Choose an outdoor situation where there will be lots of people and activity, and in which you will feel confident using a camera.
Take as many photographs as you comfortably can in one session. When you review the photographs afterwards, recall the comfort level you felt at the time, and consider to what extent this helped you in capturing expression and gesture.
I took my camera out to a busy food and flower market in France, where I was fairly sure there would be lots of photo opportunities and that I wouldn’t get challenged for taking pictures.
Technical note: I used a camera body with a tilting screen so that I could take my shots without lifting the camera to my eye, to draw less attention. On one level I wondered if this was considered ‘cheating’, but I settled on it being acceptable as this method of photography recalls the old twin-lens reflex cameras that some street photographers used in the mid-20th century.
Below is a selection of the shots from the session (probably about a third of what I shot in total), followed by notes on how I felt when I shot them, and how this helped (or otherwise) in the resultant images.
First, a selection of photos I took of individuals. What made me confident enough to shoot these was the fact that they looked like they were focusing enough on what they were doing and unlikely to spot me with my camera. Having the camera at chest height rather than eye level definitely helped my confidence, even if the difference from the subject’s point of view may have been minor.
Only one of these – ‘Smoking’ – do I consider to be a halfway decent shot. It has a nice clean background, while the others are somewhat messy.
For this second set I looked for interactions between people. In a similar way to the individual shots, I correctly assumed that they would be sufficiently wrapped up in what they were doing or talking about that the fact that there was a bloke nearby with a camera would go unnoticed. I think people interacting is inherently a more interesting basis for a photograph anyway – more chance to capture a unique moment, which is what I like about this type of photography.
The one I prefer is ‘Pointing’ – the alignment of the lines and the stripe patterns and the light/dark colours back-to-back in the middle give this image a number of different points of interest… but rather than being ‘messy’ I think it has enough alignment of graphical elements to achieve a certain balance.
What I’ve learned
Before I started this exercise I thought it would be fairly straightforward, as I like to think I’ve tried this kind of street photography before. However, once I started I realised that I still have a lot to learn!
Much of my previous so-called street photography of people has been from a distance, or with their backs turned to me. I realised that I have the (presumably quite common) concern of getting in too close, getting in people’s faces and generally annoying them. So this exercise broke me past that particular barrier, as I used a reasonably wide lens (27mm) so had to get fairly close.
What I learned in this exercise is that people that are sufficiently distracted, whether alone or interacting with someone else, can be photographed as long as you do so quickly and quietly.
This does however bring me on to the big challenge I have with this type of photography: in all cases here I had to crop and straighten the pictures to some degree. I realised after shooting that my composition isn’t at all precise when shooting quickly. I normally put quite a lot of thought into arranging the elements in the frame, but in the street photography environment I favoured speed over precision – taking longer than a second or two to line up and take a shot could risk the subject becoming aware and taking away the spontaneity (or worse, risking a confrontation).
The successful street photographers (especially the pre-digital ones who couldn’t see their work in progress) amazed me with their ability to spot, line up and take the shot in a split-second. The element that is missing from my photography right now is the rapid composition, so I have to rely on fixing that in post-processing. I need to work on this.
Another major learning: I need to avoid overly messy backgrounds. One piece of advice I’ve read many times, but have yet to put into practice is: find the background first, then wait for people to walk into it!
Finally, a practical point: using a chest-level camera with tilting screen was a major factor in how comfortable I felt taking photos in public. Composition is a little harder, but on balance I think it has more advantages than disadvantages – I simply took shots this way that I would not have taken if I had to lift the camera to my eye. So that must be a good thing.