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How Can I Improve at Street Photography?

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


Recently I was travelling on an intercity train. I had some time to spare before departure so I decided to people watch and see if there were any potential photographs. After watching commuters come and go for some time I realised that I could stay there all day taking photographs and still not come away with anything worthwhile.


Why do I say this?


Although there were lots of people they were just doing everyday things and there was literally ‘nothing interesting to report’ in terms of street photography.


This often happens and this is what makes street photography a difficult genre of photography to perfect. Indeed, I often watch POV videos from experienced street photographers and wonder why they took a certain photograph as to me it didn’t show anything of interest. Often they are demonstrating the fact that good street images are not easy to come by, and often it is only when I look again that I see – something funny, an interesting juxtaposition, bold or matching colours, two subjects that mirror each other, an unusual stance or expression, a layered image – and I realise that interesting things will not appear and invite us to take their photograph. We have to work at seeing them, and that’s what these photographers have tried to do.


checking the timetable

Sometimes facial expressions can tell an interesting story.


So, how can I improve at street photography?


I recently wrote a post about what I consider the point of street photography to be, and I do believe it is a very worthwhile type of photography. But when I am faced with getting an individual photograph how do I make it meaningful? How do I make it impactful?


In his forward to a book by street photographer Matt Stuart, entitled Think Like a Street Photographer, Derren Brown said that Stuart, ‘lifts a veil of drabness from the world to disclose unfamiliar, arresting moments’.


How does he do that, and is it possible for all of us to find those unfamiliar, arresting moments?

The frustration I feel with street photography is not unusual. One of the most well-known street photographers, Alex Webb, said that ’street photography is 99.9 per cent about failure’ and that he often felt ‘defeated by the street’.


Obviously, as an amateur photographer, I am not going to go out to do street photography and immediately capture a worthwhile image. But there are some things I can do that will help make my photos more meaningful, lower my failure rate and help me improve at street photography.


If you are experiencing frustration with your street photography, don’t despair. It happens to everybody but there are some things you can try that might help you come home with a few more meaningful street images.


#1 BE PATIENT – THE PICTURES WILL COME


Patience is required for all types of photography. We will seldom arrive at a location, see a great image before us, and capture an amazing shot. However, in street photography we need to be patient over many outings. I have gone out many times, or been in places where I might have expected to get a decent image, and come home with nothing worthwhile. I have had to accept that this is the nature of street photography and tell myself there is always next time. What I have discovered is that good images do occasionally happen and that patience does pay off eventually.


#2 BE ALERT - WORK AT SEEING


I think many of us are guilty of looking but not seeing. I certainly am. But we need to work on seeing if we are to find interesting images on the streets. We need to be constantly on the alert, paying attention, on the look-out for potential images. We almost need to predict what is going to happen so that we are there, with our camera at the ready.


The image below is an example. I looked across the street and saw the purple flower. I thought, 'someone passing by wearing purple would be good'. I looked further along the street and spotted this man in a purple jumper coming along. I knew he was about to pass the flower; all I needed was a gap in the traffic before he had passed by, and I almost got that.


Matching purple

In the next image I saw the green van parked along the street. As I walked on, I saw the girl with a bright green jacket coming towards it. I turned and followed her to capture the image.


matching green

Because I was on the lookout, alert for potential photos around me, I was able to react quickly and capture something with some interest attached. Neither of these is a great image but it’s not always the resulting image that’s important; it’s the fact that I saw something and was able to capture it. It was a combination of good luck (In the first case I waited for another person dressed in purple to come along, to make a better image, but no-one did), the fact that I was thinking about what might make a good image as I walked along, and that I was fortunate enough to have my camera at the ready, that resulted in the image, but it gives me confidence that being alert to my surroundings will eventually produce results.



it's a wrap

In the case of this image, I thought that spotting the juxtaposition of the sign advertising 'wrap of the day' with the discarded wrapping paper served to underline my point about keeping alert and on the lookout for interesting things. Watching for these type of connections is an important part of street photography.



#3 KEEP PRACTISING


There really is no substitute for practice. If you keep telling yourself that there’s no point in going out because you never see anything interesting, then you’ll be less and less likely to see anything interesting when you do go out. You have to be in for the long haul. I have been guilty of deciding that street photography is not for me because I don’t see anything worth taking. Then I change my thinking, realise that I need to work on seeing, and I keep getting out there and practising my craft.


Matt Stuart agrees that really good pictures don’t come around very often, stating that in a good year he might come away with as few as ten ‘keepers’ (Think Like a Street Photographer p.30). It is for this reason that Stuart advocates putting in the hours, pounding the streets, because, as he says, although good pictures are difficult to come by, ‘if you’re out there trying, you are far more likely to get lucky’.


To finish...

I am going to repeat something that I have said before and it’s certainly true for me – getting good street images is not easy. But we can improve at street photography if we can be patient, get out onto the streets often and train ourselves to really see what is around us. These are the starting blocks for improvement and they will pay off.


If you would like some further tips on how to improve at street photography, you might be interested in this video from street photographer Mike Chudley.

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