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Street Photography - Quick Start Guide
What exactly is street photography? Wikipedia puts it quite succinctly as 'photography that features the human condition within public places'. The premise sounds simple yet difficult at the same time: you go somewhere, observe people going about their daily lives (or maybe through some unique one-time events!) and making pictures of the most interesting moments.
Indeed, we encounter the human condition every day, but it takes some introspection and thinking to really understand what's going on; to capture the moment and the emotions within it requires practice as well. Fortunately, because we encounter other humans and go to public places almost every day, street photography is highly accessible to everyone! Every day provides us a chance to practice street photography, and no one day is exactly the same. It's always exciting to see how a place can change between days or even within one day, and the results you get will always change.
Photographers of all skill levels practice street photography, and many choose to focus on this branch of photography. It happens to be my preferred style of photography as well, and I felt like writing a few things I've learned that may help you start trying street photography.
What camera should I use?
“The best camera you have is the one you have in your hand.” This is a statement often echoed in the photography community, and I take it to be a really profound statement. What matters is whether or not you can take a picture at this moment – exactly what camera you have is not that important. The expensive DSLR you left at home is, figuratively speaking, worth less than the point-and-shoot you have in your pocket or bag right now. So long as you can take a picture, you can apply at least the basic techniques of photography and make a good shot. Your gear doesn’t make you a better photographer – your techniques, experience and creativity do.
That said, your gear influences your result as far as resolution goes, and having better gear also opens up possibilities for new methods and better shots. Street photography doesn’t have a definitive gear list, but here are some pointers on choosing what to pack the next time you go out to shoot.
Unless you’re really fit, you probably won’t be able to travel comfortably while lugging upwards of 20 pounds of gear. In street photography, you don’t need that much gear anyway. Most digital street photographers carry one camera body and at most two or three small lenses. Your kit lens is actually sufficient for a lot of general-purpose photography, including street photography. Consider going out with just your camera and kit lens and see what you can do!
As you advance further, you may want to bring more specialized equipment such as filters and external flash units to expand possibilities or capture specific images. Learn what your gear can and cannot do, and pack what you need. Still, it's good to keep your pack's weight and ease of access in mind -- versatility and agility are some of a photographer's greatest assets.
Consider using prime lenses
Aside from your standard kit lens, prime lenses, which have fixed focal lengths and wider range of aperture size, are also quite popular. While you can’t zoom with these lenses, the ability to open the aperture wider than the usual f/3.5 allows you to experiment with more shallow depth of field, and it’s also handy in darker areas because you can let more light in. Furthermore, a shorter focal length gets you to move in closer to your subjects and in some cases, actually engage in some form of interaction with them. Focal lengths like 35mm, 40mm and 50mm are the most popular ones, and some of them come cheap (the most notable being Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 lens). Incidentally, prime lenses with short focal lengths are also small and light, therefore helping you stay discreet.
Consider smaller cameras
Smaller cameras are less imposing to other people; a feature you should consider when taking candid photos of people. Combined with a small, ‘pancake’ lens, you get a very compact camera that’s comfortable for you and your subjects. You may want to consider mirrorless cameras; while their sensors have a higher crop factor that results in more ‘zoomed-in’ images, they are almost as equally powerful as entry-level DSLRs in terms of features and image resolution. Many mirrorless cameras are compatible with lenses used with their DSLR counterparts as well, so you’re not actually losing any use of your DSLR equipment.
Alternatively, you can also use a film camera. Generally, early model film cameras are smaller than the modern DSLR. While they are not loaded with the many features that make DSLRs comfortable to use, it’s still a great alternative to use for various reasons.
How should I approach street photography?
There is no specific 'canon' or textbook way to approach street photography, but here are some things to consider as you shoot.
Intent is key
Nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket today, embedded in their smartphones. They’re versatile and very powerful for their size… and yet many of us use it strictly for taking selfies or pictures of whiteboards and notes in the office or lecture hall. Some of us take pictures of daily occurrences or unique events like performances or accidents, but give no thought to why we take the image in the first place.
One of the most basic purposes of taking a picture is to have a record of certain sights or events in life, whether it is something mundane and routine or something special and unforgettable. While taking pictures for this purpose is fine, advancing as a photographer requires that you think consciously about making art. Art, first and foremost, is about intent. Having an intent to make art drives you to put more thought and effort before you press that shutter button. Consequently, you have better chances at getting shots worth keeping, as opposed to shooting thoughtlessly. “What should I do to make this image good? What kind of story do I want to tell?” Those are the questions that you should think about as you shoot and as you critique your own images.
Stop a while and observe
When you enter a place where you want to shoot, stop for a while and scout out the location before you decide what to shoot. See how people move, how the traffic flows, and spot interesting scenes, individuals, and landmarks. This helps you in a number of ways: you get to take a minute to rest and calm yourself (the importance of which will be explained later), find places and angles from where you can shoot, and have some time to sense and interpret the situation.
Part of what makes street photography exciting is that even in the same city or locale, you rarely get the same image from different photographers. Even with the same landmarks and same groups of people, you can interpret the ‘soul’ of a place differently from others. By observing and thinking about the area around you and the people in it, you should be able to inject your personal interpretation of a certain time and place, making your photograph stand out more than the average snapshot.
Stay calm before you shoot
In any kind of photography, there’s always that rush to get a shot as fast as possible because a small, memorable event may be over in a flash – by the time you realize it’s over, you may end up with no pictures at all. However, it pays to stay calm and stop moving your body before taking that shot. One reason is, of course, to minimize camera shake and the resulting blur. This becomes especially important when shooting in low-light conditions, such as in an alleyway, in a market, or at night, where cameras tend to err towards low shutter speeds. (You can counter this with manual settings, of course, but unless you do it right you may end up with a very under-exposed picture.)
Another reason to stop moving is so that you can observe the event through your viewfinder and predict when to actually press that shutter button and capture an image. The ‘decisive moment’, as Henri Cartier-Bresson puts it, may not be apparent and may not even happen at the predicted times, but it’s inevitable; your job is to capture it when it happens. To actually spot that ‘decisive moment’ requires a lot of patience and a lot of practice, and you can’t get both when you’re moving in a daze from one place to another, from one scene to another.
After reading this hub, I hope you feel up for some street photography! You might want to consider using a film camera for your street photography, especially if you want to really learn how a camera works. I've written a hub about using film cameras and provided some examples of the kind of street photos you can take using a film camera.