Robin’s less obvious street photography tips…

Despite the recent explosion of street photography related content and images, there are very few new and original ideas being explored. Phrases like “the decisive moment”, “if your photograph is not good enough, you are not close enough”, and “F8 and be there” have become clichés in articles on street photography tips and tricks. There is no dearth of self-proclaimed gurus or street photography masters, all offering wise advice, suggestions and must-do checklists to magically guarantee you an upgrade to the next level of artistic progression. I, on the other hand, take a more practical and no nonsense approach to street shooting. In this article, I share my thoughts on street photography – thoughts which may not be considered mainstream.

1. I am a human being first, photographer second. 
I came across this saying by a journalist who had witnessed the horrors of war and decided that there were times the camera should be put aside. Unfortunately I cannot recall the source, but I find it just as applicable today and in settings that aren’t scenes of war. I have witnessed too many guerrilla-style street photographers ambushing their victims with ultra wide angle lenses just inches away from their faces and blinding them with a direct burst of flash into their eyes. When these people, who no doubt feel violated and annoyed, confront the photographers, they are greeted with verbal assault and a stubborn insistence on photographer’s rights in public spaces. I always encourage anyone who follows me on my street shooting sessions to be respectful and polite. If a subject doesn’t want to be photographed, for whatever reason, just smile, apologize if necessary, and move on. There is no need to get aggressive over a street portrait. Would you be happy with a photograph of an unwilling subject? Is photography not a documentation of humanity in its different forms?

2. You win some, you lose some
The most popular mistake I have observed of many newcomers to street photography is their attempts to capture everything in a single session. They fret over different lens choices, different compositions and worry on missing out on the decisive moment. I think it is important to realize that you cannot, and should not shoot everything. You will miss some critical shots, and that’s fine. Instead of shooting as many images as possible, try to have more specific goals for each session? Having more selective subjects to work on can help focus your energy on generating consistent results and improving your hit rate. Give yourself a theme to play with – like shadows, hands, motion or focusing on specific geometric shapes on the street. Work with one lens if possible and minimize your shooting variables. Again, even if you do not come home with a lot of keepers, don’t beat yourself up. Street photography is partly a game of chance and you aren’t lucky all the time.

3. Know your location
I’m frequently asked why I keep returning to the same shooting spot over and over again? I have done Chow Kit, Pudu and Petaling Street so many times that people start to think that I’ve lost my marbles. But knowing your location is important in street photography. I need to know the layout of the streets like it was the back of my hand and I need to know exactly how the light and shadows fall at each street and turn. This knowledge gives me the power and control I need over composition and spotting the right moment. I can only achieve this by constantly visiting the same spot again and again. If you are passionate about shooting flowers and you want to shoot the best flower photographs in the world you may have to shoot the same flower ten thousand times before you achieve your goal. A lot of street photographers are focusing energy on their shooting technique and choice of gear but almost completely neglect knowledge of their shooting location.

4. What you shoot matters
People often ask me about the EXIF data or the lens that I used for certain shots. The truth is, this information does not matter as much as people think and do not make or break shots. Instead of focusing on what the best lens or techniques and settings are, first ask yourself “what to shoot?”. A good street photograph has a strong subject. It can be something as simple as visually interesting patterns on a building, or a shadow of a human crossing a road. Either the subject tells a compelling story or the content itself is dramatic enough in nature to create energy for the shot. You can start by shooting the things that attracted your attention in the first place. Shoot what moves you. Then you will begin to identify what you like to work with on the street and will start developing your own style of shooting. It does not matter how many megapixels you have, how sharp your image is or how clean your high ISO files are, if you have a weak subject, it is still a bad photograph.

5. The most important thing to remember – enjoy what you do
I have seen too many street photographers obsessing on what their peers will think of their shots, or doing all they can to improve themselves to gain acknowledgement. While a desire to take your game to the next level is good, you should not forget to have fun too. I do street photography because I love it – simple as that. I love being out there and interacting with people. I enjoy the peaceful long walks in the morning before it gets too hot in this tropical Malaysian weather. I like the feeling of astonishment and wonder when I come across a rare photography opportunity, and the feeling of accomplishment from nailing an image is priceless. There is no point worrying about what others think of your shots and letting that ruin your session. Do what you want to do and most importantly, do it for yourself. Be true to yourself, and others may see your unique identity in your photography work.

I was not joking when I said shoot what you love. I love cats. I take every single opportunity I can to shoot and sometimes play with the street cats I encounter. Yes I know cat images are frowned upon in the street photography community, but who cares?

I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. They are not the typical “how to conform to certain street photography rules and standards” or “how to become a carbon copy of that idol street photographer of your choice”. I am a practical photographer and I choose simplicity. If you have an unorthodox tip or trick to share, please do contribute with a comment!

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. A nice set of images Robin and very refreshing way of explaining the do and donts

    The endless out of context rehashing of famous quotes was a very strong point you made.

    For example some of HCB’s best shots where taken from quite far away

    “f8 and damn the camera selected 1/15th” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    I think ultimately that the endless use of often conflicting famous quotes to justify things is a bourgeois concept 😉

  2. Antoine says:

    Hey Robin,

    Street photography these days is too stuffy, too predictable and too polished for my tastes. Your post was overdue and sorely needed.

    The posts-and-chains photo is particularly good. I suspect most serious and “profound” street photographers would walk right past that scene.

    Anyway, thanks again. It’s clear by your photos that you’re having fun.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Antoine! The yellow posts was my favourite image from this set, glad that someone else sees it too!

  3. I take it you don’t much care for how Bruce Gilden works 😉

    • Robin Wong says:

      Nothing against him, but I do prefer a friendlier, less confrontational and less aggressive approach.

  4. Great advice I have to admit, I agree with all the rules and I apply them myself in my photography, you can check my website, I also take some pictures 🙂 I am waiting for more such inspirational entries, because I am very useful in my photo sessions. The photos from this post, of course, are also great, as always, I greet heartily and wish you happiness.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words! We should all go out and shoot more, and enjoy ourselves in the process!

  5. Your approach is a breath of fresh air; that’s undoubtedly why your photos always surprise and delight people.

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Really nice photos!
    Nos 2 & 4 especially!

    And nicely showing so different kinds of so called “street”.
    – – –

    #1
    Just so, and sad that it has to be said.
    ( In Sweden rescue workers complain that to often many watchers get in the way taking photos and refuse to help or even to move out of the way.)

    #4
    Yess!
    Although I don’t “do” street, I prefer to have a camera always with me to catch the scenes or details I happen to see.
    ( I miss a really good pocket zoom.)

    #5
    Exactly!
    [ Should really be nr. 2. 🙂 ]
    – – –

    Rennie, Thanks for that link!

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think there is something terribly wrong with us, humans these days, I have seen it happen. Accident or something that requires immediate attention but the passerbys just whip out their phone and start taking photos and videos. Quite a sad sight honestly.

  7. Robin, here’s the link to the John Isaac quote, “I am a human first, and then only a photographer.” Cheers. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/09/29/the-photographic-chain-five-minutes-with-john-isaac/

  8. Thank you for the positive and constructive tips, and I should like to mention that to my personal experience the images you’ve included are pleasant and struck me as a quite nice set.

  9. aaah. That Rumah Tumpangan Paris – I think I was there at that time!

  10. Thank you Robin for the tips. The reminder to enjoy the photography experience, your last tip, is something I think is particularly important. Also, I read tip #2 as ‘relax, throw on any lens, put a card and battery in, and go out and shoot’; not only fun, but also a very effective treatment for GAS (I suppose that OM-Ds being very fun to shoot with also helps :P).

    I love shooting cats as well, even though I don’t rear a cat myself 🙂 In the UK, most cats I encounter are pets on the prowl, so I find myself walking along residential streets near where I live and work, hoping to find feline subjects. Also it’s the season where people have many flowers at the front of their garden, another favourite subject of mine. (Note: most UK houses don’t have a high wall/fence separating their garden from the street, so I can photograph rose bushes and the like while remaining on the public road – trespassing is not a good idea!)

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hey Ken,
      Thanks so much for the kind response, and as I have always reminded my friends, lets just have fun shooting! and of course, selecting the camera that encourages and inspires you to pick it up and go out to shoot is extremely crucial too.
      I have a love hate relationship with flowers. I have not quite figured flowers out yet, they always come out bad in my photos! Maybe I was somehow traumatized by flowers when I was a child or something, have to look into this further.

  11. Soumya Mukherji says:

    I complete agree with your tips. Sometimes the fear of missing the ‘decisive moment’ makes me feel so tense that I forget the joy of being out with the camera.

  12. Kevin Sutton says:

    “I am a human being first, photographer second.” I think that was John Isaac, who was an Olympus Visionary. He made the comment, if I remember rightly, after another photographer told him off about helping a poor woman on the street to cover herself an bestow some modesty. He was accused of “tampering” with the scene and his reply was the comment above. By all accounts, a very decent human being.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for pointing that out, did not know he was an Olympus Visionary. Google search gave me nothing so I was hoping someone else could piece the puzzles together! Cheers.

      • david mantripp says:

        He’s a really nice guy, and one of the very few truly deserving the title “Visionary”. He was an early high profile Pro adopter of the E-1 (official UN Photographer counts as high profile imho). Quite a lot of years ago, I remember having a quick email exchange with him about something to do with Olympus. He not only replied, but but sent me a set of 4 or 5 (really nice) prints to demonstrate his point. He didn’t try to sell me “tuition”, “workshops”, or anything. His book, “The Vale of Kashmir” is well worth seeking out.

        • david mantripp says:

          (er, sorry, I see that that bit about “tuition” and “workshops” might be a bit offensive to the owner of this site, but it REALLY isn’t meant that way!!!)

          • Robin Wong says:

            Hey don’t worry about it! Glad to know that John Isaac was a genuine person and has responded to you. I believe well established photographers should not put themselves above others and block out the world. While MT does workshops/online tutorials, all the content on this site is free for all, and we both believe in sharing our knowledge and experience and contributing whatever small ways we can to the community.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I wrote yesterday about the right to photograph people on the street. Robin Wong, writing on Ming Thien’s site, echoes my practice of not aggressively asserting the right to photograph people in public spaces. He also shares other thoughts about street photography. Read Robin’s less obvious street photography tips […]

  2. […] via Robin’s less obvious street photography tips… — Ming Thein | Photographer […]

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