Street photography is difficult because of its undefined and unpredictable nature. But going out and photographing strangers will make you a more creative person and a confident photographer.
No matter what their niche is, I always encourage people to try street photography. You may not earn money from it, but you will face different situations that you won’t come across otherwise. And you’ll learn plenty.
Here are 7 lessons I learnt as a street photographer in the past few years.
1. Don’t Get Stuck in Definitions
People tend to feel more comfortable when they work within specific boundaries. The moment people jump into any kind of photography, they start with definitions.
The beauty of street photography is that it’s an umbrella term. Its scope is very wide.
Street photography is simply documenting people in their environments. Yes, there are certain types that are popular. Some people tend to shoot environmental portraits. Some are more into tight headshots of strangers.
Whether the street photography should be candid or not is a useless debate. It includes everything from candid moments, posed and environmental portraits to documenting general activities.
That’s the biggest takeaway from street photography. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t get stuck in definitions. Always experiment and go with your gut feeling. That’s how art evolves.
2. Expect the Unexpected
There is nothing more daunting than the fear of getting in a situation that is beyond of our control. While photographing on the street, we all face unexpected situations.
At times the background will not be what we want. Sometimes it’s the light and often it’s the fear of getting rejected or portrayed as being creepy.
If you want to excel at street photography, you have to expect the unexpected and work around it. After a few failures, you will become more confident. You will know that rejection is not the end of the world.
And that it’s always fine if you don’t meet your target. Not every day is your day. Sometimes you are on top of your game and sometimes you are not.
This approach will make you a more confident and smarter photographer even if street photography is not your main niche.
3. A Simple Setup Goes a Long Way
I was a big victim of gadget addiction syndrome. When I was shooting with APS-C size cameras, I thought that my images would be much better if I moved to full frame. And I blamed my lack of skills on my gear.
Back then, I carried a decent backpack with 2 or 3 lenses and a small tripod. I faced two results with this approach. First, I looked a bit more professional so people were hesitant to open up to me. Secondly, this extra weight slowed me down.
Also, too much lens choice makes decision making difficult while taking a picture. I started to get tired , and my efficiency went down at an alarming rate.
So I changed my photography technique and took only one camera and one lens. Things started to improve. With less equipment, I started spending more time on composition, lighting and photo concepts rather than focal length, aperture and bokeh.
This approach helped me in all my other types of photography too. I am much less dependent on gear nowadays and concentrate more on the aesthetic side of photography.
4. Be Respectful but Get the Job Done
Being a born introvert, street photography was a nightmare for me for a long time. I live in a Middle Eastern country where people are generally perceived to be short tempered.
I did face my share of resentment while doing street photography but there is a fine line between being disrespectful and just wondering in your head whether you are invading others’ privacy or not.
So be respectful with street photography but don’t overthink it. It will slow you down. If you are in a public place, you have the right to take pictures. Take them with a big smile on your face. You will be amazed how politely people will respond if you are smiling.
Certain countries have their own set of customs though. Where I live, taking photos of females without permission is a big NO, so I respect that.
Get ready to answer basic questions like why you are shooting and where you will use the images. Get ready to delete images if someone asks. There is no harm in that. And as long as you have a friendly smile on your face, you don’t look or act creepy, chances for this to happen are very thin.
This whole concept of balancing being respectful and getting a task done will help you throughout your photography career. None of the other photography styles teach you this lesson better than street photography.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Break Cliches
Most iconic street photographers belong to a certain era, so street photography has a very distinct signature style. I you want to be recognised as a street photographer, you might try to use the same style.
This is not mandatory. You don’t always have to shoot black and white photography. Your images don’t always have to be noisy and grungy.
Photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson shoot in black and white because it was all they had at the time. High ISO films were not that good, hence the noise and grains you found in classic street photographs.
You need to understand this before blindly using these stereotypical styles.
Because of its undefined nature, it is much easier to experiment with different things like using long focal lengths and shallower depth of field and maybe using handheld flash sometimes.
Take urban photography for example. It doesn’t always have to be in unsaturated colours. You can perfectly use bright colours and create your own style. This approach will help you in breaking clichés in other genres as well.
6. Slow Down
When photographers go out see something interesting like a beautiful pattern of light and shadows, someone with a unique personality, etc., we get excited. All we want to do is to grab that moment. In the ensuing rush, we tend to forget a lot of things.
We don’t think about the background, frame corners and general composition. We don’t think how we can improve the shot. Maybe changing the angle will give us a cleaner background. Maybe asking a person to come in the shade will cast a better light on their face.
All these things matter at the end and make an average snap a good photograph.
It is one of the biggest challenges in street photography. Things are moving at a rapid pace. It requires a lot of practice and patience to slow down.
Keep an eye on what is actually interesting and then try to highlight that feature. Once you master this technique, your basic workflow for taking a picture will raise to a new level.
7. Don’t Stress
The keeper ratio of good street photograph is quite low compared to other styles. That’s OK. It’s because of its uncertain nature. Normally you just take your camera and start roaming the streets and look for interesting subjects to photograph.
Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t. Don’t let this discourage you.
For me, it’s a way to release stress. Like when you are traveling with your friends, it doesn’t matter whether you get good shots or not. The important thing is you spend time with them.
Similarly, when you are doing street photography, it’s the learning that matters the most.
How to approach a subject? How to strike a conversation? How to slow yourself down and think about composition, lighting, etc.?
These are all the lessons that you will learn while doing street photography. So, next time you go out and come back with nothing, don’t stress. You learnt a lot that will help in your photography career anyway.
Street photography has built up my confidence as a person and as a photographer in so many ways. I can now easily strike a conversation with a stranger. I can handle rejection better than before. By going to the same old mundane locations time and again, I see them in different ways now.
You don’t have to travel to exotic places to make great pictures. All you need is an observant eye to creatively present something in a new way.
All these street photography lessons actually helped me in my photography career. I haven’t sold my street photographs except for a few editorial purposes. But it is a process through which I can release stress on a regular basis. It is where I can practice my creativity without worrying about a client’s demands.
So, next time you have some free time, take your camera, go out and shoot what you love.
Check out our posts on street photography in the rain or by night for more great tips. Or start getting to grips with street photography Lightroom editing or presets!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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