How I Shoot On The Street: An Application of Study and Practice by Brent Fong

“There is a big difference between a photographer and someone who clicks a shutter. One learns his craft and the other looks for a quick fix.”

- Winslo

I am an old school photographer born and bred on film. I have been shooting for a long time. When I was in photo school, it was mandatory to shoot 4 x 5 or medium format. Being a stereotypical ‘poor and starving’ student, I did not have a lot of money to spend on film, processing, and development. Every shot had to count. My medium format camera at the time was a Bronica ETRs with an 80 mm lens and one film back. It gave me 15 shots per roll. It had no meter and was manual focus. Shooting street with that camera forces you to shoot with purpose and discipline.

When I do my street shooting, today, with my current DSLR, I applied the same principle of making every shot count. I do not shoot for quantity I shoot for quality. Is every thing I shoot considered good? Of course not, but it makes culling the images easier because I know what I was aiming for when I shot. This is what Ansel Adams’ call “pre-visualization;” knowing what your photo will look like before you shot it. See his classics series on photography, Book II “The Negative,” for more info. The following is how I shoot on the street using one photo as an example.

This is the thought process that occurred as I shot my dog walker photo.

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All the following takes longer to write what happened then to actually have it happen; this is measured in seconds not minutes. Using the term “thought process” might be the wrong term; it was more of a ‘thing’ that just happens. It is the spontaneous relationship between sight and thought.

On one of my street sojourns, I was noticed a lady walking her dog and I thought it might make a good image especially if something interesting would to have happen: e.g. if the dog starting urinating or the lady reacted in some way to something on the street, but ‘as is,’ it was a nothing photo.

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I started to look around and I see, about 30 feet ahead, some guy reading in a pub.

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When you shoot street you have to see everything and try not to have tunnel vision, in this case focusing too much on the dog walker. You must read, anticipate, and react to the given situation.

The first thing that pops into my head was Freeman Patterson’s quote from his book “Photography and the Art of Seeing”:

“…a photographer should always be looking for ‘ an unobtrusive, secondary visual support’ when composing a photograph.”

I like to think that part of this brain/sight process includes the subconscious; the culmination of shooting thousands and thousands of photos, looking at thousands and thousands more, reading and applying theory, technique and everything else. This all comes with practice, application and study.

“Absorb the principles, learn the tactics, and then forget all”

- Robert W. Smith

As the dog walker got closer to the guy in the pub, I was looking for this secondary support. I first anticipated that the guy could be this secondary support, he was facing the same direction, when it occurred to me that the guy could also be my main subject, I looked back at the lady and thought she was to be the main subject, then I looked at the guy, then the lady, etc, etc. So I get this ping-pong going on; a catalyst, for me, to take the shot.

However, Freeman Patterson’s quote kept rattling around in my head. I needed to find this ‘secondary visual support’ to appease my mind. You will notice that after years of practice and shooting you develop some sort of intuition when a photo looks right and what is needed for it to look right.

Does this secondary support exist in all photos? No, but you should look to see if it is there.

Then it clicked. The clothing between the individuals was contrasting opposites. He had a dark top light shorts, she had a light top and dark pants and on top of that, the dog is two toned, light and dark. I found the elusive secondary support linking the two individuals.

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Why did I feel a need this secondary support? I am not quite sure how to explain it. It is just something in my head that says I need it. Maybe it is like a jigsaw puzzle, everything has to fit. My subconscious probably saw it before I became aware of it. On my next photo it may be some other ‘thing’ that my subconscious needs. It picks and chooses from one’s experiences and comes to the forefront effortlessly. Most of the time anyways ;-). Other times you struggle to find that missing piece for a complete photo.

“In order to make the right choice a photographer must know three things: what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. This in turn presupposes that he knows how to ‘see in terms of photography;’ knows how to control the graphic components of his rendition; and is familiar with the meaning of the photographic symbols.”
– Andreas Feininger, The Complete Photographer.

The “…an unobtrusive, secondary visual support…” could be anything. It could be duplication of line, colour matching, similar form, etc. Study compositional theory for more details.

The hard part was to time the shot; frame the moment. I had to wait for, what I personally considered, the penultimate moment before I clicked the shutter. I shot so there was enough closeness without too much intimacy and tried not to have the subjects fall on a horizon line. The dark spot on sidewalk helped the composition but it was more of something just being there than me aligning it. I like to crop in camera as much as possible.

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In street photo you generally have one try; there is no redo’s.

“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
- Henri Cartier Bresson

I try to shoot a street image where the viewer fills in ‘blanks…’

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…creating the story occurring before, during and/ or after an image. My photography heroes are the photo essayist like Mary Ellen Mark and Eugene W. Smith, photographers who ‘tell stories’ with their images.

However there times where I shoot just for the beauty of the image.

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…but I digress.

When I got home I analyzed the photo; a self critique if you will. I do this on all photos taken. It helps me find how I could improve next time out. It is how one grows as a photographer. You should always make this part of your practice/shooting routine.

