Over the years, street photography has become easier and more fulfilling for me when I put aside my restlessness and eagerness to score and instead just immerse myself in the dynamics of street life itself. If I were starting street photography today, these would be the top three tips I would hope a seasoned pro would share with me (and I still remind myself of these things, just to help me stay on track).
1. Forget the Urge to Score
The biggest pitfall of the novice street photographer is the urge to have to score immediately. This compelling idea creates turmoil in your head. A rather welcoming openness and a healthy curiosity about what comes your way creates more mental space to observe the world around you. There is certainly nothing wrong with enthusiasm and passion for your photography, but it is especially important to find a good balance. My experience is that tranquillity and open-mindedness create the most opportunities to see moments and to capture them.
2. Choose a Location and Wait
To me, it has always been quite fascinating and enjoyable to work in the same place for a while, such as a park, crossroads, public square, or terrace. Life unfolds in front of your eyes, just like a movie. The idea is to be especially attentive to the most fascinating “stills” and pick these out by photographing them.
Choosing a particular spot is a bit like installing a spacious outdoor studio in which you can slightly control a number of elements, such as the setting, the framing, and/or the exposure. It’s especially important that you take the time to study all the elements you see in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen in order to build your composition. Working in the same place has the advantage that you can try out your framework. You’ll be able to make your composition faster within that familiar framework, and thus you can give much more attention to moments as they occur. You’ll undoubtedly, you’ll have to wait for the right time, however, so don’t glance at your watch too much or keep chimping between every shot. Keep focused on the spot you choose for your frame; you’ll know when you are in the flow. You’ll feel the moment you're waiting for. And take it from me: a fantastic feeling awaits you if your patience, careful observation, and a studied composition result in one hell of a photograph.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simply wandering the streets looking for your photos if you're getting good results. But staying a little longer in one place and observing what happens often offers you more photo-ready situations as well as the advantage that you can also take your time waiting for it.
3. Get Close
Leave your telephoto lens at home when you hit the street. Instead, get in close and try to experience street life with all your senses: look, listen, smell, feel, and see what is happening on the street. Don't hide behind your camera; become part of the action around you. In the beginning, you may feel uncomfortable with the idea that everyone sees you. But if you are shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens, you’ll stand out more than you think. People may feel spied upon. However, when you walk among the crowds, even with your camera in hand, you become one of them. The smaller your gear, the closer you can get. So the less you stand out, the better.
People on the streets are mostly busy with each other or with issues that concern them. Grab the action at close range. It’s up to you to decide what you will put in your frame. The power of the street photographer is to distill some action or a situation that nobody else pays attention to, which results in capturing the very moment that no one else sees. To be successful in this kind of observation, you have to be close.
When studying the work of the street photographers you admire, you might discover that the most compelling photographs are indeed the ones where the photographer is close to his subject. Getting close is a challenge to every aspiring street photographer, but take it from me: it is a most rewarding approach.
If you liked this article, you might also like Willem's eBook, On Street Photography.
Willem Wernsen’s keen interest in people led him into photography 35 years ago. Since then, he has come to know that humankind responds to humankind and that communication is key to making honest photographs—a belief that is evident in his work. Willem searches through cities, villages, streets, alleys, markets and pubs in an ongoing quest for engaging stories to tell with his camera. See more of Willem's work on his website.