My Technique

Friday, 08 June 2018

I thought it would be useful to describe my working strategy with the camera, it’s difficult to take photographs quickly and in difficult street conditions and this may help others aspiring street photographers.

It’s important to realise that most automatic settings on a modern digital camera are too slow, if you wish to shot people candidly you must first throw off the shackles of auto-focus and pre-setup the focus with a future expectation of where your subject may be positioned. You must decide how close you are going to get to your subject beforehand or instead, perhaps how willing you are to getting closer to your subject. Sometimes it’s possible to achieve your focus by either waiting in the same place for your subject to move past you, or you move towards your subject.

Setting up your focus beforehand may depend a lot on the type of lens you own, if you’re using a mirrorless camera most likely your focus is “fly-by-wire” (electronically controlled) and there will be no external marks on the lens showing you the distance the lens is focused at, you must look at the screen or through the viewfinder to set the focus. This could be problematic as holding your camera up to your eye before it’s time to take the photograph may give the game away to your subject that you are about to take their photograph. This is something to be avoided, most people associate this action with taking a photograph and may be triggered by this.

If your lens has range markings on the outside, as you go, you can learn the approximate range and distance your subject is and setup the focus without looking through the viewfinder.

I typically use a prime lens within the 35mm range, this requires that you get really close to your subject if you wish to take their portrait, taking you into the centre of the action and engaging more with the scene; it’s all about the thrill of the situation and creates a special look and feel to your photography.

With street photography sometimes subject and/or the situation is more important than the technical aspects of the photograph. It is often alright if the focus isn’t pin sharp, if things are a little blurry or the composition is wonky. The overriding feeling of the photograph may negate any technical errors. This also leaves you open to creating happy accidents and a process of discovery and experimentation with your camera allowing you to grow as an artist.

An additional point to note whilst using a mirrorless camera with a mechanical shutter and an electronic viewfinder (EVF) is that it takes time during the process of taking a photograph for the EVF to switch off and for the shutter to active; in that short amount of time, you may have still missed the photograph. Leave the EVF off if possible.

The aperture, shutter speed and ISO are manually setup too, changed as and when the lighting conditions changed. This can be difficult to achieve when walking through a city, which can be prone to drastic changes of lighting conditions in-between buildings which may suddenly and harshly block the sun creating dark shadows.

Typically, I setup my aperture to be fairly closed (f8) to increase the depth of field and have a fast shutter speed (1/1000 second). I may still be moving when taking a photograph and these settings help to getting the subject in acceptable focus. These settings can prove problematic in overcast weather conditions, there may not be enough light to work as fast on the street as you’d like, but it is still important to practise in all weather conditions.

My camera selection is exclusively limited to being as small and light as possible, it can be very difficult to get a really good street photograph, you may be on your feet for a very long time trying to get the perfect shot. It’s possible you can go a whole day without getting a single usable photograph, but it’s important not to feel downhearted by this, this is normal function of street photography; If it was easy, we would not do it.

Finding the correct location is next on the list, lots of people is important, this helps you blend in more and not get noticed by your subject. Looking like a tourist or dressing discreetly helps you present a more non-threaten persona. Major cities are easy targets for the street photographer, although every city is unique, giving different types of photographs depending on the ebb and flow of the people. Most cities tend to slow down during bad weather and become less interesting, during rain or snow people limit there time outside and as result it becomes more difficult to find subjects to photograph.

Part of being a street photographer is that every time you go out, you have no idea what type of photograph you are going to get. It will take a long time and a lot of bad photographs before you start to build a meaningful collection of images that tell a story. Sometimes you may also have a collection of good images and still not have a meaningful way of fitting them together into a body of work.

Some photographers like to engage with their subjects, it adds more meaning to their work but it can produce a different kind of work to photographs taken candidly and without permission. As a street photographer you need to practise the art of being invisible, approaching people with your camera without alerting them to your intention is a hard trick to pull off. It helps to pretend you’re not looking at your subject, once they’ve identified you as a non-threat they will tend to continue with what they were originally doing and ignore you.

You are going to get caught by your subject, eventually. It’s important to be respectful in this circumstance but also to hold your ground. If somebody asks you to delete their photograph, be friendly and obliging. Sometimes reactions will swing from being civil to totally unreasonable. Having an angry reaction is the minority and often being are quite pleasant. However, your mood and mannerism are important, your presentation and behaviour need to be non-threatening. If you’re happy and enjoying what you’re doing, opportunities will present themselves, you will take better photographs by trusting your instincts and going along with the flow. If you’re smiling and friendly those that do catch you taking their photograph will respond more favourably to you.

Often you will have no time to raise the camera to your eye, practising how to take photographs with your camera at your side often allows you to go completely unnoticed and react quicker to situations in front of you that are emerging. This technique is a calculated risk at potentially missing an opportunity to take a good photograph at not sacrificing the greater risk of being caught with a camera.

The ultimately tool for blending in is the mobile phone, everybody has one and everybody expects you to be holding one up in front of your face. Often people are not triggered or become suspicious at your raising a phone to your face rather than a camera.

Ultimately the best thing you can do that contributes towards being a successful street photographer is to have fun, the tools you use aren’t the most important attribute to the exercise.

I would encourage anybody after reading this to make your own mind up about techniques for street photography, accepting or rejecting certain ideas helps you on your path to creating a unique style to call your own.