Shoot a theme
Going out shooting with no idea of what you are looking for can sometimes mean you come back with nothing. It can be fun on occasion to go out with no agenda, with nothing in mind that you want to shoot but certainly as you are developing your technique you will find it useful to set yourself a goal of shooting something specific, or have a number of photographic ‘projects’ in mind that will determine the kind of shots you will be on the lookout for. I am sure there is some psychological science behind it, but I am not going to attempt to explain why this happens. I just know that I can be out shooting and not notice certain colours in my images until I get back and view them on a computer. However, if I go out with the idea of shooting only things that are predominantly red for instance, I suddenly see lots of red things that were apparently not there before. Using this technique allows you to concentrate on one particular thing, freeing the mind to filter all the other distractions so you can zoom in so to speak on your chosen subject.
What your theme is can be anything really, dogs, one colour, bikes, pairs, umbrellas, etc, etc, etc. In the projects chapter later in the book I have made a few suggestions that you can try out. This can be a really great project to work on with a photographer friend or even a small group. Pick a theme and all go out shooting the same thing for a day. It’s fascinating to see what others find to shoot when you are in theory all looking for the same thing!
Find a striking background
A good background can make the difference between a simple snap and a great photograph. This one requires some patience, but it can result in wonderful images. The approach has two parts. Firstly, you need to find a great background for your shot. It might be an incredible landscape, an iconic building, a narrow street of terraced houses, some cheeky graffiti or an unusual advertising hoarding. Once you find the background you then simply position yourself appropriately and wait. Now comes the second part, and this mostly relies on luck. You need an interesting character or something else that will complete the shot to come into the frame, then you grab the shot.
How successful you are at this will much depend on how long you are prepared to stay in your position while nothing is happening. You might need to be there for 30 minutes, maybe an hour sometimes several hours before something meaningful happens, the special something that is going to transform the shot. How much time you are prepared to spend will often be determined by the ‘quality’ of your background. Remember street photography is not choreographed, things happen outside of your control* so you can never be sure whether the wait is going to be worthwhile.
*I hesitate to write this since some readers may well find the idea of ‘staging’ a shot offensive. However, you could of course slightly manipulate this kind of shot by having someone walk into or stand strategically in the frame under instruction. This way you might get a great shot and supposedly nobody would be any the wiser. Do not be too quick to knock it. If you find an amazing background, it’s a shame to waste it so making sure you get a good shot by adopting this slightly underhand technique could result in a wonderful image. You might be surprised to learn that some of the iconic street shots of the past masters may well have had an element of staging involved!
Copyright © Andrew Turner
OXFORD BILLBOARD – Oxford, UK – Fuji X70 | 28mm / f2.8 | ISO 400
In case some of you are wondering after my suggestions earlier in this chapter this was not a staged shot. The girl was just standing in front of this advertising graphic, which was in fact stuck to a window while the ‘Wasabi’ store was being fitted out. I thought it just worked!
Experiment with different viewpoints and angles
Most people spend their lives looking at things at about head height. At least whatever their head height happens to be. Sometimes they may crouch, perhaps even go up on tip toe to see something but that’s about it. Therefore, if you shoot from an angle or a point of view that few people experience under normal circumstances, then your shots are going to instantly look different from those the viewer is used to seeing.
Lie on the floor, or if you have a camera with an articulating rear screen get the camera to the floor and point it up towards the subject from this extreme low angle. You will be surprised at how this point of view changes the image, and often makes it far more powerful than if it were shot at typical head height.
Changing your point of view is one of the things that can have a major effect on the resulting image so do not be afraid to try out different angles and viewpoints. In street photography you will rarely have the luxury of shooting the same subject from every possible angle but when you do get the chance it is well worth experimenting. The more you do this the more likely it is that you will develop a sense which allows you to instinctively get into the right position much earlier than you might otherwise have done.
Shoot from the hip
With many cameras now coming with articulating screens then shooting from the hip has become less ‘press and hope’, to being far easier to frame your shot accurately. Personally, I rarely use this technique but there are however plenty of great shots that have been taken this way, so I am not knocking it, it’s just not my way of shooting.
Many of the great shots of the past were taken with cameras like a Rollieflex for instance, most of which had waist level finders. The photographer would look down to their waist into the finder to frame the shot.
With the advent of articulating screens, it has become easily possible to position your camera at waist level, flip the articulating screen so you can better frame your shot and click away. Much of the time you are doing this your subject will have no idea that you are taking their picture. Make it look like you are adjusting your settings and they will be none the wiser.
