This was the text message I received from @kaththecrapout yesterday.
I meant to reply to her via text or Facebook but decided to share what little I know about street photography in the hopes of inspiring others to try it as well (and maybe convince even a single person to pick up a film camera).
Before anything else, please take note that I am an amateur and am not pretending to be an expert in any way. This is my personal view on street photography and may not be the same as anyone else’s. Comments would be welcome though as long as they are courteous and done in good taste. Or, you know, this is the Internet so whatever…
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY - A (LOOSE) DEFINITION
First off, what is street photography really? An extensive Google search will show that the term itself has been dealt with different interpretations and meanings. For me, personally, street photography is a visual documentation of everyday lives of people, their society, and/or the surrounding environment prevailing at the moment and place of capture (not necessarily in the “street” per se) that may otherwise be seen to be normal but given a much deeper meaning by a photographer through a simple act of candidly highlighting them in either a single or a series of photographs.
THE HURDLES OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE MODERN ERA
For photographers who are deeply rooted in the digital era, shooting street can definitely be an imposing challenge. Street photography goes against every bad habit that digital camera technology instills into a photographer. What’s good about it is it helps the photographer unlearn these bad habits.
Out in the street, you can’t just shoot and shoot and shoot until your batteries run out. You have to observe, anticipate, and pre-visualize everything around you. You can’t also chimp—the act of looking at the LCD preview of every shot you take—as you might miss a moment each time you do so. These two things alone can make a digital photographer uncomfortable as he is taken out of his comfort zone.
Then there’s the problem of trying not to get noticed or agitate your subjects. There’s actually two schools of thoughts on this: one that advocates stealth and shuns influencing a scene in any way; while the other promotes seeking permission before taking a photograph and thus taking away the “candidness” of the shot.
These two schools have sprouted many more conflicting street photography ideologies (i.e. prime vs. zoom, wide-angle vs. telephoto, monochrome vs. color, street portraiture vs. photographing with or without—or with minimal—human elements). You can read more about them in books and throughout the Internet.
I believe there’s no right or wrong approach in street photography. It’s a matter of preference and how it fits your personality and the culture of the people around you. You can even mix and match techniques depending on the situation you’re in. As long as you are not purposely exploiting anyone or breaking any law, whatever you do should be fine.
Okay, so you’ve chosen the path you want to take on the street, being either the street ninja or the congenial photographer. Then comes the technical aspects: framing, choosing the aperture and shutter speed, selective focusing, placing yourself at the perfect distance from the subject… All these minuscule decisions and you have to make them in literally a fraction of a second because if you don’t, you just might end up missing famed street photographer Cartier-Bresson’s proverbial “decisive moment.”
IT’S REALLY, REALLY HARD
Having said all these, we may all agree that street photography really is hard. I mean if it isn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. Yeah, I’m kind of a masochist.
But really, that’s the beauty of the street. It’s tough but that’s what makes you value each photograph you take. Sometimes, you even learn to appreciate your bad shots in the same way you do with the good ones. In case you still haven’t noticed, having everything easy in life makes you take things for granted.
Street photography is a challenge that one should never back down from because, I tell you, the rewards are too damn good.
So that’s established, street photography is so damn hard. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ease a burden for a teeny weeny bit, does it?
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: THE ATTITUDE
Expect to Fail But Strive to Succeed
First things first, let’s correct your attitude. Never come out into the streets thinking that you will get your photos right every time. No, siree. Seldom does that happen. I’ve heard hardcore street photographers say that they only get one “keeper” in every five rolls or so of film they spent. That’s one in every 180 shots they take. These are very seasoned photographers, mind you. What more for amateurs like us?
Okay, given that these people have pretty high criteria for what makes a “keeper” photograph (I am more lenient with myself as I choose 2-3 keepers per roll of film), but still… The point is never be disappointed if you come up with nothing during a whole day of shooting in the street. But that doesn’t mean you will not strive to come up with THAT one photograph everyone is trying to find. Within yourself, have that drive to get it right every time but don’t sulk if you don’t. Learn, embrace and value your mistakes as they are proof that you are trying.
The Person You Should Shoot For
Most likely, you are not getting paid to shoot the streets. No one is forcing you to go out there and take photographs of everything that’s happening. Heck, you can’t even profit from portraits you take of strangers without them signing a legally binding model release form.
So shoot for yourself, not for anyone else. Shoot to your heart’s content. Shoot what you want. Shoot what you like. Shoot what delights you. Shoot to please yourself, only yourself.
Enjoy shooting the streets because, no matter how hard it is, it should always be fun. That one great photograph you may eventually capture should only come as a bonus.
More than anything else, street photography is about the experience of life. So go ahead and EXPERIENCE: eat local delicacies, ride a chariot, flirt with some of the cuties even. A photograph is merely a physical record of an experience, yet it will never come close to being the actual person with that experience. BUT NEVER FORGET TO HAVE YOUR CAMERA LOCKED AND LOADED AT ALL TIMES.
The Street as a Honing Ground
Ask a professional photographer why he shoots the street and more often than not, he will tell you that street photography helps develop his skills for his job as a photographer for events, fashion, sports, news, etc.
Still some of them will say that the money they earn from being a professional photographer funds their street photography.
