An old tutor once told me, “Street Photography is not about just one good element in the frame. It is about bringing several elements together, and creating stories that are not necessarily obvious to the everyday eye.” Simply put, he was telling me my work was bland and boring, and that I needed to dig deeper if I was ever going to produce anything of any worth.
On the surface, street photography seems easy. You need a camera, a comfortable pair of shoes and somewhere of interest – then like magic you will make these wonderfully composed images to share with the world. However, the reality is that to produce top quality street work, you will have to go much further than shooting a homeless guy or capturing that humorous billboard advertisement. You must refrain from just point and shooting anything and everything (aka spraying and praying) in the hope you get at least and average photograph to post to your Instagram.
With my new found pearl of wisdom nested in my mind, I went out to shoot, thinking about the elements and working outside the box. The result of this was that I failed, failed and then failed again. Why? Because street photography isn’t easy, in fact it could be argued it is the most difficult sub genre of the photographic field, as there are no guarantees that the elements will be there at all.
Understanding what your elements are
A way of understanding who you are as a photographer, as in how you want to be portrayed through your work, is to first understand what is important to you when deciding whether or not you are happy with your image. For example, you maybe someone who thinks color is an integral part of what makes you satisfied with your photography. Or you may value the emotion generated from the highs and lows of everyday life, like children playing in the street or a family putting the pieces together after experiencing a natural disaster. These are what your elements are, and they will be the foundations of your content.
I, for example, enjoy creating a story out of what at first may just seem ordinary life.
Let’s use the below image as reference.
This image was taken in Cannes, South of France. Known for its glitz and glamour, I knew I would see some wonderful looking people. Sure, a well dressed, attractive person makes a photo easy viewing, but it does not offer much more than that. In truth, pretty people don’t always equal pretty images.
I wanted my image to have more meaning. I sat in this spot for around 30 minutes, waiting for the frame. Then I saw three shoppers, each alone, start to walk towards my frame. What I saw (and thankfully what people who have seen the image saw) was a progress in generations, old evolving into young, if you will. Maybe even more poetic were the inclusion of glasses. The eldest wearing fully blacked out glasses, striking a resemblance to the fact our eyesight goes with time. The middle aged woman wearing half tinted glasses. And the youngest woman – her eyesight fully clear as she does not require any glasses at all.
Of course, you would have to study the image for several moments, maybe even minutes, to be able to keep seeing the story the image tells. However, that is what is vital for us as street photographers to be able to achieve. As long as the consumer is asking questions, you have to keep providing the answers – something you can’t do with just a run of the mill snapshot.
One of my favourite examples of creating something more meaningful was a photograph taken by one of the games most experienced and knowledgeable photographers, David Carol.
What could have easily just been just another image of a cemetery became an extremely clever play on words. Take a look...
How to get out of your bubble in three steps
I fully appreciate that it is one thing to write about getting more meaningful images, but it is a whole other challenge trying to accomplish it in the real world.
I have compiled a small list of methods I have found useful when putting together a frame.
1 - Slow down.
Slowing down is such an important factor when trying to create something of quality. Taking your time, and looking through your viewfinder can really make a difference. I practice bringing the camera to my eye and just listing all the different things I can see within the frame. I have found this trains my mind to want to see more of what is around me and then try to bring all of the important factors together in my final shot.
2 - Look beyond the subject.
I know the feeling all too well. You are roaming the streets and you can feel the excitement you get when you finally see a subject of interest. All you want to do is take the shot. However, it is the environment around it that can make or break the image. So, when you see that subject that you connect with, take a look and see what is around it, attach yourself to something that could potentially make the photograph even more interesting. And if you see nothing, ask yourself is the subject alone compelling enough to make your photography stand out from the rest.
3 - List what is important to you
Before you go out and shoot for the day, I would suggest making a list of things that are important to you in relation to what makes and breaks a photo. Before you are a creator, think like a consumer and ask yourself what would keep you held to an image for an extended period of time. As a rule I write down three important factors that I am looking for before I shoot. For example, I may write down; colour, architecture and minimalism as physical components of my brief. I may go on to list; peacefulness, tranquillity and existence as a more emotional aspect of what I want to achieve. That is what I did when I set out on my project Finding Simplicity amongst the Chaos – a project that has the objective of capturing the content we can feel even in moments when we are alone. Below is an example from the project.
The art of being paitent
Street photography can be very frustrating. I don’t think even a number exists for the amount of times I have come home disappointed. But I have learnt through my own experience that being disciplined, mindful and strategic in your way of thinking, does lead to being creative and thinking more deeply when out shooting.
Try some of my suggestions. See how they work for you and if you can benefit from them. At the very least they may lead you to having your own, more suited, ways of working to help you improve.
The rewards are worth the work. It can make the difference between you just shooting what everyone sees and shooting what you want everyone to see.
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