I have decided to appoint myself Emperor of Street Photography. My advice, which you MUST, upon pain of death, follow rigidly, is thus: to improve your street photography go out and shoot on the street. Whenever you feel like it, with whatever camera you have, with any lens, digital or film.
There you go. It’s fairly straight forward.
In doing this, you will find your own way. You will find what works for you, and what doesn’t. You will improve by doing. Photography is a practical pursuit. To improve, you have to do it.
I have been doing street photography for the past three years. It really started off for me with photographing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, on the Royal Mile. It’s like a street carnival which lasts for three weeks every August. I found that I was as interested in the audience, and people passing through, going about their normal routines, as I was in the performers. So when the festival was over I started photographing people on the street. From a distance, with a telephoto zoom lens. At first I thought my shots were good. They weren’t really. One or two perhaps, but nothing particularly compelling. It was my own dissatisfaction with my photography which made me ditch the telephoto for a smaller lens. Not a prime lens because I didn’t have one, and didn’t know what a prime lens was at that point. But I wanted to get closer to my subjects, be a bit more bold, and hopefully produce better, more interesting images. So I tried my 18-55 kit lens (ooh, a kit lens! spit spit!)
I was of course shooting fully auto. This was my first foray into the DSLR world, and I was not confident enough, and did not know enough at that point (despite having used SLRs many years previously) to use the manual settings. Again, at first, I thought some of my shots were good. They weren’t really. And looking back at my shots from that time there aren’t many I like. There are a few, but there was serious room for improvement. There is always room for improvement, especially in photography. However, this was all part of the learning process. Without those steps I would not have reached this point. And without doing what I’m doing now, I will not go forward.
Again, during the Edinburgh Fringe, I began to experiment with the manual settings, including manual focusing, pre-focusing, so that my camera would respond the instant I pressed the shutter release. Then I started experimenting with flash, which I had not really attempted in a street setting before as I was intimidated by it.
My photography improved. I looked at the work of other documentary and street photographers. I was and am inspired by the work of other photographers. How do they get this type of shot, what do they do? Maybe I should try that approach and see what happens. My photography improved. Which is not to say that there are no longer plenty of shots which are not very good, or don’t work. There are. But that’s all part of the process. Hit rates mean nothing. If you get a good shot you get a good shot, if you don’t, come back the next day, or next week. Keep shooting and your photography will improve.
Look at the work of other photographers. How do they do what they do? It’s the approach and the doing. What works for you? Ok, that works for you, but are you producing the kinds of images you want to produce? That’s what keeps me striving to get better, and trying different things. I’m image hungry. I want good shots. Shots that can stand next to the work of other photographers I admire. Not to copy or compete, but to have some value, to have some meaning, to capture a moment in time, which otherwise would be lost forever. That is one of the main things it’s about for me, stopping, and preserving little crumbs of time.
Which of course all sounds really very serious and important. And it is. And it isn’t. Not if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing. All of the above is all very well, but if you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point?
Just keep shooting and you will improve. You’ll find what works, and you will find your own way. Don’t have a Leica? Don’t despair, my friend! Keep shooting with your big, indiscreet, professional, off-putting DSLR! No, really, do.
Want to shoot film? Shoot film. Don’t want to shoot film? Don’t shoot film. Want to do both? Do both.
I’ve been trying out different things recently. Both film and digital. The NIkon F3 is quite heavy to carry around on the street, but it’s fun to shoot with. I’ve also bitten the bullet and tried some close up flash with my big chunky, entry level, crop sensor DSLR too. If you want to do that, you just have to do it, there’s no getting around it. With flash you can’t be invisible or discreet. But if you want those shots you simply have to do it. Smile and try to be friendly though.