Street photography is not staged
Street photography is not staged, it’s all about the instant. It’s not landscape photography, where things are quite static (weather excepted). It’s not studio photography where you can direct you subject at your will. It’s not even this pseudo street photography we can see more and more on Instagram, which is actually studio style shoot in natural light, in the streets. No, nothing is staged in street photography, nothing is static, nothing waits for you or for your orders. Every seconds, sometimes even less, count, sometimes you shoot by reflex, not looking at your camera or even at your subject, because the moment, the instant is right now, not the second later. Which sometimes gives interesting shot, often they are only megabytes to free on your memory card…
A typical “reflex shot” taken while walking. It gave a nice photo with a contrast between the two subjects, and the shadow line separating them. If only I’ve had been more prepared, the framing would have been way better… and the shot more spectacular!
Things go fast, but keep a slow pace
Imagine yourself in a very busy street that you don’t really know, people passing by you in a rush, angry drivers use their horn more than they should, there is advertising everywhere. Everything go fast, there is a lot happening at 360 degrees around you, interesting things that may be a great shot, you rush too, you try to go fast, you may indeed take a few good shots… but I can bet you’ll be disappointed by your keeper ratio in the end. Good shots, but very few great shots, if any.
Now, go back a little bit in time, at the same spot you were, and look around you, just look, maybe try a few shots for framing tests, but go slow, observe.
Owning the scene!
That is owning the scene. Take the time to make this unfamiliar scene yours. It may take a few seconds, it may take a few minutes, but be sure to understand what’s going on. What could be a great background? Where are the shadows, how is the sun moving and affecting them? Is there a pattern in the people’s behavior, does someone break this pattern and could be a good subject? That often makes a great shot! Is there a moving subject that can be captured in motion by doing a longer exposure? Is there anything fitting my ongoing projects? That is owning the scene, that is knowing and understanding what is going on in front of you… and actually at 360 degrees! You are not staging your scene, you are planning it for the right moment, the right instant where the magic happens.
The very first shot of the “Commuting” project. It required a bit of work to get the right shutter speed to capture the movement without being too abstract, and also to know when to release the shutter so that it doesn’t get messy while filling the frame. While experimenting I was on the other side of the street next to the red light and found the pattern I wanted: much more people were coming from the side I took the photo, and I knew the effect would be better being closer to the largest amount of people.
… And keep owning it
Now that you own the scene, that you’ve stayed in your spot for a few minutes (or sometimes much more 😀 ) in order to capture THE shot, keep looking. The light may be changing, the people’s behavior may be different, it’s an ongoing process. Maybe now, you can switch from shooting people passing in front of this nice reflection with a giant, funny ad in the background to shooting them under neon lights when the sky goes darker. Because you keep observing, you keep owning the scene, you feel confident in what you are doing, you know what is changing, or what is going to change. You’ll be able to anticipate and to take advantage of it, not have it ruin your moment. Last but not least, you may be even more observant to those “reflex instant shot” that are still happening anyhow!
One of my favorite shots of 2015. It started at the corner of the street, then the steam started being released so I moved a bit closer to have a more foggy atmosphere. And the light on the right was turned on and this graffiti appeared, I rethought the whole thing and made the shot when people were passing by the graffiti, as if it was looking at them. Perfect example of evolving scene.
Less shots, but more keepers
Since I’ve been using this small technique I’ve observed that I actually shoot way less than when I was spraying here and there, with a much higher keeper ration as I plan my shoot, my settings, my framing, etc. It means less time in front of the computer, and much more time shooting!