Five Things I Learned in 2018 About (Street) Photography

The year is coming to a close and 2018 was a year of tremendous growth for me as a photographer and artist. I am thankful for many successes this year, including:

  • Printing my second photo book, featuring my favourite images from our trip to New York in the spring.
  • Participating in a city-wide “art crawl” by contributing three framed works to Gallery City.
  • Participating in a street photography workshop led by Fuji X Photographer Ian MacDonald.
  • Learning from fashion photographer and filmmaker Adam Zivo on the art of portraiture (plus a few Photoshop tips and tricks!).

I think most significantly, though, I was able to connect with other artists and exchange notes and ideas. These are the conversations – whether in real life or online – that helped me grow and learn.

Recently, an Instagram follower asked me about street photography and how to get into it. I think there’s a lot of confusion about this genre, especially in this age of social media where everyone is a photographer with their phone (not that there’s anything wrong with using your phone as a camera). At year’s end, I thought it would be appropriate to share some things about street photography (and photography in general) I learned along the way. Herewith, the top five things I learned in 2018.

1. Learn what makes a GOOD street photo

First and foremost is understanding what street photography is. Just because a picture consists of a person on a street doesn’t necessarily make it GOOD street photography.

More recently, street photographers have preferred using the term “candid urban photography.” It’s the “candid” part that sets this genre apart from other forms of photography. It’s a form of documentary photography that features people and other subjects in candid public situations. It doesn’t always have to include a street setting, although most do take place in urban environments. I also don’t think it necessarily needs to involve a person either. If you Google street photography, you’ll soon understand what the images you’ll find online have in common with each other.

At the same time, you’ll also find a plethora of images that consist of a person or persons hanging out in a public place doing not much of anything. Here’s an image I made a little while ago:

At the time, I must have thought this was a great photo. But now, I’m able to look at it with a more critical eye. I was excited to have used a slow shutter speed successfully to give the two figures on the stairs more movement. However, as a composition, I don’t think it hits the mark at all when I look at it now. I think there are too many figures in the image – it would be a more effective shot if it consisted of only one person on the stairs or just the woman on the right-hand side.

More importantly, I don’t FEEL anything when I look at this photo. A good street photo should elicit some kind of emotional reaction. Here’s an example of what I think is a better street photo:

There’s much more of a story in this image. Where is this little boy? What are the adults looking at that the boy is ignoring? Is he alone? Is he lost? What’s happened to his balloon/toy?

Street photography also encompasses a lot of different styles and techniques – it doesn’t HAVE to feature a discernible face of a person at all. Silhouettes, for instance, make for some very interesting shots.

Another thing to watch out for – especially if you’re using social media to share your work – is if a caption is needed to explain the image, that might be a clue that the photo is not doing the story-telling. I used to include captions on my Instagram feed, but I stopped doing it because I’d rather leave the image open to interpretation.

I highly recommend two books for anyone starting to learn about street photography. The first is “The Street Photographer’s Manual” by David Gibson. Gibson is an established photographer and his book is a great source of information, techniques and projects you can try yourself. “Street Photography Now” is more voluminous book with lots of photos for studying.

2. Don’t obsess over cameras and gear

If I had to do it all over again, I would have stuck with the camera I had for a lot longer before buying lenses and other accessories.

My first camera was an entry-level Nikon D3300 with the 18-55mm kit lens. After shooting with that for a while, I got a prime 50mm lens and – anticipating a lot of use with a zoom lens for a trip out east – traded in my kit lens for a 18-200mm. Then of course came an ND filter and a polarizer. These all served me well as I continued to focus on landscapes.

Believe me when I say that if you’re just starting out and haven’t figured out what type of photography you want to focus on, something like the D3300 will do just fine. Even with street photography, the 50mm lens would have worked just fine – and I still use it once in a while, depending on the situation.

Remember when you first started school and they gave you a pack of eight crayons to start with? We had our basic colours and that was all we needed. If for some reason, we needed a VERY specific colour, we just mixed two colours to get it.

The same with our camera gear. Unless you know exactly what you will be doing for the next several years or you somehow are the next Steve McCurry and your first shots are total masterpieces, focus on what you can do with the gear you have. You are the artist – the camera is just a tool.

Instead, spend your money on books so you can study the masters. Visit gallery exhibits not just on photography but art in general.

No doubt, you’ve heard of Vivian Maier. I have two books featuring her work and they simply take my breath away. I have also written here about William Eggleston whose work is also an immense inspiration to me.

Yes, you can follow a bunch of street photographers and other artists on social media, but in my view, it’s no substitute for print media.

3. Learn how to be invisible

A very common concern among people starting out – myself included – is how to avoid offending someone when taking their picture without their knowledge.

Even though in Canada, it’s perfectly legal to take someone’s photo without their permission as long as they are in a public space, you don’t want to be the creep that causes a scene in pursuit of the perfect shot.

I still find it challenging to get up close to someone to take their picture in a candid fashion. There have been at least a couple of times when my subjects have figured out what I’m doing and have other asked not to have their photo taken or have simply walked away. Just as I have a right to take their photo, they also have a right to ask me not to do so and I always honour that right.

One of the easiest solutions to this is to practice in a very busy environment. More often than not, people will ignore you if you’re shooting at a street festival or in the middle of rush hour at a busy intersection. They just assume you are a tourist, or don’t care enough to stop and challenge you.

Do this enough and you will get the hang of it. You can read more about various techniques on Eric Kim’s blog.

And don’t forget – you do NOT have to always get in someone’s face in order to make a great street photo. There’s nothing wrong with cropping your image to get in closer to your subject (although remember that image quality suffers the farther you are from your subject). Some very safe techniques include taking a very wide shot, focusing on shadows/silhouettes, finding interesting reflections, or using a different vantage point.

4. Make photos for yourself, not someone else

In other words, don’t obsess over likes on social media.

I have found consistently that many photos that I personally am very happy with are not necessarily the ones that people respond to.

On Instagram, I’ve learned there is a strong preference for black and white shots versus colour. Even with colour shots, people respond more favourably to high-contrast images.

This is all fine and completely natural. But don’t let it dictate your style or what you find interesting to capture. At this stage of my development in photography, I am open to trying all kinds of techniques and styles. What drew me to street photography was the humour and emotional connection. The image below is still one of my favourites. It is not a perfect shot by any means as the young man is slightly out of focus. But I enjoy making up the story behind why he would have two ice cream cones in each hand – both partially consumed.

5. Chase the light

Finally, this last tip circles back to my first point. Photography is literally all about light. I’ve shot many images that might be interesting if it weren’t for the fact that they are completely flat and dull, and no amount of post will make up for that. Here’s a photo I took on Halloween:

I found it to be a little funny and tried to make it interesting by framing the eyes within the windows. But it’s still pretty blah to me.

In contrast, the lighting in this shot is an integral part of the composition and therefore the story itself:

I hope these tips have been helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments. And if I may, I’ll add a sixth one:

Above all, have fun!

2 thoughts on “Five Things I Learned in 2018 About (Street) Photography

  1. “Just because a picture consists of a person on a street doesn’t necessarily make it GOOD street photography. ”

    quote of the year 🙂


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