By Brian Lloyd Duckett, Official Fujifilm X-Photographer and founder of StreetSnappers
Many people believe that street photography is not for the faint-hearted, it’s only for the brave, the garrulous – even the foolhardy. But they couldn’t be more wrong; it’s more popular today than ever before – and with good reason.
Street photography, as we know it today, has been around since the middle of the last century, growing up through three of the most exciting decades in photography – the 1950s, 60s and 70s and – and has found a new lease of life during the last few years. It has never been more popular – or more accessible.
I meet a lot of people who are new to street photography – or have been doing it for a while but are perhaps disappointed with the results they’re getting. And that’s not uncommon. It could be because their approach isn’t quite right, or maybe the nerves take over and a lack of confidence holds them back. Or, very commonly, they’re over-thinking it and expecting too much. If any of this sounds familiar, stay with me for my 10 hot tips on how to elevate your street photography.
What is street photography?
First of all, however, let’s address one crucial question: what is street photography? If we’re doing to talk about street photography, we need to decide what it is – and, arguably more importantly, what it’s not. We’ve all seen random pictures of a random person in a random street – doing nothing in particular; it’s someone walking past a yellow wall, it’s a guy on a zebra crossing, it’s a teenager on a ‘phone, it’s someone’s granny coming out of Sainsbury’s with a shopping bag. But, for the love of God, why? Are these pictures interesting to look at? Are they beautiful? Do they tell a story? Do they make you smile? The chances are – probably none of those things. Because they’re just boring pictures of people in the streets. And here’s the thing – just because a picture is shot on the street, it doesn’t make it what is street photography – it runs much deeper than that and we need to make a distinction here.
So, to make things easier, let’s explore two different approaches to street photography. Of course, these are not the only approaches – there are many more – but they give us a solid foundation upon which to base our understanding.
The first approach is based on the classical – or pure – definition of street photography. We can trace this definition back to where street photography began and where it grew up – from the Henri Cartier-Bresson era though the likes of Elliott Erwitt, Vivian Maier, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, William Klein, Jeff Mermelstein and others, particularly those who were part of the ‘New York school’. A generally accepted definition of street photography evolved from their work which became the template for what was to become an explosion in popularity. It went something like this:
“Street photography is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places”.
It’s what some people are now referring to as ‘candid public photography’ – and I rather like that. There’s usually a ‘moment’ of some sort – and here’s a crucial word: ‘moment’ (it was Cartier-Bresson who coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’). There could be something witty, emotional, evocative, ironic, sad, interesting, playful or whimsical – insert your own adjective – and it was shot without the subject’s knowledge, ie. candidly. Maybe the image has an element of the ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’ – or the ‘unusual in the usual’ – or ‘beauty in the mundane’. These are all descriptors of what I believe good street photography is all about. So let’s call it the approach based on ‘the moment’. Personally, this is my favourite style of street photography and it’s what makes me get up in the morning and motivates me to go out shooting. It’s still very ‘current’ and it’s a style which I think will always stand the test of time.
Now let’s take a look at an alternative – and massively popular – approach. In recent years a more ‘arty’ style has emerged, which I guess traces its roots way back to Saul Leiter who, although he had been shooting since the 1950s, only achieved recognition in the 1980s and 90s. Whereas the street photographers who went before him more focused on the moment, Leiter based his approach much more on the visual appeal of the image – maybe the sort of thing you’d like to see on your dining room wall. It has a sort of immediate impact, an element of beauty perhaps. There’s often not a moment, and the picture may not tell a story, but it’s still a valid approach to street photography. Here’s an interesting quote from Saul Leiter which I think sums up his thinking: “A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person”.
The sort of image that falls into this category could be based on strong form or shape. Or on a particularly strident colour palette. Or maybe based on abstraction. Or, more topically, based on the use of light. This use of light, where we have, for example, a person walking through a streak of light often does have some visual punch but it’s maybe not the sort of image you could really absorb – or linger over – and lacks the enduring appeal of the more classical approach. Nonetheless, it’s a very popular approach to street photography.
So let’s call this the ‘aesthetic’ approach. It’s now very fashionable and you’ll see many thousands of stunning examples on Instagram. I know it won’t appeal to everyone and some people are quick to dismiss it, but art is surely about producing something of beauty and it certainly ticks that box. However, I don’t think we should be thinking in terms of what’s right or wrong here – we should be celebrating the differences. You should do what works for you.
