What if you had a crystal ball and you could see the path you’d take as a photographer? “From snap shot to great shot” as they say. What if we could go from those very first days (if you forget what I’m talking about look back at the first photographs you uploaded to your social media machine of choice), skip the growing pains part, and jump right to making professional looking photographs? Don’t get me wrong, that middle part is incredibly important in developing (pun intended) your artistic style as a photographer but many photographers plateau here and they don’t need to.
Let’s take a look at the progression of the average street photographer below and perhaps you’ll be able to avoid a step or two along the way to creating great shots.
Spray And Pray
It’s either excitement or just a lack of style/understanding that causes someone new to Street Photography to take photos in every direction like a sprinkler firing off exposures in a 360 degree circle. Typically these first few weeks or months are spent looking through disappointing results where people heads are cut off, an arm is outside of the frame, or the subject is a blur because you’re still mastering the shutter speed to aperture formula that works best for you.
Low Hanging Fruit
Low hanging fruit refers to the ease at which something is taken… If you were to pick fruit you’d probably opt for grabbing the delectable treats that were dangling right in your face rather than risk falling and breaking your neck trying to climb the tree. Similarly, If you were to browse a beginners street photography portfolio you’d see a lot of the easy stuff:
When you start street photography you read that the ideal focal length is much shorter than if you were taking photos of pretty birds, uncomfortably short in fact. Many street photographers swear by the 35 or 50mm lens because it allows you to get close and still capture some of the surroundings for context. In the beginning though, it’s not unusual for someone to venture out with their 70-200mm lens to comfortably take strangers photographs… I use the word comfortable loosely here because the only person that is comfortable is the photographer, everyone else is wondering why the guy with the camera looks like he’s on a safari with his giant lens.
Street performers are probably the lowest hanging fruit in street photography. Street performers are a great way to get comfortable with taking strangers photographs. Unfortunately, because they’ve been done so many times it’s rare that you’ll walk away with something truly interesting.
Another low hanging fruit for the aspiring street photographer. I recommend people avoiding this unless your end goal is to help the subjects your photographing rather than take advantage of them. On top of the moral reasons you should also be aware that the subjects you photograph may be unstable and cause you harm if they feel like you’re in their personal space.
Shooting From The Hip
This is a style that, even as my skills improve, I employ today. The difference between what I do now and what someone new to the genre does is that I am aware of my composition and can, without looking, frame my subject how I’d like with my camera held around hip level… If you need to be absolutely discreet to preserve a candid moment then this is a good technique to have in your bag of tricks. At this stage of the game though, the “low hanging fruit” stage, photographers can hurt themselves by getting comfortable always shooting like this rather than getting comfortable making images of strangers with the camera at eye level. It’s important to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to improve your skill.
This is phase is like the Bermuda Triangle for photographers… It happens in every genre and it’s probably the most prevalent skill level in photographers. People get stuck here because they either feel they have mastered their craft (and don’t understand why nobody else thinks so) or because they stop pushing themselves.
Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the photo as a judgment that the photograph is good.
– Garry Winogrand
It’s easy to pinpoint this type of Street Photographer, they’re the ones with a Flickr Photostream full of images that look like they walked down the street and randomly photographed individuals and crowds without regard to composition or emotion. They’ll have a few images where they got really close to a subject which makes them feel like they’ve mastered the genre. But their images won’t move you and you’ll quickly forget them.
Here is where it starts to get interesting, this is the phase where you can tell the Street Photographer is really pushing to master his craft. This is where the images start to take on the personality of the photographer and their vision is beginning to be expressed through his or her images. Photographs stop looking random and you start to feel some emotion when you look at their images.
The push is the most important phase in any photographers journey to excellence. This is the phase where you decide that you’re tired of creating images that look like everything else out there.
After we push for a while, really get outside of our comfort zone at times, it’s easy to fall back into the familiar patterns that are comfortable. Maybe you find that a certain type of photograph works really well, silhouettes perhaps, so you focus on taking those day after day after day and pretty soon your portfolio is 90% silhouettes and 10% cat photos.
When I began my other business, as a financial advisor, we used to joke that when we finally found something that really worked we stopped doing it. The path you take as a photographer is not much different from folks starting other businesses or interests, a lot of this is baked into human nature. Being aware of the patterns helps you recognize them and potentially break free of them and live outside of the box.
The Push, The Familiar, The Push, Rinse and Repeat…
Nobody has perfected the art of photography, there will always be someone who comes along and impresses you with their keen eye and ability to capture interesting shots. A great street photographer (or any type of photographer) can only really ask for the continued drive to always strive to be the best version of themselves. This last level is not a bad place to be, you work hard to reduce the amount of time you spend in the familiar but there is no exception, everyone visits the familiar from time to time… It’s comfortable and gives you time to rest.
Once you’ve relaxed a little, shooting in your comfort zone, it’s important to push yourself again… Get uncomfortable and strive for something new and exciting to continue to evolve as a street photographer. Rinse and repeat!
Where are you at in the levels of progression? Is there a level you believe is missing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.