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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