Street Photography: Thinking before Shooting
The phrase Street Photography is one that the current generation of photographers has inherited, nobody seems to know when it was first used but we do know that it is a poor description of what makes the approach special and unique within the wider world of photography.
I have suggested the phrase Candid Public Photography as a better broad definition of what Street Photographers actually do. For me, these three words pin down the borders of Street Photography.
The work is candidly made with no intervention in the scene by the photographer, he is an observer, not a director.
The work is about public life, not just in the street but anywhere that the public comes and goes freely, galleries, parks even the countryside.
We are making ‘Photographs’, images that are ‘drawn with light’ and not drawn with a computer or algorithm.
Why does this matter? why don’t we just go out and have fun with a camera?
Because the way that a photograph is made makes a big difference to its value and significance as a document. If you just want to make attractive or funny pictures then this probably doesn’t matter to you. But if you want to make a documentary record of the way we live for future generations then you will want to consider these things.
A good place to start as a Street Photographer is to ask yourself ‘Why am I making Street Photographs at all? What do I want to achieve?’
Street Photography is a very specific approach that requires a specific type of camera, one that is small, discreet, fast, silent, high quality and above all, doesn’t get in the way of the scene you are trying to record. For many years there were only a few cameras like this to choose from but with the arrival of mirrorless camera systems, there is now a much larger array of suitable cameras.
For me, one line of cameras, the Fujifilm X100 series has hit the sweet spot for Street Photography, a series of cameras with a small form factor, perfect Street Photography focal length fixed lens, fast, quiet operation and a choice of bright Optical, EVF Hybrid viewfinders to really connect you with your subject. The cameras are easily adjusted through traditional manual aperture rings and shutter speed and ISO dials giving the feeling of traditional Street Photography Rangefinders of the past. These cameras are simple on the surface but provide a whole host of customization options for image quality and handling if you want or need them.
I started using the Fujifilm X100 series three years ago with the X100F and was immediately impressed with its eagerness to take pictures, it was always ready, it’s Autofocus was fast and accurate and the shutter release was instantaneous, it was the closest thing I had come to an extension of the eye in 30 years of street shooting.
Fast forward to the present day and I am working with the newest camera in the series, the X100V which has improved upon image quality and speed with a better sensor and faster processor. The X100V has been simplified further on the surface with fewer buttons and been given improved handling with the addition of a small perfectly placed thumb grip on the rear. Great for one-handed operation. The addition of 11 fps, 4k video and an articulated LCD screen on the rear has made this fantastic street camera into a good all-rounder for travel, documentary and lifestyle photography.
Approaching the Street
Over the last 30 years, I have been a newspaper photographer with The Independent in London, I have shot large global advertising campaigns in New York, Fashion, Celebrity Portraits and around the world Social Media Projects but none of those were as challenging as trying to pull something special out of the chaos of every day on a public street. The Street Photographer has nothing and nobody to hide behind, it’s just you, the camera and the potential of the scene in front of you.
Whatever camera you use, it needs to become completely familiar, to the point that you don’t need to think about the details of operating it, this only comes from carrying it everywhere and using it constantly. I always work with the 23mm lens on the Fujifilm X100F and now the X100V, this means that when I see a scene, I know how far back I have to stand to fill the frame before I look through the viewfinder. The number one rule of Street Photography is always to take your camera wherever you are going, the street has a habit of delivering when you’re least expecting it.
I think there is a difference between going out and making a photograph and making a picture, I like my street photographs to look composed and deliberate, I like to fill the frame with information and I like to curate the scene by finding elements and placing them somewhere in the frame and adding to them until I have a dialogue going on between them all. A couple of techniques I use to help me achieve this is to keep the camera upright so that all my verticals are parallel with the sides of the frame and using back button focusing so that I can focus on subjects with my thumb on the rear of the camera and recompose placing them off-center while maintaining my focus point.
Modern cameras like the X100V have great performance at higher ISO’s which means you can shoot with both a high shutter speed to freeze movement, 500th/sec or more, as well as a small aperture to allow you to make everything in the frame sharp and juxtapose elements in the background with elements in the foreground. This enables you to stand back and make large compositions with lots of people and elements, an approach I like to call Tableau Street Photography. To achieve this, I use the Auto ISO feature, I make my exposure settings for speed and depth of field and the camera adjusts the ISO up to a maximum that I set at 3200 ISO.
Stages and Actors
If you have a few hours to shoot on the streets it is unrealistic to expect something wonderful to appear fully formed in front of the camera during that time, it happens but it is rare. It is also difficult to see things if you try to cover a big area, you rarely get pictures if you try to photograph London but you do start to see things if you just stand on one busy London corner. For this reason, when I arrive in a public place I see what the light is doing and I look at the space and its architecture, I look at the background, church spires, towers, columns avenues leading away, walls of glass with reflections. I try to find a scene or stage that makes a nice picture even when it is empty. This way I have half my picture before any people arrive and any nice moments start happening. Then I wait for the actors to arrive and for the play to start. If you wait long enough in any reasonably busy place all sorts of odd things will occur in front of you, there is nothing more unusual and unexpected than every day, which really is the essence and constant fascination of Street Photography.
Hanging your Street Photography on a Place or Theme
Although Street Photography is about making single self-contained images, I find it helpful to arrange my picture making around a place or theme. This helps motivate me to return again and again to collect more images. Because I am also a busy commercial photographer, I choose places that I can get to easily if the weather is good and I have a few hours free.
Over the last few weeks I have been photographing tourists that gather to watch The Changing of The Guard at Buckingham Palace in London with the Fujifilm X100V, it’s an area of about 2000 square meters and over the days I have found the best stages to watch people and I have got to know what happens where. I have got pictures that I expected to get like the crowds with their smartphones raised in the air but I have also captured the more unexpected, the man in uniform waving his flags in the sun, the father with his daughter and baby in a paper bag. These are the pictures that come with time and patience, the pictures that you couldn’t have imagined when leaving the house with your camera, the pictures that only Street Photographers with no real agenda record for the future.