I just finished reading “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, where he discusses many misconceptions and fallacies that we face as humans. He talks from a scientific-philosophical viewpoint, and has many fascinating insights.
One of them was about knowledge—and that it isn’t necessarily additive—rather something subtractive. For example, a good stock-broker won’t tell you what to do, but rather what not to do.
Therefore for this blog post I will share some of my insights and experiences in street photography in terms of what not to do. Hopefully this will help you get more compelling images when out on the streets!
1.Dont shoot standing up
One of the things I always advise people against when shooting street photography is shooting standing up. When you are shooting street photography, crouching allows you to get a more interesting and dynamic angle. This applies especially when you are taking photos of people either sitting down or photos of kids. You want your perspective to be at least eye-level with them, if not lower. The perspective of taking a photo of someone lower than you makes them look small and awkward. If you don’t crouch much when shooting on the streets, I highly encourage you to do so now! (your thighs will hate me though).
Of course this depends on the situation. If you are shooting on the streets and want to focus more on people’s faces, don’t crouch down too low, or you will get an unnatural angle.
2.Dont shoot street performers or the homeless
Shooting street performers or the homeless are easy targets. When I first started shooting street photography, they were the two subjects I naturally gravitated to. The logic to me at the time made sense—if I am shooting people on the streets why not these two people who are always on the streets anyways?
The reason I don’t like shooting street performers and the homeless are because it is rare you will get a compelling or unique image. Not only that, but it is too easy.
Street performers have their photo taken all the time, and aren’t challenging to take photos of. The homeless are a bit different—we try to highlight their suffering in order to make an interesting image.
Of course not everything in life is black and white. It is possible to make an interesting photo of a street performer of a homeless person—in a humane and righteous way. However I haven’t seen many photos done well, so if you are used to taking lots of photos of street performers or the homeless—I suggest you to steer away! I believe it is better to take an extraordinary photo of someone ordinary than take an ordinary photo of someone extraordinary.
3.Don’t spend more time researching gear than shooting photos
When I used to work as computer tech support in IT, I spent a ridiculous amount of time agonizing over the type of gear I needed. I was convinced that because I didn’t have the right lens, body, or equipment I wouldn’t be able to get the shots necessary.
In street photography we (like every other type of photographer out there) like to talk about gear. There is nothing wrong about that, but it is dangerous once you start spending more time researching and worrying about gear rather than shooting. For example, rather than deciding if you need a new 28mm or a 35mm to complement your 50mm, I would suggest for you to just go out and shoot with your 50mm and see what you can get! In addition, you don’t need a Leica camera to get compelling images. Learn how to get comfortable with your DSLR or point and shoot and capture life through your lens.
4.Don’t ask others what they like about your images
I used to be horrible at taking constructive critique, and still struggle with it myself. It is easy to ask others what they like about your photos, rather than what they don’t like about your images.
When you take a great photo, you know what you like about the image. For example, you might like the interesting subject you captured, the intensity of the light, the angle of the background, or the moment in which you clicked the shutter.
It is easy to get blinded by our favorite images—that we can’t spot the imperfections in them. For example, your subject may have a pole sticking out of their head—the horizon might be crooked, or the background may be too busy. It is difficult to spot out imperfections on our own, so rather ask other people what they don’t like about your images—and how you can improve.
Sure it is nice to have people compliment your images and give you positive feedback and of course… get “fav’d” on Flickr. But all of that stuff doesn’t mean much in the end.
I have a simple suggestion: when you post a photo and you want helpful/harsh critique, be very open and transparent about it. If you post a photo on Flickr, write in the caption that you would like people to give you a harsh critique, or state it when uploading to Facebook.
*The two best places I have found on the web for street photography critique is the Grit & Grain Group on Flickr as well as the Hardcore Street Photography Critique Thread. I owe a lot to the Grit & Grain Group, as when I was first starting off they gave me brutal & honest critique which helped me further develop as a street photographer. The guys at HCSP give helpful critique as well (thanks for the tip Charlie!).
5.Don’t waste time focusing
Life happens quickly, and often times manual focusing or autofocusing isn’t fast enough to capture the action in street photography.
Sure it is nice to get that lovely bokeh in the background by shooting wide open, but think about all the times you misfocused and thus missed the decisive moment?