I look at the photo and thought maybe if I opened up the aperture and lose some of the background it might be more effective. What if I was given the time to move to the front? How would someone else interpret it? Would they shoot the same way? If at all?

Unless you are experience in critique, find someone with a bit more experience to help you out. I found most critique on the Internet is more or less dismissive rather than constructive so be beware of opinions by some anonymous critic.

Is this a good photo? Maybe, maybe not, that’s for the viewer to decide. That’s not the point of this article. This article is to demonstrate how I approach any given subject on the streets 80% of the time and this photo is a typical example. Did I capture what I pre-visualized? Yes, because in the end we all shoot for ourselves. The sequence of events may change, the thought process may change but the approach is similar.

How do I shoot the other 20% of the time? It’s just a reaction – look and click.

I notice this street solicitor movement, towards me, with my peripheral vision. I immediately turned and looked at him through my camera.

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As he gestured towards me I took a quick step back, focused and shot. He did not even notice that I had shot. He was too involved in his solicitation.

Whenever something grabs your attention, (sound, movement, a flash of light, some sixth sense, …whatever), while you are street shooting, practice bringing the camera to your eye immediately and try to find that thing that attracted you through the camera. It may be the difference in getting a good shot or missing a good opportunity. I learned this from a photojournalist. He said, “if you saw it, (without the camera), you missed it.”

I should mentioned that this reaction is still based on previous obtain knowledge and technique. You still have to compose, but in an instantaneous fashion.

Did you notice he is off the centerline? How his hand is not right on the edge of frame? See how the garbage bin, symbolically, contributes to the image? This was reactionary shot, there was no conscious planning involved, it was all in my subconscious. When you get to this point in your photographic evolution, it feels like a reflex action.

How do you get to this point in your development? Study, apply, practice. Repeat. Part of the fun of photography is the journey itself

“Acquiring skill in any art of craft takes practice. Photography is no exception. After many years as a professional photographer, I find that one never stops learning. I still make mistakes, but by analyzing them I discover what went wrong and thus can, I hope, avoid repeating them in the future.”
– Alfred Eisenstaedt, Eisenstaedt’s Guide to Photography.

This is how I approach shooting on the street; this is not dogma; please don’t take it as such. You may agree or disagree with any or all of this and that’s okay; take what you need, trash the rest.

To borrow a phrase from Gilbert L. Johnson :

Photography “…has no definite lines or boundaries – only those you make yourself.”

© Brent Fong
November 2011.

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  • Kenny Vena

    I have shot film for over 60 years,Digital free`s you & gives you the opportunity to take many more photos.Usually I find something interesting in a frame that I didn`t even notice when I took the shot.Film was a more exacting practice of camera control,framing,settings,light etc.Digital allows me to shoot many frames & not worry about all the camera dials & settings.In the end its only the image that means anything.The best part is no more darkroom or stinky chemicals.I also went back from Leica to 2 very good Nikons with extra battery packs & Nikkor lens that run from 16mm,18mm 85mm to 300mm.The new rangefinders of which I owned 3 in the past year have been re-gifted,they are short on battery life & give false readings on SD card space.I`am 72 & a DSLR reminds me of the days long ago when I owned the Nikon F,a camera with no meter except the one in your head.You made quick settings,now the new Nikon does it for you.And then comes the picture,& thats all that really matters.

  • Tobias Weisserth

    I liked the suggestion of raising the camera to eyelevel whenever something ‘comes up’. I will try this.

    • Jason

      Wait, how else are you taking photos then?

  • SteveSFO

    Brent and Eric… Thank you for the article. Well written and expresses how to apply the aspects of photography in the context of what we love – “street”.

    Too often the art and skill of creating an image is lost now a days. Take a look at the poor photography of today’s films and TV programs for example. The over use of zoom and ultra close ups. No composition…. Just reactions.

    The challenge on what we do on the street is to apply what you expressed Brent and to be able to do it within a fraction of a second – thus the challenge and thrill of street photography.

    I’ll be looking at my images once again and try to remember those skills and theories that I have forgotten (or have become lazy)

  • Will

    I think this should be re-titled as “The “Art” of Seeing Something in Nothing”, thank you for succinctly demonstrating just what I find infuriating in 95% of street photography (and where people starting out invariably go wrong). The image of the dog handler and man is not interesting at all, you miss the first principle which is, you need people to want to look at it.

    You are searching for reasons, contrasting clothes? part of the pavement somewhat arbitrarily pointing in the direction of a man looking away from the camera? Penultimate moment? These are desperate attempts at making the photo into something, and anyone who is anyone isn’t going to stand around and try and look for reasons why it might be a good photo, you need to use such ideas to support the photo.

    I like the other photos a lot more, but i’d suggest that people not try and find a reason why an image might be regarded as good (because, like you know, there’s black over here and white over there, and that means it’s good), but rather keep them in mind while you find something of interest, when something stands out as an opportunity you then look for these other elements to further reinforce the photograph.

    I take these photos too, in fact 90% of my photos if not more are worthless, I just don’t read into them and build them into something they’re not.

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