How you approach becoming a better street photographer and the techniques you adopt will evolve and change over time. As your confidence grows, your ability to use your camera and the way you engage with a subject will all play into the final result. It’s a very personal thing since your connection to the world is unique. You can read every book on the subject, you can talk to dozens of other street photographers, you can shoot thousands of frames yet the shots you get will be different from the next person. It’s because we all see things slightly differently and that’s a good thing! You need to develop your own technique and your own style. Obviously, you can take things from all the books you read and other photographers you talk too but ultimately, it’s you who is going to press the shutter. You must be prepared to take a lot of bad photographs and not get disillusioned along the way, since it is all part of the journey towards the good photographs that will eventually start to appear.
In this chapter I am going to offer what I have learnt from years of taking photographs on the street. I will give you tips on the things that I find work for me and that I hope will guide and help you towards finding your own way of working.
One of the attractions of street photography is that it requires so little equipment and you can buy everything you need for just a few hundred pounds. In fact, these days some people are even shooting good street photography on their mobile phones and I am guessing you already have one of those! I much prefer to shoot with a camera designed for the job, but it need not be an expensive model. All you really need is a camera with a wide-angle lens, and a reasonably fast aperture.
One of the street photographer’s I follow (Vinod Babu – http://www.thatslife.in/tl_gallery/vinod-babu-bnw/) started out with a small point and shoot camera and he got amazing results with it. Granted it is a high-end compact (Sony RX100) but nevertheless it’s tiny and might well be regarded as a ‘toy’ by many photographers.
Copyright © Vinod Babu
Sony RX100ii | 28mm / f6.3 | ISO 400
This shot taken by Vinod Babu was taken using a small Sony compact camera and demonstrates that even with what some might consider a far from professional camera that stunning results are possible if the photographer has the ability to ‘see’.
What you use to shoot your images is not the important element. It’s far more to do with observation and technique, and I would go a step further to say that it is also not that much to do with photography, it’s more to do with having a genuine interest in people and in life itself. If you have an interest in life, and find your own way to connect to it, then this will show in your images.
On the street what we see one minute is gone the next and unless you have managed to fire off a frame or two it’s probably going to be lost forever. If you see or sense a shot unfolding, then you need to be quick. Your mind needs to be focused and tuned in to any opportunities that come your way. You are unlikely to get a second chance so your first or second shot better be the keeper. You can learn to be a better observer but with street photography you are often still reliant on an element of luck. However, you will hopefully find that the more you go out and shoot, the luckier you will get.
Learn to anticipate what may be about to happen. Do not only look immediately in front of you, look into the middle and far distance to see what might be about to happen so you are ready when it does. When you shoot a lot, you will get the feeling of a moment before it even happens. Don’t ask me to explain how this works I just know, for me at least and many other photographers that I have spoken to, it does. It is one of the great mysteries of life!
It will help if you develop a habit of looking at things photographically even when not photographing. As my interest in and experience of street photography developed, I found that I started to see the world through a virtual viewfinder in my mind’s eye. When I am wandering the streets, I am visualising pretty much everything within either a horizontal or vertical frame whether I have a camera to my eye or not.
Street photography is personal. Everybody sees the world in a different way. What is important to one person may go unnoticed by another. Never lose your sense of wonder and you might find it surprising how many images you begin to see.
Every street corner can reveal surprises no matter what city you are in. What distinguishes one street photographer from another is the talent of observation and noticing when something surprising, funny or absurd occurs, and of course being in the right place to capture the resulting image.
Things happen on the street that will never happen the same way or look the same way again and as street photographers we deal with things that are continually vanishing. Second chances are rare, so our senses need to be on heightened alert to be ‘lucky’ enough to get great images amongst the chaos and imperfection. As we develop our skills as street photographers it’s funny how we start to feel a sixth sense that guides us towards the action.
