Guest Blog – Phil Anderson on Street Photography

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Howdy everyone! Welcome to 2017 – I hope you had a brilliant holiday period, and now, this time we get back in the saddle.  This year we’re going to kick off with a guest blog, written by Phil Anderson of Philson Photography (Facebook page here).  And today’s topic is Street Photography – take it away, Phil! (Obviously, all the images on this post are by Phil)


First a little bit about me.  I first picked up a camera and started to learn at the end of 2012.  I really started shooting street because it was the easiest way to practice my skills. You don’t need much gear, you don’t need a studio, you don’t need lights and you don’t need models.  You can just walk out on the street and start taking photos.  For me it’s the most accessible form of photographic art. Many street photographers shoot with very basic cameras, or even phones.  My Facebook page is here, and as you can see now work with animal rescue and studio photography fills my time.  I still hit the streets whenever possible and I’m constantly searching out new great street photographers.  You can see an assortment of my street work here.

Let’s talk first about what makes a good street photograph.  Is the truth 98% of all Street photographs you see are boring.

Yes, that’s right.  Boring.  Dull.  Uninteresting.  Tepid.  Lukewarm.  Average.  I constantly look at so called “street” shots taken in this era and nothing moves me.  And that’s a problem.

The origins of street was through photographers who wanted to document everyday life, and capture images that would tell the story of their generation.  Now that instantly makes their photographs more interesting to us now because they were shot in days past so seeing the streets of Brooklyn, NY in the 70’s is often captivating just by definition.  Also, only the best work has survived the test of time, so we only get to see the better side.

However in the world of today we live in the world people are shooting.  So straight away you have a challenge to find an interesting take on life.  Second we are saturated with “street” photography through social media and the general availability of camera’s in every phone.

Therefore – it’s really easy to be boring…

So how do you avoid this happening to you?  I’m going to give you five things to consider as to how you can avoid sending us all to sleep with pictures of people sitting at a cafe, or walking down the street, or eating a hotdog, or talking to a friend or walking a dog or…well that’s enough…I think you get it.

First consideration – Decisive moments.

The decisive moment is a concept made popular by the street photographer, photojournalist, and Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB). The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.

Sounds simple right?  You are looking for a moment.   This could be a glance from a stranger, a composition of things happening, an interesting looking person.  it doesn’t have to be a car going up in flames or a sinkhole arriving in front of you.  Decisive moments can be subtle but they tell you something about the life of the subject or give you a sense of place.

Now for a very important lesson on capturing the decisive moment.  Street photography is often seen by beginners as a “run and gun” sport.  By that I mean you continually walk round snapping off shots at everything and everybody until you hit something good.  Let me tell you now.  You will get lucky maybe and get some decent shots, but your probability is very low.

Street photography is about finding a scene, then working it.  And I mean working it hard.  When you are walking the streets look for interesting backgrounds, places with lots of activity, places with interesting characters, places with nice light…..then shoot the goddamn hell out of them!

To prove my point so you know I’m not just talking rubbish go look at this link.   When you examine closely you see that the great shots are one from a series.  Just one, not all of them.  HCB would often shoot more than one roll of film on a single scene to get that decisive moment we are seeking.

Apply this approach to your street work.  Find the scene, get set up technically so you don’t have to think about that, and shoot the living hell out of it!

Second consideration – Getting rid of fear

So this one I’m not going to linger on because it’s been covered so well by Erik Kim (a great street portrait artist and teacher) in his blogs.  Reading his blogs will liberate you as a street photographer.

This one is simple.  If you are scared of interaction with strangers, you will not become a good street photographer.  The good news is, no matter how strong that fear is, you can get over it and move forwards.  Now you may say “but Phil I’m shooting candid I don’t have to talk to people”.  Trust me, you will.  If you are afraid of getting “caught” taking a shot of someone you won’t have the courage to get close enough.  And close is important.  (fyi more than a 50mm focal length and you are not a street photographer – you are paparazzi – and you stand a high risk of looking like a pervert).  So you need to get over the fear.

I’m not going to tell you how.  Erik has already done that far better than I ever could – here’s the link to his free ebook on the subject.

Third consideration – Light and layers

Light is critical in all photography, no exception in Street.  Remember we talked about choosing a scene?  Light is one of your critical factors.  Light creates drama and feeling so look for interesting light while you walk around.  When you go out and shoot do it at the right times of day, i.e. when the shadows are long and the light is diffused.  Avoid midday light like the plague and your shots will pick up in interest by that alone.  If you want someone to follow who really knows how to use light in street photography, then I can’t look further than Marie Laigneau.  She’s a modern street photographer, and has the most exceptional command of light.

Now for layers.  The world is not in 2D.  It has depth and interesting things happening in the front, middle and back of the frame.  You are trying to capture the world, so you are trying to get all of that lovely interestingness.  This is a next level technique for street photography, and although it can be highly frustrating (as you are working three planes of interest) if you get it right your shots will really zing.   Look for scenes which have depth, and make sure you capture that full depth.  Yes folks, that means no bokeh.  For me, and many others, bokeh has no place in street photography.  You want the whole scene in all its glory, you are not trying to isolate a subject.  So that means f/5.6 or above, people!

Fourth consideration – Self editing – the difference between being a tourist and being a street photographer.

OK, this one is the hardest.  Most of your photos will be shit.  And you need to recognize that in your editing process.  You do NOT have to publish from every trip out.  I went to New York on a work trip recently, and I haven’t published a single street shot from a full weekend shooting.  Because none of them were good enough.  You have to become your own harshest critic more than in any other format of photography  [Lesson 410 in my book – G.].

At least if you do a bad studio portrait of someone their mum will like it.  If you take a poor (boring) street shot, the subject’s mum will likely never see it.  So you are screwed for even one “like” folks.

From all my time shooting, I have maybe 5 shots I like.  Maybe one I love.  That’s it.

I see people all the time posting street series of 10-15-20 shots and I scream inside.  In that 10-15-20 shots there may be a great one.  But most people will NEVER see it because they are not going to wade through all your crap to find it.  From every trip out…pick one shot.  ONE SHOT.  Then decide whether it’s good enough to post.  If it’s not, then don’t.  Ditch the rest.  You are doing no one, particularly yourself, any favours by posting in bulk.  People don’t care about 10 average shots.  They only care about one great one.  Find that one, and post it.  Otherwise – I’m afraid you are a tourist.  Being a tourist is fine – but not if you’re trying to be a street photographer.

Fifth consideration – Gear and Settings

Gear doesn’t matter.  Next section please….

In all seriousness this is the least gear heavy form.  Here are a few guidelines.

  •  Most street togs shoot prime lenses, not zoom.  Your feet are your zoom.
  • Most popular focal lengths are 35mm or 50mm.  But I see a lot of people starting to shoot wider with 18mm equivalents in the new generation of street togs.
  • You can just use your phone if you want.  It’s all good.  Just type iPhone street photography into google and it will blow you away.  (disclaimer:  Samsung used at own risk.  Wear fireproof gloves)
  • Don’t constantly change settings on the fly.  Lock in and shoot.  Aperture priority (remember no bokeh…) or full auto are fine.  Some amazing street photographers shoot full auto believe it or not.  This is not a technical pursuit.
  • Smaller cameras are less intimidating.  If you get serious then try the Ricoh Gr, Fuji X100 (S or T), or Olympus mirrorless.

OK – so I hope all that is helpful!  Final piece of advice – get out and shoot.  In fact…pick up your camera and go now!!

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On Thursday January 19 2017
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