Take Your Time Seeing

When interacting with my students or even experienced photographers who are new to the genre of street photography, they often tell me about their frustration in finding out how to begin. There are several issues such as lack of concentration, inability to find a good subject, busy compositions, etc. We have written quite extensively about some of those obstacles on this blog and on our Simplicity-In-Seeing platform. There is another misconception that prevents many photographers from enjoying street/life photography – the notion that street photography is a fast-paced activity.

This urge to hurry your seeing may come from the fact that many people view street photography as a form of hunting for the one and only “Decisive Moment.” The term “The Decisive Moment” is associated with one of the masters of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. It relates to catching a fleeting glimpse of street action, which can be captured only at the exact moment. The concept has been so popular that today many students reduce street photography to searching for this elusive “Decisive Moment.”

My advice to those who start in street photography is: DON’T. It is like advising someone who wants to learn how to host a Japanese Tea Ceremony to hurry. Learning how to observe, identify and arrange static visuals is hard enough. There is an enormous learning curve in observing available light and how it interacts with all the elements. Then you must harness this light to create your own visuals. Once all these aspects of seeing and creating have been put in place you may attempt to complete your design with “The Decisive Moment.”

In other words, when you find a great spot, a plaza or street corner, take your time to explore all the design possibilities before you include any people. Make sure you know the light. It is okay to spend an hour or more at the same location to explore all the possibilities. You don’t need to rush through the city like a maniac shooting indiscriminately.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Do you think Cartier Bresson took this image rushing through a small town on the French Riviera? I don’t think so. The decisive moment of the biker was only the final element. You can imagine how the photographer noticed the staircase, walked up it, arranged all the elements in the frame, previsualized where to place the subject and only then did he wait (I wonder how long) and wait for the final element (the biker) to appear.

In short, street photography is a much slower and more deliberate exercise than you might think. It’s hard work, a mixture of intense observation, thoughtful design and sometimes, fleeting moments. It’s worth slowing down to notice them.    

Here is the imagery taken during my recent street explorations in Vancouver. Some of these images were taken after spending an hour or more in the same location observing light, elements and city life. All taken with the X100F.

 

next time…

 

 

2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Take Your Time Seeing

  1. Hi Olaf,
    I’ve been following your blog for some time now and I’m always interested in your photos (particularly your street work), and your opinions. As for the topic at hand, I too am spending much of my time in the streets of Vancouver and am learning the art of patience. A beam of light, a splash of colour, a shape, or juxtaposition, then sit tight and wait for the right person to appear on the scene.
    On the other hand, more and more lately, I’ve been stopping and asking people for a photo. I estimate that probably 80 to 90% of those I approach say yes, often without even asking me why.
    I find both techniques can pay off.
    Keep up the great work,
    John Jackson

  2. Dear Olaf,

    I do agree a lot with you. For me streetphotography also is so much more than myriads of furios by-passing strangers. For me this is deadly bordom after a short while. I also like the calm moments with interesting scenes ideality with a portion of emotion or humor, but not exclusively. Perhaps therefore streetphotography is the most „democratic“ genre in photography with it’s enormous range of oppotunities. Everyone can pick what matches to his own interests.

    A short thougth – and again, just a personal view – about light in streetphotography. Chasing the light is a good starting-point to go out for shooting, just for me. But often – again 😉 – I become bored to shoot solely or better mostly pictures where the light is the protagonist of the (street)scene. Yes, a lot of these pictures are very nice to be look at and stunning at it’s first glance with theirs strong light/shadow-contrasts, but after a while they become convertible for me. But again, streetphotography provides a wide field to satisfy the own interests and I think that’s one reason why we go out and shoot.

    Finally – I like your blog and the quality of your pages. Keep it up!

    Best wishes, Ralf

  3. Dear Olaf,

    I do agree a lot with you. For me streetphotography also is so much more than myriads of furios by-passing strangers. For me this is deadly bordom after a short while. I also like the calm moments with interesting scenes ideality with a portion of emotion or humor, but not exclusively. Perhaps therefore streetphotography is the most „democratic“ genre in photography with it’s enormous range of oppotunities. Everyone can pick what matches to his own interests.

    A short thougth – and again, just a personal view – about light in streetphotography. Chasing the light is a good starting-point to go out for shooting, just for me. But often – again 😉 – I become bored to shoot solely or better mostly pictures where the light is the protagonist of the (street)scene. Yes, a lot of these pictures are very nice to be look at and stunning at it’s first glance with theirs strong light/shadow-contrasts, but after a while they become convertible for me. But again, streetphotography provides a wide field to satisfy the own interests and I think that’s one reason why we go out and shoot.

    Finally – I like your blog and the quality of your pages. Keep it up!

    Best wishes, Ralf

    1. Dear Ralf,

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. You’ve raised an important subject. Too often I see photographers finding a working formula (strong shadows, striking portraits or silhouettes, etc.) and they get stuck in one way of seeing. With one style it is probably much easier to gain recognition but your visual growth stalls. After all, photography is about risk-taking and exploring the unknown. Over the years, I have experimented with many styles and genres and I am well aware that I’ve lost some people along the way. However, it is a price I am willing to pay for my visual exploration.

      Thank you so much for your witty comment. Appreciate it.

      Olaf

  4. Dear Olaf,

    your blog post has the perfect timing for me. Until now, I always felt that “rush” when shooting the streets. After reading your post I must say that you’re absolutely right in taking your time for exploring the spot, checking for light and composition. I will combine this with your “task” in the simplicity in seeing program to first check for the light as the light will lead me to the perfect spot.

    Thank you once again for inspiring me!

    Kevin

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