Be prepared for a day’s shooting to sometimes result in a few full memory cards, other times nothing but having had a good walk. However, a good street photographer does not let the special things get away – our eyes have to be open to catch those moments and as long as the desire to develop our ability to ‘see’ is maintained then we will just keep on looking for new images.
What follows are some tips and tricks that I have picked up along the way that have helped me shoot what I consider to be some interesting images.
Wander & explore
The best way to shoot great street photographs is to get out on the street. Wander around and explore, go to new places, get lost, discover things that you never knew existed. This is all fuel for your mind and the more you fill up the more chances of you seeing the extraordinary thing that will make a great image.
Sometimes you will go out and come back with nothing. As frustrating as this is it’s all part of being a street photographer. Sometimes I come home after a whole day out shooting feeling that I have nothing, I used to feel like a failure and that I should just give up photography altogether. Other times it seems that I get into the zone, I see images everywhere and might come back with a dozen new images to add to my portfolio.
You will have good days and bad days. I have come to accept that this is the case and as long as I have at least seen a shot, even if I was not in the right position at the right time to shoot it, I know at least my senses where alert enough to see it. There will always be another opportunity to shoot, maybe not the exact same image but something.
One of the things I like to do when I first go out is fire off a few frames knowing that most of the time these shots will be deleted afterward. It’s like a sportsman warming up. They are warming their muscles as well as their senses and focusing their mind in preparation for whatever they are about to do. It’s the same with street photography. Street photography is a kind of sport and it will help if you prepare in the same way as all good competitors.
Not always, but often in street photography you are going to be aiming to shoot photographs of people without them noticing. Therefore, you need to do whatever you can to blend into your surroundings. This is clearly going to depend to a degree on where you are. If you are visiting a foreign country then you might well look quite different from the locals, in both ethnicity and the way you dress. If you are in your own country, then you will have a better chance of blending into the background but whatever is the case do what you can to minimise any attention you might otherwise attract.
Wear drab clothing, do not wear an unusual hat, do not carry what is obviously a big camera bag. You will most likely have a camera around your neck or attached to your wrist, so your best bet is to act like a tourist. I often use a wrist strap rather than a neck strap, a camera hanging around your neck is a lot more visible than one in your hand, so it naturally makes you a little stealthier.
This is only important of course if you want to get those more traditional candid shots. If you intend to engage with your subject, then it’s not so important to hide your gear. That said, I would still advise keeping gear small and to a minimum as it is then far less intimidating to your subject, and you are likely to find them more willing to open up and allow you to take their photograph.
I advocate minimal gear not only because I want to remain anonymous and inconspicuous, but because carrying a lot of gear all day long is hard work. It will wear you down and cause you to make decisions that you might not otherwise make if you were less encumbered. You do not need anything other than a camera.
Street photographers on the whole use wide-angle lenses. This means you can get a lot of information into a shot, but in order for it to be a compelling image this often means your main subject needs to dominate the frame. This means you need to get close. You need to be brave to do this but the more often you do it the easier it gets. Clearly you need to be sensible with this approach. You have to tailor your own behaviour to your surroundings. What might be acceptable in one country may not be in another so do your homework. On the whole though if you are nice to people, people will be nice to you so just go out there to be the nicest person in town and have fun with getting close.
Since you are using such a wide-angle lens you have a great opportunity to compose your images using some commonly accepted rules that often result in far more powerful images. There are loads of books out there that go into composition techniques in far more detail than I intend to do so here, but I use a few simple rules of thumb and always have these rules in mind when I am looking for and hopefully eventually framing a shot.
The well-known rule of 3rds is the first one. Many cameras these days allow you to show grid lines on your camera screen, within the viewfinder or both. I use this feature all the time. I find it really helps to see those grid lines and line up my shot accordingly. If you are not familiar with the rule of thirds then very simply the idea is that your rectangular frame should be divided into 3, both horizontally and vertically. This gives you two lines running horizontally and two vertically. Anywhere these lines intersect is roughly where the main subject of your image should be. This is not a hard and fast rule that if you break will mean your images are not good. I have seen plenty of very striking images that break the rule of 3rds but on the whole it works. While you are learning always keep the rule of 3rds in mind.
