Getting the Street Shots Part 1 of 3

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I’ve been asked many times how I approach street shooting and how I achieve good impacting images. I thought I would share some advice. I have broken it down into three parts which I’ll release over the next few days. Feel free to comment and add your input. The best part of photography, it is always a learning experience. I have been doing this for many years, I still learn new things every day from other great shooters.  Always remain open to new ideas.

1. Do not over invest in camera gear.

The first and foremost biggest advice I can ever offer to anyone, is never over invest in photo gear or more than you are willing to lose, damage or throw away if smashed. All too often, I watch shooters invest months and years of savings into the best of the best. Then I watch them baby their equipment. Not willing to run, jump, hit the ground, slide on a wall, shoot in the rain. They spend more time trying to protect the equipment than keeping their eye on the shot they want.

Instead of buying the almighty Nikon D4 or Canon 1DX, go for a couple of D800’s or 5D Mark III’s or lower. If one camera is badly damaged you still have one to shoot with. I usually buy a generation or two out of date. I’ll pick up older bodies for $500-600 when I have to retire other lower quality cameras. I can part with that far easier than $5000.00 on a single camera body. When I do purchase equipment to upgrade for my commercial projects, whatever my top end body was, now becomes one of my new street shooters destined for a life of hell on the sidewalks of Toronto.

Majority of good street photographers I know have camera gear that look beaten to hell. My current three street shooting bodies are really rough, duct taped, scrapes, cracks and peeling. I don’t miss many shots because I don’t worry about the condition of my gear. My shot is more important than a new scrape. As long as my glass on the lens isn’t damaged, I’m still in the game. I’m not saying go smash your gear but street shooting can be a rough sport, it does require risk, if your camera still looks fresh out of the box, chances are your images will reflect that. If you’re too timid because of your gear, save a little money and buy a beater camera.

2. Dress the part of what you wish to shoot.

This almost goes with do not over invest in gear. Be comfortable, don’t wear your best or look over the top fashionable. Wear things that are already ripped, torn and worn out. If you want to aim for grittier and more hard hitting photos such as members of the homeless community. They are more approachable if you’re closer to their appearance than like you just walked off of a clothing rack. You also want to be fearless of getting your photos, you might need to lay on the ground, jump up on top of garbage cans or squeeze against a rusty metal fence. You don’t want your favourite shoes and clothes going street shooting with you. On the street, I probably could sit on my own corner and easily beg for change. I’m shooting for memorable images, I’m not interested in fashion statements. On the other hand, Toronto International Film Festival is a big event, if I am hoping to gain images from an event like this, I will dress up a bit. If I look like a thug, chances are I will get cleared from the red carpet zone. Dress appropriately for the condition, be comfortable.

3. Stay in one place and remain patient

I gain more photographs within 20 feet of where I stand than if I walk 5 km’s. I’ll pick destinations and stick with that location for a number of hours. I’ll target architectural backdrops for composition, I’ll look for typographic elements like billboards and signage, events that are taking place, I’ll have an idea of what or who I want for a photo. I’ll have to wait for the particular person to eventually show. It may not happen today, I always have tomorrow. I still choose multiple locations, keep an eye on all of them from a central point, when I see an opportunity spring in one of my targets, I’ll bolt to that area to snag the shot. This is controlled shooting and always produces the best results for me. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go for long walks, don’t just rush out of a scene because it seems dead at the moment, ten minutes from now it could be an amazing visual story.

4. Random Stories vs. Anticipated Composition

Every photographer gets that gold mine shot of a random moment and were quick enough on the draw to get the capture. Truth is, those moment are really rare. I started to learn how to anticipate traffic flow of pedestrians on the street. This is why I always tell people to spend time getting to know an area you are shooting before you start firing frames. Know what buildings are around you within a couple of blocks. This helps when you see a lady dressed in peacock blue dress and matching feathers heading towards a pet shop, homeless shelter or passing a statue of a prominent figure that could be looking at her as she passes. You might see an elderly gentleman with a walker that could pass a gym, pass a sign that says High Speed Internet, or there is a baby shop nearby. All three of those options compliment the subject and tell a little more of a story than just the elderly man and his walker. This is why I shoot in a two block radius, but always know what buildings shops or signs are around to help me tell a more impacting story.

Part 2 – I will deconstruct three photographs, discuss what I did, what my surroundings were like, how long I was there, why I chose to do the things I did to obtain the photograph.