Tip #1: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO BE
In other words, think about developing a style. Street photography can mean many different things to different people. If you walk out of your front door just hoping for interesting encounters on the street, you will probably go home disappointed. So you need a sense of purpose – you need to know what you’re looking for, what floats your boat. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with that random guy in a random street type of shot. Think about what turns you on about street photography? Is it the thrill of the moment (in which case you’re what we would call a ‘hunter’) or do you prefer a more considered approach, maybe finding a great background and then waiting until all the right elements come into place? If you prefer this approach, you’re more of a ‘fisher’. Once you know your ’type’, you’re starting to hit the streets with a little more purpose.
TIP #2: KEEP IT SIMPLE
I tend to favour the ‘one camera, one lens’ approach and my go-to camera is the Fujifilm X-Pro3. For a modern digital camera, this just feels so organic, with all the critical controls are here on the top plate and rarely the need to dig deep into menus to change settings. Then we have the rear LCD screen which, in it’s default position is closed, removing the distraction of constantly chimping. And for someone who was brought up with 35mm film cameras, this rangefinder form factor and styling just feels so natural for me.
Another part of my ‘keep it simple’ approach is to leave all your other gear at home. You won’t need lots of lenses, a flash or a tripod and big backpack – aim to look more like a tourist than a photographer.
TIP #3: LEARN TO READ THE STREETS
To be a good street photographer you need to be streetwise, to understand what’s going on around you and to make sense of it all. You need to be part of the street life, matching your movement to the rhythm of the street – to the point where you just blend in and it all feels so natural. As street photographers, we need to see – really see – what’s going on around us – so we need to develop great observational skills and a real sense for detail. But what else do I mean by ‘reading the streets’?
- Stay alert – you never know what’s around the next corner you need to be able to pounce on every opportunity.
- Find interesting or great light – be a light hunter.
- Become a student of body language so that you can predict what’s going to happen next.
- Find the detail- street photographers need to be obsessive about detail
- Go fishing- I mentioned the fishing technique earlier – this is where we find our ideal background and wait – for as long as it takes – for the right subject to present itself to make the frame complete.
- Finally, slow down, walk REALLY slowly, look all around you and take a 360-degree view of the world.
TIP #4: MAKE CONNECTIONS
Try to find things in your frame which connect to each other. It could be any combination of people, things, foreground, background and so on, and you should aim to connect them to produce something interesting.
TIP #5: DON’T SHOOT BORING STUFF!
How often do you see a really boring image and you think to yourself ‘how is that street photography?’ A guy sitting on a bench for example, or someone just sitting in a cafe. Okay, these images could be interesting but they usually need another element which elevates them from the mundane to the interesting – maybe a ‘moment’ or a ‘connection’; it could be something funny – or something sad, evocative, ironic or whimsical.
TIP #6: USE ONLY ONE LENS FOR STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Get to know that lens intimately so that you instinctively know what it’s seeing – so that you understand how it describes the world. My ideal lens is 23mm (35mm full-frame terms). I particularly like the Fujifilm f/1.4 version because I often shoot after dark and I love shooting wide open. But why a wide-angle, you may be thinking? Well, this isn’t too far from what the human eye sees – roughly a 70-degree angle of view – so people who are looking at your pictures are looking at reality – they’re seeing what you saw. A wide-angle will also get you physically closer to your subject and this often brings more emotion and intimacy to the shot. It puts you right there, in the thick of the action, but like a voyeur shooting from across the road on a 300mm. My other favourite lens, which I also use a lot for night shooting, is this 56mm 1.2 which has the ideal focal length for isolating detail when I’m night shooting and is also very fast at 1.2 – and it’s also a lens I use for street portraits.
TIP #7: USE PROJECTS
This can bring a real focus and a sense of purpose to your work. People who are new to street photography often struggle to find interesting subject matter and it’s all too easy to resort to the sort of randomness I alluded to earlier, with no sense of narrative, no theme and no connection between the images. So, to add real impact to your work, organise your shooting around projects. A project is simply a collection of images – which is generated around a specific theme with a kind of ‘glue’ which bonds them together as a body of work.
