Present-day street photographers can learn a lot from the great photographers of the past. Although our equipment is different and we face challenges that were unheard of in the past, the approaches, styles and aesthetics of early photographers can give us ideas and inspiration that can be applied to our own situations.

Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time. – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. – Elliott Erwitt.

It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter. – Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Street photography is all about capturing images that show cameos of everyday life. “You just have to live and life will give you pictures.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The National Library of Australia holds collections of images by photographers like Harold Cazeneaux (who covered a wide variety of subjects, including city streets, surfing and portraits of children, society ladies and artists), Willian Henry Corkhill (who documented the early days of Tilba Tilba on the NSW south coast), Jeff Carter (who specialised in rural Australia), John Mulligan‘s documentary photographs of the 1960s and Wolfgang Sievers‘ portraits of ‘Man as Worker’. Many of these images are reproduced in books and posters.

The State Library of NSW holds important collections of street photography dating back to the 1870s when photography was still in its infancy. Also represented in its collections are 20th century ‘greats’ like Frank Hurley, Max Dupain, David Moore and William Yang. The Victorian State Library holds a collection of photographs by Rennie Ellis. Titled ‘ Everyday People’ it covers ordinary people taking part in familiar Melbourne pastimes during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Similar collections can be found in the State Libraries of other states.

From time-to-time, state and regional libraries and galleries will mount exhibitions of photographs from their collections. It’s worth seeking them out.

An exciting feature of street photography is its ability to capture a precise moment in time.

Tips for getting good pictures

Many photographers are reluctant to take pictures of total strangers, even though there’s no reason to prevent them. It’s quite normal to feel shy when shooting in public but, provided you stay within the law and respect the rights of others, street photography is a valid genre and you have every right to practise it.

1. While you’re most likely to obtain the best shots if you’re on your own, initially it may help to go out shooting with a friend who can provide ‘moral support’. Two photographers are less likely to be intimidated than one and it can be interesting to see how your companion approaches different situations.

2. It’s easier to take photos in busy places where there’s plenty of action. Not only is your choice of subjects broader, you’re also less likely to stand out in a crowd.

3. Take advantage of street performers. Since they are aiming to attract attention, they’re used to being photographed and will often ‘perform’ for your camera. Be generous with what you toss in their hats.

4. Find a spot with a useful background or frame for your pictures, then wait for the special moments to occur. This tried-and-proven strategy can often be the best way to obtain attractive lighting and shooting angles.

The unusual shape of the window catches the viewer’s eye. The only addition needed was a figure in the foreground, which required a brief wait for a passer-by.

5. Keep a low profile. Avoid drawing attention to yourself by moving calmly and confidently. Don’t get in anyone’s way.

6. Where it’s appropriate, engage with your subject(s). Show interest in what they are doing and ask permission to take pictures. Then show then your shots and tell then why they attracted your attention. (Everyone likes to feel important.)

Graffiti has become an important attraction for tourists in Melbourne’s CBD and artists are usually happy to be photographed

7. Be respectful. Put yourself in your subjects’ shoes and ask: would you feel comfortable being photographed their situation? Consider their cultural background when answering this question; what might pass as an unremarkable situation for a Westerner may be deeply offensive to someone from another culture.

8. Trust your instincts. Your camera should be an extension of your artistic vision. If it feels right to take pictures, it probably is; don’t shoot when it feels wrong or dangerous.

9. Take lots of photos. Although you might think famous photographers took only one shot to capture ‘the decisive moment’ in fact most of them shot many frames and chose the one to print afterwards. Photographers’ contact sheets show this to be the case.

10. Don’t try to copy the work of other photographers, no matter how great they were. Strive to be different and find your own ways to approach your work. Each photographer has an individual style which may take years to develop. Although you can learn a lot from the ‘masters’ you will only produce truly satisfying images when you have developed your own style.

Understand society

Today we live in a very different society from the one photographers worked in a decade or so ago. Multimedia technology has given us the tools to become probably the most narcissistic and, seemingly self-revelatory culture yet.

Travel can provide some wonderful opportunities for street photography, provided you respect local customs and reward willing subjects.

The rise of online and mobile avenues that allow celebrities to tweet relentlessly about the most trivial of matters, coupled with the enduring popularity of reality television has made our society increasingly voyeuristic. And there are many people who post dozens of photographs of themselves on social media like Facebook and Flickr.

Yet, paradoxically, many of the same people also exhibit deep mistrust of anything that might be construed as ‘professional photography’. This is particularly true with respect to the need to control images and who makes money from them.

There’s not much you can do about the current social mores, beyond being aware of them and alert to situations that can arise when you’re out in public with a camera in your hands. Fortunately, there are often lots of other people with cameras taking pictures in popular public places. If you can blend in with them, you’re less likely to attract unwanted attention.

You’re less likely to attract attention in busy places where there are lots of people with cameras at the ready. Try to blend in and go with the flow of what’s happening.

Dealing with hostility

Even though you might be acting well within your legal rights, there are some situations that should raise ‘red flags’ and cause you to pause and think before shooting. Anecdotal evidence suggests female photographers have an easier time than males when taking pictures in public. But even they can encounter hostility on a shoot.

When taking shots of people in potentially tricky situations – particularly when it’s obvious you are photographing – the simplest way can be to approach the subject(s) and ask if you can photograph them. Show a genuine interest in their situation and tell them why they captured your interest. Everyone enjoys a compliment; if you’re able to take a quick shot and show them the result on the monitor screen, they are more likely to feel at ease.

Put your camera away as soon as you detect signs of hostility. Use your common sense and move on. If your approach is refused or you encounter antagonism, don’t shoot! No photograph is worth an unpleasant argument.

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Street Photography pocket guide

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