Rather than wasting time on manual focusing or autofocus, simply use zone focusing. If you are unfamiliar with the technique, it is setting your camera to a pre-set focusing distance (ie 1 meter or 2 meters) and selecting a high f-stop with a large depth of field (ie f/11 or f/16). If you shoot consistently a certain distance away from your subject, this will ensure that your photo will always be reasonably sharp and in-focus. Don’t forget when you are doing this to keep your ISO high in cloudy or dim light (ie 1600, 3200 ISO) to keep your shutter speed fast enough (you want at least 320ths/second to prevent motion blur).
6.Don’t rush yourself
One of the traits that all street photographers (myself included) could benefit from is patience. If you see an interesting background, beam of light, or potential photo-opportunity, wait for the right person to enter your scene and capture the moment.
In street photography, shooting in good light can make an ordinary scene magical. Some of my good street photographer friends such as Ibarionex Perello and Rinzi Ruiz will often wait up for an hour if they see the right light—and wait for the right person to enter the scene.
Good things happen to those who wait.
7.Don’t constantly change focal lengths
Less is more. Having more options just makes us frustrated and prevents us from focusing. Although I am a huge advocate for experimenting with different type of street photography styles, focal lengths, gear, and projects—there is a point in which you need some consistency.
Recently on a blog post I gave some advice that you should stick to one camera and one lens for a year until you get really comfortable with it—and then perhaps experiment with something else. However myself (being human and a hypocrite) went out and bought a 21mm to play around with my M9. I had always been fascinated with this concept of going wide—and a 35mm often felt too tight on my Leica.
However after experimenting with it for about a month—I am starting to realize it is too wide. The parallax error of a 21mm using an external viewfinder is really frustrating and having such a wide lens means that you have to be extra careful of your backgrounds when you are shooting (because it is easy to create a busy background).
Now whenever I am out shooting, I am always concerning myself in the back of my mind whether I should use my 21mm or my 35mm. When I only had one lens (the 35mm) on my M9, life was easy and less stressful. Now the constant battle of what lens to use simply frustrates me. I am still debating whether I should keep or sell off the lens.
So use myself as an example. Having too many cameras and lenses only inhibits your artistic creativity—by stressing you out. Feel free to experiment, but once you find what suits you the best don’t waver too much!
Also interesting tidbit: many of the well-known and established photographers shot with mostly one focal length for their entire careers: Henri Cartier Bresson and a 50mm, Bruce Gilden with a 28mm, Josef Koudelka + David Alan Harvey + Alex Webb with a 35mm.
8.Don’t shoot without knowing why you shoot
Whenever you go out on the streets, you should have a reason why you shoot. Whether it be for pleasure, whether it be for documenting humanity, whether it be a personal project, or something that drives you.
Street photography is often misunderstood as simply going outside and taking random photos of whatever. Although having the mindset of a flaneur (going outside and strolling aimlessly) is great—you still want some sort of concrete goal or plan when out shooting.
If you are currently struggling with your own street photography and trying to find your own voice, I suggest make a personal project for yourself. Focus on some theme that interests you. It can be as broad as the city you live in (ie. Los Angeles) or as narrow as only taking photos of a certain subgroup of people (ie. Salarymen in Tokyo). It doesn’t even have to be exotic—try even taking photos of signs in your neighborhood (Lee Friedlander did it!).
9.Don’t be slow when shooting
When you are shooting on the streets, you need to be quick and athletic—almost like a boxer, as Joel Meyerowitz explains in his famous YouTube video.
If you are slow when shooting on the streets, you will often miss the decisive moment.
When you are out on the streets, learn to spot a potential photo-opportunity from a fair distance away, approach your subject, crouch (or not), snap the photo, smile, and go on.
What I often see beginner street photographers do is to spot a photo opportunity only a few feet away from them, fumble around with their camera, try to frame, and by then the person has either a) Looked away or b) Smiled/posed.
Be quick. Be comfortable with the settings on your camera and more importantly—learn how to visualize your shots before you take the photo, and be comfortable with the focal length you are doing (so you know exactly how to frame and compose your images).
10.Don’t upload photos everyday
Less is more. Quality over quantity.
Nowadays with online social media, we are constantly connected to the web. We feel this urge to always upload to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Google+, 500px, and more.
Show less of your work—only your best work.
I have a suggestion to help keep your quality up, and I call it the “one week rule”: Never upload your photos without waiting at least a week (to determine if it is truly good or not) and upload only one photo a week. This will ensure that every time you upload something, it will be damn good.
What are some suggestions that you think street photographers should avoid? Share your thoughts in the comments below!