Celebrating the Ordinary

Is anything ordinary? Sometimes I look at the world and everything seems in some way exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary. I once looked at the large black telephone on my desk at work and felt as though I were seeing it for the first time, even though I’d used it every day for a year.

Seeing the world afresh every time you go out to take street photos would be a useful knack, but it’s not easy to turn on and off at will. You need to wake up to a higher level of awareness — but not too high, otherwise you’ll start revelling in the sensation rather than taking pictures of what you see.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested “limbering up” by taking a few shots almost at random, just to get in the mood. All you need is one lucky hit to place yourself in the right mental zone. Once there you’ll begin to see where the world deviates from the ordinary, where people and their surroundings become elevated to a plane of existence higher than you’d previously noticed.

I think it’s essential to “see” the image in reality rather than shoot first and hope something in the frame meets the criteria you’ve established. Some street photographers shoot and hope for the best, but I’m sure their hit rate is very low.

In the Mood
Of course, once you get into a mood where everything looks extraordinary, your rate of success should go through the roof. Every frame should be a winner! You may begin to wonder what’s happened, but the world has not changed. You’ve changed. You’ve begun to see the city with the clarity it deserves.

For example, have you noticed how adjoining buildings can be almost ludicrously different from each other, yet form a harmonious whole?

I shot my featured image (above) in London after a couple of hours shooting. By this time I was seeing shots I would never have attempted earlier in the day. I waited no longer than a minute or so for two dissimilar passers-by to cross at the intersection of the buildings. In the event I was obliged to settle for two blonde women, who, fortunately, differed in their style of dress while sharing two or three colours in common.

Does Anything Go?
If it were possible to “celebrate the ordinary” without really seeing it for what is — which is often extraordinary — then the street photographer could photograph anything and claim it as a celebration. That doesn’t work. A picture really needs to have some information within it that says: this is why you should look at me.

Take individual people, for example. Most people are not exceptionally good looking or physically imposing. If photographers limit themselves to beautiful subjects they’re presenting an overall picture of the world that’s fundamentally untrue. I think this is a serious problem with any personal style which cannot embrace all-comers. The same applies when you photograph the grotesque and neglect the beautiful. The world is neither one nor the other. It’s a mixture of opposites and everything in between.

Before the Parade
Sometimes I see ordinary people in circumstances that reveal their beauty, character, or a barely definable quality such as inner strength. It usually occurs during a pause in some action, perhaps in anticipation of a forthcoming event.

Here’s an example (above). I took the following image during the build-up to a Chinese street festival in the old quarter of Phuket Town in Thailand. I think these young women had been given certain duties — and were certainly not among the celebrants, as such. It was a blistering hot day and beads of sweat are visible when you view the photo at full size. Something, clearly, is about to happen.

I remember taking this image and when I look at it today I can recall my heightened awareness of the moment. I can remember noticing the matching colours of the jacket and the hanging fronds, the dark background (obviously) and the contrasting brightness of the women’s tunics.

But it’s the woman’s distant glance which makes the picture — and I’ll like to say I remember seeing that, too. If I did, I think I felt it rather than saw it. Sometimes there’s just too much going on in the ordinary life of the street to appreciate it all.

Getting Faces in Big Close-Up, Candidly

Let’s be candid. It’s not easy to take close-up photos of people’s faces when they’re walking towards you in the street. Here are four reasons why that’s so:

1. It’s too rude to shove your camera in a stranger’s face.
2. People will see you taking the shot and react adversely.
3. It’s hard to get focus when a person is approaching you.
4. If you attempt it at a distance you’ll need a telephoto.

Let me take these in turn.

1. It’s too rude to shove your camera in a stranger’s face.
I agree entirely. I’d be cross if someone shoved a camera directly into my face while I’m walking along a public street, wouldn’t you? This really isn’t an acceptable strategy for the street photographer. Apart from being rude, it doesn’t get very good results.

2. People will see you taking the shot and react adversely.
Strangers know when they’re “on camera,” so they look directly into the lens and scowl, or else they look away or take evasive action. Is this the kind of reaction you want to photograph? You can say “yes,” but it’s not candid street photography. The story is no longer about them, it’s about your interference in their lives.