Street photography hones the skills while professional photography pays the bills. Yep, I just came up with that on my own.
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: THE GEAR
Is the Film Rangefinder the Perfect Camera?
Stop being lazy and do a Google search on what a rangefinder camera is. I won’t be discussing that here.
The fact that most people don’t know what a rangefinder is, much less seen one, makes a street photographer less of a threat to the people of the street. Add to that the compact size of this camera compared to a dSLR and the unique placement of its viewfinder relative to the lens, it is an ideal tool for being stealthy.
Shooting film in the street takes out the habit of chimping. It also helps you slow down. Digital technology has so far forced us to always get what we want immediately. It has a plethora of perks, yes. But sometimes, we need to take our foot off the accelerator.
Film does that. It develops in someone a kind of patience that digital technology has taken away. It will teach you to be more observant of the things around you, to have a feel of what has happened, what is happening, and what is bound to happen.
I’m not even kidding. There had been a few times when I’ve had in the back of my mind this lingering thought that this subject I’m keeping my eyes on might do this or that. And surely, after waiting (sometimes even for more than an hour if I feel particularly patient), the subject will perform my “prophecy.”
Film also teaches us the virtue of delayed gratification. With it comes the value of detaching personal emotion from your photographs. Read more about this on Eric Kim’s blog.
So, is a film rangefinder camera the perfect tool for street photography?
That’s a big “NO.”
Again, this is where your personal preference kicks in. Film and rangefinders each have their disadvantages (parallax error, not being able to change ISO, etc.).
Some people use dSLRs, some SLRS, still others TLRs or digital rangefinders, some shoot with point & shoots. I’ve also seen photobloggers shoot with the massive Mamiya RB67. But from what I’ve observed, most street photographers shoot with a film rangefinder.
I encourage you to try shooting with a rangefinder and see if you like it. Most compact, fixed-lens film rangefinders come in cheap, ranging from Php 1K-5K (~USD 25-125). Look for the Yashicas, the Canon G-IIIs, Olympuses, etc. More on rangefinders here.
I personally have recently been shooting with a 1950’s Contax IIa rangefinder body + 2000’s Voigtlander SC-Skopar 35mm 1:2.5 lens combo. (Yep, a modern lens made for a vintage body. How cool is that?) I load it up with Fuji Neopan ASA 400 film shot at either box speed or pushed to ISO 1600.
I also have the Canon GIII QL17 as a backup body. I have shot with a Yashica Electro 35 GSN, several Yashica/Contax film SLRs, film point & shoot compacts and a Yashica TLR. A rare Yashica Electro 35 CC from a friend (more on this in the future) and a couple of Polaroid bodies are currently on their way and I intend to use them in the street too.
Again, this is my personal preference. Whatever you choose to shoot with, it’s all up to you.
The Digital SLR and Street Photography
The dSLR is so recognizable that people tend to equate it to professional photography. Needless to say, it intimidates a potential subject. Also, it easily attracts robbers. These, as well as other things, pose a big problem for an aspiring street photographer.
Fret not, dSLR owners. With the proper technique and attitude, you can use the dSLR in street photography. May I offer a couple or more of my unsolicited advice? Some of these apply for non-dSLR photographers too.
- Gaffer’s tape! Cover any logo on your camera with it and be amazed at how your dSLR suddenly disappears like a ninja.
- Wear something casual and comfortable. You don’t want to attract attention and you’ll be doing a lot of walking and standing around. Try to blend in with the crowd.
- For Pete’s sake, don’t use flash.
- Act like you know what you’re doing. Don’t do anything that might be perceived as stalker-ish.
- Street photography doesn’t necessarily require you to be always on the move. You can just stay still and let the scenes unfold around you.
- Shoot with a buddy or a group. Strength in numbers. It wards away the robbers.
- Smile! Smile! Smile! A simple smile of acknowledgement can do wonders to help ease an agitated subject.
- When in the face of danger, walk away.
- Choose a location with a sizeable amount of crowd. Better if there are law enforcement officers around.
- Turn off your LCD preview. Not only does it simulate the experience of shooting with film. It also keeps your eyes dead set on your surroundings, either to pounce on a great scene or to watch out for dangers that may threaten you.
- Use a wide angle lens. The wide angle of view can help you point the camera a few inches away from your subject while still keeping them near the edge of the frame. You get your shot, the subject won’t notice. Again, there are people who are against this approach. Or…
- Use a telephoto. The distance will be less intimidating to subjects. You gotta admit though, it’s kind of a creepy way to do things. Or…
- You can ask for one’s permission to photograph him or her.
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: FINAL THOUGHTS
What I’ve discussed here is but a fraction of what street photography is. I encourage you to read a lot about it, its history, the master street photographers, the cameras, the techniques, the ideologies. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there. The Internet is your best friend.
One thing I love about photography in general is you will never stop learning something new.
I wanted to discuss some techniques here but the post has gotten too long. Maybe next time. Let me give you another suggestion instead.
A pretty good technique you can learn next is focusing without even looking through the viewfinder. Look these up: zone focusing, depth of field, pre-focusing and hyperfocal focusing. Try them out and watch the magic unfold.
I guess that’s it for now. Live life, shoot street!