The World's Biggest Classroom

It's been a rough couple of years. We’ve all been cooped up (mostly) at home and trying to keep away from the crowds. Some are enjoying the time alone; some are going positively batty.

As a professional photographer, you’d think that I’d be happy to put the cameras down after my assignments and enjoy time away from the back of a viewfinder. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.

I started photography somewhat late in my life. I didn’t seriously give it a go until I was 21 and in university doing a course on Visual Journalism and suddenly realized that photography was not only an amazing way to meet people, but also the best way to work without working! Every day is a joy, because I make it a point to learn something new, whether it’s on assignment, or exploring wherever it is I am, with a camera as my companion.

In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong for me to say that street photography (and documenting my family, which to me, is almost the same thing) is what keeps me sane.

It is important to learn the craft of photography. What makes a good exposure, how to make pictures look a certain way based on your choice of lens, shutter speed and exposure. But like swimming or riding a bicycle, you need to forget about the technique and trust your brain to work those details out and start focusing on seeing the world around you. That is where street photography comes in. To be both the best teacher, and the most available subject for you to learn from and explore.

When I started photography, I used the streets as training ground. Now, every street is either an old friend that I haven’t seen in a while, or a new friend waiting to be made.

Want to learn how to train your eyes to see how lines, light and shadow come together? A simple walk around a housing estate during the morning and evening will yield a myriad of opportunities for you to take advantage of and capture.

Interested in looking for humour and juxtaposition in everyday situations? Again, walking around “aimlessly” will train you to look for the extraordinary in the mundane.

There is no real way to “teach” street photography, but here are some tips that I hope you might find useful.

  • As tempting as it may seem, try to avoid going out and shooting with a group of people. I’ve always found photography to be a solitary activity, one where I can both focus my attention to look for certain things, and also allow my mind to go blank and allow my subconscious to kick in and “see” images.
  • Don’t pressure yourself into making pictures. Like a lot of things, you can’t really force street photographs to happen. You just have to open up and be receptive to things. The Director of Photography at the first newspaper I worked at once had me print a month’s worth of contact sheets (literally print, and literal contact sheets, from the darkroom. Yes, I am old) and went through every single shot I took. When looking at his edit, I realized that there were a lot of shots there that I don’t even remember taking. “Don’t think so much” he would tell me, “go out, walk around, keep your eyes open, and let the photos jump into your camera”. He would also remind me to shoot anything that remotely interested me. “If it interests you, there is a high chance it will interest someone else too”.
  • It's ok to be shy. We all start off that way but remember that street photography is not about (only) sniping photos of people far away with a long lens, or just shooting their backs. Sometimes, the best photos are the ones that make you feel like you are part of the scene. When in doubt, remember Robert Capa’s words, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Don’t shy away from people (but don’t jump into their personal space either), take the opportunity to get to know the people you photograph. You’ll be amazed how receptive most people can be when you take the time to explain to (and show them) what you are doing.
  • If you take a photo and promise your subject a print of the photo. Always follow through!
  • Look at photos! If there is something that I need to stress, is that you look at photos wherever and whenever you can. Look at books, photos online, Instagram. Wherever. But instead of just looking at the photos and saying “I like this” or “I don’t like that” , I challenge you to ask yourself what exactly it is about a photograph that you like and/or don’t like. This exercise will stand you well down the road when you evolve a style from photographing things that interest you. Also, the rules of design (rule of thirds, symmetry, leading lines, framing, repetition etc) are there as a guide, not an absolute law. Go ahead and break the rules sometimes, you might be amazed at the results!
  • Don’t ever tell people that you have a “style”. That is for them to tell you and not for you to decide. To be honest, your style will basically be a combination of the previous point. You will like and dislike certain images, but you will be in a position to understand why. Then when you go out and capture your own photos, you will remember what you liked and didn’t like and apply that to your photography. It’s ok to emulate the work that you like. Over time, you will start to fuse different aspects of other people’s photography into your work, and before you know it, someone will tell you that they like your style.
  • Don’t set up your photos. It’s hard, to be sure. But the magic of photography is the ability of the photographer to capture THE moment. There is nothing more disappointing than seeing an image with a real moment combined with a killer combination, only to find out that the photographer set the image up. I think that as a street or documentary photographer, all you have is your credibility, and once you have lost that, it is VERY difficult to get back.

Most importantly, get out there with your camera and start making photographs. Remember that photography is the result of translating your experiences into a still image, so start experiencing!

 

Alpha 6600 | FE 24mm F1.4 GM | 24mm | 1/1000 sec | F5.6 | ISO 100

 

Things don’t always happen right in front of you. Sometimes, you need to see the potential of a photograph and have the patience to wait for the pieces to fall into place. I saw this triangular shaped patch and thought that it would look good if there was a moment that everyone would be in just the lit area. It took quite a while, and the wedge kept shifting, but I managed to get the one shot with people staying in the light.

 

Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm F1.4 GM | 35mm | 1/2000 sec | F1.8 | ISO 100

 

A different perspective is all it takes to make a mundane scene into something a little different. Also waiting for the passers-by to add an added layer to this photo helped as well.

 

Alpha 6600 | FE 35mm F1.8 | 35mm | 1/125 sec | F1.8 | ISO 100

 

Look for things that stand out. Someone doing things differently from everyone else, or just the moment when something is contrary to everything else.

 

RX100 VII | 45mm | 1/400 sec | F5 | ISO 100

 

Sometimes you don’t need to get close and you don’t need to use the rule of thirds. “Rules of design” were made to be broken.

 

RX100 VII | 17mm | 1/50 sec | F4 | ISO 1600

 

Little moments that we all do can be captured a little differently by keeping an eye out for the surrounding areas. Using the lights from the building reflected off the water allowed me to get a silhouette that made this work.

 

Alpha 7 III | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 24mm | 1/6400 sec | F2.8 | ISO 640

 

It’s ok to let yourself go on autopilot. As with swimming or driving, you need to get to the point where the technique is automatic, and that allows you to concentrate on keeping an eye out for good light and a great moment.

 

Alpha 7 III | FE 50mm F2.5 G | 50mm | 1/500 sec | F2.5 | ISO 640

 

Again, keeping an eye out for things out of the ordinary, and being able to translate those moments into a visual picture will help you get an added element out of your images.

 

Alpha 7 III | FE 20mm F1.8 G | 20mm | 1/100 sec | F1.8 | ISO 400

 

Make use of whatever is there at your disposal, in this case, the mirror on the wall…

 

Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 65mm | 1/3200 sec | F2.8 | ISO 400

 

If you can’t get close, the next best thing is to have a good moment to capture.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Digital Workshop

 

 

Bryan’s Gear

Alpha 6600

ILCE-6600

Alpha 7R III

ILCE-7RM3

Alpha 7 III

ILCE-7M3

RX100 VII

DSC-RX100M7

E 35mm F1.8 OSS

SEL35F18

FE 24mm F2.8 G

SEL24F28G

FE 50mm F2.5 G

SEL50F25G

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM

SEL2470GM

FE 24mm F1.4 GM

SEL24F14GM

FE 35mm F1.4 GM

SEL35F14GM

 

 

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