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Storytelling in street photography: 5 rules for embracing the moment

Capturing the moment is a matter of seconds, even less. There are so many parameters and variables to take into consideration that it can sometimes feel impossible to achieve; and when we finally get that perfect shot, we may tend to believe that we’ve been lucky. Well, believing so is a mistake. Luck is important of course, but ultimately, it is your attitude to openness and possibilities that will determine your success. In other words, let’s give “chance” a chance to come upon us by choosing the right state of mind.

In this short chapter, I wanted to bring to your attention 5 rules that I believe will enhance your journey into street photography. By following those rules, you will start to see so much more than what you’ve seen so far: not relying only on luck, but on yourself, on your inner capability to seize opportunities, and to capture this ultimate story. So trust yourself, first and foremost. Be fearless, be focused, be ready. The world is made of so many opportunities – we just need to look around and be brave enough to seize them.

Key rules:

  1. Become fearless
  2. Never lose focus
  3. Forget the technique
  4. Fail often, try again
  5. Embrace mindfulness

Rule #1: Become fearless

Easier said than done, granted. It took me two years to learn to be fearless – fearless of people, of the rain, of the night. It’s natural to fear, but it won’t take you anywhere. Eventually, it only deters you from enjoying the experience, and will fill you with never-ending regrets.

The key is to understand that nothing bad can really happen to you: slowly, by getting a little more fearless every day, you’ll discover treasures of bravery in you. And little by little, you won’t fear anymore – but it takes time and determination! In practice, you will meet a range of emotions from the people that you shoot without prior authorization. Don’t let yourself be deterred by that – just smile, and move on. From experience, they most likely won’t run after you.

This shot for me represents a turning point. I was shooting at a distance for quite a while, until I got bored with my own fear. I positioned myself very close to that woman, drenched by the rain and half hidden by the night, and I got one of my favorite shots ever. The woman looked at me, surprised at first, annoyed next. What I did? I moved on. I just smiled, and moved on. And I left my old fears behind, forever.

Rule #2: Never lose focus

Opportunities can arise everywhere, at the most unexpected moments – there’s so much you can do to anticipate that particular instant when all elements will come together, perfectly, and meaningfully. Therefore, talented photographers remain focused all the time when they’re out shooting: they let go of distractions that may take them away from that perfect story.

When I am out shooting, I sometimes feel that nothing else exists but me and my camera. My eyes keep scanning the environment looking for opportunities, while my mind is immersed in a fantasy world of my own: a world where new stories come to life.

Yes, I have learned to remain focused, at all time. When I saw the opportunity to shoot that little girl in the bus in San Francisco, I pre-focused my camera on her, and waited for her to turn her head. When the flow of light came by the window, I shot instantly. I had no idea that the bus would turn at the next crossroad, allowing light to flow in freely. But I was ready, and I was focused.

Rule #3: Forget the technique

Street photography is a matter of half seconds – rarely more than that. During that period of time, you need to focus, compose, and trigger the shot. This is why shooting in manual is almost impossible for most street photographers: you just do not have the time to adjust that many settings. Think of it this way: you may be quick enough to adjust one variable – whether this is speed, ISO, aperture, focal lengths or focus distance is your choice. The second variable is your own body: getting closer, getting lower, changing your viewpoint…

All this also takes time. Therefore, I would highly recommend to minimize the technique when doing street photography. Focus on seeing the picture, rather than achieving technical perfection – and as importantly, let go of your old manual habits or you will systematically miss the moment.

Like many of the shots that I have taken with my Canon 60D, this image was shot using a large aperture (f2.8), and automatic speed and ISO. My only decision was to come closer or not, which I decided against to keep the meaningful context of the crowd of customers. The waitress disappeared 2 seconds after, which was just enough time to get that image.

Rule #4: Fail often, try again

Waiting for the perfect shot before shooting the trigger will only get you that far. So many good shots have come from less than perfect circumstances, from an intuition of good shots – but definitely not certainty of it. Because there are so many variables that we can’t possibly anticipate, we are bound to fail often. However, if you don’t give it a try, what are the odds of success?

I truly believe that this is through trying and practicing that we can get better results. Consistency in the effort is at least as important as talent in street photography: so go out and try. Don’t be afraid to fail, it’s ok. We fail often, and we try again. 

I personally shoot a lot – taking maybe 300 shots per 1.5 hour session. A really small proportion of those will ever see the light of the day, of course, but I am often surprised to see how some of the less “wow” shots can turn out to be on my computer. In fact, I rarely know what will make a great shot vs. an average one before actually taking the shot, and sometimes after analyzing the entire scene at home.

Rule #5: Embrace mindfulness

Mindfulness means being in the present – not looking in the past, not thinking of the future, but being, physically and psychologically, in the present and the present only. What this means for a street photographer is simple: stay open to the unexpected, the unpredictable. Never expect anything, just watch and see; this is by doing so that we can let miracles happen.

If you go out with a clear and preconceived idea of the perfect scene, what are the odds that you will find it? Not only will you wait for something that will never happen, but you will fail to see other opportunities arising all around you. If you know so badly what you want, why don’t you stage it? There is no value in trying to force destiny: things happen, or they don’t. Instead, anchor yourself in the present moment, and let the world surprise you.

This is by practicing mindfulness that I was able to take this shot – not consciously realizing its potential, but intuitively feeling that a story was born. I had never attempted to take this type of shot before, but the idea came to me right when the bus was passing in front of this woman. I took one single shot, it was the right one.

And never forget the rule of all rules: Never take it for granted. Keep in mind that you’ll be told many things in street photography, but that only you can know if that’s relevant to what you want to achieve. So never forget that: you’re in control of your art. Do whatever you like, cross all boundaries, deny fundamental rules. Play and experiment. Never surrender to the biggest voice in town.

Have a good day, and to the next chapter!