Projects can also provide you with a clear end game, whether in the form of a photo book, set of prints, exhibition, web gallery or blog, any of which will spur you on to produce a tangible, worthy body of work. One of the most satisfying outcomes of a project is to share your work and there’s a real sense of achievement to see your images in a gallery, on a website or in the pages of a book or zine.
TIP #8: SET IT AND FORGET IT!
Street photography shouldn’t be complicated. In fact, from a technical perspective, things couldn’t be simpler and it’s vital that you are in a state of constant readiness and ability to react quickly to scenes evolving around you. I tend to set my camera up at the start of the day and I don’t touch those settings unless the light changes significantly or unless I need a different creative result. I really don’t want to be faffing around with camera settings, wasting mental energy which should be going into what’s happening around me. Here’s an approach that works for me:
I start off by setting ISO to auto (specifying a range of 400 to 3,200 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/200th), then I make sure the exposure mode is on aperture priority. Next, I select an aperture of f/8; this is a good compromise aperture – it lets a fair amount of light into the camera and it gives me a decent depth of field. The auto ISO option, provided you set your menu to give you that shutter speed of 1/200th of a second or faster, will help minimise subject blur or camera shake (either of which will ruin your shot – the tiny amount of extra noise won’t).
These settings are a good ‘walkaround’ option, helping ensure you get the shot. Any fine-tuning can easily be done using the exposure compensation dial – to retain detail in the highlights, for example, or to intensify shadow areas. If the light is behind me, I’ll typically set this -1 by default, which gives a lovely vibrancy to the colours and also keeps the highlights in check. With certain cameras, like the Fujifilm X-series, you can see all the settings – the full exposure triangle – on the top of the camera without needing to delve into menus to make changes on the fly. However, if you find a nice background/scene and you have time, always change your settings to suit the conditions. Other settings? I tend to keep things really simple: white balance is set to auto, dynamic range always 100 and matrix metering. Some street photographers use spot metering but I think it takes too much time and takes your focus away from what really matters – the moment. In terms of file format I usually just shoot in RAW, although I’ll occasionally use some of the Fujifilm film simulations such as Acros or Classic Negative, which I think are gorgeous.
TIP #9: CONQUER YOUR FEARS
Most of us have some level of discomfort with photographing people in the street and we all deal with it in different ways. Some of us fight the feeling and shoot away regardless; some will just give up and shoot something different; others will learn a new set of skills to help them deal with such difficulties. Here are some ways in which you can minimise your fears. Invest plenty of time working on this – the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel.
- Make street photography a habit. The more you’re out there doing it, the better you will feel about it – practice leads to a sense of comfort and ease.
- Work quickly – take your shot and move on. And work quietly – If your camera’s beeps, clicks and blinking lights can be turned off, turn them off.
- The killer tip – avoid eye contact. You’ll find street photography much easier if you don’t make eye contact with people on the streets. This is before, during and after your shot.
- Always have confidence in the belief that you are not doing anything wrong – legally, morally or ethically – and keep telling yourself this. You’ll certainly be more confident if you know the law: street photography in a public place is perfectly legal in the UK and you don’t need anyone’s permission to take their picture.
TIP #10: FORGET PERFECTION
Chasing perfection will hold you back and you’ll be concentrating on the wrong things. And I guess this is why street photography often doesn’t do well in camera club competitions – many judges just can’t cope with things not being perfect. Street photographers are more interested in content than Getting the shot – the moment – is what matters. Here’s a quote from Garry Winogrand which sums it up nicely: “The world isn’t tidy, it’s a mess. I don’t try and make it neat”. And neither do I.
I hope you found this useful and if you would like to know more about me or about Fujifilm, please check out the links below. I have a YouTube channel which is 100% street and packed with tips and inspiration – it would be great to see you there. And if you fancy a workshop, I’m now taking bookings for 2021.
YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/streetsnappers
Brian’s gallery: www.brianduckett.com
Brian Lloyd Duckett is a Fujifilm X-Photographer (a brand ambassador) and a full-time professional street photographer. He runs 60-70 street photography workshops across the UK and Europe and has written two best-selling street photography books. He lectures university students and delivers talks to camera clubs.