Learning has no alternatives. As a street photographer I have been always trying to learn from the masters of street photography. Whenever I get chance to know them, I jump on. Knowing them helps me to know myself and inspire me to keep my journey alive. Here are the 9 best photography lessons I have learned from the masters. Hope you like this…
1. Don’t become a slave to your gear
I saw many photographers who feel ashamed of their camera/lenses when they are not satisfied on their photograph. They think, gear upgrade will make their image more appealing and they become creative instantly and famous overnight. They jump body to body, lenses to lenses and finally get bored after not getting excepted result from their works. That’s a common physiological dilemma we almost everyone suffer once. Some says it’s a Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S).
I also pass through this dilemma whenever my photograph does not fulfill my expectation. At the very beginning I thought buying new camera was my only ticket to get up creatively and maybe I would become a great photographer. Even I heard many times about my photo sucks because my gear not good enough to produce good photograph. Trust me guys, this is completely wrong and It never does, It never will.
Buying or upgrading new gear (camera/lenses) will never makes your photograph good unless you capture it good. (That rise another discussion on Good vs. Bad photograph, we will discuss on that topic in another day.) It’s all you and you who capture a good or even great photograph, not your gear. Gear is just a tool which you use for output your vision, you thought in your perspective. Changing gear will not help you to improve your vision. I saw there are so many gear review site on the web which continuously poisoned you (even me also) to buy new gear/lenses, it’s their business, and they have to do this. It’s you who make the decision to or not to allow those infection to your brain. Buying new gear will inspire you for maximum one or two weeks, after this, you will go back to your old form.
You can improve your vision in many ways. You can buy books on photography, watch master’s works, travel, attend workshop etc… Spend money to buy experiences which could improve your vision and thoughts, not the tools you used to represent those vision. There are many resources out there on the web, you can spend money and time on those to improve you rather buying or upgrade new expensive tools. Always try to stay focus on your work, and that will make you a good photographer, in fact, you could be a great one day, who knows.
2. Influence the scene is not bad always
Sometimes it is good to have your subjects notice that you are about to take a photograph of them.
For example in this photo I shot in an urban area, I saw few kids playing soccer at the field full of mud, and they are enjoying too much in the muddy ground. I shoot some pictures of them and when they notice me, they stop playing and come to me posing an asked me to shoot them, and I did what I do. Their joyful expression gave me so much strength and I got nostalgic for few moment. Therefore if those kid who don’t even know me, never posed for me then this photo wouldn’t exist.
Now the question is, does that ruin this photograph? Get noticed by your subject ruin your photograph? Certainly not, It’s completely depends on your content, moment and appearances. Famous magnum photographer William Klein frequently engaged with his subject whenever he feels to do so while shooting street photography. Look at his works. In my opinion his engage makes his work much vibrant and sparking, which will definitely not happen if he leaves his subject unnoticed.
It’s not bad if your subject notice you or you engage with them. When I go out for street photography, I face a lot of time that the subject gives a lovely smile when they notice me shoot them. Sometimes they even posed me and ask me to shoot few more and I find various expressions, verity of poses (some even funny) which sometimes I think the photograph makes more attractive than shooting candid. That does not mean you avoid candid and stop finding moments. Candid has its own superiority. That’s another topic; all I am trying to say is: engaging with the subject is not bad either.
3. Creating context in the frame
In photography, the entire story of the image must exist inside the frame. If you want to tell a better story, include context in your photos.
Let me share a story about one of my photograph I took at the rail station. I saw this sad little girl looking outside from the train window, and I took this photograph of her. After that, I went to her and ask her why she sad? She replied, “my father will not go with us, and I will miss him too much.”
Now the viewer does not know that story of this girl. Only I knew the backstory of this photograph. Viewer might find this photo interesting for the expression of her and how she is looking, rather the actual story of her.
You can’t explain your photograph to every viewer one by one verbally in this modern century. You have to explain your photograph with the context you add in the frame.
No one look back to your photograph if your photo does not tell the story. There is a 30 second time period when the viewer makes their decision to stay or not stay with the photograph. If your photograph is weak and without having enough context, viewer will move and never get back to it. You have to keep the viewer to travel your photograph and tell the story with all the elements and context that made the photograph with a compelling story.
4. Limitations are also freedom
Sounds confusing! Well, it’s not actually. You see, at these ages our biggest problem is that we have too many choices in front us and we can’t decide which one to pick or which one is not. I give you an example: When I bought my last cellphone, I just wanted to buy a good phone, but I got too dizzy and confused when I saw too many brands, models, specs. It takes 2 hours to make my decision which one is better for me. If I had no choice or if I could limit my choice into 2/3 cellphone, it would be much easier and time saving task.
Like this, there are always too many choice in every point now a days and also we got disappointed too soon for this. This is called “The Paradox of Choice” in psychological perspective. Too many options make us overwhelmed that made us regret most of the times and more time consuming stress.
Therefore having too many cameras/lenses put us in a similar situation. We can’t decide which gear is perfect for this shot or which should I bring today. Even, we feel confused and frequently switch our lenses and jump one to another. Few months ago, I was in a wedding ceremony, and I saw the photographer constantly switch his lens from 50mm to 85mm to 70-200mm with two bodies. He was too busy and the bride-groom got bored so they stop posing for him. This is a common phenomenon now a days. Even too many options made me confused too for sometimes and the most important thing is we divide our concentration between composition and gear choice. That’s a big mistake in my opinion.
