, historians would have no idea what people did in public spaces in the past.
Be conﬁdent. Have faith in yourself. By not shooting from the hip, you’re signaling to the world that you’re not doing anything wrong. Also by using your viewﬁnder (or LCD screen), you can have better control over your framing and composition. What do you do when you’re shooting street photography and you get “caught in the act?” My suggestion: Look at your subject, smile, say “thank you” and move on.
3. “CAN YOU DO THAT AGAIN FOR ME?”
Sometimes you see things happen in the street; certain gestures, facial expressions, or actions by your subjects but miss “the decisive moment.” If you ever see a moment that you miss, try this out: approach the subject and ask them: “Can you do that again for me?”
For example, I was in Downtown LA in the fashion district and I saw a man blowing his nose. It looked like an interesting gesture, and I loved his eyes, his suit, and the overall moment. However the second I brought up my camera, he dropped the tissue and made eye contact with me (and stopped blowing his nose). I then said, “Excuse me sir, I love your outﬁt and look. Can you do me a favor and blow your nose again for me?” He laughed, and blew his nose again, and I took a few photos while walking backwards with a ﬂash.
Now believe it or not, most people are quite happy to repeat certain gestures for you if you just ask. Another technique you can try out in street photography if you feel timid approaching strangers and taking photos without their permission is to approach them and ask them, “Pretend like I’m not here.”
If you see a cool-looking guy smoking a cigar in front of a store, you can approach him and say, “Excuse me, I think you look badass smoking that cigar. Don’t mind me, can you just keep smoking that cigar and pretend like I’m not here?”
Most people will laugh, and literally ignore you. This can help you get a candid-looking photo (without getting punched in the face).
Sometimes your subject will start posing and smiling while continuing to smoke their cigar. In those situations, simply linger around, don’t say anything, and wait about 30 seconds until they start ignoring you.
Another tip: you can start chatting with them and asking them how their day is. When they start talking and drop their guard, you can continue taking photos. This allows you to capture much more natural looking photos (that don’t look posed).
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO CLICK
One of the mistakes that street photographers make is that they are afraid to click the shutter, fearing that they will take bad shots. Realize the more bad shots you take, the more likely you are to get a “keeper.” To succeed more, fail more.
5. CHASE THE LIGHT
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.” – Trent Parke
The root of the word “photography” in Greek means “drawing with light.” Don’t see yourself as a photographer, but as painter using a camera as your brush. As a rule, always follow the light. When you’re out shooting on the streets, try to ﬁnd areas with dramatic contrast between the shadows and light. If you shoot during the middle of the day, you can adjust your camera to -2 exposure compensation to get very dark shadows, and well-exposed highlights. In post-processing, you can also “crush the blacks” by dragging the “black” slider to make even more contrasty black and white images. One thing I have discovered is that black and white looks good regardless of lighting situations. However color photographs look really bad when shot in poor light. For good inspiration of good light and color, study the work of Alex Webb. As a rule, he doesn’t shoot when
the light is poor and harsh. Therefore he either shoots early-morning (sunrise) or late-afternoon (sunset). He is the ultimate painter of light in color photography. What you can also do is this: during the day (when the light isn’t good), use that time to scout locations. If you ﬁnd a street corner that you ﬁnd might be interesting, re-visit it when the sun starts to set, and then park yourself on that corner, and work the scene. Light turns the ordinary into the magical. A scene without good light can be boring. A scene with great light becomes something otherworldly. If you’re shooting at sunset, follow the light. As the sun starts to set, you will notice the rays of light will shift and move. Just follow the light. If you want to be more “eﬃcient” in your street photography, limit your shooting only to “golden hour” (sunrise/sunset). During the times when the light isn’t good, either get a cup of coﬀee or take a nap. When the light is good, shoot like a madman.
6. DON’T TAKE EASY PHOTOS
One of the best things about street photography is that it is so challenging. Anything in life which is too easy is no fun. As human beings we crave adventure, diﬃculty, and challenge. Street photography is one of the most diﬃcult genres of photography out there, because it is diﬃcult to shoot human beings. We have so little control over the background, the subject, and the light. We have a fear of pissing people oﬀ. We have the fear of missing the “decisive moment.” If you ﬁnd yourself being bored with photography, it probably has become too easy for you. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, and aim to make more complex and diﬃcult images from what you’re used to.
7. SHOOT WHAT YOU’RE AFRAID OF
Have you ever had a situation when you were out shooting all day and you didn’t ﬁnd anything interesting? Happens to me all the time. However have you ever seen a scene that you wanted to capture but were too nervous or afraid to do so? Channel that fear in a positive way. Photograph what you are afraid of. The only reason that you’re afraid of shooting a scene is because you want to photograph it, but you’re afraid of the consequences. By doing what we’re afraid of we continue to grow. We escape complacency. As an assignment, go out and photograph a neighborhood or type of subject matter which frightens you. Of course do this within common sense and with safety in mind. Whenever you see a shot you’re afraid of, shoot it.
