How street photography improves your photography skills as well as being a better person!
Man, what a long title. Indeed, one can probably write a whole book on Street Photography but this blog is all about my experience on Street Photography, as a professional wedding documentary photographer.
Let's talk a little about my history so you know where I stand and why I declare such a note. I have been photographing weddings for just over 10 years and as a professional for over 6 years. When I started my wedding photography journey, I was just an ordinary, now I would even say, boring wedding photographer. I was one of those who started the kind of documentary type wedding photographer when I got my first DSLR in 2005. It wasn't a common practice because digital wedding photography was just taking off. Many were still using medium format film cameras and the cost to document a whole wedding with them was simply not feasible for many couples.
Why was I a boring photographer? Now I looked back, not that my photos were bad but they lacked something. I never studied photo journalism or trained as a photographer. I was self-taught. Being at the dawn of digital wedding photography evolution, I was shooting digitally with an analogue mind. My images didn't flow as a story and lack dynamic. Compositions were conservative and played safe most of the time.
Time moved on and 2009/10, I was more attuned to better flow and image quality improved significantly due to my experience and knowledge after extended use of improved digital cameras and with the improved post processing softwares. But there was still something missing. Dynamic. It's a great word and you will find out why a little later. Before I started street photography, I took tons of travel photos but they were more or less like my wedding photos, a little flat. This was all changed when I started hitting the street and photograph people around London.
My improvement took time, patience and practice. I am still learning as the street is ever changing but so do people and weddings. To be a successful photographer, I have to learn to adapt to the changing environment. But what I didn't expect was that learning from the street could actually make you a better human being too!
When I was just started out on the street, I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect or in fact what to do. I had a brief look on the internet on some great street photographers' works. HCB, Elliot Erwitt, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, just to name a few. But they were all different and kind of confusing yet inspiring. Studying photographs was not easy, especially one with no experience in this genre. However, I braved it out and tried to mimic what these great masters did in the past. My first year was a disaster. I discovered that the more I tried to copy them, the worst I got. Then I realised, I could never be them because each master was unique. I am myself. I have to create an understand and interest on my own. Use my own intuition to interpret the street as it is. Everyone has his own understanding and not everyone will agree or appreciate your understanding for sure. When I first asked people for opinions on my work, I literally got slaughtered. Not that I needed to follow their criticisms, but it was certainly enlightening to learn why they didn't like my photos. It's a process of progression.
After a while, I learn to understand human perceptions, by observations. Certainly it's no easy task but as I observed more, I also slowed down and stood back before I clicked that shutter button. Yes, I can't deny that a great street photograph does include an element of luck. The right time and the right moment. It's never easy. Especially when the internet housed an abundance of street photographs by all the talented photographers all over the world, it was very easy to lose your interest (or temper) after seeing some extra ordinary street moments with a truly out-of-this-world backdrop or surrounding. However, let's be practical. I live in London and we have London streets, our photos will be envied by others who don't live here either.
Even within street photography, there are tons of different sub-genres. People play with highlights and shadows, people who documents actions, people who focus on abstract of shapes, people who photograph people. I was the latter, probably because I started out as a wedding photographer and I always love photographing people. So street portraiture forms a big part of my work and the rest usually filled with my observation of people's reaction in a giving circumstance at a certain location.
All these acquired skills and experience did improve my wedding work dramatically. I was always a bubbly guy who loves to talk but speaking to strangers on the street requires a totally different skill set. Then this translate to my wedding work because I mostly likely would not have met my wedding clients before. They were strangers in that sense. My confidence gained from shooting on the street does translate into calmness during an otherwise nervous wedding day. My clients appreciated it. Then their expressions relaxed and I got much better pictures.
Then having spent hours and hours on the street observing people also widen my vision during a wedding day, allowing me to focus on selected moments and thus giving me a better flow for the entire documentary process. Of course, the uncertainty, the unknown, for the day. The street is always a random place. People walk everywhere, left, right and centre. Similar to a wedding, there is never a planned action (yes it's a planned day but you know what I mean). Weather and other factors may scare most inexperienced photographers. This training will give the absolute confidence on how to deal with uncertainty and source for alternative in real time. But of course, any great wedding photographer will have plan A, B and C to cater for calculated unknowns which mostly weather related. But there are lots of things that no one could ever prepare. Emotions and reactions from guests, accidents, traffic... etc. Most of my clients say just how natural and momentous my images look. All because of my ability o disappear, blend in, observe and capture at the right moment. Yes, street photography helps.
Ok, perhaps I am talking more towards myself as a wedding photographer. But a lot of these skills are transferrable to other photography genres. Confidence to a photographer is key to have a successful career. Then the rest were skills that are horned with time and evolved into the particular area of interest. Thinks like patience, observations and ability to adapt changes are all good things for ANY photographers.
Then I mentioned about human being? Yes, same goes to make you a better person. Confidence definitely will make anyone feel better about himself. Patience and observation allow one to act with precision and hence achieving better results in life. Ability to adapt changes mean that you will be able to deal with life changes. I don't think I am over exaggerating my claim but these are qualities that I acquire through street photography. I feel better as a person and as a photographer, with a set of unique skill set that set myself a part from many other colleagues in the wedding field. Now I find it fun and actually proud when I am able to assemble a truly stunning story for the newlywed couple. Of course, I am still evolving and acquiring new skills and experience over time but after photographing on the street, all I can say is that I can only get better.
*If you are interested in learning photography from me, please get in touch with me. I currently run 1-2-1 day workshops in London.