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INSPIRATION

10 Lessons from the Masters of Street Photography

BY ERIC KIM

Eric Kim is one of our favourite practicing street photographers – producing countless thought pieces and instructional videos as well as teaching workshops over the world, and somehow still finding the time to shoot prolifically. We’re huge fans in particular of his ‘Lessons from…’ blog series, giving insight into what you can learn from the professionals, as seen by someone who immerses themselves in the past and present of street photography.

The following article is an extract from his free book ‘100 Lessons from the Masters of Street Photography’ – with images added by us. We thoroughly recommend you download and read the whole thing here.

1. EMBRACE FAILURE

Image by Joel Meyerowitz

“Street photography is 99.9% about failure” – Alex Webb

Every time you click the shutter, there is only a 0.1% (if that) chance that you will make an interesting shot. You might shoot for an entire day, not get a single good shot, and feel disappointed and frustrated. Know that failure is a good thing. The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed. As Thomas Edison once said: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

When you fail to get the shot, don’t become discouraged. Rather, learn from your failures and mistakes. What caused you to miss the shot? Was it because your camera wasn’t setup properly? Was it because your camera was in your bag (and not in your hand)? Was it because you were too nervous and didn’t have the courage to click the shutter?

2. ‘MARINATE’ YOUR SHOTS

Image by Helen Levitt

I shoot both film and digital, but one of the biggest advantages of shooting film is that you’re forced not to look at your photos immediately after you’ve shot it.

With digital I find it a lot harder to let my shots ‘marinate,’ as I am prone to ‘chimping’ (looking at the LCD screen immediately after having taken photographs).

For some shots, the longer you allow yourself to live with them (i.e. ‘marinate’ them) the more you like them. For others, the opposite is true. Imagine oil and water in a bottle. You shake the bottle hard, and they are both mixed. The longer you wait, the oil will soon rise to the top (your good photos), while the water will sink to the bottom (your weak photos).

3. SHOOT WITH A ‘STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS’

Image by Daido Moriyama

“For me, capturing what I feel with my body is more important than the technicalities of photography. If the image is shaking, it’s OK, if it’s out of focus, it’s OK. Clarity isn’t what photography is about” – Daido Moriyama

One of the common mistakes a lot of photographers make is that they are too analytical when they shoot street photography. They forget the most important part of photography: photographing what you feel with your heart.

Daido Moriyama is one of Japan’s most famous photographers who popularized the “stream-of-consciousness” style of photography. Not only that, but he popularized the radical “are, bure, boke” (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus) aesthetic, which rebelled against the photography at the time, which focused on making hyper-sharp images with fancy high-end cameras.

When you’re shooting street photography, just photograph what you find interesting, without any judgement, self-criticism, or frustration. Realise that most won’t be any good, but that you’ll find a few gems along the way.

4. GET CLOSER

Image by Bruce Gilden

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa

We have many fears and provide a lot of excuses for not getting close enough in our street photography. We are worried about pissing people off, we are worried about making other people feel uncomfortable, and we are worried that strangers might call the cops on us (or even worse, physically assault us). Realize that this is all in your head. By getting closer to a stranger, you won’t die. In-fact, I have learned that in photography (and life), with physical proximity comes emotional proximity.

It isn’t enough to use a telephoto or zoom lens to get “close” to your subject. By using a telephoto lens, you compress your image, and visually your photo feels less intimate. It feels like you are more of a voyeur looking in; rather than you being an active participant of the scene.

5. CHASE THE LIGHT

Image by Alex Webb

“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical” – Trent Parke

The root of the word “photography” in Greek means “drawing with light.” Don’t see yourself as a photographer, but as painter using a camera as your brush. As a rule, always follow the light. When you’re out shooting on the streets, try to find areas with dramatic contrast between the shadows and light.

For good inspiration of good light and color, study the work of Alex Webb. As a rule, he doesn’t shoot when the light is poor and harsh. Therefore he either shoots early-morning (sunrise) or late-afternoon (sunset). He is the ultimate painter of light in color photography.

What you can also do is this: during the day (when the light isn’t good), use that time to scout locations. If you find a street corner that you find might be interesting, re-visit it when the sun starts to set, and then park yourself on that corner, and work the scene.

If you want to be more “efficient” in your street photography, limit your shooting only to “golden hour” (sunrise/sunset). During the times when the light isn’t good, either get a cup of coffee or take a nap. When the light is good, shoot like a madman.