In my experience many non pro photographers are aware of and use the rule of 3rds technique to compose their shots but a large proportion of them think of it only in two dimensions. Left and right, top and bottom. What often sets one image apart from another is where the photographer has used the rule of 3rds in 3 dimensions. So not only left and right, top and bottom but also front middle and back. They look for depth in the image, so it accentuates perspective, there are leading lines, drawing the viewer deeper into the shot. You can use these same techniques with longer lenses of course, and they will bring different compositional aspects to your shots but with a wide-angle lens it’s possible to really work the depth into a shot and usually this results in a more powerful image.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
ROSIE BURR – Oxford, UK – Sony RX100ii | 28mm / f3.2 | ISO 160
This image of the street performer and former elite gymnast Rosie Burr, incorporates depth and leading lines. I shot this image from a very low angle. The camera was virtually on the floor. The way the buildings on the street angle in, the effect of perspective, provides great depth and results in quite a dramatic image.
You must learn to isolate the illuminating moment within every scene, but this need not mean including ‘all’ of your subject in the frame. Often a shot can be more powerful when you only show part of a subject, enough though to allow the viewer of the photograph to construct the rest of the image in their minds eye. Again, this is a great thing to do with wide-angle lenses.
You have control over where you place yourself (to a degree). If something isn’t working in the photograph, try changing your position. Move to the left, move to the right, try a higher or lower viewpoint. Find the angles that reduce the clutter in the shot and concentrate on the subject. Work the scene, shoot multiple angles if you can in order to get the one great shot. You are in charge.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
BEST DRESSED DOG – Oxford, UK – Panasonic LX100 | 28mm / f3.5 | ISO 200
Above is an example of an incomplete scene. I could have included the dog owner in this shot but it’s more powerful only showing the legs of the owner. The dog itself steals the scene and therefore anything more in the frame would have lessened the impact of the image.
Fear is what most photographers cite when asked about shooting on the streets. It is a natural emotion and it’s something that should be taken seriously. To get good street shots you often need to be close to your subject. This naturally means that your subject may notice you taking the picture. Using small, silent cameras or certain techniques will help but sooner or later you are going to get caught.
The way I see it one way to overcome your fear is to ask to take the shot. Simply asking can be a step for some people, who might be afraid of talking to strangers and there is nothing wrong with that. However, in my experience the chances of getting any kind of aggressive refusal are so slim that it’s not worth worrying about. So, try asking people if you can take their picture. Traditionally some would say this is breaking ‘the rules’ of street photography. If you speak to someone, they will know you are there and the shot would not be the same as if they had not noticed you. So what? I say speak to people, learn something about their life, try to get them to tell you a secret. This will create a relationship that did not exist before and therefore you might even get a better photograph this way.
If you have not heard of him already and viewed his work check out Brandon Stanton who is the photographer behind ‘Humans of New York’. He is the master of forming relationships with strangers in an instant. This allows him to get stories from his subjects you would think impossible, as well as getting them to pose for great shots. It’s not ‘strictly’ street photography in the traditional sense but fascinating nonetheless and the approach has become Brandon’s own personal style and one that many photographers are now trying to emulate.
Copyright © Brandon Stanton
“My mom died of lung cancer on my sixteenth birthday. My birthday is actually coming up—this Saturday. Before she passed away, I was a good student and everything. I was probably going to get a scholarship for singing. But I stopped caring after that. My mom was my biggest fan. Even when she was really sick, she came to my singing recital in a wheelchair, with her hair falling out of her head, and she sat on the front row. I quit singing after she died. There was nobody to sing for anymore. My Dad raised us. And he was wonderful. You want to know how awesome my Dad is? He went to court and tried to legally change my birthday. Just so I wouldn’t have to go through it every year. It turns out you’re not allowed to do that. But he tried.”
