How to find subjects in street photography

How to find subjects? No, really how to find them? This is not a tuorial, I’m genuinely asking where to find them?

When I wake up and brew my morning coffee, I look at my camera and start to fantasise about being Henri Cartier-Bresson. I can’t wait to hit the streets. A montage music starts to play in my head and visualise myself capturing a masterpiece after another.

Then reality hits in. I finally manage to arrange some free time for myself to go shooting. I realise that I’m in a setting that looks totally boring. The weather is ugly. I look around for people doing interesting things. I try to remember my fantasy about capturing touching moments. I try to look for interesting characters who are doing something interesting. At least something, please somebody… do something! Give me a gesture or an expression. No, nothing. Nowhere. All I see is people walking down the streets, probably running errands or just going to work. Most of them are fingering their smart phones and wearing horrible clothes.

Walkers and people on smart phones are the two things that I try to avoid in street photography. Sure, they are plentiful and more than easy to find. But then again, that’s probably the reason why I’m not into that stuff. I’d like to find something more than that. Something more complex and sophisticated. Not just a guy walking into the frame. The center of interest should preferably be constructed of few individual aspects and their relationship to each other. When you’re trying to find subjects of this level, you’re really in trouble.

I have basically two solutions to this dilemma. Neither of them is not perfectly perfect, but may give a good starting point.

1 — Passive lookout and preparedness. The subject usually appears unexpectedly. My number one rule is to have my camera at hand at all times. The subject may emerge when you’re living your everyday life — while you’re not on your photowalk photographing ducks. The best solution may be to just wear your camera all the time. You’ll carry it for nothing 99,99% of the time, but it’s like a first aid kit — when you need it, you REALLY need it.

The problem is though, that if you’re just sitting at work filling out Excel files and doing laundry at home, you have slim chances of finding anything. This approach kinda requires you to have an interesting lifestyle and/or hobbies that you can incorporate into the photography. For example, I have to attend a lot of meetings all around the city. A very passive way to incorporate photography into that is just to keep the camera with me. That way I can actually enjoy and make use of the time I’m spending on commuting. If you’re into mountain climbing… let me just say that your problem is solved.

2 — The hunt for subjects (a.k.a the photo walk). When I really want to just finish the god damn roll of film, I go to the town and take matters into my own hands. No more waiting for the subject to come to me — I’m going after them myself. I feel like a detective spying on people on the streets, who’s paying close attention to every little detail in the scene.

I didn’t use to like this approach because I believed only to the passive method. That was the lack of practise and skill. Finding something meaningful to shoot is really really difficult if you haven’t done it much. When you get the hang of it, you can start getting really good results. It’s also very good practise, because it puts more pressure on you. Passive shooting is lazier, because you’re just patiently waiting the subject to fall onto your lap. When you’re on a hunt, you’re almost like forcing the photograph to happen… if that makes any sense.

Okay, the problem of finding the subjects still remain. It is sometimes genuinely hard to find anything sponge-worthy (Seinfeld reference) on the streets, but at least you have some control over things. You can choose when and where to go for example. I live in a country that is not known for awesome weathers, but I can check the weather forecast for sunny days and try to schedule my photowalks accordingly. I can decide whether to go for a sunset or in the middle of the day, when the sun is shining straight above.

This is not the greatest photo in the world, but I went to this location for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s now november and the days are short. The sun doesn’t actually rise much above the horizon. Even on a sunny day, buildings are most likely blocking the direct sun light, because the sun is so low, as you can see from the shadows in this image. The building blockage is somewhat of a problem, so what I did was as follows. I shot this in Helsinki, which is, in case you didn’t know, a city by the ocean. The shoreline happens to face south, which is where the sun travels towards the west to set. This location is very near the shore, where there are less tall buildings to block the light. Pretty genius, huh? Limited resources encourages you to think and do the research. Ah fuck it, I’d still prefer to live in Sicily.

For the same reason I’ve been preferring to shoot on the Helsinki Market Square, which also by the shore, on a different spot of the city. It is also facing in the southernly direction, and since there are no tall building in the ocean, the sun can shine directly on the market square, even if it doesn’t rise much above the horizon.

You can choose to go to places where there are more people. Like I said, I’m not hugely into walkers, so I try to find places where people are not just walking from one place to another. I like to find events and crowds and other places where people are doing other things than walking and texting. One of the best photos I’ve ever taken was on Helsinki Cruising Nights, which is a gathering for vintage car enthusiast. Everybody else were of course taking generic photos of Corvettes, but I was more interested in the people attending the event, who were dressed up for the occasion, making up the perfect setting for a photo. Attending the cruising night was a pre-meditated plan, because I was certain that I was an awesome chance to find subjects. It of course requires planning and research, but it was worth the trouble.

Rockers with their leather jackets and badass cars having a good time. Million times more interesting than any generic walker photo (in my humble opinion).

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