The Importance Of Speed In Street Photography

Learn to see the shot before it's gone.

The decisive moment can be fleeting at best, my mind is the only medium that’s recorded some of my best shots because my body was too slow to capture them.  One specific shot I will never forget was missed near the Flatiron building in NYC last fall, a fire truck came whizzing past with its lights on and as if in slow motion I look up to see a rough-looking fire fighter with a large cigar hanging out of his mouth, turning the large wheel that controls the tuck and looking back at me as if to say “should have had your camera ready, Sucker”.  Since then, I walk with my camera in the ready position with my finger on the shutter button 99% of the time I have it.  You’ve got to be quick.

The shot above was taken as the man was backing his truck up to the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh.  A second later and he was out of his truck and I’d have missed the shot.  Below is a photograph of a rather large woman resting against the bus stop.  Her large hair and body looked interesting pressed against the glass, a second later and she had moved to an upright position.  These are all moments in time that would have slipped through my fingers had my camera not been in the ready position.

JMB_9702If you are quick enough you can capture candid shots without your subject knowing you were ever there.  If you aren’t quick enough, and they spot you, the shot can still be taken but that candid moment will be lost.  With that being said, sometimes the reaction someone has to having their photo taken is better than a candid shot would be.  The shot below was captured before the subject lifted his head and would have spotted me, he looked to be in a bad mood so he may have been peeved I was taking his picture… I was quick like a bunny and he never knew I was there.


Imagine if you could snap a shot as quickly as you recognize it…  In a blink of an eye you’d have exactly what you saw framed the way you imagined it.  Until Apple invents that, you’ll have to settle for increasing your physical ability to snap a shot quickly and precisely.

Notice I said precisely?  You could walk around town with your camera at your waste and snap shots all day long without anyone knowing, and rather quickly, but most of your shots will end up looking like crap and you will be surprised at how many good ones you completely missed.  Be sure to bring your camera to eye level and compose properly through the viewfinder or LCD screen if you don’t have a viewfinder.  Here are some tips to increase your reaction time:

Tips To Increase Your Speed

  • Always carry your camera in the ready position with your finger on the shutter button.  This means both hands are on the camera, one on the shutter button and one ready to support the camera once you lift it to your eye.
  • Shoot in aperture priority mode.
  • Use auto-focus or zone focus.
  • Use auto ISO (my settings for this are minimum shutter speed of 1/200 and a maximum ISO of 6400).
  • Use drive mode when needed and know the difference (more on that in a future article).  If you have a shot with a fast-moving subject and want them to show in the frame at a precise location it helps to have your camera in drive mode and take multiple shots without having to wait or refocus (if you’re using auto-focus).
  • If you have someone with you ask them to step behind you if you stop suddenly, nothing worse than missing a shot because your friend was in the way.  You will secretly resent them for the rest of your life… waiting for the right moment to strike back.  Or you’ll just shrug it off like a normal human being, don’t be crazy.

Finally, always use your viewfinder if you have one.  Much like a gunfighter in the west, it wasn’t always the fastest person who got the kill shot…  The person who takes that extra split second to aim wins the battle every time.  Take the split second to lift the camera to your face before firing off your shot, if you follow the first tip I wrote above then the camera is already half way there.  You can certainly fire off a few shots as you lift the camera to your eye as well, in fact I recommend it.

Do you know your camera well enough to consider yourself fast with it?  The number one reason photographers miss shots is because they aren’t familiar enough with their camera.  How fast can you change settings on the go?  Most cameras have function buttons that can be programmed to make your workflow as fast as can be, I recommend taking advantage of these.

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