Photo tip of the Week: Street photography 101 (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on street photography. You can see part one here.
Pre-conceiving the shot
It’s a real skill to imagine what can or is about to happen so you can set yourself up in the right place at the right time. One technique I use is to think about what is going on in the fore, mid and background. Think about geometric shapes and lines and how you can place yourself to take advantage of them.
Look at the lighting – will your subject look better in full sunlight or when they step into shade? Learn to adapt quickly. Try to be creative. Try to pre-empt what is about to happen or could happen and be ready for that moment.
Respect your subjects
Try to shoot with journalistic integrity. You are not there to make anyone feel bad or threatened. If someone notices you, give them a wave and tell them they look awesome and you have a great photo of them. Don’t ask for their email – give them yours.
A blanket question I always ask myself is if I had to show my subject an image of them that I’d just taken – would they like it? Would they find it interesting or intriguing? Would they want to get a free copy from me?
On the flip side, if someone is behaving badly – it’s not always wrong to document it. A while back, we were nearly killed by a group of drag racing teenagers doing over 180kph when they came over a rise with us doing 80kph in our car. The two cars swerved to miss us, crashed into each other and then careened off either side of the road into trees. After making sure everyone was ok (the worst injury a broken nose), I started photographing the carnage.
One young person started verbally abusing me – but then I pointed out that their car was literally on fire. I also reminded them that they had been speeding idiotically fast, had nearly killed us with their recklessness, and that they should be more concerned with the miracle that no-one had died.
However, I think the line that quietened them quickest was ‘You should be dead now’ while pointing to their bumper bar wedged three meters up in a tree.
So, my advice is to think about the situation. Are you documenting a bizarre moment? Is it a sign of the times? Is it a riot where an authoritarian government may use your photos to identify innocent protestors? What will be the life of this photo in the future?
Always attempt to make people look somewhat dignified. Remember, often the best humanistic images allow the viewer to afford empathy towards the subject.
What Are You Really Shooting?
One unfortunate presumption of street photography is that any photo of the street is ‘valid’ as a reasonable image. When you’re shooting, try to think about WHAT the image is. As a general rule, if you can’t title it, you are probably not taking a photo of something interesting.
What is the ‘centre of interest’? If it has multiple interesting objects – do they relate to each other in a way that is somehow congruous? It’s perfectly fine to have an aesthetically pleasing geometrical photo and that alone can be great, but often the better street photographs look as if they are part of a story, almost a ‘film still’ where the viewer wants to know more about what is really going on.
A bit of humour, strangeness, irony or unusualness can also go a long way.
Which Street Photography Images Sell?
It’s obvious that no one wants to buy overtly somber journalistic images and put them on their wall. But, these types of shots also bring a level of credibility to your overall body of work and abilities, which can lead to sales of your more aesthetically pleasing work.
My selling images all had ‘something about them’ – a combination of decorative, slight bizarreness and a dose of ironic humour – those images seem to have a back story to them for the viewer.
On the flip side, I’ve seen other street photographers sell very narrative-less abstract images that tread the line between street and urban landscape. Some things that sold I would have not guessed to sell, such as a mountain with a peace symbol painted on the side of it, or a simple photo of a neon cowboy sign.
Looking back on them now, There was minimal skill in taking those photos and they were hardly what you would call ‘street photography’, but it does remind people of the overall series.
A good street photograph isn’t a nice sunset. It’s not a busker either. It’s probably not a bunch of unremarkable unrelated people looking at their phones waiting for a train. And its most definitely not holiday snaps of the harbour bridge. And, just to confuse things even further, street photography doesn’t have to be in the street at all – it can be in any public place.
Like everything, you get what you give. To succeed with it, you have to know your gear instinctively and be able to predict what might happen, be a little bit brave and just get out there. Worst comes to worst – you’ve just got some exercise taking your camera for a walk. Be safe, shoot responsibly and most importantly, have fun! ❂
About the author: Tim Levy is an award winning Sydney based freelance photographer, writer and teacher who has covered a multitude of photographic disciplines. His professional work has seen him cover over 25 years of music gigs, portraits, football (the real one) tournaments, dog calendars, travel, shoe photography, Film and Television and everything else in between. His personal work centres around Street Photography with which he has put on numerous solo and group exhibitions.