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From capturing the unexpected to anticipating stories

Capturing the moment in street photography requires a delicate balance of intuition and intent. Depending on who you are, you may prefer to use one over the other, and this will undoubtedly impact your style and your photography. At a very basic level, some photographers feel more comfortable finding an appropriate frame to let stories happen, while some are happy to capture images on the go, without pre-defined ideas and nearly no thinking at all. But exploring techniques where we feel less comfortable may just be the right way to take our street photography skills to the next level – and uncover a whole new world of possibilities for our creativity and photography.

When thinking of shooting styles, we can define three distinct methods for capturing the moment based on level of intent:

  • Premeditation – Determining beforehand the scene and possible story in a static frame, and waiting for subjects to create the envisioned story.
  • Anticipation – Anticipating what the story could be in a dynamic, shifting environment, and working the scene intelligently to capture these stories.
  • Awareness – Capturing unexpected stories and encounters on the go, as they reveal themselves, in a moment-by-moment awareness.

 

Premeditation

Premeditation is akin to staging without actors. This first scenario happens when a photographer finds an interesting backdrop and visualizes in his or her mind the image that could be made out of it. It then becomes a simple game of waiting for the ultimate actor(s) – this one unknown person(s) that will bring to life the backdrop through creating interesting patterns, shadow plays, or juxtapositions. In essence, premeditated scenes are often where we begin: it’s the first stage in achieving a minimalist image, or making the most of a static background. It can certainly lead to impactful images, yet one has to consider the time investment. While we wait and wait for the ultimate shot that we have in mind, many opportunities could go by... It’s in essence a game of patience. In my view, there are two major situations where premeditation can work and should be used:

Bringing to life captivating backgrounds

The first circumstance is obvious: the background in itself is interesting, and, combined with a human element, can create an interesting story (if certainly expected in many cases). The background you have chosen may have great architecture which will contrast with your human subject(s), or may have a unique wall art that will create interesting juxtapositions when combined with the right people. In general, many beginners will start there, placing themselves at a distance from the scene, and waiting for the right people to fill in the gap – the story is already in their mind, premeditated, ready to materialize.

Example: I took this first image in Chicago, about three years ago, when I was starting street photography. It was terribly cold that day, so my walk was not going to last long. I went to this area of town where two magnificent bridges cross the Chicago River. As I was reaching the bridge, I immediately saw an opportunity to shoot the few people walking on the other side. I then placed myself where I believed the frame would be most impactful, and shot perhaps 2-3 shots of people. In the meantime, I knew what I wanted: a single person central to the image, connecting with the street light. Another two shots and I was done – I had captured what I had in mind in less than 10 minutes, and got in fact a better shot than I had expected, with a man stooped in the just the right way to symbolize the arc of the bridge. I would define this shot as premeditated, since the frame was defined, and my vision of the final image was already present in my mind.

Defining the frame to let the story unfold

Sometimes, the actual story may not be fully visualized or known by the photographer, but the place, position and angle are already defined to allow such a story to come to life and be captured. In other words, the photographer purposefully defines the frame and lets the story unfold on its own. Why should we restrict ourselves to a single frame, when we could multiply opportunities through looking everywhere else? Because at times, it helps us focus and center ourselves. It may be that the background provides a sense of neutrality from which human stories can be captured without distracting elements. Or it may be that the light provides unique effects on the wall across us, and on people passing by. Whatever this is that attracts your attention and stimulates your imagination, it may be wise to stop and frame if you can foresee a clear opportunity for a story.

Example: While shooting in Notting Hill, I came across this very neutral background, white and simple, with one small tree in front of it. The light was creating interesting shadows around, so I was keen to leverage this space for a few shots. There was a man standing there, right at the intersection between shadows, and he was in himself an interesting subject. However, to create a more dynamic story, I simply waited one minute or two for additional actors to come within the frame. The goal was then to capture the best story given the foundational elements: a man standing on his own, and a set of overwhelming shadows creating a surrealist scene. While I would categorize this shot as premeditated, there is a strong element of intuition required to make these stories happen, since we cannot fully anticipate them or visualize them beforehand. It all depends on what will emerge within the boundaries of the frame.

