Based on my experience, here are a few tips to capture more great shots in street photography.
One analogy for street photography I really like is the story of Babe Ruth in 1923. He broke three records that year: for most home runs, for highest batting average, and for most strike outs.
Street photography isn't all that different for the photographer. You have to keep that camera up in front of you (or to your eye), frame up your subject, take the shot. And if you're going to get the great shots more consistently, you must be willing to miss, or completely strike out.
There's a more simple version of this, based on the song lyrics of "Lucky Day" by Morphine:
Players win and winners play.
In this blog, I'll discuss the playing aspect of street photography and tips for getting more great shots in your street photography.
Keep your camera ready at all times
This may seem obvious but I'm surprised and how many photographers I walk with who keep their cameras slung over their shoulders or otherwise stowed when they're looking for shots. To me, it looks like they're woefully unprepared to capture images of the moment. I'm going to talk about this thoroughly because there are a few major reasons for not glossing over this subject.
I've talked about moments and what the concept of seeking them in street photography means to me in a previous blog, Chasing Moments Vs. Scenes In Street Photography. The gist of the matter is this: if you're not already stationary and waiting for subjects to walk into your frame, then you're on the hunt, looking for scenes. In either scenario, you're not going to get your shots if you're not ready with your camera.
Furthermore, be in the right mode. For me and for many others shooting street photography, this means being in aperture priority mode. I outline the reasons for this in the aforementioned blog. Now, other photographers may disagree and prefer other walk-around modes/settings on their cameras, and that's fine. The point is - none of this matters if your fucking camera is slung around your neck like tourist. In my opinion, you're not serious and you're not ready if your camera is switched off, slung around your shoulder or neck, or even worse - put away in your camera bag. There's no sugar-coating this. You may as well pack it in, have a sandwich, take a nap, then head out and shoot star trails, for all it's worth.
Keep your camera raised up when you're walking around. Don't shoot from the hip - this is ridiculous and amateur-hour stuff: it's not mediocre photography, it's junk photography. If you're looking for moments, have your camera up, know what your frame is at all times. Visualize what your potentials subjects will look like in different perspectives and as they would appear against whatever foreground/background is present, or will be present, if your subjects are on the move. We'll come back to visualization in a moment.
There's only one true way to be ready with your camera:
1) Keep your camera at ready in front of you from your mid-section to chest level, whenever you're actively shooting. If you're not shooting, by all means, put it away. I'd suggest never walking with your camera at your side like as in many of the photographer profiles you see - you run the risk of getting your camera side-swiped by any number of objects or people. But if you disagree or don't mind repairing or replacing your camera prematurely, please walk exactly like this whenever you're shooting on busy streets.
I note that the photographer is the above image has it half-right. His camera is securely fastened to his wrist but that would make little difference if it were struck by a bicyclist, car, or whatever. The potential hazard is having a smashed camera dangling from your wrist.
2.) If you have a neck strap (or wrist strap) then you should have that wrapped around your wrist so that any bumps won't dislodge it from your grasp. See below video.
Don't call it pre-visualization - because that's not an actual thing. Not unless you can tell the future. There's no visualizing something before you actual visualize it. As a side, it's the same concept George Carlin called bullshit on when talking about pre-boarding. How do you get on the plane before you get on the plane? We're going to talk only about visualizing, folks. Present tense. Real stuff.
With camera ready, somewhere held in front of you, scanning your surroundings should become second-nature through continued practice. Learn to anticipate your subjects' movements when they're mobile. And learn to visualize their immediate surroundings, how they will look framed.
There's a world of importance to be placed on foreground-background relationship with your subjects. When you're starting out, you're more than likely not going to be prioritize this concept because you'll be too focused on just approaching people. My take on this is don't worry about visualization so much in the beginning but keep it in the back of your mind for the future. Because ultimately, you'll get more shots in the long run.
How do you visualize subjects? There are no wrong or right ways to go about this. I can only tell you how I do it because everyone will see things differently. But what I am talking about is a skill which is to be honed. Visualizing isn't about daydreaming or casually imagining how your subject would look in ideal situations. Visualizing is about pairing elements from the foregound-background (however applicable) and how it all relates to the focal length of your lens.
This is one big reason why I love shooting with fast prime lenses. I only have one focal length to deal with and I know exactly how my subject will appear in frame before I frame up and shoot. Naturally, this takes time to arrive at this level of expertise, which is why I believe visualization is a skill which is lens-focal length specific, and developed over time through steady practice.
When I'm shooting 35mm or wider, I know I'm going to be capable of capturing a full length shot of my subject without being too far away. This is especially true when I'm shooting 18mm or 24mm. Likewise, I know I'm going to be getting a lot of foreground-background potential. Visualizing begins here. How will my subject look against the wall, traffic flow, or against the setting sun? What foreground elements, if any, will hinder or enhance the image? What other factors are present? Are there leading lines, interesting patches of light (always follow the light!), or any other subjects or objects potentially trespassing into the frame which could hinder or enhance the image? Variables can be a key component in any shot. The process of visualization will help sort through the chaos with practice.
Can you visualize how the parameters would change if I were to shoot with a 50mm or an 85mm prime? Your answer, depending on your experience with different focal lengths, would be no if you hadn't ever shot 50mm or 85mm. Because I'm not talking about imagining - which is actually based on no practical, real experience. I'm talking about visualization, which is always rooted in the world of experience.
A visualization exercise
There are two basic and a myriad of variable exercises to do in visualization in street photography.
Background: Approach subjects who are to be framed up with a specific background in mind. They could be somehow positioned in front of a wall, for example, sitting or standing. When you approach, visualize how they will appear in your camera from the perspective which you'll ultimately click the shutter button. Think about where you will place the subject in relation to the Rule of Thirds, or simply in which quadrant of the frame you want them. How will they look if you're spotted before taking the picture (if you're shooting candid)? And will you take the picture anyway - or ask to take their picture?
Foreground: Approach foreground elements from where you can frame up your subjects. Plan on placing your camera at the minimal focus distance or thereabouts in order to not cause your auto-focus system to go nuts. Then take shots. The key here is to visualize the process before you reach your spot.
Eventually, visualization will help you determine whether you bother or not with a shot. Another analogy worthy of consideration is from the perspective of a sniper. A sniper wouldn't take the shot if he knew his target was out of range of his rifle. Likewise, he probably wouldn't take the shot (except maybe by direct order) if his subject was mostly obscured behind a tree or a tank. He'll make calculations, maybe with the help of a spotter.
Don't be afraid to take the shot, ever
There will be times when you're unprepared or when a subject takes you by surprise. Maybe you're completely prepared but shooting conditions are just terrible (low light, fast moving subjects partially obscured, etc.). It's during these times when you should think about Babe Ruth swinging away like a maniac to knock one out of the park.
In the street photography world, this might mean a 'spray and pray' when the shutter button is held down and a couple dozen shots are ripped off in rapid succession. I've been in situations with a horse and buggy speeding down the beach and I've had to run to get to a more favorable position to take the shot, only to realize I wasn't going to make it in time. What did I do? I took the shot anyway - lots of shots. I knew if I could capture a great frame it would be the equivalent of a home run.
In such situations, sometimes I succeed and more times than not, I fail. But I won't hesitate if I want the shot. I'll go after it, daring myself to fail. Players win and winners play. Swing for the fence. Even this mentality is a skill to develop because once in a while you must subdue the voice that nags at you to forget about it, that it's not going to happen. Go for it like your career (or life) depends on it. If you get even one great shot out of 100 of these situations, there's one potentially great and epic shot you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. For the rest of them - easier enough to delete. We're not shooting on film, are we? I surely hope not, for fuck's sake (another topic for another day!).
That's a wrap
With the right gear for our shooting styles and armed with the skill of visualization, we should be empowered to take risks sometimes, to swing for the fence, as it were. We should be constantly testing ourselves when the situation calls for it. We should be pounding on our weaknesses at every opportunity. The more we learn, the more we are able to develop our way of looking at the world, which is far different than the normal person's view of it. Because photographers, some of us anyway, are seekers of moments, especially in street photography. And moments can be fast and fleeting. We need to be on top of our visualization game to prepare for these moments, whenever they turn up. We should adopt a Babe Ruth 1923 mentality. There's no middle road to strive for.