6. ABSTRACT REALITY

Image by Jason Eskenazi

“As a photographer if your photos are too obvious then you’re missing the point. Photos are about mystery, about not knowing, about dreams, and the more you know about that—then you can recognize them on the street” – Jason Eskenazi

Reality can be boring. What the viewer is interested in seeing is the abstraction of reality, not reality itself. So think to yourself, when you are making photos, what is the extra layer that makes the image interesting?

Create “little dramas” in your frame. You want to create little mini-stories in your images, and you want them to stay open ended. You want the viewer to come up with their own interpretation of the scene.

7. EMBRACE ‘BEGINNER’S MIND’

Image by Matt Stuart

“My dream is that if you go out in the streets where you were born you see the streets like for the first time in your life even though you have been living there for 60 years” – Anders Peterson

Hit the streets like it is the first time. Imagine that it is the first time you experienced it. Imagine what you would find interesting and unique. Imagine yourself like a tourist in your own city. Try switching things up. Walk around your city with a different route than you usually take. Perhaps take a short trip out of town, and come back to your city with new and refreshed eyes. Imagine yourself like an alien visiting from another planet. If you were an alien and visited your own city streets for the first time, what would you find interesting or unique? Don’t analyze your scenes too much when you’re shooting. Just photograph what you find interesting, and just click.

8. DISTURB YOUR VIEWER

Image by Robert Frank

“It’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think that a work of art shouldn’t be disturbing or shouldn’t be invasive. That’s the property of work— that’s the arena of a work of art. It is to disturb, it to make you think, to make you feel. If my work didn’t disturb from time to time, it would be a failure in my own eyes. It’s meant to disturb— in a positive way” – Richard Avedon

When Robert Frank published “The Americans,” (arguably the most influential photography book in history) it was hated. Photography critics called it communist, Anti-american, and ugly. They disliked the high-contrast and gritty images, and they thought Frank was an amateur who didn’t deserve any respect. Nowadays everybody looks at Robert Frank with a holy reverence, and his work has inspired millions of photographers from all around the world.
Going back to what Richard Avedon said, great art is often disturbing and invasive to the viewer. Great art disturbs the viewer by pushing them out of their comfort zones. Great art challenges the thinking, preconceived notions, beliefs, and concepts of the viewer. Great art challenges viewers to think and feel in a different way. The worst thing you can be as an artist and photographer is to be boring. The secret to failure as a photographer is to make work that doesn’t offend anybody.

9. DON’T STOP YOUR PROJECTS TOO SOON

Image by Bruce Davidson

“I find that young people tend to stop too soon. They mimic something they’ve seen, but they don’t stay long enough. If you’re going to photograph anything, you have to spend a long time with it so your subconscious has a chance to bubble to the surface” – Bruce Davidson

One of the problems that many photographers starting off is that they stop their photography projects too soon. They quickly get bored before really delving deep into their subject matter, theme, or concepts. A truly great photography project require time, depth, consideration, hard work, sweat, passion, and endurance.

For example for Bruce Davidson’s ‘Subway’ project, he rode the subway nearly every single day (at random hours in the day) for two years straight. By spending so much time in the subway, he became part of the subway. He learned the nuances of the subway, was able to capture different types of subject matter, and a variety of images.

When you’re working on a project, don’t stop too soon. Keep working your theme over a long period of time. The more depth you have with your project, the more unique and meaningful you will make it.

10. KILL YOUR MASTER

Image by Rene Burri

“In those days Henri Cartier-Bresson limited us to lenses from 35 mm to 90 mm. When I showed him the photos he said, ‘brilliant René!’ I went outside and shouted ‘Hah!’ He heard me and said ‘what was that?’ I said, ‘nothing, never mind’. The lens I used was 180 mm – I never told him! At that point I broke loose from my mentor. I killed my mentor!” – Rene Burri

Ironically enough, for one of Burri’s most famous image of silhouetted men in Brazil, he shot it with a 180mm (directly contradicting the rules of Cartier-Bresson). By “breaking the rules,” Burri was able to make one of his most iconic and memorable images.
Remember that after learning from the masters, you need to know when to ignore them or when to go against their teachings.
Consider the ‘masters’ of street photography simply as mentors or guides. Don’t listen to them blindly, as one day you need to take off your training wheels and learn to ride on your own.

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