To successfully take premeditated shots, one has to consider all the parameters of a scene. Working the scene to find the perfect point of view is essential to ensure maximum impact. It also requires imagination: what can this scene become? What images could be striking? And what are the implications on the angle, position and distance? Visualizing the frame in one’s mind is the key – the scene is the set, and you are the director. You just need to make the most of the show at hand.

 

Anticipation

Anticipation is a game of possibilities within a defined, multi-dimensional scene. Because life itself is never static, we will most likely never predict all opportunities potentially emerging in front of us. But we can anticipate some of the stories beforehand, and work the scene until these stories (or others) materialize themselves. Contrary to pure premeditation, the art of anticipation requires to think within environments that are dynamic and constantly shifting, and where the number of possibilities are nearly infinite. What then can we anticipate, and how can we do this? The first step is to define a potential scene/focus. You could be in a park, for example. You could be standing at a street corner, looking in multiple directions. You could even be watching a game played by kids on the street. Whatever this is, in order to anticipate stories successfully, you first need to define the boundaries of the scene that you will consciously work out. It then becomes a game of scanning the environment around you, testing new angles, looking up and down, taking a step back, or a step nearer. This technique is difficult because it requires a good dose of imagination and thinking, while being able to trust your intuition when the time comes to shoot.  But with higher difficulty comes higher rewards, so let’s discuss this technique in more details.

Defining a multi-dimensional scene

As discussed earlier, a great way to use anticipation is to define a limited space where to operate. Think of a space that you can explore whether through walking around, or through standing still looking in multiple directions. This is your set, your multi-dimensional scene. While anything can happen, you will soon realize that you can, in fact, anticipate interesting stories and work your way to materialize these stories. In a confined, limited space, you can start envisioning your story. Light may play an important role, and stories of light & shadows will become predominant. Or you may identify patterns in people’s behaviors in this place – perhaps the way they walk across different layers create interesting scenes to capture, if you are patient enough for all the elements to come together. So the first step is to define boundaries and analyze the area for potential stories.

Example: While shooting in Versailles (a city close to Paris), I came across this old market, surrounded by arcades. The place is empty apart from the week-ends where shops are being set up. The area forms a square, crossed by four roads on each side. I started first to explore the area, and identify the play of lights on the building and the people. I looked carefully at the people coming by, who they were, where they were headed – trying to narrow down the scope of possible stories to be better prepared. I realized that many passer-by were by themselves, usually crossing very fast as the air was very cold. That’s how I started to anticipate and visualize the type of stories that could happen, right now, and right there. It was only natural then to capture this old lady as she passed by me, giving me a great image to take back.

Working the scene to anticipate further stories

For most places, however, it can be harder to anticipate stories on the spot. You will need to look further, go beyond the obvious, and find a more specific angle for your story (literally and non-literally!). How you work the scene will determine whether you can successfully anticipate the next best story to come. This is very simple: ideas come as you move around, discover new angles, and identify new possibilities. It’s often the case of a missed opportunity (either a shot you failed to take, or an idea that failed to materialize) that will give you the inspiration for your next best shot. In essence, anticipation requires curiosity, and the drive to explore the world around you. The more aware you become of the possibilities, the better your mind can anticipate the next big moment when all elements will come together.

Example: While shooting in Japan, I was fascinated by the sheer number of people walking in every direction – a massive crowd of human beings moving from one place to another, from one platform to another, from one sidewalk to another. At the exit of a train station, I started shooting people going up the platform, from several angles. But this was never right – my idea of a powerful crowd was never coming to life. So I turned around and explored, and came to this particular vantage point where I could see people’s feet moving up and down. I didn’t know what would happen there, but I sensed that it was a vantage point that could give me some new possibilities, so I stayed a little while. And when the little boy came into the picture, I shot. And that was it. I had created a story from scratch.

So to summarize: In order to successfully anticipate stories, you need three elements: 1. Geographical boundaries defining the limits of the scene that you will explore, 2. An initial analysis of what stories this scene can give to you, 3. A deeper exploration of the area to stimulate your imagination and bring to life potential stories. And remember: shooting styles are infinite in themselves. Some photographers will actively walk around to understand and form an idea in their mind, while others will decide to stay still – not going after the story, but letting the story come to them, from multiple directions. Both techniques can work, as long as you think hard enough about the possibilities that may emerge in front of you.

 

Awareness

Premeditation and anticipation are great techniques in street photography, and will definitely yield some impactful images. However, in practice, thinking/intent is not always possible. Many shots appear in front of us unexpected, and almost unwanted. At these moments, this is our intuition (or our instinct in other words) that takes over our thinking. It’s no longer a matter of intent and purpose – it is a leap of faith in ourselves, in the world, and in the unknown. Awareness is just as critically important to street photographers as any other technique, but this is probably the hardest to master because of its reliance on intuition. I am sure that it sometimes happens to you that you come up with an insight or a solution without knowing how. Intuition works like this – it skips normal steps, seems hard to reproduce, and feels a little magical. Yet there is nothing random or lucky about intuition. It’s just one out of two ways we capture information from the world: the first one being the most common 5 senses, and the second one being this so-called 6th sense. As everything else, intuition can be nurtured. It can grow and work faster, better, smarter for us. And it can be used to capture totally unexpected street images that are forming in front of us in less than a millisecond. Let’s look in this technique a little further.

Seizing stories and opportunities as they come

So how do you, technically, seize stories on the go? By letting go first. Letting go of your thinking, of your judgment. You need to move from doing to being – a state of mind where you can fully experience the world, as it is, in the moment. The second thing to think about is NOT to think. Just shoot – whatever the results. It doesn’t matter if it sucks, but it will make a huge difference if it happens to be at least remarkable in some ways. Try it. There is something liberating in letting oneself be surprised, and opportunities can come from every corner. This makes the game so much more interesting.

Example: One favorite shooting style of mine is to capture people as they pass by me, when I find them interesting in some ways, when their attitudes stand out, or when their expression say something. I never think too much, and I don’t often take more than one shot of a person. I constantly scan the environment as I walk pretty fast, and decide in a second whether something worthwhile is happening. With a little bit of practice, I can feel the people, the way they will turn their head, their floating hair, the expression in their eyes. And by closing my eyes I can imagine them of all kind, everywhere and nowhere, coming at me – at times surprised, angry, happy, dreaming. So when I do open my eyes, I am ready for the moment – whoever they are, I will see them and shoot at the same time, with no second thought, never questioning why. I will shoot. And we will see later.

Developing a mindful approach to street photography

Moment by moment awareness is difficult to master, this comes without saying. Yet, think about it. How many times did you make your best image when you least expected it? Probably more than you think. And the more you try, the more you’ll develop your intuition who will be doing all the work for you. No more hesitation, just purposeful mindfulness. Where to start? Choose a day where you have no defined expectation in mind. No plan. No pre-conceived idea of the shot you can get, of the scene you should work out. And get out feeling free to shoot whatever comes by – not following an agenda, but letting the world guide you. Walk here and there, do not think, do not try. Just watch around you, and practice shooting in the moment. This is as easy as that.

Example: This particular image was taken when the weather was grey, no light in the sky, not even interesting people around. I was following my husband across Notting Hill, but it was overall discouraging. Still, I put myself into awareness mode, and starting shooting strangers in multiple directions and angles, as they were passing by. I suddenly saw this lady, and decided to kneel down to see what the reflection could look like. At the moment I was down on my knees, she had seen me and looked back. I shot – right away. This was my only take. I was far from imagining the image that it would give in fact, I just purely followed my instinct. And I find that more and more, I need this dose of intuition to help me see beyond the visible, the planned, the expected. To help me see beyond my five senses.

In summary, awareness is akin to letting go – letting go of your hopes and fears, of what you’ve been told and what you may believe. Letting go for an instant to become part of the world and embrace opportunities as a second nature. Awareness is being, and it feels very much liberating at times, especially when too many thoughts clutter our minds, make us doubt ourselves, and deprive us of our creativity. But it is also, essentially, the way to capture the unexpected – what you cannot possibly anticipate, and yet, which will reveal itself moment by moment, anywhere and anytime.

Whatever you choose to practice, do remember that there is no one way to capture stories. So go and explore beyond your comfort zone, pushing yourself to try new techniques. You will see the results, and it may surprise you.