When I read this, it makes me really feel for the girl and I come close to tears pretty much every time. She has revealed something deeply personal and we can immediately connect on a human level. Without knowing the back story of course, the image is to most people meaningless, there is nothing in the image to suggest the girl’s history. Yet I admire what Brandon is able to do with his project and am in awe of the relationships he is able to make through his photography. The image is not necessarily going to win any composition awards, but you see the sadness in the girls face and you would have to be pretty apathetic not to feel for her. How does Brandon do it?
If you ask for a shot, then you might be refused but that’s about as bad as it gets. Trust me, when you ask to take a picture, even if at first you find it difficult, it will get very easy, very quickly. You will probably soon realise that you start to get a buzz from talking to people and that this in fact makes your day out shooting even more enjoyable. You meet some new people; you get to hear some new stories and it all helps toward getting that great set of images.
If you are one of the more traditional street photographers that only want the candid shots, then that’s fine. I shoot a lot of this style of street photography and it is great fun. You do need to be brave though as you have to get close and you have to accept that sometimes you might get some strange looks. Most of the time this is only going to be mild bemusement and some suspicion of what you are up to. Often you can just walk away having got the shot you were after. However, at times you might want to use this opportunity, having been discovered, to engage your subject in conversation which will hopefully result in them accepting why you wanted to photograph them, and you might even get a few more shots afterward. Smile, explain why you were attracted to the shot, flatter the subject in some way and chances are you will make a new friend. Most of us are too quick to imagine a problem that does not exist in the first place, which of course is often the root of the fear.
How bad do you want the shot?
You have got to learn to really want the shot. It’s tempting, even for experienced street photographers sometimes to see a shot and just quickly snap it, hardly breaking stride in the process for fear of discovery. In most cases this is going to result in a missed shot. If you are lucky once in a while you might get a half decent shot but most of the time you will not. You have to overcome this and want the shot bad enough to at least stop and give yourself a chance of getting it. Better still, stop long enough to work the angles and find the very best shot of the subject that you can. A move slightly to one side or the other, or a slightly higher or lower viewpoint can make all the difference. Learn to want the shot bad enough to get it even if it sometimes means getting caught!
A dictionary definition of juxtaposition is ‘the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect: the juxtaposition of these two images.’
Juxtaposition can be used to great effect in photography. It introduces the unexpected element, the extraordinary element that you should always be looking for.
Some of the most successful images incorporate juxtaposed elements. Two or more things that when seen together make an image more engaging. It surprises the viewer in the way it compares and contrasts the elements within the frame.
It’s fairly easy to define what we mean by juxtaposition but it’s not so easy to consistently find images that meet these criteria. The only way to get better is to practice observation and constantly be on the lookout for, and alert to the opportunities. It’s all too easy to be concentrating on something else, thinking about that bill you have not paid, or what you are going to eat for dinner this evening. If you are not concentrating, not visually open to what’s around you, then the chances are you might miss these types of shots.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
NO LOADING – OXFORD GRAVEYARD – Oxford, UK – Leica X-Vario | 18mm / f4.0 | ISO 100
I just happened to notice this sign on the railings enclosing a small graveyard in Oxford. The sign clearly is not related to the graveyard, it’s a simple ’parking regulations’ sign. Yet with the gravestones in the background it somehow takes on a new meaning, to me at least, and therefore introduces a juxtaposed element.
You are most likely, especially in the early days to miss a lot of shots. It’s really frustrating when you realise you are not in the right position or you fumbled with your camera settings by which time the moment had passed. Perhaps you were in manual focus mode when you thought you were autofocusing, or your aperture or shutter speed setting was not appropriate for the shot – we have all done it. It happens and there is no sense dwelling on it or beating yourself up about it. It’s important of course to learn from your mistakes, that is after all how you are going to get better. I still miss shots after years of practice. I have learnt though not to worry too much about it.
