Trying Street Photography for the First Time as a Professional Photographer

I’ve been a pro photographer for a few years, and while I was going pro, I tried just about every form of photography you can think of, except for one… until now.

While on a recent trip to New York, I decided this would be the best time to try my hand at street photography. Now, as if doing so wasn’t already enough of a test, I decided to do it on film, so there’s much less margin for error. With one camera, one lens, and an open eye, I set to it. I didn’t really have a particular goal in mind, other than to keep my eyes open and watch for the moment that was about to happen.

I think as photographers, we can often look down on other genres that are shot by other photographers. I’m even guilty of thinking street photography was easy before. This experience surely humbled me. With the whole roll of film, I only got a handful of photos that I would call keepers, and even then, most of them aren’t anything to write home about.

I do think my favorite shot of the bunch is one that I didn’t even notice until I got my scans back, which is of the side panel of a car parked on the street. It was a little older, so I thought I’d do the natural thing as a photographer shooting on film, but precisely when I took the photo, a man walked by, perfectly framed in the window. Now sure, he is not tack sharp, and it could be better. That said, for a happy accident of a photo, I love it.

But for every keeper shot, there are three or more shots that are either boring, timed wrong, have the wrong subject, or are technically a mess. I was shooting from the hip for a number of these. Manually focusing, I attempted to gauge the distance as I saw the moment approach, set the focus distance, and then lift the camera. I found this did help as if I were to bring the camera up, then focus, the moment itself could have already passed. Which is another thing this experiment taught me: these moments are so fleeting, happening all the time, and that sometimes you have to wait for the moment, and sometimes you can see it about to happen in front of you. The key thing is being ready for it when that moment does appear.

This style is a large departure from my usual work, as I typically shoot where things are set up, and rather than capturing an authentic moment, I create it, and then photograph it in a way that feels authentic. But what it has done is given me a perspective that I otherwise lacked as a photographer. I naturally keep my eyes open for what makes a good shot, but now I feel it has only amplified that, especially in the way of creating moments to feel authentic. There is no better clinic for doing so than capturing the authentic moments themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to transform me into a street photographer. Could it lend to a more documentary approach to my work? Perhaps. But I am by no means a street photographer. It was actually so uncomfortable for me at the beginning that I almost didn’t go through with it, but I am a firm believer in challenging yourself creatively, and that’s exactly what happened here. I took a genre that was very foreign to me and dove into it without expectation, just trying to create something cool. Something that maybe, just maybe, I could be proud of. It’s also funny because I know what it looks like to be proud of a commercial, portrait, or fashion image I create, but I have much less of a sense of what being proud of a street photo I’ve taken is. But beyond growing my eye and approach to photography, it has also given me a much greater appreciation for the medium of street photography. Not to say that I didn’t respect the genre before, far from it in fact. But rather that you don’t really feel what others are challenged with until you step into that role. I’ll be the first to say, street photography isn’t easy. It’s not easy to also be waiting for moments and not like the shots you get. With street photography, I found you have to almost passively pay attention to everything and be ready to act at a moment’s notice. You take in everything, all the time, watching for something of interest.

There is no right way to shoot, but there’s definitely a wrong way. And for many of these shots, I definitely found out what the latter was. The benefit of this, however, is you grow each time. If I were to actually dive into street photography, and perhaps if you’re considering it, I would keep doing outings like this and keep trying to improve each time, pay attention to different things, experiment, and see what works. Much like any other genre, your eye will refine with time, and the process will begin to streamline. You end up getting into the zone, as it were.

By the end of it, I’m happy with the experience. I’m definitely not giving up my usual work anytime soon, but I may do experiments like this more often. It is also a great way to experience a city and really take it all in. You feel more in tune with the environment, at least in my experience. Perhaps let this be a lesson to challenge yourself in different ways, get outside your comfort zone, and shoot beyond your usual scope to refresh your eye. Give yourself a new subject, and maybe it’ll inspire you in ways you haven’t thought of before. I think next time I’m feeling uninspired, shooting street, perhaps wildlife, or something different entirely might be what I need to break out of that funk.

At the end of the experience, I even found myself trying to shoot a little of this subject matter back in my home city of Toronto. This is due, in part, to the fact that I had part of a roll of film in one camera that I wanted to polish off and thus decided to take to the streets to do so, ending with about just one photo I was happy with. But one is always better than zero.

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1 Comment

Street photography is a lot of fun and as you discovered, quite challenging. Finding compositions, getting over the fear of pointing your camera at strangers trying to get that candid shot. Or waiting for someone to walk by the right spot.
Ive found its a great source of pushing my creativity and learning skils that come in handy when doing other types of photography. Seeing subjects differently. Most time I try to set some parameter for myself, such as Im going to shoot for black and white, or for color. Only taking one prime lense and work my shots around that focal length.
At the end of the day if I come home with a half dozen keepers Im happy. Now to get over my aprehension of asking strangers if I can take their portrait.
Thanks for sharing your experience.