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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

Notes On Street Photography


I promised to share my thoughts on the intangible aspects of shooting and what contributes to making good images vs average ones, so...

It's all about Emotion:

If you want to move away from being an average shooter, I suggest studying the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith, producers of some of the most iconic photos in history. The images capture you with emotion of the moment, beautifully spun in compositions, light and subject matter.

It's not about the camera or gear. That would be simple. Yes, we love our technology and toys, and I get sweaty handling it, but when you switch your brain off from technicalities and start looking for light, people and moments, then you're moving the right direction. The key is learning to look.

Gear becomes a background issue as you begin to understand what photography is about. You realize you're on a hunt and the camera is just the net to grab the moment. The "moment" is the reason you carry the net. Carrying the net is not the reason you hunt. Find a camera you like, and most importantly one that is simple in operation, not easy with the manufacturer's loading every camera down with crap we only use 10% of.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photography is a sophisticated electronic and mechanical machine, working in conjunction with the mind and reactions of the human, all to capture nothing but an emotion. If your photo evokes no emotion, be it subtle or mesmerizing, it's only a record of a moment. Remember, you're trying to capture a moment that captures someone else's mind.

It's all about Composition: A good image will hold the viewer for a period of time, with a mix of visual interest that stirs something inside. There are compositional rules that can be used to capture the eye and force it into a circular flow in an image, or it can be held just due to subject or moment, but a great image usually combines them all.

Some people are born with an eye for composition and it comes easily to them. Some aren't and learning to compose is a struggle. Either way, if you study the works of great photographers, you will train yourself to recognize compositions and, like racing against someone faster than you, your skill level will increase. You are training your brain to recognize patterns.

We could go on for hours about this subject, and I won't as you can study about it on your own, but here are at least two basic points that will make your images more interesting:

First is called the "Rule of Thirds" and is basic to most images or paintings. If you divide an image into thirds vertically and horizontally, the eye finds interest when an object lies at the junction of one of the thirds. Visually, odd numbers capture the eye more than even numbers because they create visual tension. Yes, you likely have the "rule of thirds" grid on your camera screen if you've ever wondered what those lines are for.

If you imagine a blank wall with a person in front of it as the subject, your image will be more interesting if the person is placed on a 1/3 line position rather than dead center. The visual weight of the person to one side is counterbalanced by the other 2/3 of blank wall. This creates balance and visual tension that the eye finds appealing. Remember all the family photos where the people are dead center? That's why they're boring to look at.

This image has visual tension because of the position of the subject on a 1/3 position

vs dead center

Despite some rulesThere are no absolutes in creating images, and centering a subject - symmetry - is also a good thing when done properly. It can be interesting in many situations and is often seen when when backgrounds or locations are symmetrical such as hallways or rows of pillars, etc. Aligning the backgrounds and subjects appropriately symmetrical can look great, such as a person centered between rows of columns as an example. You have to decide which is more interesting in those situations. The brilliant director Stanley Kubrick was famous for using symmetry in his movies and they are captivating. Again, it only works in certain situations.


The second point of improvement you can make is to get very close to your subject. Remember the boring family photos that were centered? They were also probably far away from the subject. Get in very tight and your stuff will be more interesting. We're fascinated to be up close and seeing details, and I assume it's because as humans we never get to be inside a stranger's personal space, but whatever the reason, we're intrigued to see people close and personal. Use it to your advantage.

I suggest you study photography masters and see if you can recreate their photos, if only compositionally. Secondly, study up on the rule of thirds and symmetry and purposely practice them. Last but not least, don't make all your shots be overall views, but come in very tight on your subject, especially people. Learn to look closer at all things and sometimes small details are the most interesting subjects.

It's all about Light:

Study and observe light - patterns, shadows, textures, colors, angles and more, then incorporate it into your photos. It's the key to moving good images into great ones. If you combine good composition, subject matter and beautiful light, you'll have a winner.

Interesting light is your best tool...

Now to the issue of street shooting...

Photographing overall scenes, mountains, buildings and such don't require much except composition, interesting angles and light, so I'm skipping that aspect.

Here are some thoughts on getting better images:

I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to photography, preferring to work on composition, light and design. I have nothing against filters and software, however they are used to hide many bad photos. I honestly think in a pure sense, if you're relying heavily on filters for a "style", then you aren't producing good enough images to stand on their own. But again, I'm a purist to a degree. If filters make your images, then credit the software geek who built it as well. They're great for adding interest to images, and I'm not slamming people for using them, but keep in mind one day they'll be out of style and you'll have a library of cheesy looking stuff that will look very dated.

“If there is one point, it's humanity, it's life, the richness of life. The thing is simply to be sensitive.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Your personality will determine how you shoot. If you're comfortable around people and are gregarious, you'll have an easier time getting shots. If you're shy and retiring, it'll require a bit more work. Your images will reflect who you are inside.

Street shooting requires fast reflexes and a camera system that is responsive. You have to be looking constantly and ready to grab something when it pops up. It helps if you have the sixth sense about what will occur and shoot just before it happens. Some are really gifted in this area, but most of us aren't.

If you're one of those guys who disappears easily into a crowd, you're miles ahead. Being unnoticed is best. I ain't.

Most of the time, you'll need to be surreptitious to get any real shots.

I suggest using a camera that has an articulated screen at best and a tilt screen at minimum. You can shoot from waist level or with the camera pointing a different direction entirely.

When you're obvious or stand out, you need to take more time to capture moments. Trust me, I'm the elephant in the plaza when I shoot and everyone stares and watches me. The way I've found around it, is to sit or stand somewhere long enough - usually about 10 minutes - until they finally get bored and assume you're just texting on your phone. That's your chance.

Another method is "hunting and trapping", where you find a spot that looks good and wait for people to come into your trap.

Use the Remote App on your cell phone or tablet sometimes when seated somewhere. Nobody will assume you are doing anything when turned sideways on your phone, while your camera sits pointing at them next to your coffee cup.

Get a camera with an electronic shutter that is totally silent. Fuji comes to mind but my Sony still "clacks" and I hate it. The A6300 and A6500 are silent.

In real life situations, a smile will get you a long ways.

Be genuinely interested in what someone is doing, such as cooking or making something. If you're genuine, they'll know it and open to you. Then ask permission to take a photo after some time. You'll get a posed shot, but at least you got one.

Money talks and feel free to offer some change to a leery subject in a respectful way. If they have a child, say "it's for the child" or something similar. You'll probably get the shot. Also, in many areas the locals are expecting money for pictures, so carry coins.

All the above methods that ask permission or payment will result in posed images, but you can shoot enough that they go back to what they were doing. That said, your best images will be caught moments where people are unawares.

"What reinforces the content of a photograph is the sense of rhythm – the relationship between shapes and values." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Try to find interesting areas of patterns, textures and light, and if you can combine those with people your images will have a lot of interest.

You'll miss or lose far more good shots than you'll ever get. Over time you'll get better at it, but don't expect to get many images at a time... thus, shoot a lot and frequently when new, then shoot very little and selectively as you develop instincts.

Just get the shot and don't worry about the technical aspects or if it's slightly blurred or out of focus. That's for the pixel peeping bitches on forums and not for great images. What the image says or does will transcend any and all minor technical issues. Reference Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith or any number of other really outstanding street photographers.

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