The practice of street photography has experienced an enormous resurgence since the Covid-19 pandemic, and it can often seem a difficult proposition to make work that stands out.
Here are five simple fundamentals to make strong, engaging street photographs that will stand out from the endless deluge of social media’s #streetphotography.
1. Get Closer
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa
The most common mistake new street photographers make is having too much distance between themselves and whatever it is they are shooting.
When you get closer, you can fill the frame with your subject or scene and create a well-formed rectangle absent of needless distraction. The viewer will feel part of the action – right in the thick of it – rather than on the sidelines, watching from afar.
Being close offers also an opportunity for emotional connection with your subject – whether they are aware of it or not. Developing an understanding of your subject, and having empathy for them, makes for a stronger photograph.
Revisit your past photographs and ask yourself if they would be more dynamic or engaging if you had been closer. Then next time… Get closer.
2. Let’s Pretend
This fundamental is as simple as it is sneaky, and is used by many of the street photography masters to get closer. Pretend to photograph something else. Something beside, above, below, behind – it doesn’t matter.
If your subject becomes curious or suspicious, step out to compose from a different angle on a pretend subject, then return for the shot after you have convinced your true subject they are standing next to an enthusiastic tourist.
If you are on the move or photographing someone walking towards or past you, hold the camera to your eye for a few seconds after they’ve passed – they will believe they were simply in your way.
Go out to a busy, public space, a tourist hot-spot is a good place to learn. Practice getting as close to your subject as possible by pretending to be photographing something else.
Note: If the subject sees through your cunning ruse and – though it is rare – gets upset, simply smile, say thank you, and move away. You are doing nothing wrong and needn’t feel guilty or apologize for it.
“F8 and be there.” The clear benefits of a pre-set aperture as a catch-all for high latitude black and white films aside, it’s the “be[ing] there” that is important to us here.
Richard Kalvar, Bruce Gilden, Jill Freedman, Garry Winogrand to name but a few – they all spend/spent many hours a day walking the city streets, putting in the hard yards to be out there when something remarkable happened.
On cold, icy mornings, or on hot sweltering afternoons it can be appealing to stay at home. You have to fight those urges, or any other excuses, and get out on the street.
When you leave home, consider your camera as necessary as your keys, wallet, and phone. Have it on your shoulder, it’ll do you no good in your bag if the perfect shot appears… and then it’s gone.
4. Shoot More
Despite the myths, street photographers don’t catch lightning in a bottle as often as you might think. It is tempting to believe the masters nail their shots first time, every time. This is rarely the case.
If I could recommend a book that illustrates this, more than most, it would be Magnum Contact Sheets, an essential read for any street photographer.
Often photographers will see potential in a scene, then spend half a roll of film developing the idea, shooting until discovered, or until the moment was gone.
Shoot what you can from a scene. Don’t rest, content with the first shot. Develop the idea. It is better to have too many frames than miss the one that could become your iconic image.
Shoot one roll of film on the same subject or location. Develop the idea as you shoot. Edit from the contact sheet (or scans) and choose the best of the roll.
Juxtaposition is the act of placing two contrasting ideas together for effect. Among other things, it may be used in the construction of a one-line joke or to make an ironic social statement.
Your use of juxtaposition will depend entirely on your sense of humor or compassion for any given situation. It is important not just to look, but to think, to spark engaging and unique ideas based on contradiction.