Note: This is an extract from my forthcoming ebook, The Candid Portrait. Join my newsletter to be the first to know when it is published (the sign up box is at the top of the column on the right).
In street photography a lot of things are outside your control. When the street is your studio, you have very little say over what is happening in front of your camera. Regardless, the principles of good photography still apply. Strong photos require an interesting subject, beautiful lighting and strong composition.
You can develop an eye for strong composition by reading about the principles of design and applying them as much as you can. It’s a skill you can improve (my ebook Mastering Composition will help you with that).
Lighting is somewhat under your control. You can increase your chances of taking photos lit by beautiful light by going out at the ends of the day, or shooting in low light, when the light is often beautiful. You can also shoot during the middle hours of the day, but thought is required to match subject with light.
But an interesting subject? Where do you find that? The key is observation. The best street and travel photographers are great observers, and see things that other people don’t.
If you would like to learn more about the art of observation in photography then you should spend some time looking at the work of Steve McCurry. Many of his images could be described as street and travel photos. It helps that he has traveled to exotic places like Afghanistan and India. But he is also a master of observation.
For example, if you click on this link you will see one of Steve McCurry’s photos – a photo of an Indian man sitting in the street, underneath some movie posters. Before you continue reading, click on the link (it will open in a new tab). What do you see?
Did you, for instance, notice the monochromatic nature of the scene? The way the color of the man’s clothing matches that of the wall behind them? That the only red in the frame is on the man’s turban, the bike seat and the writing in the posters? If you had walked down this street when the photo was taken, would you have noticed these things, and taken a photo, or would you have walked on by?
It’s a powerful question, and we are at an advantage when looking at a photo because we have time to analyze it and see these elements. The photographer may have only a few seconds, even less if he is to have time to raise his camera to his eye, frame, and take a photo that preserves the moment forever.
It is also possible that the photographer simply took a photo of an interesting man, and only noticed the details when he saw the result. But it’s not a coincidence that Steve McCurry takes photo after photo as well observed and powerful as this.
To be a good observer you need to be present in the moment. It helps if you have a feel for the place that you are in, and the rhythms of the day. When are people most likely to busy? When do they rest? When do they go to work, or come home? Are the streets lively at night or are they empty?
It is difficult to become attuned to these rhythms, and to become a great observer, if you caught up in your own thoughts, daydreams, worries or cares. You will not see much that happens in the present if your thoughts are in the past or the future.
It is easier to be present, and to be an observer, when you are somewhere new.
Good street photography happens when you are in the right frame of mind to become a great observer, and you are intelligent enough to understand the value of beautiful light and strong composition, and familiar enough with your camera to enable you, when you see something remarkable and worthy of a photo, to raise your camera to your eye and make the photo.
Above: Prince Gong’s Mansion, Beijing. While walking around this beautiful building in Beijing I saw this woman leaning against a wall, deep in thought. I also noticed the people sitting on the floor through the far doorway, and knew I had a photo.
Above: This photo was taken in an artist’s studio in Wanganui, New Zealand. There was a swing hanging from the ceiling, and some children playing nearby. You don’t have to be super clever to work out that one of them is going to try the swing out at some point. It was just a matter of keeping an eye on it, then moving into position and taking a single photo at the right moment. I had already worked out the exposure required by taking some photos of the scene and checking the histogram. The only thing left to think about was framing and focus.
Luck was involved as well, in that the light coming in through open doors was beautiful, and the colors of the clothes the girl is wearing are similar pastels to the colors used on the swing. But it was because I was observing the scene, and recognized these, that I was able to prepare and take the photo.
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