Knowledge

Street Photography Cookbook

Field notes of tipps and tricks to get the most out of your street photography journeys.
Sticky post that get’s updated as soon as i’ve discovered a new gimmick.

Recipes

What is street photography anyway?

The street photographer can be seen as an extension of the flâneur, an observer of the streets

Susan Sontag

Defining landscape photography, wildlife, food or fashion photography is very apparent, defining street photography is a totally different beast. It is like time. You basically knows what it is, but as soon as you have to describe it, you have a very hard time.

There are uncounted discussions argumenting back and fort about what street photography is and what it’s not. Some rules say that is has to be candid, you’re not allowed to crop or even edit, never shoot the back of a person. The list goes on and on and the next list states the contrary.
In my humble opinion, all those “definitions” are mainly expressions of what these individuals reward as good street photography. It’s their taste.

Another attempt to explain my point of view is to ask “what are all those other photographs, then?”. It’s incredibly difficult to pigeonhole this genre lacking an adjacent one. At the same time, putting a fence around it is literally a limitation and i do not want to limit my vision of street photography. Neither should you.

Urban life by definition is contemporary. As a part of that new technologies (hello mirrorless cameras, smartphones and instagram) bring a ton of new players and their visions into street photography documenting and evolving the Zeitgeist.

Thus, my theory of street photography is that it’s more of an an appeal:
Be the flâneur. Observe your surroundings. Have a good time. Discover all the peculiarities and ordinarities of everyday life. Make your day your photographic playground.
Mix and Match all the what it is’s and what it’s not’s to your liking, play with styles and techniques. In case you want to learn new techniques and get tipps to increase your chance of good footage, read on.

The Hunter and the Fisherman

There lived a hunter and a fisherman, who were descendants of deities. Hoori was the happy hunter, and his older brother Hoderi was the competitive fisherman. They grew up as handsome and skillful young men, and both of them had their own talents. 

The Tale of the Hunter and the Fisherman

Fisherman-Techniques

As a fisherman you can chose to have a relaxing time at your pond (read: scenery), throw your bait (read: wait for your decisive moment) and catch fishes while they are passing by (read: shooting your contact sheets). Please don’t kill but catch & release your fishes.

All you need to go fishing is a spot, an idea, a camera and patience. Tools that might help you are these:

  • Composition principles
    It is here, where I briefly write about compositions, because with the fisher-tactic you’re not in a hurry and have plenty of time to compose your image before you click the shutter.
    As soon as compositions run in your blood, such a vision enhances your quick, hunting-style street photographs automatically. The principles are no hard rules to obey and can be broken anytime and in anyway that you want. They are a great start to experiment with and develop your style and if you have wondered sometimes why one image is just more appealing than a similar looking, here’s why.
    • Composition 101
      Composition in a nutshell is to take the eye of your viewer along the story of your photograph or to guide the eye of the viewer directly towards key elements.
      It’s the arrangement and mixture of ingredients such as lines, shapes, spaces and colors (in depth here). For obvious reasons i would add people, movements and interactions to a list on street photography compositions.
      There are several composition principles that have proven to be pleasing the human minds and tastes, let’s have a look on the most popular ones:

      Rule of Thirds
      Golden Triangle
      Golden Cut
    • Composition Anchor Points
      Nice, but your camera does not have those patterns as an overlay? Mine neither. But it sure has the Rule-of-Third Grid. This gives you enough control to position your visual elements into the right place, because in that they basically share the same anchor points. They just differ in the way that they make the viewers eye wander over your image. Anchor your key element at one of these anchor points and arragnge the leading lines starting from there. In a hurry, already the quick anchoring can make the difference.
      Anchor Points
      Anchor Points
      Anchor Points
      All compotitions merged
      All compotitions merged
      Composition Anchor Points

