“The photographer has to take life by surprise when he gets out of bed.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
How are you all doing? I hope today is finding you well.
I seem to start a lot of articles saying, I am not. Like – I am not an abstract photographer, but I love doing abstract photography. I am not a landscape photographer, but these past few years have brought a lot of beautiful landscapes into my life which of course I can’t help but want to shoot.
This article needs to have me say I am not a street photographer. And what I mean is, I am not exclusive to one genre. Most street photographers shoot in a specific style, and mostly shoot that subject. Which is cool. I am a total advocate of following whatever are your passions.
My passions just find me in all kinds of different places, shooting all kinds of different things! I feel like my whole desire for shooting is summed up in what the photographer Garry Winogrand said:
“Sometimes I feel like . . . the world is a place I bought a ticket to. It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.”
Photography is the most exciting medium to me, and I always want to be discovering more aspects to it, and use it to explore the world.
So now you know I am not a traditional street photographer – and I want to share some not-traditional tips for street photography with you.
What is street photography?
The street photography collective In-Public says:
“Broadly, Street Photography is a documentary form of Photography produced candidly in the public realm without staging or manipulation…..Using the simplest of equipment, Street Photography emphasises the unique vision of the photographer in observing everyday life, each Street Photograph affords us a glimpse into the mind of the photographer, their cleverness, their wit, their sense of order, their cultural and social understandings, their influences and visual sensibilities.”
I like this explanation, but I am also going to give myself total leeway with it. I often ask people to pose for street portraits – and for me that is still cool. And I also shoot a lot of streets without people. I am going to give myself that pleasure too!
But what really appeals to me is how they talk about it being an expression of the mind of the photographer, what they see, their understanding of the world, their wit – and how that is uniquely expressed.
So here are my tips and ideas for you:
Exploring the empty streets
I am including this partly because we are in the middle of a pandemic, and so we are looking to be creative in unusual times.
I spent over a decade shooting cities at dawn for my books & exhibition projects, and one of the things I loved the most about the experience was that especially in spring and summer, you would have the city almost completely to yourself.
Save the odd reveller or worker, it was a revelation to see the normally busy streets completely empty and free of the chaos and drama of humanity. The light at dawn is also pretty special!
So if you are in cities or towns that are normally buzzing with people, what a great opportunity to explore and shoot the actual bones of the city – the places, and spots that are now almost empty and free.
See what you can find in this emptiness that is a different perspective from what these towns and cities usually are like.
The details of street life, of human life imprinted on the world around us.
Shooting at dawn
“Have you ever seen the dawn? Not a dawn groggy with lack of sleep or hectic with mindless obligations and you about to rush off on an early adventure or business, but full of deep silence and absolute clarity of perception? A dawning which you truly observe, degree by degree. It is the most amazing moment of birth. And more than anything it can spur you to action. Have a burning day.” Vera Nazarian
The painter Monet believed that most people are blind to their environment. They don’t notice what lies before them, so habitually are we locked into the habit of our minds.
But he believed that the light of dawn and sunset actually coloured reality, making it easier for people to see the wonder of the world around them. And that was why he spent so much time painting in the twilight hours. So if Monet believed in the power of dawn, then so can you 🙂
How I shoot dawn
Every photo that I took for my dawn books, before sunrise, was exposed at -1.5 stops.
As the sun rises this exposure gets closer to 0 as the light increases. Why, you may ask?
Well, I will give you a quick lesson on the camera meter. The camera meter is an averaging system. It looks at all the tones in an image frame and averages it all to a middle grey. From now on and forever think of the 0 exposure as a bland middle grey.
For example, say you had a black wall that filled your frame. If you were to expose that wall at the meter’s 0 setting – like the image below – your black wall image would not be black but middle grey. Same for a white wall.
If you made the exposure at the 0 setting your white wall image would come out middle grey. You would have two photos looking exactly the same. Your meter is telling you that the black wall is way too dark and the white wall is way too bright, so here is the proper exposure.
Stupid thing doesn’t know anything. You have to know and interpret the information.
The correct exposure for the black wall is at -2 stops (darker) and for the white wall +2 stops (brighter) more or less…
Dawn being darker than a middle grey needs to be underexposed to retain the deep shadows and rich colours that are inherent for that specific time.
NOTE: This is something about auto-modes that people need to understand. If you are on an auto-mode (shutter or aperture priority, etc) your base exposure will ALWAYS be on the 0 exposure, unless you move it with exposure compensation.
I can go into much more detail about this in another post. Just remember, if your tones are predominantly dark, your exposure will most likely need to be darker. Inversely, if your tones are mostly bright, or at least brighter than middle grey, your exposure will need to be brighter.
Counterintuitive, yes? Essential, absolutely!
For most shooting situations that 0 exposure is going to work fine. But not for dawn!
Life is endlessly fascinating
“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” Robert Doisneau
What is boring about our lives to us can be fascinating to someone else, and vice versa. The world is rich with experiences that are very different to our own, and by just opening up our awareness and curiosity about other people, we are opening up a myriad of possibilities for us with our photos.
Can you see how none of the people in my photos are smiling? I like that! I like to try and go beyond the polite and friendly mask that we all wear, and instead try and delve into people’s real emotions about what they are doing and why.