You just have to accept that some days you will come back with nothing, other days with photos and memories that are going to be with you forever. One great shot makes up for one hundred missed shots. It’s a drug, the shot you get makes you forget all the heartache, disappointment and often infuriating misses that led up to that one keeper.
Copyright © Mo Gelber
Canon Rebel T2i | 70mm / f4.0 | ISO 400
Above is one of my favourite street shots. I only wish I had taken it! It was shot by Mo Gelber and the story behind it demonstrates that luck plays an important part in street photography. Mo was actually sitting on a wall looking away from this scene. It was only by chance that he turned and saw the unfolding event that eventually ended up as this shot. It could so easily have been the case that he either never even looked to see what was going on, or that his camera was not ready to shoot this image quick enough.
There is so much going on in this image, it raises so many questions and I never tire of looking at it.
Look for geometry, leading lines and framing
Angles, leading lines, architectural details, depth, all of these things make your image more powerful. They need not necessarily be physical things in the frame, they could be shadows that form these geometric patterns in your image.
So, what do I mean by a geometric pattern? Think back to your school days when you worked with shapes; squares, circles, triangles, rectangles and probably many more. As children we are trained to recognise these shapes. From the point of view of your images I do not mean these shapes have a carefully drawn thick black line around them, rather that the shapes are present in the subjects that make up the elements within the frame.
Shapes are everywhere if you look hard enough. Be they permanent shapes in buildings or fleeting and constantly changing shapes caused by the lights and shadows at any given moment. It’s these shapes within your image that will give it more visual appeal.
Finding leading lines in particular will help to give your image depth and draw the viewers eye to the focal point by way of a ‘triangle shape’, often with the sharpest point in the distance which will visually create the depth. The lines formed draw the eye from one part of the picture to another and used effectively can connect one part of the image together with another. To have these compositional elements work, it is crucial where you position yourself. A slight move to the left or right can have a dramatic effect on the way the leading lines work within the frame so you need to be looking for the most powerful aspect that will give your image that extraordinary look.
Diagonal elements are usually the easiest to start out with and in almost every case will add a more dynamic, stronger element to the image. Diagonals can also work on your image spatially, dividing it into separate areas which work together to make the image more powerful.
In the projects section later in the book there are specific ideas to help you work on using geometry and leading lines.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
REFLECTING BICYCLES – Oxford, UK – Leica X-Vario | 46mm / f6.4 | ISO 3200
A simple shot of bicycles reflected in a large puddle. The point of view is what makes the shot work. The way the frame is sliced at an angle one from side of the frame to the other forms a spatial divider and adds an element of depth and visual interest.
Put yourself in an environment where things are happening that might be photogenic or at least improve your odds of making an interesting image. This often means a big city, but it could also mean an event like a music festival, a school fete, a street market, a race meeting. It could even be somewhere indoors like a museum. Good locations as far as street photography is concerned are basically wherever people gather.
Cities are great because there is usually lots going on, plenty of people coming and going, the scenes change at different times of the day. Not only the people and characters going about their business, but also the light changes pretty much constantly. What may have been a dull shot at one time of the day may come alive at another simply because of the way the light is illuminating the scene.
Large events are great places to shoot. The quirkier the event the better. Remember though that you are not necessarily there to document the event itself. You might find it more fruitful to document the people at the event. It’s often in the characters that turn up to watch certain events where the gold can be found!
Do not limit yourself to only outdoor locations either. I often shoot in my local museum for instance. You need to check whether photography is allowed wherever you shoot, especially if it is indoors as more often than not it may be outlawed. However, if you are lucky enough to find somewhere indoors that does allow photography, and this is combined with plenty of visitors, perhaps even some natural light, then it might be a great place to shoot.
Wander and explore, there are certainly no shortage of locations no matter where you live.