I get a little connipted as a good friend of mine puts it when I hear other photographers talk about street photography like it’s an aside to ‘real’ photography. It’s a subject that has come up in conversation recently between my man and I, and one that we both feel passionately about, not least because we both essentially define ourselves as street photographers.
The term ‘street photography’ is one of those areas that seems to be the most difficult to define as an art form , as it’s a very broad umbrella. One chap explains it as being about capturing everyday life and people, though it’s not necessarily restricted to life on the street. Of it’s very nature it’s spontaneous, but it’s no less measured than a shot that has been carefully staged. A sharp mind, a quick trigger finger and a good processor in your camera is what’s required to be a good street photographer, and as my husband says with regard to what makes a good ‘street’ camera is that it should be: “..fast, durable and sharp. Period.”
Although having said that, the equipment you choose to use is irrelevant, it’s a matter of personal choice and preference as exemplified by famous street photographers like Ron Galella, Weegee, and Cartier-Bresson. Composition and timing then in good street photography are everything, good instinct goes a long way too.
Often I will shoot blind, meaning that I point the lens in the direction of my potential subjects and hope for the best, but because I have a good feel for the equipment I use, I trust that the shots will be sharp, and that in amongst the many shots I might take as I walk along there may be a few good captures.
What I have learned over the years is that when dealing with moving targets you have to predict where they will be next, and it’s a split second decision that I believe requires a certain precision acquired through muscle memory, by this I mean knowing through trial and error when to press the shutter button in relation to how long it takes the camera to process the shot. The expertise in photography then comes in knowing your equipment inside and out, understanding what it is capable of, married with an understanding of your own biological equipment, and by that I mean understanding and trusting your own speed and judgment, and of course knowing what works.
Often for me there is a split second between deciding that what my eyes see is worth shooting and actually shooting, a process that might almost be perceived as being simultaneous. In my opinion, good street photography is much more difficult to perform than staged or static photography, because it requires infinitely more skill due to the immediacy and transience of life as it passes you and you pass it. Good captures may seem like serendipity, but if you are consistently ‘lucky’, then I can assure you that you are just very good at what you do.
I began my training as a photographic journalist over 20 years ago. It was my ambition to eventually become a war photographer, and on the advice of my recruiting Staff Sergeant at the age of 19, I went and took a course focussing on black and white film development. Although my ambition was curtailed by a long line of adverse circumstances, my passion for photography and for seeing the art in everyday life has been consistent, and is something that is very much reflected in my work today.
I remember thinking all those years ago that becoming a good photographer was about the equipment you used, and learning to use it well; that there was some secret that I wasn’t yet privy to, and that I could and would learn if I had a decent SLR camera and the correct training.
What I’ve realised over the years is that learning to see the art in the world that you perceive around you, understanding its lines, angles, tones, patterns, moods is an essential skill in being an artist and a photographer, and something that can only be practised through the doing thereof, consistently and habitually. How you translate your initial image, or rather through which medium you choose to translate it becomes a matter of stylistic preference, and to all intents and purposes is purely a mechanical function and should become effortless to perform. Photography for me then, is just another medium for producing, or ‘capturing’ the art of the world around me that I first perceive through the lenses of my eyes, and then translating that through the lens of the camera.
Understanding what you like to look at and what you don’t is equally important, also through exposing your work to others you learn what works and what doesn’t. The brain is amazingly fast at processing information and it will naturally default to discerning symmetry and pleasing patterns, reading the visual world in terms of an innate sense of the golden section, Fibonacci spirals, and geometry, techniques incidentally that are taught academically as an intrinsic part of artistic composition. Trusting your own judgement in producing a good shot is key.
The magic of street photography I think is in capturing that fleeting moment that contains an essence of life that in the next breath is gone, but that in its crystallised stillness can be a spark of profound inspiration, as well as being a record of life as it happens. When shooting people who are unaware of your camera, you see their true countenance, there is nothing poised or contrived about the way they present themselves, and I think that’s very special because in that moment we can take a moment to reflect and contrast our own lives to whom and what we are looking at, and in that there is potential for growth and self-expression. As a photographer you are both artist and messenger, but your stance is neutral I believe, with all subjects being salient.
All styles of photography are merely different forms of artistic expression and so it depends upon what floats your boat as they say, what your purpose for being a photographer is. The only question you need ever ask with regards to equipment is: “Does it serve the purpose?”. The equipment however, does not make the photographer a good photographer. Experience makes a good photographer, and a talented artist.
N.B. Currently the best street camera is the Fuji X100S according to popular opinion, and the opinions of pro-photographers that I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking to recently. It is the camera I use predominantly now, the quality is superb and it is very fast and easy to handle.