3. It’s hard to get focus when a person is approaching you.
Yes, it’s difficult but not impossible, given the sophisticated focus tracking systems on today’s cameras. However, switching from normal mode to auto-tracking is adding complication to an already complex task. Even an experienced sports photographer, accustomed to auto-tracking, may have a problem trying to implement it on the street.

4. If you attempt it at a distance you’ll need a telephoto.
That’s certainly one option, but there are huge disadvantages to using telephoto lenses in street photography. People will shout “Hey, look, there’s a pap!” and give you a wide berth. (Pap = paparazzo, a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities). It will also stop you from taking shots discreetly, closer to the action.

Most street photographers switch themselves out of “candid mode” and enter what is sometimes called “conversational mode.” This is the tried and tested method of chatting to the subject to ask if they mind having their picture taken. Does it yield great photos? You bet it does! You get interesting faces, perfect framing, sharp focus — the whole works. But it’s not candid.

Once you leave out the candid element in street photography you’ve lost its soul.

So maybe we should simply pack it in, go home, and leave the big facial close-up to the portrait photographer. After all, there are plenty of other compositions to explore. It’s not absolutely essential to include large, candid facial close-ups in your street photography portfolio.

My Solution
Don’t give up too easily! There’s always a way of getting the job done — and I don’t think you need to resort to really sneaky tactics like concealing your camera in a briefcase or under a coat.

I took all the pictures in this blog post by sitting in cafés, enjoying a nice cup of cappuccino in the afternoon. This is frowned upon in Italy where no one drinks cappuccino after lunch. Macchiato yes, marocchino OK, but cappuccino — “stai scherzando!” (You must be kidding!)

The Images
The featured image (above) and the two below make a nice set because I took them all from exactly the same angle, with the same lighting. Looking at them today I keep wondering why I didn’t take more. The light was excellent and I had the ideal position near a corner — one that would probably be occupied by another customer if I returned to the same place.

One snag was the fact that people didn’t often walk close to the window, so I couldn’t get focus consistently. To take these images I had to pre-set the focus and wait for someone to pass at a specific distance from the camera. A second snag was the lack of people in the Suffolk market town I was visiting, not at all like the huddled masses I’m more accustomed to in London.

Nonetheless, I like these images because I so rarely succeed in getting large, candid close-ups of people’s faces. Although they’re not “full frontal” they’re clearly of people walking at speed in front of the camera — without being interrupted by the presence of the photographer.

I tried the same technique in Bangkok, where the late afternoon sun illuminated people’s faces with sufficient intensity to allow me to use a fast shutter speed. When you can’t pan the camera you need to have a fast shutter setting to freeze the movement of people walking past.

I’m not as happy with the result as I am with the pictures I took in England. Maybe it was the coffee! The trouble was, I couldn’t get close enough to the passers-by because of the notice board. Lacking glass, the café made me highly visible so the notice board was important, but still…

There are other faults, too. The colour of the setting sun was a bit too intense and the woman is not in tack-sharp focus. (That’s what can happen when you have the aperture wide open.) Yet for all its faults it’s not a bad image. I like the woman’s quiet strength and dignity. When you get a picture that shows human qualities such as these you know it’s worth keeping.

Finding Colour Harmonies

Unless you shoot in black and white you have to pay attention to colour and its ability to make or break your images.

Individually, colours may be loud or quiet. Collectively they sometimes shout at each other and at times they coo in harmony like contented pigeons on a summer’s afternoon.

You can’t just ignore colour and hope for the best. Out there on the streets you’ll find people wearing garishly coloured costumes, or carrying brightly coloured bags or sporting multi-coloured hairstyles in various shades of lurid. You will often find your great composition has been ruined by a coloured hat (dress/bag/hair-do) popping up in the wrong place.

The Colour of Light
When I go out to take pictures my first thought is about colour. Or, to be accurate, I think first about the light and its influence on colours we perceive. Is it a grey day when everything will assume soft tones, lacking contrast and colour intensity? Or is it intermittently sunny and shady, with sunlight cutting through the cloud, bouncing off other clouds and making colour all the more brilliant?

