I’ve found, that reacting fast enough, is one of my biggest challenges in street photography. The subjects present themselves just as fast as they disappear and the situation can be over in couple seconds. Dealing with such a short duration of time, every tenth of a second you can save between noticing the subject and taking the shot, really counts. So how to get faster? How to improve reaction time? They always say that you’ll need to be well prepared, but what does that actually mean? Here’s at least few of my own notes on the matter.

Oh — and by the way, bear in mind, that I’m using a fully manual film camera and you can probably get away with less if you’re using some kind of program mode. Let me just say though, that having to master all this manually, will be a tremendously valuable skill, which I’d argue, is harder to learn with an automatic or digital camera, because you are being taken away the responsibility to deal with all this manually.

1. Having the camera at hand — really hold it in your hands all the time

The age old advice is that you should not keep your camera in the bag while you’re shooting. You are not going to be able to pull it out fast enough, even if you have a shoulder bag. Not to mention a backpack. Including all the fumbling with the buckles and zippers, it will take ten seconds to get the camera out, turn it on etc. You might have only one or two seconds to take the shot. The key thing is to actually hold the camera in your hands, keeping your finger already on the button. No matter if you use a neck or wrist strap, even getting a proper grip of the camera and lifting it to you eye, will take something like a second. That might already be half of the time you have available. After that the situation will be lost forever and you missed the infamous decisive moment.

  • Have a two hand grip of the camera as you walk around — don’t let the camera just dangle on your neck
  • You can even lift it close to your chest, almost like lifting it half way up in advance
  • Place your fingers on the necessary dials (shutter, focusing ring etc.) as if you’re about to shoot on any given time
  • Advance the film and make sure the camera is loaded — if you’re shooting on film that is!

2. Pre-focus

In case you’re focusing manually, pre-focus to two meters or whatever you estimate you’ll be shooting from. If I’m photographing people on the street, I’ve taken a note, that 2m is a good starting point for me. I rarely get any closer or want to get much further away. It is good to know that the focusing is set to a certain distance, because it will save another fraction of a second, not having to check which distance the focusing is at. If it’s dialed randomly to 0.8m or 10m I will first need to make note of that. Having it at 2m gives me a good hunch that I will need to turn the focusing ring only slightly to maybe a bit closer of a bit further. It will be shorter throw too to turn it only slightly, as opposed turning it all the way from infinity to two meters.

3. Zone focus and use small aperture

If you’re worried about getting some trendy bokeh, this advice might not be the best solution for you, because it priorities shooting on small aperture.

Related to the previous point — zone focusing is a wonderful thing that allows you to almost forget focusing. I’d argue that in some sense, it is even faster than auto focusing, because it basically doesn’t take any time at all. Mastering zone focusing allows you to shoot from the hip too, because you will know what’s going to be in focus, just by estimating distances and doing the calculations in your mind. If the lighting conditions allow, set aperture to something like f8, which will make the depth of focus large. On my F.Zuiko 50mm f1.8 lens, if I set the aperture to f8 and pre-set my focusing to 2m, everything from about 1.7m to 2.5m will be on focus. The depth of the plane in focus will be about one meter! All I need to make sure that the subject is roughly in two meters of distance and I can be off by about half meter on either direction to still get a sharp subject. On f16 the depth of field will be even greater. Manual focus, and other good lenses will have a hyper focal distance chart, where you can check the depth of field.

When set to f8 and pre-focusing to 2m, everything from about 1.7m to 2.5m will be on focus and you know this without even looking through the viewfinder.

4. Pre-meter

My camera doesn’t have any kind of program modes, which means I’ll have to set the shutter speed and aperture for each shot myself. Sometimes it is a pain in the butt and my brain will probably burn twice the calories by just having to calculate it all the time while shooting. It will force me to be VERY mindful of the lighting though, so it has it’s upsides as well. Be warned, you will need to use your brains for this… a lot! But hey — that is a very good thing! Relaying on program modes all the time will not teach you anything.

In case you are a full manual guy or girl as well, make sure that you constantly pay attention to the lighting and pre-meter. Take readings from the light meter (assuming you have one) constantly and memorise what kind of settings to use in certain conditions. That way you’ll learn how to be a light meter yourself and have a better understanding and intuition what kind of settings corresponds with the lighting conditions. Make a note when you move into shade and take a new reading. Check the metering again when the sun comes back and re-set the shutter speed and aperture. This will increase your chance for the settings to be as close to a correct exposure as possible when the moment arrives. Sometimes you will need to shoot instantly and have absolutely no time to even glance the light meter or change the setting. If you’ve been mindful of the lighting conditions and made settings in advance, you have a very good chance of getting a good exposure, even if it’s seemingly a bit off. If you will need to adjust the settings or have the time for it, making a small adjustment is faster than starting the metering all over. Learn sunny 16 rule and variations of it.

My camera has a on/off -switch for the light meter, which I keep on all the time when shooting. It’ll be another fraction of a second to turn it on. (On that note — I also carry a spare battery, because this will run it out faster.)

5. No lens cap

Removing the lens cap and placing it to your pocket (etc) before the shot takes yet another critical milliseconds away from the shot, so keep it off all time. If you need one, consider a UV-filter as a lens protector.

6. Being pre-emptive, paying attention and evaluating the surroundings

Think yourself as a walking radar. Concentrate and pay attention what is happening around you. Try to be pre-emptive and evaluate what is about to happen. Don’t just walk around mindlessly. Don’t expect to see a big green sign pointing to the subject — they can be very subtle and hard to notice. Don’t think there isn’t anything to shoot — there are when you pay attention and pe patient. You may walk around or look for it two hours. Then suddenly you may find something that exists briefly and get the shot. Be very mindful and observe the people, lighting and the surroundings. The decisive moment can be something really small, which you can easily miss if you don’t pay very close attention and be ready for it. Take a look at the image of the little boy wiping his tears. It is such a small gesture that is hard to detect if you’re not concentrating. It will go pass quickly.

It took only two seconds for the little boy to wipe his tears and the moment was forever lost after that. I took this image using exactly the approaches I’m describing in this post and I was able to shoot instantly and almost sub-consciously, without fumbling.

This is the kind of street shooting I like to do personally. I feel this kind of process is very satisfying, even if the actual photo might not turn out be perfect. It is hard and mistakes will be done. For example the above image, it isn’t perfectly focused, but I was able to capture the moment and practise some good photography by doing it. The process is sometimes just as important as the result. It will lead to a better result. If I’d be only concerned about the result, I’d shoot from the hip more often and rely on the machine gun approach. I most definitely would not be shooting film. I’d get a fast shooting DSLR and burst away with 10 frames per second. I’d definitely get results from the mass of images. I don’t find that process satisfying though. It doesn’t involve myself as much. I don’t want ten frames per second. One good frame is enough.

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