You can’t plan your street photographs but you can be ready when it happens. What do I mean about this? Of course, I can plan street photography. I plan on photographing the street every day. On Friday nights I get my cameras prepped up, batteries (or films) loaded for the weekend walkabout. I just planed it! Or did I?
Sure the first steps are called planning but the results of your photographs aren't. There is a dead end to your plans and that is the point where you are no longer in control of the situation. When your subject reacts opposite to what you are expecting; when the clouds decide to cover the sun; or when nothing interesting is happening yet so many people around you. You can’t plan it…but you can be ready. And here’s how:
Taking in-control of what’s controllable:
There is only so much you can control when you’re out and about taking photographs in the streets. You can’t control the sunlight’s brightness, you can’t control the people or your subjects, you can alter the things around the subject but you don’t wanna do that. That’s staging and that’s a big no-no in the world of street photography.
So what can you control? Look no further. It’s you. Yourself. In street photography, there are always barriers that will keep you from taking the photograph you want but these barriers don't mean the end of it. There are ways around it like being there at the right time, looking for the right light, the right composition, waiting, influencing your subjects, being invisible. The only way for you take that control back and take the photos you want is to acknowledge what you cannot control and take advantage of what you can. Compensate. Besides, overcoming these challenges is what makes our photos interesting. Otherwise, we all be taking the same cliché photographs.
Reading the scene:
When you read the scene, you get a general feel of how you can photograph it. You know where the light and shadows fall, you see where most people walk or stay, you see which has the good background and the bad ones. In summary, you can picture the picture before even clicking for the picture. You get what I mean.
The great thing about reading the scene is that you get to know the potential of taking a remarkable image. You get to see the highs and the lows. Take advantage of it and find the best spot.
Work on the potential of the scene:
Once you see a place or a scene that has the potential of giving you a great image, stay. Work the scene, wait, observe. Whatever. You know there is a potential there so you have to stay and wait. That is the only thing you can do. The plan is to stop here and the rest is all about having the right person to enter the scene. Ball’s on their side, just be patient.
Return and Repeat:
You might get a shitty photograph today even with the overflowing potential of the scene, that’s fine. At least now you know there is a potential there and the best you can do is return there and repeat until you get the shot you wanted. Just keep coming back until you feel contented. As long as the potential is there, go back. Wait and compose. Get the right settings and position ready.
The only problem here is when the potential lasts only for a good while. So make the most out of it while you’re at it.
One thing you can do to get the emotion or gestures you want from your subject without staging it or asking your subject/s to do things for you is to indirectly influence them. Your presence alone can influence them into reacting and hopefully giving you the gesture or emotion you wanted.
Wait, did I said hopefully? Yes. There are chances your subjects would give you the reaction that you don’t want or expect. After all, they are still the one who decides what to do. So you have to be intelligent and know how people generally react so you have a better chance of getting what you want. The key here is guessing what or how your subject would react to you. The sudden movement would usually surprise people. A perfect example here is Bruce Gilden or Charlie Kirk.
People have a personal space and you can influence their gestures and expression by tapping into this personal space. See this article I wrote where I tackle the idea of the personal space.
Before we go on, is influencing the same as staging? No, at least in my own understanding. Staging allows you to get full control of your subject. Influencing is getting people naturally react to you or your presence without asking them to do things for you. You as the photographer are just part of the scene the subjects are reacting to. Although personally, I’d like to capture images without me disturbing it.
Being constantly aware of your surroundings can give you good results. When your eyes are constantly looking for interesting activities and your ears constantly listening for conversations or sound can help you find a potentially great scene and eventually a great photo. Just keep your camera settings always ready and be mindful of your environment and you are good to go.
Every time the scene changes, I get a reading of the light meter and simultaneously set my camera's exposure. My eyes start to look around finding the most interesting place and I would go there. When I'm doing something else, I just keep the surroundings in check with my ears and a few glances around the place. Cause we'll never know and when something comes up, at least I'm ready.
With a good amount of success and failure equates to a good amount of experience. You might have heard of the saying “experience is the best teacher” and I could not agree more with it.
When you are packed with experience, you become a more effective photographer. You get to know the ways around things. The shortcuts, the techniques. Like playing a video game the second or third time around. You already know how to deal with things and how to beat it in 2 ways or more. Photography wise, you can walk the street flawlessly and come out with a keeper image.
This is one of the greatest keys to getting a good photograph and it takes time to develop it. We all need to log time if we want to earn experience.
Interesting things happen every day and sometimes it’s right in front of you. You can’t plan it and you will miss it if you slack off. But though you can’t plan it, you can be ready for it.
Check this video of Robert Herman’s talk. At about 18:08min is where I got the inspiration to write this.
Now, get yourselves ready for some street photography!
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