Street photography is a very time demanding and hard genre of photography to master. First of all, it is because of street photography definition itself. Secondly, there’s hundreds if not thousands of variables, which a street photographer has little, if any control of. Should you decide to read the following lines, you will learn what I think are the five things you can do today to improve your street photography. These tips will give you actionable ideas to consider and think about.
Make it simple
While street photography is hard and complicated, it can still be made simple. Take out as much as you can, strip your image to its bare essence. Choose what is most important to you and shoot that. Identify what makes you most creative and use that when shooting.
Choose one lens. Choose one technique. Choose one topic. Limit yourself, limit your gear. Stick to one place. Observe. Shoot portraits only. Shoot one colour. Shoot black and white (I shot it for one whole year, exclusively, read about it here). Shoot long exposure. Shoot gestures. Silhouettes. Shoot at night.
In general, minimise, exclude, take out. In yourself and in your frames.
Stretch before you run
With taking pictures on the streets, its like with sports. You need to stretch before you perform. In sports it is for two reasons: 1, to get your body and mind in the best performing state (muscle temperature, flexibility, focus, engagement) and 2, not to injure yourself. Let’s transpose this into photography.
Get your body and mind in best performing state — same applies to taking pictures. You want to exercise or “stretch” before making that legendary street photo. Do this: take out your camera as soon as possible. Even before you arrive to where you will shoot. Let your hand get used to holding the camera. The later you take it out, the higher expectations you will have of yourself. You’ll be nervous. Don’t be nervous. Just get it out and start shooting. It does not matter if the pictures are any good. You need to heat up, stretch those photographic muscles (creativity, vision, foreseeing). So you don’t injure yourself, your ego. Test and get your settings right.
You now feel the streets. You are mindful and present. You are in “The flow”. You are now ready. Ready for that home run, touch down, slam dunk.
Set the right kind of expectations
If you go out and expect to take images of the quality of Saul Leiter, Robert Frank or Vivian Maier, be aware — you will likely fail. That’s OK though. First of all, we only get to see their best work, they failed too — quite often I dare say. Second of all, it is important you understand the level of your skills. Estimate the quality you can deliver on given day.
Start from here: look at your own work from the past months and analyse what you can do better. What can you improve? How? Are you aware of the mistakes you make? Answer this and you will be able to know what to focus on. What to expect of yourself. It will be easier to achieve such goal, hence it will be more satisfying. You will have overcome yourself! That’s the best type of competition!
Prepare and know what you are after
Visioning is a great skill if you are in the creative field. If you decide to follow the steps above and keep it simple, maybe for tomorrow, you will decide to shoot portraits on the streets only. Great! But, don’t go out just yet. Get your head straight, decide on your approach. Plan it. Once you do that, you will have less decisions to make while out in the field (well, street really) and more time to focus on observing and shooting.
This is how I’d go about it: OK, let me shoots portraits only today. My goal will be 10 portraits. Candid or staged? Let me go for staged — I will ask for permission to shoot. I will direct my subjects on what to do, where to stand, where to look. I will use one lens only, as I want the visual to be the same. I will always shoot the portrait in shadows, so I have nice soft light and I can present my subject in a nice way. How will I ask for the portrait? “Hi, I am a street photographer and I noticed you have a very distinctive look which I think is interesting. Would you mind if I made a portrait of you?” … and so on. I’ve made those decisions now, so I don’t have to later.
Or you can take gestures, silhouettes, slow motion, etc. and ask similar set of questions.
The more you prepare the better. On the other hand, don’t overthink it.
Learn, shoot, repeat
Final tip for today. And most likely for other days to follow. It has three components: Learn. Look up a new technique or skill and read about it. Shoot. Go out and practice it. Once you try something, evaluate it and, as much as you can, be objective about it. What are you happy about? What didn’t work as imagined? Why, what was the mistake? Note it down and keep in mind for next shoot. Repeat. Read some more about it, shoot more of it, get feedback. From yourself or from others.
“Learn, shoot, repeat.”
FYI, I took the “Learn, shoot, repeat” idea from Matti Haapoja, a great visual artist and Youtuber. Check him out. He’s also a drone master, if you’re into that kind of thing. I am.
Bonus tip: Be consistent
This is not a photography technique, it is rather a decision you need to make. But you can still make it today!
Make a commitment to yourself. Shoot every day. Shoot every week. Stick to one technique. Master it. Move on to next. Stick to one place, learn it, become one with it. Be consistent, do not get demotivated if the success does not come immediately. It never does. Even The Greats had to work all life to become what we call them today. If you are not patient to become better, you never will. Read up on “delayed gratification”. It has to do with patience, too.
Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.” — Richard G. Scott
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