“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv”: Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Sometimes called ‘reportage’, Street Photography is, seemingly, one of the simplest forms of the photographic art but doing it successfully or, perhaps, doing it to your satisfaction, can be something way more challenging. Bresson’s (incidentally, he’s one of my biggest inspirations in photography ) quote above is very telling and gets to the heart of reportage-style shooting. Even more so, another Bresson quote: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
So why is street photography such a challenge? It requires attention to the little details and that’s often tougher than you think, and this even though it can be achieved with a minimal amount of camera kit, in which respect it’s a bit like running. If you have trainers you can run, nothing else required. And so with street photography, if you have a camera then you can, well, Just do it! But does that make you immediately good at running or photography?
Even a smartphone’s camera will do the job but a small compact might be better, or an unobtrusive compact system camera better still. In reportage then, watching for “the smallest thing” inside a “fraction of a second” is key to success. It requires of the photographer a level of concentration and cat-like reactions plus acute observational skills that most other photo subjects do not need, all within one discipline.
For more inspiration and grist for your reportage mill, take a look at some photographers, that along with Bresson, inspire me. Look to Susan Meiselas, Tom Stoddart or Chris Steele-Perkins and you’ll quickly get the gist.
To Be Successful
Take a landscape, a portrait, or close up macro work; even sports photography, all either have obvious up-front kit requirements, a reasonable amount of forethought and (or) a large element of planning. Those things, combined with a reasonable level of camera and technique skills, of course, make them relatively uncomplicated and easy to do or understand – even if at first – you’re not very successful.
On the other hand, street photography is akin to wildlife photography in that it’s like stalking a prey animal in the wild. While a specific prey in this case is a “street” animal, like wildlife, your subject is elusive, you need to know its habits and habitat and when (or if) you find the target, you must have fast reflexes to have any chance of snapping it properly. You may get the right vantage point before it leaps into cover, but if you’re not ready, your camera is set incorrectly or you did not get the camera up to your eye fast enough, then your framing might be off and you’ve lost the decisive moment (as Cartier-Bresson would say).
To be successful then, you must concentrate – a lot. Not just glancing but really “seeing” your potential subjects, concentrating over seemingly mundane events or everyday happenings that take place around you, people passing in the street even, all are events that will never happen again. You must try to imagine how an image could work or what you want to achieve with your image and then make it. Even choice of the location can be vital, I look for a spot a wait for example, watching to see how the people may pass me by, what shops they stop at or alleys they go down. Then I ready myself to get a shot, I start making images and slowly things come together.
The Winning Combination
While you’ll often find good static street subjects, such as broken down old buildings or shop fronts on busy pedestrian streets, say, or events on a street that take place each day; a postal worker, bin men, market traders or a busker, putting your artistic spin on that in an image, or finding your photographic voice within it and then conveying it, that is the key to success. The hit and miss ratio for reportage is high – at first.
It requires a level of awareness not always present in other forms of the photographic art too and, photographically speaking, the need to pre-visualise these events as finished images and then shoot them in the right way to achieve that, all within an often fleetingly small moment of time, makes it a bigger challenge still, because you need to know your camera settings, and then use your techniques and camera handling skills to get the shot. It is for all those reasons I love street photography and being honest, I find it at once one of the most rewarding and most frustrating of all the photography disciplines I do.
To get street photography right takes practice, a preparedness to (sometimes) approach strangers in the street and ask if you can photograph them – or have the skills of a Ninja – taking the shots clandestinely. Although, depending on the situation, the former can be the better option. But whatever the scene or subject, be prepared for frustration; many a time I have interrogated my camera’s screen after a particularly promising moment has been captured (to what I hope is perfection) only to see what I actually photographed is not sharp, not exposed properly, not framed correctly and does not work as an image anyway.
Don’t Be Discouraged
Don’t be discouraged though, no, and don’t delete anything until it’s been properly checked back at base on your PC; you never know. Use the disappointments as a learning tool, a tool to help hone all your skills, until the shots come more naturally; the camera skills become second nature and slowly your success-to-failure image ratio will increase. Then perhaps, like me, you’ll fall in love with street photography and capturing the little things in their decisive moments will be a “significant event” for you too.
ByE for now and I hope you like my Street Photography Efforts. Doug.Subscribe
Kit used: Olympus E30 and E5 – various Zuiko lenses. Pen E-P1 (largely with Pinhole filter). Occasional adjustments in Lightroom/Photoshop.