If we have only one body and lens (it could be 35mm, 50mm or anything else), we can fully concentrate with our composition and this limitation sometimes made us more creative. If you have only one 35mm prime lens, you will use it maximum. You will move when you need, and you could find different perspective with different composition either because you are working within a boundary of focal length. Then you creativity will force you to move if the frame does not satisfy you.
After few days of practice, you will fully aware of your focal zone and that does not poke you further in your composition thought. You can then give more time on composition and that definitely help you to become more creative.
Well, carrying one camera, one lens does not mean you can’t carry more than that. You see, there are many legendary photographer in both side. Like: Henri Cartier-Bresson followed “one camera, one lens” philosophy and most of his iconic photograph was taken by his Leica, 50mm and B&W film. On the other hand, Todd Hido who used more than one camera, lenses even formats and produce so many excellent work.
So, again confused, what to do? Stay with the single or go with multiple? Not really! The fact is, if you are a beginner, I strongly suggest you to follow one camera, one lens philosophy, Stick with that long time than you will feel what to do next. It’s not a tough decision to make I guess.
5. Follow your curiosity and shoot what you like
Rene Burri gave us the perfect speech on curiosity. We lead our life with curiosity every moment. Without it we know nothing. Curiosity is what made learn, experience more. We live with it.
Certainly, curiosity is the key of success for every street photographer. Think every good photograph you have taken so far and think what leads you to capture this? Of course, it’s curiosity that made you capture that photograph. The more you curious in your life, other life, the happening around you, the more you become better and better photographer. Curiosity will make you hungry, and you will search for more. Think about why Google search engine become so popular, only because of curiosity of knowing more.
You don’t need to think too much. Just follow your curiosity and shoot whatever you interested in. That will create your own style.
6. Don’t repeat yourself, Its boring
Repetition is boring. Whenever someone comments something good in your photograph or someone praise your works, you feel proud (we all do) and that feelings force us to repeat our work. You want consistency of good work so that everyone praise your work more. However, on the other hand your brain wants more variety, wants more to experiment so that you never get bored.
When Josef Koudelka finished his “Gypsies” project, he realized that he no longer needed to repeat himself. Therefore he just ended up exploring and he start traveling the world with his 35mm/50mm Leica. Koudelka said:
Of course for the certain time, repetition keep you inspired, but at the end this become a cage for you and that time the cage must be broken and you have to break out from that cage.
7. Be yourself, don’t try to become someone else
One of the most rough and tough street photographers is Bruce Gilden. He uses his 28mm and suddenly flash to shoot up close. Sometimes people got too annoyed but Bruce does not care at all. Now, you like or not, he is who he is. He has his own style, own voice to present. Many photographers criticize him for shooting like that, but Bruce unapologetic about how he shoots at the street.
At the beginning of photography, we almost everyone get inspired by others work, and unintentionally we start following other. When I started street photography and start learning it, I have got too much influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier and I start following them. Soon, I realize this is not me. Actually I am trying to become someone else.
There is an ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself”. The sooner you start knowing yourself, the faster you will found your own style. You can inspire by other’s great works. But, until you find yourself, you will stuck in between you and others whom you following.
I saw many of us trying shoot what others like and this destroys them internally, as a result, they could not create their own style and soon, people forget them after realizing that he got now talent to show himself instead of following others.
You need to shoot what you like. No matter how others like or not. If you are an introvert person, don’t try to engage with people. You can shoot keeping distance as candid. Bu if you are talkative or extrovert person, talk to people.
There is no “right” or “wrong” in street photography. Shoot who you are, what you like. Only that could create your own style and that way you can unfold your creativity to maximum level. Following others will destroy your creativity and you got bored soon you realize you have no style.
Everyone has their own perspective, own eyes to watch the world. At the grocery shop, maybe I saw just a pack of chocolate, but you might see the chocolate pack is under the cookies pack. That’s a human nature. We have our own vision and voice to watch and speak. Following others will reduce your vision and made you dumb. End of all, Shoot what your personality, mood suits you.
8. Experiment and experiment
Can you eat same dishes for the rest of your life? How is that sound? Yak! You can’t do it. Variety is the fuel of our life. We want fun and excitement in every stage of our life. Doing or learning new thing is what we all wants every day.
As a photographer or artist, stick with same form could be bored. Try differently, it could be lenses, cameras, post-processing. Until experiment new thing you won’t be able to know your limit or what you like. Once you find something interesting, go farther deep as much as you can, and see what you got there.
Experiment is fun. Recently, I got interested shooting with my smartphone. And I am glad that I’m loving it. It’s fun. Although I know there is many limitations in phone camera. I’m loving it because of its way of shooting module.
Do your own experiment. Have fun and enjoy.
9. Think Long-term, Great work takes time
Every great work takes time, even some takes decades. Nothing happens overnight. There is a long process of every greatness. Even a mango tree takes time gives us mango. There is time for everything. Become a master photographer; you need to give time.
Similarly, don’t expect great work at the beginning. Give time, long term thinking will make you more flexible to create great works. There are so many examples of great work that takes years, even decade to produce the work, they are proud of.
Sebastião Salgado shares his experience on the importance of spending a long time on a project, where you understand that why your subject matter deeper.
More inspiring topic by me: