Been shooting street photography for some time and see a lack of progress? Or is it simply that something is missing in your pictures ? Here a few pieces of advice to avoid the easy shots and bolster your creativity.
I) Exclude signs and ads.
Of course, you can create great juxtapositions with signs or billboards, and it definitely shows how witty you mind can be. Yet, half of your picture is actually someone’s else work and you are in fact taking a picture of someone’s picture. I estimate that close to 50% of street shots posted on pictures sharing websites involve a sign or and ad, it has become boring. (click on pictures to enlarge)
“To feel that your insurance makes your life easier is wonderful”
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.8, 1/250, ISO200, ND filter
II) Don’t shoot from the back
Shooting from the back as the advantage to avoid contact with your subjects. Yet, it is also the best recipe for boring pictures. Backs aren’t very expressive, nor especially interesting to look at.
III) Skip on street artists and vendors.
These are the easy snaps as these people are used to being photographed all day. They work in the streets and get tips or cash from the passer-by’s, they won’t mind being portrayed. The probability is also very high that you’ll find dozens of iterations of your shot on the web. So skip on these ones too, and turn your attention to less common scenes.
IV) Leave good-looking people alone.
A bit like signs and ads, you are shooting someone’s else good work, which is your subject’s parents. Shoot a beautiful girl and most people will find the shot amazing. But is it really your shot they like ?
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2.8, 1/500, ISO200
V) Not all people are lost in their thoughts.
This is a common trend I have found on street shots posted on the internet, that is pictures of people “lost in their thoughts”. To my knowledge, when I walk in the street, I don’t especially talk or smile. The probability is indeed high that I am thinking about some common stuff to do such as laundry, football game, my boss, flowers to water, etc … Many shots of people simply walking in the street are boring, and a dramatic title won’t change that.
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2.0, 1/1500, ISO200
VI) Use a wide angle lens
Leave your long lenses at home, mount a 28 or 35mm lens. Not that you can’t take great shots with long lenses, obviously not, but a wide angle will force you to interact with people. When you try to avoid interaction or eye contact at all cost, you miss on a lot of great shots opportunities.
VII) Drop the abstract stuff.
The wonderful thing about abstract shots is that you can showcase your creativity at its maximum. The bad thing is that most often you are the only one to understand it. Very few street photographers are able to convey messages or feelings consistently through abstraction, so just leave it aside for a while.
Leica M9 with 60mm Hexanon at F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200, ND fitler
So what do I shoot ?
By removing all these types of shots from you array of choices, one might think “What do I shoot then ?” Well, this is where it starts to become interesting and you’ll know if you are ready to take your street photography to the next level. Commit to these rules for a few weeks, use it as a learning experience and see where it leads you.
Many of you are probably familiar with the famous Belgium comics called “Tintin”. It relates the wonderful adventures of a young boy around the world accompagnied by his dog Milou and the famous Captain Haddock. The comics also features two clumsy police officers, the Dupondt (see link to picture here), which always appeared when you least expected it and usually wearing extravagant disguises.
Well street photography is a bit like looking for the Dupondt. You spend all day searching for the unusual, the bizarre. Indeed, you spend hours hunting in the streets and nothing really out of common happens. Yet suddenly, it is here right in front of you, at the corner of a street : the Dupondt appeared again. (click on picture to enlarge)
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2.8, 1/250, ISO200
When one refers to street photography, the urban environment comes straight up to our mind. Indeed, many of the most famous photographers hunted in the streets of large metropolis such as Paris, New York or London. Yet street photography can really be performed in any place, be it a small rural town, at the beach or why not, at the South pole. Street photography is above all about how humans interact with their environment, candidly in front of the eyes of an unknown witness. This being said, some locations are definitely more challenging and will put your imagination and patience at work. This is exactly the exercise I went through last week while visiting the Iguazu Falls.
Yet before I go into more details, let me precise that I don’t have the state of mind to be a landscape photographer. Actually, I don’t even enjoy shooting landscapes as I always get the feeling that I can get much better picture of a same scenery by searching on the internet. And even if I were to shoot landscape, I would not have the patience to look for the perfect composition and wait for the best light. No, I like the unplanned and instinctive side of street photography, that moment that lasts a split second before it is gone forever.
So imagine my reaction when we arrived at Iguazu Falls and faced the following scenery (and yes, this is is a landscape shot).
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F8.0, 1/750, ISO200
After a few minutes of silent contemplation in front of such a stunning sight (Iguazu Falls is in the ballot to be part of the 7 new world wonders), I put my my eyes at work and tried to find a few street shots. After two full days of shooting at Iguazu Falls, here are therefore a few impression and tips about how to give a street photography spin to the visit of a landmark.
In a landmark, most of your subjects will be tourists. This basically means backpacks, horrible clothing, sunglasses, cameras and all these so un-photogenic accessories that tourist like to carry around. The master of these kind of scenes is evidently Martin Parr who portrayed them and their behaviour with a lot of humour and a touch of irony (not too call it sarcasm). Obviously, the goal is not to replicate Parr’s work but it will definitely keep you busy as tourists are endless material in terms of look and behaviour.
Integrate the landmark in your scenes.
Though I don’t like to shoot landscapes, I tried to compose my shots with Falls in the background. Indeed, it will give quite an unusual feel to your “street” shots, especially when surrounded by so much beauty. Also, try to give an impression of the special characteristics of the site you are visiting. In the case of Iguazu Falls, there was evidently a lot of water and mist, so many people wore raincoats to approach the some of the viewpoints, even on this very bright day. Yet at the same time, another tourist would suddenly appear with an umbrella to create quite a surrealistic vision.
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F2.0, 1/4000, ISO80
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F4.0, 1/1000, ISO200
Play with human vs nature
When you stand next to one of the 280 waterfalls of Iguazu, you do feel like a tiny little being in front of mother nature. Try to portray that relationship of man vs landarmark. The two pictures below aimed at the same part of the scenery, that is a bridge that led at the bottom of a waterfall. The first one was taken with a wide angle and shows the impressive size of the scenery compared to humans. The second shot was shot with a 90mm lens and is a close up on the end of the bridge, flattening the waterfall. Nevertheless, in both cases, death was only a jump over the barrier away.
Stay true to your style.
If your home playground isthe 5th Avenue or Les Champs-Elysées, you will obviously lose some of your marks. Yet it does not mean that you must forget about your photographic universe and style. Stay true to what you like and try to integrate it in the scenery. No need to mimick Parr, HCB or Salgado, apply your style and try to bring a new take on the scenes you’ll face. I consider my photographic world to gravitate around lyricism and mysticism. As for my style (if it can be called so), I would say it is mostly a mix of thin depth of fields, high vintage point and a specific post processing. I would be greatly honored if one day someone says “this is a Yanidel shot” while looking randomly at one of my Iguazu shots (Time to wake up now).
Finally, and above all, don’t forget to look at the wonderful sights in front of you. By always chasing street shot, you might skip on what you came for…
When the sun sets behind the high rises of Santa Fe, a world of shadows appears. (click on pictures to enlarge)