Street photography obviously requires a camera; and the easiest way to get used to carrying your camera on the street is, well, simply to carry it on the street. But – here’s the trick – don’t take pictures of people. At least, not at first. Or at least, not deliberately. If they are in the picture, that’s fine, but you don’t want them as the principal subject. Get used to spotting compositions and shapes; and then, when you see them, to framing and focusing quickly and shooting. You have to be comfortable with your camera: you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by endlessly fiddling with it, by staring through the viewfinder for ages, and then by chimping.
You don’t need to work quickly at first. Your aim is to learn to operate the camera almost instinctively, and the best way to do that is practice. Photograph anything and everything. Of course this is much cheaper and easier with digital than with film, though one of the big advantages of film is that you don’t get immediate feedback.
If this sounds like a paradox, look at it this way. When you take a picture, you have an idea of how you want it to turn out. When you see the image, you can see how closely the picture corresponds to what you wanted. With film, there’s an intermediate stage, during which the idea and the memory can mature, sharpening the distinction between the intention and the results. Also, you can’t delete the picture on the spot, on a whim; you can pay decent attention to it when you get home.
With practice, you may be able to alternate between taking pictures and analysis or self-criticism, but they are two separate skills: at least at first, it’s better to concentrate on just one at a time. Sure, on one level, the combined intellectual, aesthetic and technical challenges of street photography are what’s enjoyable. But on another, there’s no point in making life difficult for yourself, in overloading yourself with new things to think about.
The inability to chimp is another advantage of film, especially in street photography. Checking the image on the back of the camera makes you conspicuous. Very few people ever mind – I doubt I’ve been challenged a dozen times in almost half a century of street photography – but equally, if you can reduce the chance of their doing so, it has to be to the good. It also gives you more shooting time, and less explaining time: you can lose a lot of shots while you’re talking. It’s almost impossible not to check at least the exposure on the back of a digital camera, but if at all possible you need to train yourself not to do so, or at least, merely to glance in passing at the histogram as you lower the camera from your eye.
This picture was shot in Bath in about 1980, as far as I can remember with an MPP Microflex, a British copy of the Rolleiflex TLR; though it might have been a Hasselblad, because I bought both at around the same time, the Hasselblad to use professionally and the MPP out of curiosity. As it turned out, I never really got along with either for street photography, because I didn’t like looking down onto a laterally reversed image on a “waist level” finder: really chest level, of course, or cricked-neck-eye-level when the magnifier is flipped up for focusing.
This is another important lesson, which brings me back to where I started. You have to be comfortable with your camera, as well as familiar with it. On the one hand, it’s true that you can get used to almost anything. On the other, it’s equally true that some cameras are much easier to get on with than others – and that the camera which suits you best won’t necessarily be the same camera that suits me best. Treat all recommendations, therefore, with a modest degree of suspicion; and remember that often, the more ardent the recommendation, the less knowledgeable the person making it. Just about any camera can be used for street photography, but I’ll come back to that in another column.
We all work in our own ways, with our own kit, so all we can do is pick and choose from the endless array of advice that is open to us. If anything I have said here is useful, act upon it. If it is not: well, ignore it, and pay attention to someone else.
You can see more from Roger on his website – Roger Hicks