    • Framing
      Framing means that you arrange your scenery so that one or more things start to literally build a frame around your point of interest. You can now wait for a person or animal to get into the frame (see decisive moment) or you are skilled to frame your subject on the go while hunting.
    • Juxtaposition
      This term means to make two subjects interact with each other. “Juxtaposition is an act or instance of placing two elements close together or side by side. This is often done in order to compare/contrast the two, to show similarities or differences, etc.” (Wikipedia)
      Often juxtapositioning is used to make the surrounding interact with a person (e.g. an advertisement kissing the person passing by) in a way that makes you smile.
      But next to (pun intended) strong emotions, juxtaposing is one of the most powerfool tools of storytelling.
      Juxtaposing is storytelling


  • The decisive moment
    There a a truckload of books and articles about the decisive moment, a concept introduced by one of the street photographers maestros Henri Cartier-Bresson. “This moment occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation” (via truecenterpublishing). Sloppily speaking, it’s a perfectly timed shot within your scenery.
    Is it a person walking through a frame within your scene, a person juxtaposed to an element of the street, a specific action a person needs to perform? Think about something that adds value to your overall image. Know what you’re waiting for and anticipate movements.

    What’s your decisive moment?

  • You set the stage
    Find places you like, e.g. a scene with a strong background, and find out how you want the photo to look like. I often visit a spot over and over again to crack it’s code, find the right thing, being it an angle, light or what a person should be like to add value to this image.
    Let’s pick this example.

    The door handle reminded me of a whistling face that should interact with a person. Thus the person had to be either a woman, looking over her shoulder to that face (yes, a cliché-ridden cat call) or a person with style, walking by. The photos are from three different days and I did not include the two days where a parking truck blocked my view. Finally, I got lucky with the latter one, but i won’t preclude to visit that spot again to.
    To recap this: Find a spot, make photos, come back and make better ones.
  • Sometimes the light, shadows and your decisive moment do not fall into place. While there’s no app yet to calculate when the decisive moment occurs, you can accurately determine when you have to visit the spot again to get the light you want. For that purpose I use PhotoPills among other things (Google Play / iStore no paid ad, just a recommendation).
Street Photo - Tate Cat Walk

Hunter-Techniques

While the fisherman-technique reminds one of landscape photography where you are blessed with time to frame your shot and wait for the decisive moment, a lot of street photos rely on your reaction and your ability to compose, focus, expose and click within an atomic second. Let me introduce the hunter.

Despite the need to shoot quickly don’t be a paparrazi jumping into each persons face. A key skill of hunters is to be silent and smooth in their movements to not alarm their prey. To get candid shots you as a hunter want to have your subjects in their natural habitat, i.e. ignoring you.

You’ll get few tricks to produce good footage of the street, but before that let me draw a thick line between low-attention behaviour vs. a sneaky, ambushing behaviour. As a rule of thumb, don’t be a jerk; just do what you would be comfortable with if others would approach you in the same manner. That being said, here are sneaky-sounding tipps:

  • Don’t make eye contact with the person you are going to shoot.
    Human vision is a continuos process that inevitably responds “to exogenous stimuli including socially relevant cues such as someone else’s gaze”, i.e. your gaze (source).
  • Don’t make eye contact with the person you just have shot.
    • Just look through or behind the person when you lower your camera and do not want to draw its attention. A silent shutter may become your friend here.
    • Keep on clicking to pretend that your interest was in the scene behind that person. A loud shutter may become your friend here so that your subject hears that you are still taking pictures and may think that you got her/him accidentally.
  • Zone-Focusing
    Chances are that your auto-focus is too slow for the scene or misinterprets what you are seeing. The hunters solution is to set up a pitfall: preset your focus manually on a distance and a depth of field that you feel comfortable with (see below how the PhotoPills App might help you again). Now, whoever walks into this zone is trapped in sharpness and you just need to think about your composition or increase your shoot-from-the-hip-game.

    Moreover, you draw less attention than pointing the camera into ones face, pre-focus and compose or turning the focus ring with someones movements.
    A Technique that sounds that great and simple at the same time must have a catch in it. Here it is: It may require a lot of practice to get a grip on it and go with the flow.

    ⓘ A guide with deeper explanation and a special trick can be found here.

  • Look back!
    Situations unfold everytime everywhere. As a connoisseur of the street you don’t want to be blindered by what’s ahead and miss them. Be like Xavi Hernandez and take a look over your shoulder from time to time (read: very often) to create a vision of the whole scenery.
    Plus, people are less aware of you than if you’re walking towards them.
  • Make eye contact! Wait, what?
    The more confident you get with your style, techniques and results, the more likely wou’ll connect with the people around you. It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.