The other approach of course is to literally shoot blind. Do not look at the display at all and just try to frame a shot by feel. After a while you will get to know your camera and the various distances of importance according to your lens and aperture setting and you might be lucky enough to fire off a few good frames. It’s a bit hit and miss for my taste but nevertheless you might like to give it a try.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
MEN PUSHING PRAM – Oxford, UK – Sony A-6000 | 24mm / f1.8 | ISO 100
This image is one of the few I have shot from the hip. I just happened to have my camera ready and the articulatin
Shoot at night
Shooting at night can result in some amazing images. I never use a flash or any kind of artificial lighting so shooting at night requires a wide aperture and a high ISO. This can result in some blurred elements within the frame where your subject was moving, or where camera shake has affected the shot. As well as what are often grainy images, but I think grain can be good. It can mean a grittier image which has more atmosphere than it might have otherwise.
Do not be afraid to shoot at night, particularly in a big city where it never really gets dark. The streetlights, the ambient light emanating from bars and restaurants and even car headlights can be perfect for creating moody and distinctive images.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
HALFWAY TO 75 MUSIC FESTIVAL – Oxford, UK – Panasonic GF1 | 25mm / f1.4 | ISO 3200
This shot, taken at the annual Halfway to 75 music festival in Oxford was shot in virtual darkness. The only light was coming from fairly dim candles on the tables and a little light from the stage which was some distance away. I shot it wide open at a high ISO and although the dancing figures are blurred it adds movement and energy to the image.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
VIALE BY NIGHT – Penne, Abruzzo, Italy – Olympus E-1 | 50mm / f8.0 | ISO 400
This shot was taken in a small town in Italy very late at night. There had been a heavy snowfall and people were out enjoying the cold evening. There was a fair bit of light from street lighting and car headlights but still you see movement as the people stroll down the path. I think the movement adds something to the scene which might be lost if all the figures were pin sharp.
Shoot after rain
Shooting soon after rain, especially if the sun comes out can be great fun. Reflections will be everywhere, but you need to be quick because these conditions do not usually last long. Look in the puddles, they are full of images. To others you will appear strange, you may even get one or two people stopping to ask you what you are doing peering into a puddle, but you don’t care. You are relentlessly pursuing an amazing shot and you are convinced that it is in one of the puddles that have only recently appeared and will probably soon be gone.
Copyright © Andrew Turner
RADCLIFFE CAMERA – Oxford, UK – Sony A6000 | 34mm / f4.0 | ISO 100
The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford reflected in a puddle.
Copyright © Vinod Babu
Another superb example of a shot captured in a puddle. Without the cyclist this would be just another reflected building but positioning the boy on the bike to the left of the frame has transformed this image into one that most viewers would take time to study again and again.
Zone focusing is a technique used by a lot of street photographers. With a bit of practice this technique can be very successful. If you are the type of street photographer who wants to capture images of people candidly then the longer you have your camera to your eye the more chance of you getting ‘found out’. What if you did not need to worry about focusing? What if you could simply raise your camera, hit the shutter and move on, safe in the knowledge that your subject would be in focus?
If you learn how to zone focus, then you can. Zone focusing is a technique used by countless street photographers that once mastered becomes a power tool in your little box of tricks. The idea is simple. You manually pre-focus a certain distance away and you work out roughly within a certain range what’s going to be in focus. (Read your camera manual to find out how to do this with the type of camera you are using). Let’s say you focus 2 meters away; the aperture set, your sensor size and the focal length of your lens will determine how much behind and how much in front of your focus point is going to be in focus. You then wait for your subject to come within this range and hit the shutter. You can just go ahead and shoot knowing that anything within the range is going to be in focus.
Some cameras will have depth of field distance indicators on the lens, with other models it can be seen in the viewfinder or on the display. I do not usually bother reading the manual of any camera, but if you are not familiar with the way your camera operates in manual focus mode then it might be a good reason to do so in order to arm yourself with the specific knowledge about your camera that will enable you to play around with zone focusing.
I have come across some cameras (Fujis’ for instance) that allow you to auto focus while in manual focus mode. You simply hit a custom button while in manual focus mode that allows you to auto focus and as a result fix focus on a point. Let go of the button and the focus point remains set. This can be really useful for the zone focusing approach.
A lot of photographers who use this technique swear by it as it takes away one of the things you would otherwise need to worry about when composing your shot, namely the focusing. It also means of course that your camera is not going to be spending any time searching for focus so in most cases when you press the shutter there will no discernible delay. Much of the time it may mean that you as the photographer are more or less stationary in one spot but with practice the technique can also be used if you are on the move. You have to get pretty good at judging distance so that you are ready to press the shutter at the right moment but once you try a few times you will soon get better at it.
As street photographers we do not often have the luxury of positioning ourselves perfectly, waiting for just the right light and having plenty of time to shoot several frames to ensure we have the shot. We might only get one chance and very often the stars will not align even to allow this. So, when the opportunity for a shot does appear, we need to be ready, and we need to be able to react really quickly. If we do not need to fumble with the settings on our camera, if we already have the aperture set, the shutter speed and ISO just right then this just leaves focusing which is often the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process. Using the zone focusing technique will eliminate the need to worry about focusing too!