And on the note of smiling, I have a shot of the guy below smiling, and to me it’s nowhere near as interesting as this shot:
People usually want to smile when you are shooting their portrait, but if you wait around long enough, chatting to them or asking them questions, they will stop smiling and give you the chance to capture something a little deeper than a smile.
Often when we are out on the street we are being overwhelmed and distracted by the plethora of stimuli that is all around us. Our attention is being pulled this way and that. And so it can be easy when we find a subject we want to capture to get so immersed in that, that we aren’t thinking about backgrounds or the frame as a whole.
So many photos I see from people have busy backgrounds, meaning the subject gets totally lost. Or people have just not thought through the impact the background will have on their subject.
We want to therefore compose consciously, with an awareness of what we are placing in the frame, and knowing how every element, including the background, will contribute to the overall photo.
I often like to find really cool backgrounds and wait to see what happens, who will come past and what they might do – which is a very common street photography technique.
Finding the perfect angle
Like with backgrounds and getting too distracted and involved with your subject, I find a common issue that people have is not working the scene enough so they get the very best angle for their subject.
It’s an easy mistake to make. You come across something awesome and immediately put your camera up and shoot, but I always find pausing before you shoot super useful. Asking yourself, is this the very place for me to stand to get the subject? Are the background, the elements around my subject, in the very best placement for my frame?
Can I move my feet, get closer, move around, go higher, go lower, go behind etc. Moving your feet is probably the most important tool you have in street photography, and will make all the different to your compositions.
I liked this combo of the pink wall and the green ivy, and also having the woman, unusually, off to the side of the frame. It looked more interesting to me than shooting the woman straight on.
I could have got closer to this guy, but I wanted to capture the atmosphere of a wintry morning in Venice. So getting closer isn’t always the answer. Every subject is different!
What was interesting to me about this was the pretty light on the woman’s face. Being at this angle was the only way to capture it.
“I am a bundle of nerves waiting for the moment and it rises and it explodes, it is a physical joy, dance, time and space together. Yes! Yes! Yes! As the conclusion of Ulysses of Joyce. Seeing is of the utmost importance.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Patience is a skill that many people do not have when it comes to photography, and it is one of the best skills to develop. Don’t be in such an eager rush to see everything and go everywhere that you race through shooting and life.
When you find something that piques your interest ,why not take some moments to stop and wait to see what might happen. Who might be coming along, perhaps the light will change, something could happen! Maybe you’ll get a cool shot, maybe you won’t. But rushing and photography are for me athemas. Slow down.
In Hong Kong people were lining up to get a shot with this cow. Even me! I waited around until someone did something interesting.
I loved this location, the street sign, the crumbling wall, the colour of the door, so I waited for someone to walk past.
One thing I love about shooting at dawn is how easy it is to create the atmosphere of the location you are in. It brings the location to life in quite an exquisite way.
Bringing the feeling of what it is like to stand right there in the place you are in is a great goal.
I don’t like this photo, but Di loves it. She says she can just feel the pre-dawn, cold and sharp air, dark skies and the rain of Venice. For me it’s not a great photo, but I can see her point.
This steamy, smoky cafe in Hanoi one evening just oozed atmosphere.
Choose a theme & look for it
I have photographed in my travels many people who are asleep. I find it totally fascinating to see how people can just fall asleep, out of necessity I imagine. It’s a very rare and intimate moment to encounter in a public place, and that is intriguing to me.
There are many, many themes you could select to focus on – people with masks is probably a good one now! Or maybe people with a specific colour mask, something unusual like custom masks.
Shoot other photographers
Super fun because we photographers are everywhere. Getting our cameras out all over the place and being nosy!
Street photography is most often shot in black and white, but for me I am a lover of colour, and nothing will change that.
Out on the streets you get to have a lot of fun playing with colour. I love to let colours lead me in my shooting. When I notice interesting colours I let them be the subject.
Framed by red, this creates a strong contrast to the subtle human moment of the man.
I love the colour of the reflected light that falls on these people. It’s really subtle but it creates what I felt was a cinematic feel to the shot. Colour doesn’t always have to be bold.
No people? Shoot animals!
I love photographing animals out on the street. They are the best subjects – curious, open, intriguing and with their unique personalities. I completely recommend shooting cats and dogs if you get the chance 🙂
Best cat pose ever!
Humour is a really important for many street photographers, and I too am not immune to finding moments that are funny out there and wanting to capture them.
It’s not something I go out looking for, but when I see something a little funny, or I can compose something a little humorous, I definitely go for it.
Sometimes it’s wonderful to capture more of the city than simply the moments of life in it. I know that is – again! – not traditional street photography – but I like the idea of urban landscapes being something we can explore and share to reveal how people live in these vast cities of ours.
This of course has no people in it, but you can see by the lights and the little window boxes, the scale of humanity in this image – it’s just hidden. Love this idea of people being there, but unseen.
Again no people, but we know they are there!
Make street photography your own
Like I said I am not a traditional street photographer. But that isn’t going to stop me having a great time shooting out there on the street and making something of my very own.
Don’t ever let rules or prevailing ideas dictate what you do or don’t do. For every rule there is a successful and brilliant photographer breaking it!
Photography for me is all about making it your very own. Filling your photography with your passions, your unique quirks, curiosities and interests.
I’d love to know what you thought of these tips, comment below and let me know.
Stay safe, stay creative,
Anthony and Diana