There are many things that have to fall into place in a good photograph. It’s always a game of chance in order to come up with something worth while. The conditions have to be right and it’s a rare occasion that the timing, subject, lighting, background setting, not dropping the camera and everything else happen to work in harmony. It is of course a good idea to always carry your camera, because you’ll never know when you might stumble upon a photograph. As you know, the camera is a talisman, used to summon the photo gods. When you wear it, they’ll know to send you photographs.
But — If you’re anything like me, you won’t just throw yourself to the mercy of the photo gods but take the matters to your own hands instead. It means going for a photowalk to hunt for photos. Photowalks are just like fishing or catching Pokemons. You simply don’t know whether you’re going to catch anything no matter how long you walk about. And much like a fisherman, we as street photographers should invest at least some time in planning where and when to go.
Photowalks can be a total waste of time, unless you plan it a bit. Photos happen everywhere, all the time and it is a matter of being on the right place at the right time. There is indeed a lot of luck involved. Luckily you can increase your luck with cunning plans. I personally don’t understand why people take photowalks in the most improbable locations and wonder why they’re coming back with a bunch of photos of ducks and bike racks. Random walkabouts yield in random results. The first step is to have script or a vision of the work you’d like to produce.
Plan and think about the setting, location and light
I’m personally most interested in classic street photography. I like a certain kind imagery and mood. I look for cobble stone streets, old lamp posts and early 1900’s European architecture — timeless aesthetics. Luckily my home town Helsinki happens to feature a lot of those things, even though it is a very small city and I end up returning to the exact same locations over and over again just because there is only a limited amount of areas to hang around. If I’d have any more money, I’d be tempted to travel to southern Europe for more suitable locations, but I’ve noticed, that a small town is more than enough, if it has the right building blocks for a certain kind of setting. I of course scout around for new places all the time, but I’ve pretty much already found my so called sweet spots, that I feel really good returning to. Just by choosing the location and thinking about what kind of stuff™ you actually want in your frame, you’ll be able to increase your probabilities considerably. You don’t have to walk around aimlessly and hope for the best. Have a vision in stead.
Same kind of mentality applies to the weather and lighting too. If you’re shooting with natural light only, take advantage of the right kind of conditions whenever you can. If you’re on a picturesque location on a beautiful day, with an amazing light, you’re already 67% more likely to find a good shot. If there’s an epic mist, take your camera and run outside without wasting any time! With the right kind of conditions, you can take a beautiful photo of almost anything (except bike racks). Better yet if you can find a real subject, which brings us to the next and most important topic.
Places to find actual subjects and creating meaningful content
The setting and light are more related to the form of the image, even though they can’t always be separated distinctively — everything affects everything. Content is almost always more important than form. Now we are talking about finding the subjects, which can be extremely difficult thing to do. Henri Cartier-Bresson described photographs as instant drawings. Would you give a shit about drawing a bike rack? Of course not, you wan’t to draw something meaningful that is pleasing to look at. You want to create something that looks what this sounds like. (Don’t worry it’s just a YouTube link — safe for work.)
One of my favourite places to shoot is the Helsinki market square, where there is always something happening. Not anything spectacular perhaps, but it is a place that has a nice, lively beat to it. There are plenty of small mundane things taking place all the time. It also happens to be a very old venue, with a lot of the things I look for: cobble stones, rustic details, good light (open area by the sea, facing the south). I think I’ve taken about 75% of my so called good photos within a 200m radius of exactly the same spot.
Street photography tends to be humanistic in nature, which means the ideal place is to go to the places where life pulsates. It doesn’t necessarily have to be literally on the streets, even though that’s where you’ll no doubt will find life. Street photography is a bit silly term and misleading too. (More accurate term would be candid photography.) Good street photo usually involves some kind of relationships between the elements in the picture. An element can be anything. It doesn’t have to be anything physical, like another person or a trash can. It can, for example, be a gesture, an interaction or anything that make up the image. One stand-alone element tends to make a weak image. This is important to understand, because otherwise you’ll end up just with a “picture of a thing” that anyone else could take too. Joel Meyerowitz would describe this as making a copy of an object in space. No one will care less about work like that because it’s so obviously rudimentary and easy to do. What’s special about an image that anyone could take?
What you’d ideally need to do instead, is to compose multiple elements in the frame, that form relationships with each other, even though they might be unaware of each other’s existence or have any apparent connection outside the frame. If you take a photo of a person simply walking down a street, you don’t necessarily have a very compelling image. A better image would perhaps be a more complex setting of the person forming some kind of relationship with other elements in the frame.
While you shoot, you might not recognise what the relationships are exactly, because the situation is over so quickly and it’s almost impossible to take note of everything that’s happening in the frame. Typically you just notice the scene and fire on instinct, without (fully) even realising what made the image. Much like a martial artist who doesn’t have the time to think when the attack arrives. The counter technique has to come reactively on instinct. In that respect, the actual shooting situation may not be as calculative as you’d think from reading various tips and tricks. It’ll come on instinct once the skill is acquired. Your skill level and the amount of sheer luck (etc), will determine just how well the theory and understanding will be put to practice during that short moment.
If you look for situations rather than simple individual things, you’ll be able to create much more compelling images, because you’re capturing life with it’s unique moments, that exist only for a moment, and cannot be replicated or simulated. Some places just seems have that certain kind of pulse to them, which causes subjects to emerge more often compared to photographically lifeless places.