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.
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