If the light is too intense I tend to move inside a covered area, like a shopping mall. The alternative is to wait until early evening, when a yellowish glow pervades the scene outside. I figure: I can always tone it down slightly in Photoshop. I’m not a great fan of images that appear too warm.

Colour temperature (the measure of the colour of light, from cool, bluish white to warm yellow and red) adds a distinctive colour cast to the world, but we’re not always aware of it. A sheet of notepaper appears white in a New York morning — and still appears white in Miami at sundown. It appears that way because we know what a sheet of white paper is supposed to look like. Only if we start to think about it — and begin to look critically — can we detect the difference.

Colours Unleashed
When the colour balance of your photo is just right (not too warm and not too chilly) the actual colours of the subject can become more, rather than less, unruly. This is because they no longer have the unifying presence of a colour cast, which subdues them into submission by turning them all slightly yellow or blue. Now the reds can fight with the greens, like Nigeria playing Ghana in the FIFA World Cup.

If you don’t want your colours to be unruly you have to look for scenes where they harmonise. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of them.

Colours live in harmony when they sit next to each other on the “colour wheel,” (so-called “analagous colour schemes”). You can make more vibrant harmonies by including colours that group in triadic fashion — taking them from three points of an equilateral triangle overlaid on the colour wheel.

Otherwise, find harmonies within gradations of the same colour, mixed in with a similar range of tones in the above combinations.

Seeing Colours on the Street
In practice, you, the street photographer, are never going to ask: “Am I looking at triadic colours?” when a good subject moves into view. Rather, you develop a knack for seeing harmonies where they exist and finding the right subject within them.

Taken in a mall, my featured image (above) is called “Teenage Pink” and I considered using it for a blog post about “single colour dominance.” I’m glad I didn’t, because here I’ve found so many gradations of pink — together with the yellow on the right of the frame — that I can’t say it’s a “single colour” image. The colours harmonise, as they do in my next image (below).

Reds and browns harmonise beautifully, but you also need a lighter colour to brighten the image. In this shot of three women cleaning a restaurant window I was lucky the subjects had white tunics. White is neutral and it matches the colour of the chefs’ outfits and that of the plates and jars on the tables. On scrutinising the image I can see that the woman on the right appears to be rubbing out my own image which is reflected in the glass.

It’s possible that your style of photography is not dependent on colour harmony. Neither is mine, but I enjoy it when I discover a subject where harmonious colours are present. It’s like finding an unusual, red coloured pebble on the beach: not especially rare, but it’s what catches your eye amidst all the yellowish stones surrounding it.

I find that older people often dress in harmonious colours whereas children are given loud discordant colours to wear. I’m always hoping that some enterprising entrepreneur will start selling “tasteful clothes for children,” but I’m not holding my breath over it. In the image below, everything is reasonably harmonious except for the little boy’s shoes.

The photo looks more peaceful if I crop it heavily, but then you can see that the 1/200th shutter speed was not quite fast enough to freeze the movement of the old lady’s hand. (I remember her placing it in position just as I pressed the shutter button).

I suppose I could dispense with the child and see how Granma looks on her own next to the drying tee-shirts. Not at all bad! But I’ve lost the wonderful skirt, the colourful stools, the bicycle and the sleepy child — not to mention the Thai flag.

In Summary
In street photography we have very limited control over colour because we have to photograph what’s there in the real world. In the photo of the lady and her grandchild I could scarcely ask her to remove the boy’s shoes in the interests of colour harmony. I’d come across these two people by chance in a Bangkok side street and the shot was entirely candid.

Getting colours that are both harmonious and vivid is especially hard. You need good light, clean air, and a subject with the right combination of hues and tones. Muted shades are easier — and it’s best if you exclude toys, fruit, traffic cops, groceries, Chinese restaurants, sweet wrappers, uniformed street cleaners — or anything that tries to attract attention with clashing colours.

Good luck with that.

Find One Subject, Wait for Another

All experienced street photographers know about the technique of finding a good, well-lit background, then waiting for a passer-by to walk in front of it. The result can be a great, original shot — or a terrible cliché, depending on the background and the passing subject.

You can take this technique further by finding a subject — one that may well, on its own, satisfy the average travel photographer — and try to complete the picture by waiting for another subject to move into frame.

I say “complete the picture” because, so often, a subject on its own does not constitute an effective street photo. Take my featured image (above), for example. I came across this woman selling rabbits in Bangkok. She’s a one-girl pet shop, sitting on the pavement with a stock of baby rabbits in small cages. I looked at her and wondered whether or not to take a photo.

You Need More than Rabbits
To be frank, I was reluctant to bother with it. I’d taken shots previously — I guess everyone has — of street sellers, street performers, street artists — and not one of them satisfies me as a genuine street photo. I remembered a Chinese man selling orangeade who smiled sweetly at the camera, another guy making insect sculptures out of straw, a woman making garlands. When I was a travel photographer looking for “local colour” they all seemed to be great subjects, but no longer. Now I need more than rabbits to make my day.

I had to admit, the old lady made a colourful image, so I thought I’d wait for a pretty girl to walk past. Freezing the action would also add some life to an otherwise static image. In the event I was fortunate to have the photo completed by a girl whose youth and femininity make her seem as vulnerable as the patient rabbits in their cages, if a whole lot freer.

For this technique to work effectively you need to find a subject that’s reasonably static and likely to be joined by another, possibly unrelated subject, in the immediate future. In the example of the rabbits I knew there was a busy clothes market just a few yards behind me, so there was a good chance of a pretty girl walking past. I needed to linger only a minute or so before getting the shot.

Early Beginnings
I started using the “find one subject, wait for another” technique a few years ago, building on “find a background, wait for a passer-by” which I learned from photographer and fellow student Paddy Summerfield at art school but had never put into practice until taking up digital photography. Here’s the image for which I first used it.

There’s busy road outside Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza, a shopping mall dedicated to selling computers where you could buy a hacked copy of Photoshop for less than ten dollars (no, Adobe, I didn’t!). On emerging from this place I blinked in the sun and noticed the curiously carved hedge, one of the better examples of topiary adorning the main thoroughfares. A motorcycle drew up alongside it. I almost had everything I needed for a picture, except for the blank space on the left.

On this occasion I waited for two or three minutes. Traffic lights can be slow to change in Bangkok, which I find very frustrating if I’m in a car, but this time it worked to my advantage. Eventually, two young woman walked past and I managed to freeze the action at the right moment.

I’ve always had some affection for this image, not just because it was my first experiment with a new technique, but because of the curiously human appearance of the hedge. Thailand’s state symbol is the “Garuda” (or “Krut” in Thai) a mythical half-man/half-bird from Hindu mythology, supposedly the winged mount of Vishnu. In Thailand you can see depictions of the Garuda everywhere, but few as startlingly humanoid as this one. I think the gardeners were trying to encourage the growth of a beak, but without much luck.

Worst Case Scenario
What happens when no one comes along to complete the picture? That’s a good question, if a little pessimistic. Nearly always, someone does indeed move into the frame, into the precise place where you hoped they’d go. The trouble is: nine times out of ten it’s the wrong person.

In street photography you need to be able to deploy an entire armoury of weapons at the same time. If one technique doesn’t work, perhaps another one will.

Take heart from the legend of the Garuda who, while on a quest to free his mother from servitude, received the gift of immortality from Vishnu. The Garuda’s magical descendants are able to change their form, build cities, and even have romances with human women if they so desire.

Magic is only ever half a step away and you can sometimes feel its presence on the street.

How Do You Choose the Right Camera for Street Photography?

I’ve recently been working on a guide called “The 10 Best Cameras for Street Photography — and Why,” trying to reduce quite a long list of excellent cameras to a manageable number. The task has reminded me of the difficulty everyone experiences when trying to decide on the “next purchase.”

Do you choose using gut feel and intuition, or do you opt for scientific investigation and set about researching the subject more fully? A lot of people do the latter, then revert to the former option and go with their initial choice.

Here’s what I do. I use a text editor to create a single page called (unsurprisingly) “Next Purchase.” On it I type (or cut and paste) all the relevant details of each camera and lens I’m considering. When I check prices I make a note of them together the name of the retailer and the date.

Everything goes on to this page: notes about lenses and useful accessories; little quotes from reviewers; weight comparisons; even a list of my criteria, which tend to change over time, depending on the kind of photography I wish to do.

Here’s my three-step strategy for finding the camera that will best suit your needs:

* Make a list of your criteria
* Prioritise the items on the list
* Find the camera that best matches them

Step One
You may discover that you have a very long list of criteria, raising the possibility that you’ll need to compromise eventually. Here’s my full list. You may have other items to add to it:

* (Great) image quality
* (Large) sensor size
* (Light) weight of camera
* (Small) size of camera
* (Comfortable) grip
* (Robust) build quality
* (Preferred) focal length of fixed/interchangeable lens
* (Light) weight of interchangeable lenses
* (Wide) aperture of lens
* (Responsive) autofocus capabilities
* (Superior) colour handling
* (Well organised) ergonomics and menu structures
* (Included) image stabilization (in body or lens)
* (High) LCD quality
* (Included) environmental sealing
* (Good) resistance to flare
* (Rapid) start-up time
* (Acceptable) price

Some of the above criteria, like “resistance to flare,” apply to the lens rather than the camera. I’m assuming that you may be considering cameras with interchangeable lenses as well as those with fixed lenses.

Because it’s such a long list you could give numerical values to the criteria: such as using a scale of 1-10. This way you’ll end up with a more accurate result than if you simply assume a similar gap between each criterion.

Say, for example, image quality is by far the most important factor in your choice. If it’s way out in front it needs to be weighted to show that it’s far ahead of the one you’ve listed as being the second most important.

Step Two
Your next step is to reduce this list to manageable proportions. Think about it carefully then choose the top five criteria you consider to be the most important.

Here are my key criteria for street photography:

1. Great image quality
2. Very light weight
3. Resistance to flare
4. Superior colour handling
5. Responsive autofocus

How did I arrive at this shortlist? I did it mainly by seeing if there were any workarounds or other factors that would allow me to eliminate any of the criteria. For example, the absence of a comfortable grip on the Leica Q would not put me off buying the camera because you can add a grip to it. Likewise, rapid start-up time may be desirable but it’s not essential if, as I do, you always have your camera switched on when working.

Alas, there are no workarounds for the basics: the quality of the sensor and the weight of the camera plus lens: the two criteria which, for me, are the most important.

Step Three
You now have to read lots of reviews and find out which camera most closely matches your final set of criteria. That can take a while, but it’s well worth the effort because you can learn such a lot from reading informed opinion together with technical specs.

Eventually you can start to make a shortlist of the cameras under serious consideration. Again, I think it’s a good idea to take notes. The human mind keeps only seven or eight facts under simultaneous consideration, but we’re dealing with too many in this instance.

Here’s another suggestion. Write down what you think are the two best qualities of each camera on your shortlist and the two worst. Can you live with the worst?

I wrote down the best/worst qualities a while back (2016), adding a fifth line: a note of any outstanding comment by reviewers. Here’s what I compiled for two of the cameras I had under consideration.

Leica Q — 640g
1. Best thing about it: It’s a photographer’s camera and great fun to use. Lightweight AND full frame.
2. Next best thing about it: Great fixed 28mm lens.
3. Worst thing about it: It’s a bit cumbersome/hard to hold; rocks forward when trying to stand upright.
4. Next worst thing about it: Can I live with a fixed 28mm lens?
5. What they say about it: Image quality doesn’t match the Sony cameras, but ergonomics are way better.

Fuji X-100F — 469 g
1. Best thing about it: Super compact and lightweight.
2. Next best thing about it: Well engineered.
3. Worst thing about it: Has the same lens as the much cheaper X-100T, X-100S and X-100. (But it’s a good lens).
4. Next worst thing about it: The so-called X-Trans “problem” – waxy faces if you boost shadows, etc.
5. What they say about it: Very highly rated; a bit “niche”; for pro’s on their day off.

 

After all my efforts to find a street camera to replace my Canon 5DIII and pancake lens (a hard-to-beat combination!) I decided to wait a bit longer. It was the right decision.

So if you’re tormenting yourself by trying to evaluate hundreds of scraps of information about the latest cameras, try to bring some order to the task. Think it through along the lines I suggest. I hope you make the right decision.

[Note about the featured image: I was using my Canon 5DIII on this trip to Paris. Disconcertingly, the reflection of the burglar-proof grille from across the road looks like banding in the shadows. It’s not! But I love those rabbits.]

 

How Important Is Image Stabilisation in Street Photography?

Most photographers pride themselves on their ability to hold the camera steady. It’s a prerequisite of the job, just like getting the subject in focus and using a suitable exposure time.

However, the shooting style of the street photographer is very different from those of the portrait, landscape, fashion, sports or travel photographer. Sometimes you need to get a shot “on the hoof” because stopping would attract the attention of the subject and ruin the composition.

Even using a wide angle lens and making a perilous semi-pause to minimise the movement of the camera, I find it all too easy to blur the image in normal light. Whereas, on an intensely sunny day I can set the shutter speed to 1/1,000th sec., I have to work at slower speeds in overcast conditions. Failure to do so reduces the depth of field. All those trade-offs! They’re the bane of photography, even though figuring them out successfully can be a joy.

Image stabilisation made its first appearance in 1995 and found a ready market in camcorders where it was needed most. From the start it was a hugely promising technology, solving the problem of camera movement by providing an opposing movement inside the lens. It smoothed out the jerkiness from one frame to the next, even though it didn’t quite get rid of all the micro-movements which plague the stills photographer.

Putting image stabilisation (IS) into the lenses of stills cameras became high priority at Canon, where the development team produced a special IS lens module controlled by an on-board microcomputer that could be fitted to the longer, telephoto lenses.

Partially pressing the shutter button starts up two gyro sensors (one for yaw and one for pitch) which detect the speed and angle of camera movement. The on-board microcomputer analyses the data, calculates the degree of correction required, and sends a command to the lens group to make the opposing movement. The system repeats this entire sequence continuously, giving you constant protection against camera shake.

As you can guess, the IS module is quite large and there’s not much room for it on wide angle lenses. Users like street photographers had to wait for the technology to be developed further. Today, Canon offer IS on wide angle lenses, including the EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM; EF28mm f/2.8 IS USM; and the EF35mm f/2 IS USM.

There was another giant step taken when in-body image stabilisation came along. Today, many up-market cameras, like the Sony A7RII, have sensor-shift stabilisation which can be applied at any time, regardless of the lens being used. Sensor-shift IS has also become a “must have” feature on mobile phone cameras, where is relatively easy to implement on account of the tiny size of the sensor.

What’s the Difference?
Personally I find IS a real benefit when shooting with my Canon f/4 24-70 zoom. I don’t normally use this lens for street photography on account of its slowness, size and weight, but the quality is so good I can’t resist it for set-piece events (like parades and carnivals) where photography is expected.

My featured shot (above) was taken at f/16, 1/160th sec., ISO 800, and I was thankful for the IS which allowed me to work with a small aperture and fairly slow shutter speed. I needed all the depth of field I could muster as the subjects were standing at an angle to the camera.

The IS compensates very well for the slowness of the lens, although it brings its own kind of slowness to the job. IS is not instantaneous. The delay, after you press the shutter button, was once a full second but has now been reduced to around half a second. If a week is a long time in politics (as the saying goes), a half second is a long time in street photography. I hope this delay can be reduced further.

As regards it effectiveness, the official Canon documentation states: “Image stabilisation is effective with movement from 0.5Hz to 20Hz (1Hz is one movement cycle per second). This will cope not only with situations from simple camera shake (0.5Hz to 3Hz), but also the engine vibrations encountered when shooting from a moving vehicle or helicopter (10Hz to 20Hz).”

Manufacturers measure IS performance in “shutter steps” (the shutter equivalent of aperture stops). A typical 4-step gain means you can obtain the sharpness expected at 1/250th of a second (without IS) while using a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second (with IS). The three wide angle Canon lenses mentioned above all have a 4-step gain.

Canon no longer has a monopoly on IS as other manufacturers have recognised its importance and have developed their own versions. Nikon has installed it many lenses while others have concentrated on in-body stabilisation.

One of the most remarkable examples of in-body stabilisation can be found in the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. The 5-axis Olympus IS system enables you to take hand-held photographs with exposures as long as one or two seconds. When you switch the camera to video the results are even more spectacular. For example, it virtually eliminates the typical up-down camera movement caused when you walk. The IS is so efficient many viewers may think you were wearing a complete rig to achieve such a smooth effect.

Should you rush out to buy the E-M1 Mark II on account of its stunning image stabilisation? It depends how high you place IS in your list of priorities.

I think some form of IS is necessary if you have difficulty keeping the camera steady, otherwise you’re limited to shooting on bright days. It’s a boon if you have a shakey hand or if you want to take pictures without breaking stride.

Just remember: it only counteracts your own movements, not those of the subject!

Can You Reduce Street Photography to a Few Rules of Thumb?

Everybody loves a “rule of thumb” that turns a difficult task into an easy one. There are lots of rules of thumb in photography, some good, most of them awful.

An example of a good rule of thumb is the old “Sunny f/16” rule. While it’s rarely used today, on account of in-camera metering, it was very helpful to film photographers who’d forgotten to bring a light meter. To know that you needed to set your camera to f/16 on a sunny day with a shutter speed of 1/ISO (eg. 1/100 second at ISO 100; 1/200 second at ISO 200) was a life-saver, especially as you couldn’t check the result on a digital screen. Even then, it only worked for frontlit subjects.

If a rule of thumb can encapsulate a piece of good advice in such a way that we can easily recall it when we need it: that’s fine. The trouble with rules of thumb — and with all rules in general — is that there are lots of provisos and exceptions which reduce their value. The old maxim: “Learn the rules before you break them” is itself a contentious rule of thumb and certainly one which should not be applied universally.

Here are my 10 Rules of Thumb for Street Photography

1. Shoot in good light
2. Go where the people are
3. Be patient
4. Use multiple strategies
5. Avoid zooming
6. Use standard/wide angle primes
7. Control the depth of field
8. Be discreet
9. Travel light
10. Fish in the right pool

Are these good rules of thumb – or are they contentious?

Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. Shoot in good light
Light is the basis of all photography. Saying “shoot in good light” is a bit like advising someone to “eat nutritious food.” It’s pretty obvious. Some years ago I took to heart the contents of the “Light and Film” volume in the Time/Life Photography series and I’ve found nothing in digital photography to contradict the information.

However, in practical terms, it’s not always possible to find good light when you’re out on the street. The solution is to work around its absence, making compositions that work in poor light.

I should add that by “poor light” I don’t necessarily mean weak light, because digital cameras have very sensitive sensors that work very effectively at low levels of illumination. I mean light such as you get with the overhead noon-day sun, top-lighting the subject, creating hot-spots in the image and draining the subject of its subtle tones.

You can make a virtue out of poor light if you don’t feel inclined to wait (see rule of thumb no.3). Hard, intense, overhead light may even be appropriate to your style. So this rule of thumb does not hold true for everyone.

2. Go where the people are
A photograph without people is not street photography it’s just a photograph of a street. You need to go where people gather, move, meet each other, argue and gesticulate. In such places you’ll get more good photographs than if you stand on a quiet street where only the occasional passer-by is a potential target.

Garry Winogrand advised young street photographers to go where the people are — advice that seems somewhat redundant in his native New York City where it’s quite hard to get away from people. (When I lived in NYC the only time I found it empty was when I encountered a shooter on East 43rd Street. Everyone else had fled.)

Yet you only need find a single figure in the right place at the right time to make a terrific street photo. If you always obey this rule of thumb you’ll never get that sort of picture.

3. Be patient
German street photographer Andreas Ott describes walking past a window in Voorburg (Netherlands) every day and admiring the light shining through it. He thought it would be great if someone appeared in it. He writes: “Almost half a year later, I got my shot. What should I say, patience in Street Photography pays off!”

I’m not a patient person. Sometimes I find a great background on a busy street, then suddenly everyone seems to disappear. I wait. Nothing. I go somewhere else. This is the Way of the Street Photographer.

4. Use multiple strategies
In street photography you need to improvise constantly, sometimes moving around, at other times anchoring yourself to a single position. If you always shoot with a 35mm lens, try using 50mm or 28mm for a change. Look for different patterns, gatherings, groupings of people. Let yourself be drawn to certain subjects without quite understanding why. Or set yourself a goal by looking for something specific: people using their cellphones (shouldn’t be too hard to find!) or girls on bicycles (easy in a college town).

Only by using multiple strategies can you hope to make best use of the time available. Remember what the economists say: you need to bear in mind the concept of “opportunity cost,”  the loss of potential gain from possible alternative choices.

At any moment the aforementioned “patterns, gatherings, groupings” are happening all over the city, so you don’t want to be wasting your time pursuing the wrong strategies for finding them.

The downside — as with all these rules of thumb there’s a downside — is the tendency to chop and change, never developing a coherent and distinctive style.

5. Avoid zooming
I include this for two reasons: first, because high-quality zoom lenses tend to be large, heavy and bulky. They’re a real pain to carry around and they tend to attract attention, which is the last thing you need.

The second reason — the impracticality of zooming — I shall be discussing elsewhere (in “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?”). I guarantee you’ll lose many opportunities to get a great shot if you have to zoom, focus, click.

On the other hand, if all you have is a zoom lens, you’ll still be able to get great shots, but it’s not the ideal lens for the job.

6. Use standard/wide angle primes
Don’t got too long or too wide. Among experienced street photographers the most popular lenses are 28mm, 35mm and 50mm.

If you go too long you’ll get camera shake. Street photography is all about taking hand-held photos, except on those delightful occasions when you can jam the camera against a lamp post or rest your elbow on a mailbox.

If you go too wide you’ll distort vertical lines at the edges of the frame. The subject will often be too small. Figures near the sides of the image will be stretched unnaturally.

Can you get a great street shot with a 16mm lens or a 100mm lens? Yes, of course. But I wouldn’t try to make it a habit.

7. Control the depth of field
Don’t let depth of field take care of itself. You really need to know which parts of the image will be in focus and which are not in focus. This is good photographic practice and not limited to street photography.

Depth of field is the effective focus range: the distance between the nearest and farthest objects where everything will appear acceptably sharp in the final image.

I control depth of field by shooting consistently in Aperture Priority mode. It allows me to choose the aperture and let the shutter speed change automatically to the right setting. However, you need to keep a close eye on your settings to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze action (if that’s your intention). If it’s not, raise the ISO.

Personally I think this rule of thumb is the exception that proves the rule. Unlike the others it’s totally true!

8. Be discreet
To avoid unnecessary confrontations it’s sensible to be discreet when you take street photographs. You’ll also get better pictures if people don’t stare at you with eyes like deer caught in the headlamps of a car.

Today, street photographers are an integral part of urban life, going about their work in much the same way as all the other occupants of the city. If we start to become a nuisance the other workers will make our job more difficult than it is already.

Is there a place for cheeky, flash-gun wielding street photographers who chat to their subjects and make a spectacle of themselves? Yes, as long as they’re nowhere near me.

9. Travel light
On fine days, all you need for street photography is a lightweight camera and lens, a bottle of water, sensible clothes and comfortable shoes. Anything more (apart from a spare battery or two) is probably unnecessary and will hinder your ability to move around and react to the changing scenes of the city. On rainy days, hook an umbrella over one arm and take weather protection for the camera.

I feel sorry for landscape photographers with their huge back-packs laden with heavy lenses, filters, tripods, and the like. If you’re carrying all that superfluous equipment, don’t even think of taking a street photo on your way to the waterfall. You’re not dressed for the occasion.

10. Fish in the right pool
I think it’s important to take street photos in places where you stand a good chance of getting decent shots — but also where you feel reasonably at ease. If you’re lurking awkwardly outside a terrorist target with a policemen glaring in your direction there’s every chance you’ll fluff your lines.

Yet it’s also good to move out of your comfort zone into the unknown, exploring parts of the city you’ve never visited before. I like to take the SkyTrain in Bangkok and jump out at stations I’ve never previously used into neighbourhoods utterly unfamiliar to me.

So there are my ten “Rules of Thumb.” I’ve left out other frequently mentioned “rules,” like “move in close,” because they’re too prescriptive.

As Pablo Picasso probably didn’t say (there’s no citation for it): “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”