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“Street photography” is sometimes hard to define, thanks to the critics and the medium. I rely on my own conviction when defining the term. To me, it means capturing regular happenings, with the objective of transporting a moment to eyes that typically ignore what's going on in their own surroundings. Certain scenes tend to repeat, no matter what country or city you are in. I will talk about three of them in this article, but I'm sure there are tons of others that are not unique to one geographical location.
You have to remember certain rules of street photography. The one that must always be in your mind is technique, which allows you to approach subjects in a more inconspicuous way. It’s no secret that discreet gear always looks unthreatening, and it has produced great things in the history of street photography. The two indispensable tools are:
- Small cameras: will help you remain stealthier and help you fit into the urban context.
- Wide-angle lenses: anything from 24mm to 50mm will work fine. These will push you to get close to your subjects and, with a little practice, allow you to shoot scenes without lifting your camera to your eye. By adding a tiltable screen, you can get even more control of the composition, without raising the camera to your eye.
It's extremely satisfying when you can lay low and still physically see through your camera lens. For this, you have to learn how to pass unnoticed, either by crouching or being really fast.
Unfortunately, photographers taking photographs of people in public places without their consent can be somewhat controversial. This, by definition, is candid photography, and certain communities can be touchy about it. My advice is to do some research in online forums about any restrictions that might when taking candid photos in certain countries.
Photographing the Vulnerable Respectfully
This is perhaps not a scene, but it's a constant in a lot of places. It often triggers the appetite of somebody with a camera on the streets. But stop. You must be respectful when doing this. You need to understand the condition of vulnerable people, not denigrate them.
There are certain rules of composition, like Point of View, that can enhance or diminish a person's identity. The classic example here is when shooting a homeless person in the street; there is a big difference in the message when you see the same person from different points of view. High-angle shots of vulnerable people project a sense of denigration and increase the person’s vulnerability. Low-angle shots have a great impact on the human qualities of a person. Normal-angle shots provide a non-altered view of reality. But be sure to think about what you’re doing and how you’re affecting people before you go down this path.
Public transportation is full of stories. Period. You might be a regular user of public transportation and might have taken for granted this great quotidian scene in which a great number of the city’s people come into contact. If you’re not a regular transit user, start being one. Let's take metro systems, for example. You have a lot of things going on.
You can record a lot of unseen stories by documenting the early-hour action of both passengers and employees in the public transportation system. You can find people waiting for their line on metro stations, submerged in their own thoughts, driven by time and the everyday rush. There are certain subway stations or bus stations that permit musicians and various artists to perform in their facilities, or nearby. Capture the subway-train ambience, the moment in which you are already traveling on the subway. You can also work on the surface by watching people coming out of stations or going into them.
Alexey Titarenko is a master of not taking public transportation for granted. You can see what I'm talking about by seeing his work “A City of Shadows”. He has this amazing world vision in which he has combined slow shutter-speed photography – similar to that used in landscapes to capture milky waters or subtle motions of nature – to portray the sleeping greatness that lives behind the quotidian of public transportation.
It’s important for any street photographer to know how to dive into a crowd. You will be overwhelmed by the unstoppable river of scenes that pass by your eyes. You’ll want to capture everything, but you can’t. That’s why you need to know how to approach a crowd. There is always a lot going on in this endless river of people in cities.
The first thing you need to do is just walk. Walk with the flow, walk against it, and learn to feel its pace. And after you have warmed your eye to this endless buffet of scenes passing in front of your eyes, you’ll start to focus on the stories that matter the most to you. The trick is to remain unnoticed and not to look like a tourist. Learn how to be a local. Shoot from the hip, shoot using your favorite lens, but remember to remain unspotted.
Extra Tip: Shoot from the Hip
Learn your gear. Learn how to shoot even when you are not looking through the viewfinder or digital screen. The best way to be inconspicuous is to shoot from the hip. This needs practice, because you first need to know exactly how much of the scene you’re cropping from that point of view. You also need to know how to aim it using little tweaks of your wrist. This is an element that needs practice – but when walking around a city, it can give you great results and truly candid shots.