Let’s talk for a minute about being prepared, both mentally and physically, when we are out shooting on the streets.
My approach to street photography is usually more methodical than reactive, working to build an image in layers with deliberate consideration. It starts by finding something that could be the foundation for a compelling photo, such as an interesting framing element, a unique perspective, beautiful light, or perhaps strong colours. I will then work the scene for a few minutes, trying different compositions, until all of the static elements in the photograph are arranged the way I want them. Some photos are done at this point, but often I will then wait for the right dynamic element (usually a person) to enter my frame to complete the image. This is a very mindful, zen like process that I enjoy immensely.
The danger in this methodical approach, however, is that we may not see or be prepared for any spontaneous photo opportunities that present themselves. There is a very real risk of “tuning out” while walking through the streets of a city, only re-engaging our creative eye when we spot our next scene, which could lead to us missing wonderful moments. Always seeing, and always being prepared to react, allows us to avoid this.
Such was the case with this image, seen as I climbed up out of a Paris Metro station on a beautiful sunny afternoon while en route to meet my wife and daughter for dinner. I saw the composition instantly: the Metro sign framing the top of the steps perfectly, with bright sunshine backlighting the entire scene. In a moment of pure serendipity this gentleman stopped at the top of the stairs for a few seconds and I knew I had my photo. I loved his posture, and hats always make for a great silhouette. I managed to snap 2 or 3 frames, standing on the steps as people moved passed me, and then my subject walked out of frame.
We have talked about the importance of seeing constantly when on the streets, but just as important is to ensure that your camera is ready to go. I have worked with photographers who pack up between scenes, or who always have the lens cap on except when they are physically taking a photo. These actions create a barrier that will result in missed images. I prefer wearing my camera on a sling, allowing it to hang out of the way by my right hip. I also always ensure my camera is set up to immediately grab an image. Let’s talk about that for a second.
I often change my camera settings when I am deliberately building a photograph, perhaps manually focusing, manually exposing, adjusting Exposure Compensation, etc. When I am done with that scene, however, I always reset my camera back to the same settings (my “home base”). I have alluded to this in previous posts, but home base for me is Aperture Priority Mode (around f/8 depending on the light) with Auto ISO set to give me a minimum shutter speed of 1/320th (again, depending on the amount of light). For other people home base might involve setting a manual exposure and zone focusing. How you set your camera up isn’t the important thing, it is that you develop the habit of going back to those settings when you are just walking around, so that your camera is ready to capture an image that suddenly appears in front of you.
Always be seeing, always be ready.
About this series:
Ansel Adams once said:
“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
This statement is absolutely true. To quote David Hobby, “we should all strive to become thinking photographers.” I love it when my students ask questions about a photograph because I can see their minds at work. Sometimes these questions focus on how an image was made (the craft), sometimes they focus on why it was made (the vision), but they always show a student’s desire to improve their craft.
When I look at another photographer’s image I am always interested in the photographer’s thought process: What drew their eye in the first place? What did they see in their mind? What was their process for the creation of the image? How did they go about achieving success?
With this in mind, I have spent the last year writing a book featuring my images and the stories behind them. The book will come out later this year, but in the spirit of open source education I have decided to publish 2 dozen of these photos and essays here as well. My hope is that everyone can benefit in a small way from this sharing of ideas, much like I have benefited from other photographers who shared with me.
- St. John’s Travel Photography Workshop: May 6th to 10th
- Paris Travel Photography Workshop: June 3rd to 7th
- Vancouver Street Photography Workshop: June 14th to 16th
- Toronto Street Photography Workshop: July 12th to 14th
- Toronto Travel Photography Workshop: July 15th to 19th
- Vancouver Street Photography Workshop: August 9th to 11th