    It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.

    Alfred Eisenstaedt
    So forget all points above and ask someone for a spontaneous portrait.

I, for myself, neither am a pure fisher nor a pure hunter but a good mixture of both. Sometimes i plan to go to a fishing pond and made the best shot while on the go. So i more and more prepared myself to hunt en route. Sometimes i stroll through the city and discover a new spot to try fishing. In case it doesn’t work, i always carry a notebook with me.

For some projects i need to find locations with specific characteristics. The best way to find such places is to explore the city with a camera at hand, train my photographic muscle and to expect the unexpected:

Street Photo - Climbing The Light

General Tipps & Tricks

  • Always have your camera with you and ready.
    I cannot highlight this enough because I can showcase the best examples, it’s because I know about all the shots that I’ve missed so far.
  • Shoot in high contrast black’n’white, expose on the highlights.
    This setting helps you framing the scene and subjects due to less distractions. It kind of merges the layers of the 3D-world into fewer 2D-spaces which opens up new dimensions within your frame. See this example:

Black & White Viewfinder
Black & White Viewfinder
Black & White Viewfinder
Standard Viewfinder
Standard Viewfinder

With the standard viewfinder your eyes are drawn to the bright red brick wall.
Seeing black and white guides your eyes towards the framed couple. They are a contrasting point within the bold frame of shadows.
You are less distracted, too, and can more easily balance the negative (non-action) and positive (action) spaces.

When you shoot in RAW, you can always opt for color in Capture One, Lightroom or the digital darkroom tool of your choice.

  • Look up!
    That’s how you find interesting perspectives to shoot up or a location you want to shoot down from.
  • Using a prime lens will lift you up at least three levels in your street photography game.
    • A prime lense forces you to really work the scene so that your feet will become your effective zoom. Find the spot and angle for the frame you’re envisioning.
    • You’re in the action and your photos become more vividly. Long focal widths tend to flatten your image.
    • Their wider aperture is your partner in challenging light conditions.
    • You don’t look like an ambushing sneaky sniper.
  • A Continuous Shooting mode assists you in capturing movements and the decisive moment.

On street photographers anxiety

Read this article of how to overcome anxiety, find some quick tipps below

  • To get started, fhe Fisherman Technique helps a lot because you tend to have more background. This not only makes you stand farther away from strangers and let both be in a comfort zone. It also comes with a nice twist: they may not feel to a subject of the scene but think you trying to get a shot of the background. You are not disturbing them, they may think they are disturbing your image and won’t bother you.
  • About the sneaky-sounding tipps above. Because you are kind of hiding what you are doing, you may feel guilty for taking these secret shots. As you are practicing with those tipps and mixing it with other techniques, little by little you will build up your confidence in what you’re doing and you will improve your good-shot-ratio. With those good shots you are well prepared to connect with your subjects.
  • Someone catched you!
    Your subject noticed that you were taking a photo and confronts you more or less nicely. First: You are a fisher or a hunter, not an assassin. So you are not caught but recognized. Second: Be honest in what you are doing: “Hey, i’m a photographer, loving to make art in the public space. You inspired me because of [insert nice compliment here].”
    • Feel free to show what you’ve shot and explain why you’d love to keep this image (people like compliments) or whether they should not worry, because you won’t publish those images
    • Invite the person to have a look at your website or instagram account together to show that you are only publishing quality shots that do not put a person in bad light or discredit them.
    • Exchange contact details so that you can send the final version to that person. If it’s so good that you want to publish it, take the chance to ask for a model release.

Bonus Tipps

  • Choose a theme for the day.
    You’ll be surprised how many pairs wear partner look.
  • Play with creative constraints.
    That’s a creativity booster, I’ve learned from Roy Fochtman (head over).
  • Wear good shoes!
    When exploring a city your feet will be grateful, if they carried you 20 km in a comfortable way.
  • Know where toilets are (I save them in Google maps)
  • Expect the unexpected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *