What’s the best policy for taking street photos? Should you walk around, actively looking for pictures, or is it better to stand in a promising location and wait for the right subjects to show up?
Personally, I like to walk — or at least I combine walking with occasional spells of waiting. Other photographers are more static. In a busy city like London they’re prepared to wait and let the world pass by. It always does, eventually.
When I walk, I sometimes come across other street photographers lurking in the shadows. We might nod to each other or even have a brief chat, but then I’m off again and the other one remains behind. It would appear I’m in the minority when it comes to choosing between Walk and Don’t Walk.
The Urge to Walk
First of all let me say I’m not a great fan of the French word “flaneur.” It’s become synonymous with “street photographer,” which is absurd if most of us don’t do very much walking. It means “stroller” but also “idler,” “saunterer” and “lounger.” I wish the French would make up their minds! I guess a Texan would talk about “moseying,” which is a whole lot more menacing, if every bit as relaxed.
It’s the relaxed connotation that offends me most when people mention “flaneur.” I’m not in an idle state of mind when I take street photos — quite the opposite. My head is buzzing with all the possibilities. “What if that woman pauses in front of the fountain?” “Will that guy put the dog down and look in my direction?” “Is my shutter speed fast enough for those skateboarders?”
I don’t mind if the French stroll and saunter their way towards their goal, I’m running full tilt at mine. Yes, I’m prepared to let life unfold gracefully in front of the lens, but I certainly won’t wait forever. I want to look, see the picture, take the shot, move on — that’s my philosophy.
The Better Strategy
For me, walking is the better strategy. It’s all about keeping in a positive frame of mind. By changing the scene, by varying the tempo, I convince myself that I’m getting closer to obtaining a great, candid shot which will make the entire day worthwhile. If I stand and wait for twenty minutes, I become gloomy and restless. I feel as though I can hear time passing, which is literally true when Big Ben chimes the quarter-hour (OK, it’s currently switched off for renovation, but you get the idea).
I think the street photographer’s mind needs to be fed with a constant flow of new possibilities. Ours is a creative process, but it’s one that involves selection rather than invention. The more possibilities you give to your creative mind, the more adept it becomes at handling them.
Or Maybe Not
By walking you can change the scene, the background, the light, the atmosphere and even the feeling of your photography from one shot to the next. If you’re looking for a coherent set of images, it may not be the right strategy for your work, even though it works for me.
Some street photographers like to “work the scene” by lingering to take a whole bunch of pictures from different angles, moving in for close-ups and generally covering the incident (or non-incident) as if they were journalists reporting a story.
If you’ve found a dynamic subject that offers the potential for multiple shots, by all means linger and work the scene. If people are playing or dancing in the street, you’ll get better shots if you study their movements and take more than one photo.
One one occasion in Thailand (see my featured shot, above) I paused in front of a store where men were unloading lots of goods. I liked the dynamism of the scene and took a few shots — which eventually earned me a long, hostile stare from the female supervisor. I’m glad I stayed to work the scene: her glare makes the picture.
On a similar theme, there’s the image you see below. Did I pause for that one? No, it was a “one-off.” I was just walking past.
The Beauty of the Transient Shot
I favour a cinematic style of shooting in which I, the cameraman, as well as they, the subjects, are in constant motion. When I shoot in this way I feel as though I’m in tune with the rhythm of the city, even though I’m still an outsider — an observer rather than a full participant.
The result of working in this way is to get images which suggest that life goes on beyond the frame, beyond what the image is showing us. In this way I can give a sense of something greater than the fragment of reality which I set before the onlooker. I’m hoping that the viewer of the image will continue the action imaginatively, or think about what lies outside the edges of the picture.
Here’s a dusty, urban scene (below) on which to finish. A group of people have alighted from a bus and they set off on foot towards their destination, two of them shielding their eyes against the sun. In a moment or two the bus will pull away, revealing the scene behind it; the people will have gone. Only the scooter and helmet will remain, waiting for their owner to put them into motion.
There will be nothing left for me to photograph. I must continue my walk.