8. DON’T BE “SUCKERED BY THE EXOTIC”
“It is not enough to just photograph what something looks like. We need to make it into something that is unique, a surprise. Photography has been used forever to show what things look like, like when photographers photographed objects and landscapes.” – Constantine Manos
Have you ever been to India for the ﬁrst time, where you strove to make all your photos look “National Geographic” and exotic? But we have all already seen those types of images before. The job of a photographer isn’t to just make beautiful postcards of exotic places but to make a unique image that hasn’t been done before. Rather than simply duplicating what has been done in the past, we should strive to add to the conversation of photography by adding something a little extra. Constantine Manos advised me not to get “suckered by the exotic.” I have to admit, this happens to me all the time, especially when I travel to exotic locations which are novel to me, like India, Tokyo, or Paris. I have a mental repository of all the exotic photos I have seen in the past, and I try to simply replicate it. Also as a photographer, we need to imbue meaning into the images we make. We aren’t there to simply capture what is before our very eyes. We have already seen a million photos of the Eiﬀel tower, the Taj Mahal, and of a sunset. We shouldn’t photograph what things look like. We should photograph what things feel like. For example, it took me 3 trips to India before I didn’t take the cliche “National Geographic” Steve McCurry-wanna-be images. When I ﬁrst went to India, I was blown away by all the colors, and the “exoticness” of the place.
9. IMPROVE 1% EVERYDAY
Without instruction, at a very early age, I could play the piano. Anything, particularly—after hearing it once. Not reading music. I would pass a quite ﬁne piano in my house everytime we came from the back from the front—and everytime I would pass it I would play a few things, and without any success at all. And I got a little better and better, and time went on. And maybe never playing the same one twice. It ain’t much diﬀerent the way I work today, still [in photography].” – William Eggleston It is easy to look at a body of work by an accomplished master photographer and feel that no matter how hard we work, we can never achieve as much as that photographer. The journey of a thousand steps begins with the ﬁrst step. If you want to create a body of work in photography, you need to start oﬀ with a single photograph. If you want to improve your photography, just aim to become slightly a better photographer every day. Aim to improve your photography by 1% every day. You can improve your photography by taking more photos, studying master photographers, or analyzing photography books. By improving 1% everyday, you will see huge compounded interest in the course of a year.
Great bodies of work take time. We need to be patient. Zen master Hakuin Ekaku explains: “It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down…But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ and after three or four more strokes stopped again, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no diﬀerent from someone who is practicing the Way.” – Hakuin Ekaku
1% improvement in a day is realistic. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself, or you will become so overwhelmed and not start. Some suggestions: 1.Shoot 1% more photos everyday 2.Provide 1% more critiques to other photographers on social media everyday 3.Edit down your portfolio by 1% everyday 4.Learn 1% new photographic theory everyday 5.Try to be 1% happier everyday Don’t hesitate; start now!
“I believe that recognition and the power of the frame to put disparate, unrelated things together—suddenly this guy who was going on his business doing all this stuﬀ and this woman with her poodle—they have no knowledge of each other. But in your frame, it is context.” – Joel Meyerowitz
One way to make stronger images is to put together unrelated things into a frame, which create a sense of juxtaposition, contrast, and context. If you’re not familiar with the term “juxtaposition,” it is essentially a fancy word which means contrast. It is when you put two diﬀerent things or concepts together (side by side) that directly contrast or contradicts one another, yet there is some sort of relationship. A great juxtaposition in a photograph would include a young kid next to an old man, a tall person next to a short person, a person with a dark complexion next to a person with light complexion.
If you’re out shooting street photography and you identify one interesting thing going on, see if you can add another element of interest to make the frame more complex. Joel Meyerowitz continues on the point of making relationships in his photos:
“I’m going to go on record here—when I think about my photographs, I understand that my interest all along has not been in identifying a singular thing. But in photographing the relationship between things. The unspoken relationships, the tacit relationship—all of these variables are there if you choose to see in this way. But if you choose to only make objects out of singular things you will end up shooting the arrow into the bull’s-eye all the time, and you will get copies of objects in space.” – Joel Meyerowitz
It us only through comparison, analogy, similarities, and diﬀerences can we create meaning. Without sadness we couldn’t have joy. Without dark we couldn’t have light.
Much of street photography is to also show the hidden drama of everyday life. So if you’re able to make photos that show this tension between happiness and sorrow, hope and despair, old age versus youth in a single frame, you’re connecting with the viewer.
By capturing these relationships in your photos, you’re also acknowledging your own humanity, as Meyerowitz continues:
“I didn’t want copies of objects—I wanted the ephemeral connections between unrelated things to vibrate. And if my pictures work at all, at their best—they are suggesting these tenuous relationships. And that fragility is what is so human about them. And I think its what is in the ‘romantic tradition’—it is a form of humanism that says we’re all part of this together. I’m not just a selector of objects.” – Joel Meyerowitz
What kind of connections can you make in your photos, and how can you make your viewers connect to your photos?
A to Z of street photography by Vineet Vohra
By ERIC KIM from book 100 LESSONS FROM THE MASTERS OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY