Today I was thinking which things are the most problematic challenges in street photography. Three issues came to mind primarily.
1. Finding the subject
Depending on many things, like what kind of things are you looking for, where are you shooting, how trigger happy you are etc. I’d say finding the subject is a very big challenge. If you go for a so called photo walk downtown, you might easily walk around for hours without finding anything.
There are a plethora of great street photos out there that might give the impression that you just hit the streets and start shooting. The fact is that most of those shots were most likely very hard to find. Sometimes street photographers will have to work extremely hard to find the shot. I take photo walks in my home town Helsinki, which isn’t a very large city. Some times there are literally no one on the streets and seemingly nothing much happening. I still may find good subjects, but it may require a nice hour or two of just walking around, observing and waiting.
Dedicated photo walks seem more like actual work. It’s like going for a hunt. An alternative is just keeping the camera with you all the time while you go meeting your friends or running errands. I like to take my camera(s) no matter where I go. That’s a passive approach to shooting, that doesn’t feel like going to work as such. It doesn’t feel as much as you’re trying to desperately find something. Let the subjects come to you and not the other way around. You’ll just stumble upon them at your every day life and all you have to do is to have a camera ready.
2. Shooting fast enough
The second biggest problem, at least for me, is reaction time — being able to shoot in time after finding the subject. Being fast enough is a matter of practise in my opinion. If you want to react really fast to the situation, you’ll have to be able to operate the camera fast enough for sure. The camera should be a second nature to you. The controls should be in your muscle memory, much like playing a musical instrument. This can be practised at home without film in the camera. No need necessarily to waste film on practising.
Learning shooting techniques like pre-metering and pre-focusing + theories behind them will help a lot. The most important thing though, is just to have the camera with you in the first place. Not in your bag, but on your person. Wear the thing on your neck all the time and it’ll make a difference. Sure, you’ll be carrying it for nothing most of the time, but when you need it, you really need it. Subjects are like Pokemons and you’ll have to be ready to catch them. You never know where and when they will emerge. Be ready. Incorporate being on the lookout into your lifestyle.
Some time ago I made a more detailed post about shooting faster. You might want to check that out too. It has a lot of small tips and tricks.
Hesitation is another factor that will slow you down and prevent to reach fast enough. Depending on what kind of person are you, it might be really awkward and hard for you to go there and take the shot. I’d argue that it is a skill too, that you can practise. It requires a bit of “not giving a shit” attitude and doesn’t come naturally for some of us. Hesitation prevents me personally to get most of the shots that I would like to take. When I’m pre-determined to just do it, it helps, but this is definitely a bigger issue for me that I will have to work very hard to get better at.
3. Getting close enough
Getting close is another psychological challenge as opposed to learning to use the camera, which is more of mechanical nature. I’ve written at least one article on different shooting techniques and getting close. Man it is hard sometimes! It depends so much on your personality, the environment and the entire situation. There are a ton of good tips and tricks to get close and it is a big question for many street photographers. If you’re struggling with the issue, I assure, you’re not alone.
You can try to get away by choosing a telephoto lens, which will enable you to shoot from a distance, but it is just dodging the actual problem. The real solution is to just master the skill via practise. Choosing a 50mm or a wide angle lens will force you to learn the actual art of getting close. If you have a lot of nerve, you can probably just go ahead and take the shot like Bruce Gilden or Garry Winogrand. I’m not one of those personalities at all. Getting physically close to people in order to take a photo is something that I’m constantly working on. I like to shoot in crowds where there are a lot of people close to each other to begin with. Maybe some kind of event where people are taking pictures anyways. That way you’ll blend in more and won’t stand out. That still doesn’t remove the problem completely though. Sometimes there is an empty street and jumping in front of people with your camera will make it impossible to stay invisible. That’s when the actual skill of getting close will come to play.
Of course, when you need to take the picture, you will just take the picture — no matter what! Which pretty much closes the circle and brings us back to the importance of finding the subject. When you find something you’ll need to photograph, there’s nothing that can stop you.