A recent video showing Dougie Wallace at work got me thinking what does it actually take to be a good street photographer? For all we know, Street Photography is a very complicated genre where it is difficult to “measure” one’s performance. Every situation is different, locations change and what might happen in front of your lens is often out of your control. Typically, a good Street Photographer from N.Y.C. or any other major city experiences more extraordinary scenes, than someone from the suburbs where not that much action might be going on. But at the same time, if a photographer is able to make even the most ordinary suburban picturing like a special place on earth, then certainly he must have some positive traits. What are those traits and what is important for a good Street Photographer?
Comparisons of good Street Photographers
Before discussing which traits and features are handy for a good Street Photographer I want to emphasize how diverse and difficult to measure Street Photography. There are a lot of variables like location, weather and events that influence your outcome at the end of the day. Most of us aren’t professionals but have a day-to-day job, so time is another constraint that we have to deal with. Comparing the abilities of photographers directly is a little unfair because of the aforementioned restrictions.
Photo competitions or other photo marathons try to rank photographers by the photos they submit or take during the competition. In my opinion these rankings are a failure because in the end they are very bound to the opinion of the judges. Of course photography in general is a very subjective field and the quality of a picture can’t be measure in a simple unit, but winning a competition or receiving an award doesn’t make you a great photographer either.
Back to the real life of a Street Photographer I often have self-doubts when trying to shoot on the street. There are far more days that I am out, where I am question myself and are worried about at least getting one decent shot than being able to chose from a dozen which one might be the best.
On those days that seem off, I often ask myself what other professional photographers what do and how they would deal with the current location. Would they have been able to take outstanding shots that I missed? Could they create even on the most boring day images that are fascinating?
While this is mainly a theoretical thought I had the chance to be able to shoot with highly reputed good Street Photographers in Berlin. It is true that they can get some decent shots even on days when I weren’t able to “perform”, but let’s dispel the myth, that the best Street Photographers can just shoot for a day and come home with a new collection of award- winning pictures.
Street Photography requires even the best Photographers to come across scenes that offer some sort of potential. Great Photographers have the ability to use the potential to its fullest, while mediocre photographers need more attempts.
What is often described as a great “eye” is more or less following the rules of composition that pleases our aesthetic desire. Even though Street Photography is often described as the total freedom and photography is an outlet for creative spirits, it can’t hurt to know the rules and how to apply them. When you hear from other photographers that they don’t care about the rules of composition or that they break them purposely, then you shouldn’t take their word for granted. It seems to be in vogue to make those statements, probably to appear more than a natural talent, than a hard worker, to stand out from the masses. In reality, they either ingrained the rules already by heart, or their images lack a conscious composition.
Either way, a good photographer should know the most basic rules and how to apply them. Street Photography takes the composition to a next level, since time is a big factor. The street leaves no opportunities for second chances and you not only have to know the rules, but also apply them quickly in real world situations and not under easy controllable environments.
Craft & Creativity
Photography can be seen as partly craft and art. Ideally a photographer should combine both characteristics in his pictures. The craft is expressed in features like the composition, exposure and sharpness. Contrary to common belief that doesn’t mean that every picture should be sharp or well lit, but that a flawless craft is shown by getting the end-result that the photographer had in mind beforehand. The photographer should be in full control about the outcome.
The artistic part is represented through the vision of the good street photographer, the story he wants to tell or the emotions he wants to display and provoke. Street Photography has its fair share of basic motives that you can work your way through. With the help of mirrors, silhouettes or other resources you can recreate nice images.
Creativity on the street means to create a motive that hasn’t been seen before. In a genre that is quite popular due to the rise of Smartphones this is a very hard task. But great Street Photographers manage to find a gap that hasn’t been filled by anyone yet. The creativity can be expressed either in a single image, or through an innovative project.
Dougie Wallace is clearly an extreme case, but even as a “normal” Street Photographer you need to be bolt to get close and photograph strangers. If you are the introvert type of person then this isn’t a problem per se. Just like photography itself, you can also learn and train to overcome your fear of taking pictures in public situations. However, you have to make the first step and leave your comfort zone. After you have taken the initial steps, you will see that it gets easier over time and you will be more comfortable in public.
The goal is that you are able to take any picture you want, to fulfil your creative ideas and not let the fear come into play and hindering your work. You need to be willing to invest in yourself and change your personality. Aside your Street Photography strolls, you can be anyone you want to be, but on the street you need to develop the ultimate will to win.
If it helps, you can also treat the street like a sports game that you absolutely want to win. For me the urge to win is always higher than any fear of confrontations and that helps to leave the comfort zone.
Beside being bold you also need to develop a good knowledge about people in general. If you take the previous sections too literal you will run into problems. Be bold, but also smart. Intoxicated people or mentally ill persons are just two examples that we should treat very cautiously. This type of people don’t react reasonable and can get you into a lot of trouble.
Be open for changes, bolt to get into the situation, smart to avoid trouble but also friendly and assertive.
Good Street Photographer’s Mentality
Before, I described the mindset on the street, while the mentality characterises your way of dealing with setbacks and critique and even as a good Street Photographer you will face both matters a lot.
Setbacks usually involve, that you didn’t come home with a picture you like because you feel uninspired and simply had an off-day. According to the nature of Street Photography the chance is high, that we have more “off days” and feelings of failure than celebrating successful photowalks. Don’t let the negative experiences get into your head. Treat every day as a new opportunity with excitement and curiosity.
You will also face a lot of criticism practising Street Photography. The genre is highly controversial among photographers and not everyone you come across your journey will be pleased with your new passion. The key will be to sort out the pure “haters” – who won’t contribute anything helpful – and constructive criticism.
Criticism shouldn’t be taken personally but rather be directed to your photos. If people don’t like your pictures then that is fine, you can’t please everybody, but if you are receiving helpful feedback, don’t be arrogant and brush it off as nonsense. Integrate what feels helpful to you without changing the basic character of your images.
In general, you need to be confident about your abilities and photographs, without dismissing helpful feedback.
The question if Dougie Wallace is a good Street Photographer is hard to answer. He obviously has a strong personality, but the composition looks very random with all the hip shots and burst mode. The main finding is that he gets the results that are unique and interesting. The photographs are the result of a well mixture of his boldness and the location, but if he gets the results in the end, why shouldn’t he be a good Street Photographer?
Street Photography is not always about well organized compositions, but sometimes to take the viewer on an exciting trip. Dougie Wallace takes this to the extreme, but in the end the photos speak for him.
Photographers on the street need to be very versatile and possess traits aside the camera. If you are able to get such a collection, nobody cares how you get them or how many tries you needed. Robert Frank took over 20.000 pictures for “The Americans”. Is this a good ratio for a book or is he a bad photographer for wasting 99% of his film rolls?
Find your style perfect it and let the images speak for themselves. If the auto- and burst mode are your way of taking pictures then this is fine.
In the end, only results matter, so don’t worry too much if you see yourself as a good or bad photographer. Go out and shoot, give your best and hopefully take home pictures you are happy with.