Street Photography is an Attitude
More than anything Street Photography is an attitude, it is an openness to being amazed by what comes your way, it is unlearning the habit of categorising and dismissing the everyday as being ‘just the everyday’ and beginning to recognise that extraordinary, beautiful and subtle stories are occurring in front of you everyday of your life if you can see them. I actually think you can be a Street Photographer without a camera and without making photographs, it is really just the more insecure Street Photographers like myself that actually have to record and show off their ability to ‘see’.
How many other forms of photography essentially have ‘wonder’ at their heart? That’s what makes Street Photography almost a spiritual process for many because it is so personal and so akin to a kind of photographic enlightenment. Street Photography helps me understand the nature of my society and my place in it, I do it more for myself than I do for an external audience and like Buddhist enlightenment I do achieve a happiness through gaining that understanding. I have certainly experienced ‘Matrix’ like moments of revelation when in a public place when I see things, moments just reveal themselves because I have put myself in the right situation for it to happen.
Replacing your own Head
If you must actually take a camera onto the streets then a high degree of dexterity will be required to ‘see’ things and at the same time coordinate the device to make a visual record. Simplicity is the key, keep your equipment small, quiet and uncomplicated. You need one body and one lens, you won’t have time for zooming so prime lenses are best and you are more invisible closer with a short lens than you are further away with a long lens. I advise sleeping with your camera, carry it everywhere, know it’s weight and it’s feel in your hand, know how to hold it easily and steadily with one hand, learn how far back your lens places you from a subject on the pavement, learn how much depth of field you get at each f stop, decide how much noise is acceptable to you and shoot close to its iso threshold, get a feel for its slight shutter delay, know how far the lens barrel turns from the near to the far side of the pavement. Make this camera so much part of you that even thinking of buying a new one would be akin to replacing your own head.
In the early days, don’t set out to make a certain kind of picture, just make lots of pictures for weeks or months and pull out the ones that strike you as special even if you can’t initially identify why. As time passes and you are patient, passionate and dedicated you will be able to lay these striking images out together and if you are lucky you will see your own natural vision emerge and you can call yourself a Street Photographer and perhaps an artist. The last thing you should do is to try to make pictures like Bruce Gilden (just don’t) or try to make pictures like Alex Webb or Cartier Bresson or Matt Stuart. As soon as you adopt others strategies in the street you start to blinker your own natural vision ever so slightly and that would be a shame.
Street Photography is primarily a spiritual and intellectual activity, it takes great awareness, mental presence, self confidence and faith, it’s like courting a beautiful girl or a large bull….the exposing of a photograph at the end is just the last blunt physical act that completes the process, it is a mistake to apply too much weight to that last part.
As a Street Photographer you are different, you are not like the others, you are an oddity both in society and in photography. In society you are odd because you are just standing their looking whilst everyone rushes past to their next shopping experience or intake of salty, sugary, fatty food. In photography you are odd because your motivation is not financial and you don’t go to photo trade shows unless it’s to people watch. You are really not part of either world, it can be lonely not talking about equipment and bags and not oiling the wheels of retail….if it weren’t for online street photography forums you could feel isolated like some lonely eccentric.
Stop dismissing the everyday and realise that it is your very subject.
OK, Street Photographers are not the Jedi Knights of photography but as you spend more and more time on the streets watching and shooting you do develop an instinct for what is about to happen or where you should probably be standing which can definitely lead to a higher hit rate. If the pictures aren’t coming, try just photographing non pictures, any corner that’s busy or just snapping every passer by to get you looking and tuned in a little. Look around for anything at all that doesn’t happen on that spot all day everyday, this could be a shop refurbishment, a road sweeper working his way along with a brush, scaffolding going up, a UPS delivery, anything small that could provide a background element or develop into something unexpected. Work one place for a long period so that you can see what happens there, the same bus with a travel advert that passes at 20 past the hour every hour, lights that stop the traffic with a nice reflection in the window from Advertising hoardings….you must stop dismissing the everyday and realise that it is your very subject.
A tour bus that passes every 15 minutes becomes a repeating opportunity in London.
….or in New York City.
I’ve been following your blog since I found out about you and your work few months back and have been totally astonished by your work. I’ve seen it online and most notably from the ‘Street Photography Now’ book. It’s just amazing how you’re able to capture all of it in such an exact moment and I always refer to it for inspiration and get myself back on track.
It’s very frustrating sometimes when one can’t seem to get a certain moments to unfold but your post today made a lot of sense and further serves as both informative and inspiring.
Appreciate you sharing your perspective and thoughts to everyone and as usual, looking forward to more posts from you though it seems you’ve been slowing down quite a bit 🙂
I love this post. It describes so well the feeling I have when I’m out shooting. I love the wonder of the ordinary, the amazing beauty on the faces of strangers as I catch their expressions of joy or busyness or introspection or love or companionable silences. The very process enriches and nourishes my soul in much the same way as hearty stew and fresh bread satisfies my body.
This article is my practice!
Thanks for sharing your experience and advice with the community. Street photography is, lately, the way I understand my world!
You spin a phrase rather well, you do. Always a pleasure.
Nick, this is a great post – I’ll read it often. Cheers.
A really great post, and I agree with everything you say, especially the stuff about constantly observing and composing even when you don’t have a camera, about not consciously copying other street photographers’ styles, and about “tuning in”. I guess as I can recognise some of these practices in myself I must be on the right track 😉
And as a more general comment, I must say I always find your posts very insightful and considered – certainly the most well-written street photographer around!
very interesting and useful. one point and it’s one that so many people go on about. How is it that one is more invisible up close with a small camera and lens and more visible far away with a long lens. surely the opposite is true? or I should say I find it so. Just today I used a 70-200 for a while on the street and was seen by very very few people. Then I used a 24-70 (another myth: with practise it is rare to miss a moment because of a zoom) and it seemed just about every second person saw me. That is partly to do with me I know but on the whole I am noticed far less when I am further away with a long lens than with a short one close up. And I have been doing it for a long while now.
But some really good advice about attitude I really liked in this post. You are exactly right it is the everyday that is our subject. And my motto is There are no ordinary moments!
thank you for the post…keep it up please!!
Nice post, I am getting back into my street photography, I stopped doing it for what seems like an eternity. So much you forget when you haven’t done any for awhile.
Thanks for inspiring me to get back out there 🙂
[…] do you develop your vision or style? And how do you know if you’ve found it? Street photographer Nick Turpin has written a good blog post about this very notion. He suggests that taking lots of pictures over a long period of time and […]
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