10 Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned About Street Photography
First things first. My name is Marius Vieth and I’m a 26 year old fine art photographer from Amsterdam who loves nothing more than street photography. After shooting all sorts of things from 2011 to 2012 without ever finding myself and feeling my photography, I discovered my deep passion for street photography in the first month of my 365 project in 2013. Since then, I’ve not only spent almost every single day on the streets of the world to capture wonderful moments, but I’ve also built my life around it.
Within these two years, I’ve won 17 awards so far, but if there’s one thing that makes me happier than that, it’s sharing my experiences and maybe inspire fellow photographers to fall in love with street photography as well. So, here are my ten most important lessons about street photography I’ve learned so far!
1. The Three Roads to Shot-ville
When it comes to capturing great moments on the streets, I’ve learned that there are basically three ways to approach it. The first way is rather obvious. Just walk around in your city or village and simply look for interesting moments happening around you. You must be a really good observer and your reaction time has to be as short as possible to capture moments within milliseconds. But I’ll tell you more about improving your reaction time later.
The second and third way still keeps everything authentic, but lets you become the director of candid scenes on the stage of life. The second way basically lets you design the stage of your scene, but you have to wait for an “actor” to appear. Just look for beautiful parks, alleys or other spots that build an exciting scenery for a moment. Look around, analyze how people are walking and what might happen here. If you have an interesting concept in mind, simply wait till the right people appear and hit the shutter. Try it with different pedestrians, change your stage through composition and find the best way possible.
The third and slightly creepier approach is to find your “actor” and follow him to a great stage. To be honest, I’ve followed highly interesting people while maintaining a low profile for 15-20 minutes. Always keep your distance and if the scenery blows you away, hit the shutter.
[REWIND: BLACK AND WHITE STREET PHOTOGRAPHY WITH FILM GRAIN EFFECT – ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY LIGHTROOM EDIT – E21]
2. How to Become a Ninja
One of the biggest obstacles in street photography is getting “caught.” I mean, you are capturing random strangers. I remember my first months of shooting where I always got an adrenaline kick when I was about to take a photo. But after a while, I developed certain techniques that spare you the embarrassment 99% of the time. One thing I always do is when I take a photo of someone and they look at me afterwards, I just look into the distance where they were walking with squinted eyes and act like I screwed up the first shot and take another. I do a couple of steps forward and to the side as though I’m trying to get a better picture of the background behind them. They may look back once, but then mind their own business. Never forget: no one (except for celebrities) expects that they might be that interesting that someone would take a photo of them.
Another strategy is playing the super pro. Just act like you damn well know what you are doing and that this is serious business. People will get the idea that you’re from the newspaper or doing a project and won’t interfere with you. You seem way too busy and focused. In touristy places, just act like a moron tourist and they won’t mind.
Another great way to become a ninja is to act like you’re taking a video of the scenery. Move your camera up and down and to the side and you are usually good to go. It all depends on the scenery though. This works better in the city than in a dark alley. On top of that, always try to wear dark clothes or look as boring as possible. Furthermore, blend in with the crowd. Don’t be that statue in the middle.
3. Shoot Less, But Then More
What I basically recommend is to take the analogous approach and take as little photos as possible. Spend way more time looking around, understanding your environment, observing people and falling in love with what you are shooting than taking hundreds of photos. It’s just going to be exhausting to weed out all the bad ones at the end of the day. But if you find a really exciting moment, hit the shutter numerous times with the burst mode. Here’s why: especially in street photography, it’s all about the perfect millisecond, the so-called decisive moment. You don’t want a person on your photo with their legs in a weird position. They should look natural. But to get the perfect “leg angle” you have to take some more shots, because usually you won’t get the best one with just one shot.
4. Keeping It Minimalistic With Gear Avoidance Syndrome
GAS, also known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, is very common among photographers. It simply means that you just can’t get enough new lenses, equipment and upgrade your cam as soon as possible in order to have more options and improve. However, the opposite side of it, “Gear Avoidance Syndrome” as I call it, might even be healthy for your photography. The underlying issue is what psychologists call “Paralysis by Analysis.” It simply means that you’re getting so carried away analyzing every aspect of a photographic situation on a technical level that you oversee what it’s truly about.
The great range of technical choices distracts from the even bigger choices on a creative level where the magic happens. My advice is to just stick to one body and lens of your choice which works for you and just sell the rest. Although there are less options available, you’ll find way more creative ways to capture what you feel! In a way, all your technical options before turn into creative solutions with your minimalist set-up.
