Don’t let fear ruin your Street Photography.

There’s an awful lot of bad Street Photography floating around the Internet. Facebook groups and photo web forums filled with dull image of people walking down the street or standing talking on their mobile phones or, worse still, the backs of people walking down the street. Some of this, I’m sure, is simply the result of poor photography. The barriers to entry for Street Photography are very low. Got a mobile phone, live near a street? You can do photography in the street, even if you have no understanding of what makes an interesting photograph. But lack of photographic ability is not the only cause of bad Street Photography, at least it certainly wasn’t for me when I started out. One of the biggest causes is fear.

Fear of taking the shot

I spend a lot of time thinking about my photography. Not just about the pictures I want to take but also about the ones I have already taken. Am I getting better or worse? What did I do wrong and how can I improve in the future? One of the problems I recognised quite early was that, while shooting on the streets, I was afraid to take the shot. I would see something interesting about to happen but I would hesitate. I was worried I would miss the shot, I was worried my camera settings weren’t right, I was worried that my subject or someone else would notice me and react badly. All of this would go through my head and I would hesitate…. until it was too late. The moment had passed, the scene had shifted …. and then I pressed the shutter. The result was the back of someone walking away or a poorly composed shots of a potentially interesting subject obscured by the out of focus arse of a random passer-by.

Exception Alert: Photographs of people’s backs do work in certain situations.

  • Body Language – the subjects body language is clear enough to tell you what they are feeling.
  • You know something they don’t – Something interesting is happening that may impact on them but which they are unaware of – but you aren’t.
  • Joint viewer – They are not the real subject of the image but, like you, they are observing the real subject.
Street scene. Elgin Street, Hong Kong
The group at bottom right with their backs to the camera are joint viewers.

Luckily I have always been very critical of my own work. I am usually able to admit that I did not get the shot I wanted, that the resulting image isn’t as good as the one I envisioned…. hell just admit it, it’s bad. It is speedily despatched to the Recycle bin or locked away in a dungeon to be visited only when I want to remind myself of all the things that can go wrong while shooting. Unfortunately it seems there are many people out there who aren’t as good at burying their mistakes. The result is the vast array of bad photographs similar to those described above that are flooding onto the Internet daily. Many of these images are accompanied by something I refer to as the “post script”. An often lengthy treatise written by the photographer on all the interesting features of the subject or a description of the really interesting things  their subject was doing just before the image was captured; all of which are absent from the actual image. The post script is not a commentary/critique of what is in the image or why you like it, nor is it necessary context for the image; it is an explanation of the things you failed to capture that would have made the image good. As such it’s a clear sign that the shot was a failure.

Fear of missing the shot

Unfortunately, once you have overcome your fear of taking the shot there is an even more insidious enemy laying in wait at the next street corner – Fear of missing the shot. It’s a little more difficult to diagnose because it shares some of the hallmarks of bad photography – namely poorly composed or boring images. But it is not a lack of photographic skill that is causing the issue, it is fear of missing the shot. I remember being worried that if I took the time to compose the shot I wanted, or moved to eliminate a compositional problem, I would miss the shot. But the counter argument to that is that if you don’t wait for the decisive moment and you don’t compose the image properly you end up with a mediocre photograph that doesn’t properly show the decisive moment.

But what happens if, while you are composing the shot, the subject moves off or stop doing whatever it is, before you can get that great shot. Well, you just saved yourself from taking a mediocre photograph.

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