Having tried my hand at street photography now for little more than 2 weeks I’d consider myself the last person to seek complex and detailed advice from, but at the same time many of the most valuable things I’ve learned throughout my life have been from people at around the same level of skill as myself while trying to get to that next level of ability and not from the pro’s who’ve been doing it for 20 years who explain without context and expect me to know anything and everything when I’m still stumbling to hold onto the basics. With that in mind, here are a range of basic concepts I’ve learned specifically relating to Street Photography in my early footsteps into the genre.
1. Light is Everything
One of the biggest separators between average and great Landscape photographers, and photographers in general is their knowledge and use of the weather, the light and the time of day. Most of us know of and have experience with Golden Hour and Blue Hour- the 1 hour after Sunrise and the 1 hour before Sunset. These are the times when the sun is lowest in the sky and provide a very horizontal light position, resulting in fantastic shadows, contrast and colour. So why do so many of us forget about this when we try Street Photography? Perhaps it’s because we get so focused on the subject and finding the right person that we forget we’re still (at times) essentially doing Portrait Photography, and if anything is important in Portraiture it’s lighting. The hour after sunrise is particularly loved by Street Photography because it’s often when most people are commuting to their place of employment in town. By using the light at a slight angle we can have long stretching shadows to emphasise someones walk to work and build a very sombre mood or shoot into the sun and create silhouettes against the street or pavements with ranges of tone.
Similarly, the Blue hour is not to be forgotten as it can be a time when people are heading out to the night life in the cities so people tend to be dressed to impress and particularly active and enthusiastic and with use of street light it can create a brilliant orange/blue complimentary contrast.
The Golden and Blue hours vary in length and their time depends on sunset and sunrise, meaning it changes from day to day and place to place. I’ve found this website particularly useful for getting detailed information by location but many phone apps have similar functionality and may also be useful.
2. There are Two Main Techniques, Both are Worth Learning
There are lots of different approaches and techniques used when shooting Street Photography but these main two take up the majority of space for most photographers.
First is looking for a good subject to shoot, then following them until you find a nice location or backdrop to shoot them against. This can feel creepy at first, and I suppose it kind of is, but then so is street photography in general if you look at it from the same angle. This alone is enough to turn many people off but there are benefits to shooting this way. It’s particularly useful if you’re far more interested in shooting the people than you are shooting the street or surroundings. Bruce Gilden is a great example of a candid street photographer who, despite what most would consider a very aggressive approach, gets fantastic results and doesn’t piss as many people off as you’d expect. His dominant approach is to walk the street against the crowd with a flash in one hand, a camera in the other and literally jump in front of people and snap them at the right moment. Another variation on this approach is to roam a particularly nice area and find someone you like then trail behind or in front of them to shoot once you have your desired backdrop.
The second technique is to find a nice spot in the city and wait for a subject. This provides a more relaxed approach as you’re often able to take an out-of-the-way position and many times go completely unnoticed. Here, everything is about timing and patience. You might sit in the same spot and snap 25 shots before you get the subject you want in the right position, but often that’s exactly what it takes to get an interesting street shot.
3. Framing and Telling a Story Become More Important
One of the things that attracted me to, and that I love about street photography is that it’s often more about context and story than other types of photography- that is, the way your photo is interpreted can vary from person to person but ultimately that interpretation is what gives the photo its impact. Whether it be a simple story like the lack of interaction and potential between two people who are close to each other that you can draw from, or something more obvious like a man in work clothes on the bus heading to work, it’s all about the context you put in the photo and the framing becomes a huge part of that. Getting in just enough to show elements of the story while also using the frame to compose is hard to marry but so often is what makes the difference between a good and bad photo.
4. The Largest Hurdle is Usually Yourself
I soon realised that the biggest weakness I had in street photography wasn’t anything to do with my skill or technical ability but was more basic than that- that I simply refused to take certain shots because of conscious or subconscious fear of what might happen, whether that’s physical altercation or simply a nasty look, it’s scary and hard to ignore in your mind. Most articles on street photography cover this in more depth but suffice to say the key things that helped me get over this were 1. Coming to terms with the fact that I was missing some of my best shots and that I wasn’t going to be a good street photographer otherwise and 2. That feeling embarrassed or self-conscious after being spotted taking a photo of someone revolves almost entirely around the fact that I’m simply not doing it enough or at all- that I might always feel that way but simply taking more candid shots means I can learn to ignore it quicker. After accepting those two things I went out and sought out shots I wouldn’t normally take simply to challenge my previous perception that I couldn’t take a shot because I was embarrassed or that I might not be missing a good shot anyway and lo-and-behold I instantly improved my repertoire and ended up with far more to show for it. For others, your demons about shooting people you don’t know may come in different flavours but ultimately we’re all simply self-conscious because we humans are programmed to care what others might think about us, but when that human trait gets in the way of progress you ultimately need to either accept it as part of your life and move a different way, or simply take the time and effort to overcome it like anything else.
5. Don’t Forget Indoor Spaces
For the first few days I shot on the street I completely ignored indoor spaces in favour of roaming the streets for a nice location. It wasn’t until I passed a pub on the corner of a street with an interesting looking guy having a pint and a completely different looking gentleman having a coffee on the tabletop outside that I realised there was a whole other world of shots either from outside to in, inside to out and simply outside and inside alone.
Using public spaces like museums, indoor markets popular indoor venues can be particularly useful since they’re often purposefully built and decorated for visual appeal and typically full of bustle but with their own quiet periods early in the morning. This early period can help you isolate a subject or simply set up your shot and wait. Other benefits include the fact that there are often tourists or people with cameras shooting so you wont stand out as much, and