5. Reaction Time Is Everything
Street photography, just like sports photography, is one of the genres where your reaction time has to be as high as possible. Spend time improving your reaction time. You can do this at home if you want. Walk through your home and pick one specific object, i.e. a vase, and take a photo of it as quickly as possible from different angles and positions. Turn around to get your shot, duck, jump or even lie down quickly. I know it seems weird, but a decisive moment only lasts a blink of an eye.
6. Become the Master of All Elements
Developing a street photography eye demands more introspection than any other genre as far as I’m concerned. You have to feel a lot to actually find your photos. That’s why your heart, eye and soul will always be your most important gear. But you still have to express this inner life of yours. And that’s as hard as it gets sometimes. The thing is, on the streets there are so many different elements that you could use for a shot that you often miss the forest for the trees. What helped me was to focus on one element for a couple of hours, say a certain color. You can also only pay attention to lines, contrasts, interesting clothing or exciting sceneries. Reduce this broad range of elements to only a few and you’ll see better results. The longer you do this, the more elements you can scan at the same time.
7. Become a Chess Master
Street photography is all about anticipation. You don’t only have to be good at spotting wonderful moments, but also knowing that they will happen. Try to spend as much time as possible understanding how people interact with each other and how they move. Pay attention to walking patterns, traffic and things happening around you. What might possibly happen, if someone saw that weird light blinking or how will people react to the noise of the construction side. You can’t influence what pedestrians are doing, but you can learn to predict it better. And that will help you so much as a director of candid scenes.
8. Your Best Friend: Natural Contrasts
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. I can’t stress enough how crucial natural contrasts are – especially in street photography. I’ve made this mistake hundreds of times and I see it all the time. Always try to bring your dark subject in front of a bright background and vice versa. This may sound so obvious, but it’s one of the most common mistakes that take away from the energy of a photo. I’ve taken plenty of awesome photos that just didn’t work because the subject didn’t differ enough from the background. Try to avoid that as much as possible and spare yourself the agony of losing an otherwise amazing photograph.
9. Consider Your Photos as Paintings
The huge difference between paintings and photography is that when you paint, you add elements and when you take photos, you reduce elements. I’m not saying that you should reduce your sceneries as much as I do, it’s just my personal preference. But one thing that I learned in the beginning was that street photography doesn’t give you the right to neglect composition and subject, because it’s a candid moment. I did that in the beginning and I think it’s wrong.
This genre demands careful selection of subjects, composition and all other elements that make a great photo as well. It’s just harder, because you don’t have direct influence on what’s happening. However, it helped me a lot to see my photos as a painting. Find elements you like and add them to your canvas. Ideally each element should have a reason why it’s in there. Even if you take really vivid street photos with lots of elements, still ask yourself, why did I capture half a shopping cart in the background? No painter ever would draw something without having a reason why that element would add something to the painting. It took me a long time to realize that, but it definitely helped and I’m still working on it.
10. Realize That You Are Taking Photos of Yourself
One of the most important insights I gained on my journey so far is, that street photography is nothing more than photos of yourself through others. That’s why I called one of my first articles where I realized this “The Stranger In Me.” Give 10 people the exact same camera and let them walk through a certain street for 1 hour at the same time every day. I’m sure there will be some things that will be similar, because they are obvious, but the rest will differ from person to person. It’s what they find fascinating, what they are passionate about, and what they think makes a great photo. For some, a street has a melancholic atmosphere, so they’ll go for black and white and more serious strangers. Others will immediately love the colors and the happy people and will pour that into their photos.
When I started out with street photography I personally made the mistake of thinking that it had to resemble the typical street photography shot in black and white, wide-angle and fairly vibrant (at least that was my idea of a typical shot). I tried to create these shots, but didn’t feel them. It took me a while to realize how to not give a crap and just do what I love. And that’s how I ended up with my personal style.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s fine to learn from the masters such as Bresson or Leiter, read tons of tips and try different styles, but please, do yourself a favor and just do what you think is awesome. Don’t make the mistake I did. My only wish is that the genre becomes as diverse in style as the people on the streets we shoot – and I’m sure we’ll make that happen.
About the Guest Contributor
Marius Vieth is a fine art photographer focused on street photography. Although originally from Germany, he is now living in Amsterdam. He also manages the International Fine Arts Label NEOPRIME. Visit his website here: www.mariusvieth.com