This article appears in New Zealand Photographer, issue no. 19, May 2019. NZ Photographer is free to view and download and comes highly recommended.
When I began photographing, books of street photos by Andre Kertesz, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier Bresson and Wellington photographer Peter Black opened my eyes to viewing familiar environs in a whole new light. Like the first music you really like, it kinda stays with you.
Supposedly there are rules to street photography, such as Never shoot with anything longer than a standard lens, or Never crop your images. I suspect these were made up by lesser photographers from observations of the greats. So, while there's some sense behind them, they’re there to be broken. But there's one rule that you should not break: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. (1)
That is to say; if you’re going to do street photography you will need to develop a set of personal ethics around it. Experience and changing social influence may cause your ethical stance to shift over time, demanding frequent reflection and discussion with peers. This is part-and-parcel of being a photographer, but if you worry about it too much you'll seize up and stop taking photos altogether. Finding a personal balance is key.
Although there was street photography before Henri Cartier Bresson, the French artist-photographer defined the genre in the 1930s. His concept known as The Decisive Moment still stands as one of the cornerstones of photography. Put simply (2), it means the point in time when all elements in the scene combine in the best way.
Have your camera prepared so that you can quickly put it to your eye and shoot without mucking about. With manual exposure, pre-set your aperture and shutter speed for the light conditions by metering off the road or another mid-tone. Keep this setting until the light changes. Somewhere around 1/250 at f8 is generally useful. Some photographers pre-focus their lens manually for extra speed.
Don’t be afraid to set the ISO high enough to get a fast shutter speed. Noise doesn’t matter; getting the photo does. Keep your camera switched on and the lens cap packed away.
Use single shot mode, not motor drive. (Shooting bursts is like trout fishing with a stick of dynamite rather than a rod and fly.) If you're a chronic over-shooter, try using a 35mm film camera. It's cool, challenging but fun, and will help you train your eye and shoot more sparingly.
Viewpoint is vital. When you spot a potential photograph, decide where you need to be for the best view and get there with your camera ready to shoot (provided it’s safe and isn’t going to upset anyone).
Don’t encumber yourself with unnecessary camera gear and other baggage. You’ll attract attention and struggle to move around. One smallish camera and a prime lens or wide-standard zoom is all you need. Always use a lens hood for flare reduction and lens protection. A UV filter is also a good idea.
My ‘weapon of choice’ used to be a fully manual Olympus OM-1 with a 35mm f2 lens, (used for the black & white photos shown here). These days, a smaller DSLR or any mirrorless camera is excellent for street work. I prefer a semi-wide prime lens, but if you like extreme wide-angle, take care to compose using the whole frame, including foreground elements and avoiding tracts of empty space. If you’re shooting with a longer focal length, it’s all too easy to stand off and get photos that look uninvolved, like a passer-by’s view. War photographer Robert Capa said If your pictures aren’t good enough, [it's because] you’re not close enough.
If you’re new to street photography, try covering a public event such as a street fair or food market, where the presence of other photographers means you won't stand out. Look for interactions, the peak of the action, the decisive moment to take your photo. (3)
Of course, there are as many approaches to street photography as there are photographers. Wellington, for example, has Gabrielle McKone, Julian Ward, Peter Black, Camus Wyatt, et al, all of whom have entirely different approaches.
It's hard to muster the confidence to take your first shot of the day, but with persistence and practice you will find reward. Like opp-shopping, you have to go out often, knowing that some days you'll come home with nothing, other days with bounty.
(1) From Wikipedia; the positive or directive form of the Golden Rule.
(2) “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson. Reading further about the meanings and interpretations of the Decisive Moment quickly made my head hurt. It’s far better to spend the time looking at HCB’s photos and shooting your own.
(3) Review my article Planning and Capturing a Photo Story in Issue 18.