It’s not hard to learn, but it is a lot more difficult to master. How accurate your zone focus setup needs to be will be very much dependant on the focal length of your lens, your sensor size and therefore the depth of field according to the distance your subject is away from you.
This book is really aimed at people who are already familiar with the concept of depth of field but just for clarification in relating to zone focusing I will briefly touch on the subject. Let’s say you focus on a point 8 feet away from you. Depending on your cameras sensor size, lens and the aperture that is set will determine how much between you and the focal point (in front of the focal point) remains in focus, and how much between the focal point and the distance (behind the focal point) remains in focus.
Below are the main things that are going to influence these distances.
- The smaller the aperture (larger number) the more depth of field there will be in the scene. A shot taken with an aperture of f11 will have more in focus than a shot taken with an aperture of f2.8.
- A wide angle lens will result in more depth of field than a longer lens. The wider the lens the more will be in focus. At the same aperture, on the same camera body and the same focal point, a 24mm lens will have more in focus than a 28mm, a 28mm more than a 35mm, a 35 mm more than a 50mm etc.
- The closer you are to your focal point the shorter the range of depth of field. Focus on something very close and the depth of field is narrow, focus on something 30 feet away and the depth of field increases even with exactly the same lens, aperture and camera body.
- Your camera sensor size will have a bearing on the depth of field. The larger your cameras sensor the less depth of field with the same lens and aperture setting.
It’s very difficult for me to give you accurate figures as to what these measures will be because it so much depends on the kit you are using. Suffice to say every combination of camera, lens and settings will have its own measures and you need to first read your camera manual to determine roughly what your setup means in terms of zone focusing, and then be prepared to experiment. Alternatively, in the resources section of the book there is a really useful link to a web site where you can enter your camera model, the focal length of your lens, the aperture you want to set and the distance of your subject. It will then give you a rough guide as to near and far focal distances.
What this guide suggests is that for one of the cameras I regularly use for street photography, which has an APS-C sensor if I set my aperture to f5.6 and focus on something 10 feet away (roughly 3 metres) then I have a focal distance of about 10.8 feet. Everything between 6.96 feet and 17.7 feet will be sharp.
Clearly you will not want to refer to this every time you take a shot, so what you need to do is get comfortable with the distances and settings that you are going to use all the time. Once you have done this then you will simply not need to focus. You set your camera to manual focus. Focus on a distance that you are comfortable with and one that you have already worked out the focal measurements for, and just fire away.
Photographers that use this technique a lot even develop the skills to switch focal points according to subjects that come into frame. They learn all of the distances by heart so they can quickly react to scenes as the situation unfolds. It will not happen the first time you try this technique but it’s something to aim for!
The way the light falls in your image can be the difference between something good and something great. If there is one thing that you really need to pay more attention to it is light. Volumes have been written about lighting photographic subjects but for me it comes down to three main types of natural lighting.
Front lighting – the light is behind you and throwing light onto your subject. Your back is towards the primary light source.
Side lighting – the light is coming from one side, enhancing contrast, providing texture, emphasising tone.
Back lighting – the light is coming at you, the camera is pointing towards the light source, casting silhouettes, adding contrast to your images, resulting in heavy blacks, and heavy shadows.
Then there is the ‘colour’ of light. This changes throughout the day. You will have almost certainly heard of the term the ‘golden hour’. This is when the colour of the light is regarded to be at its best for photography. Clearly if it’s a grey day then you can forget it but during the summer months in particular, when the sun is shining, then the ‘golden hour’ usually occurs both in the morning a little after sunrise, and in the evening just before sunset. These are the times when your images will have the best chance of being beautifully lit often in a way that cannot be achieved at other times of the day. Clearly you can’t just turn up at these times and be sure of great shots. You still have to do some work. But at least the chances are the light is going to be good.
Light plays such an important part in the success of a photograph. Learn to see light, study it. Notice how and where it is coming from, how it falls, whether shadows are thrown as a result of the light. It’s all important and the sooner you learn to use light to your advantage the better your images will be.
The way the light falls on your subject, sometimes the way the light does not fall on your subject can be the difference between just another unremarkable image or something really extraordinary. Unfortunately, light is also one of the many things in street photography over which you have little control.
There is a specific project suggestion in the next chapter related to getting to understand light better but in street photography, assuming you do not use flash, there is only ever one source of light – the sun, or some sort of refraction of it. At night your light source is going to be streetlights, car lights, perhaps the light reflection of the moon.
If you have found this interesting, all I ask is that you tell your friends and spread the word through your social media channels, and please consider making whatever donation you can to a fund created to help photographers around the world dedicate time to interesting and often essential projects.