5  Life Lessons  I've learned through Street Photography

Photographing people in the streets is exhilarating, entertaining,exhausting, and educational. These lessons I mention are simple lessons that I often take for granted. Shooting with the street photography genre in mind is something that I enjoy doing and have been practicing for a few years now. So I’ll throw out this disclaimer: I am a student of photography with aspirations to be a journalist. I don’t get paid for any of this and I just want to share my experiences of shooting in the streets with other photographers in hopes of providing some insight as to what works and doesn’t work for me personally.

I don’t want to come off as a know-it-all street photographer trying to push whatever it is that I think defines street photography on you. The number one rule that I always fall back on in photography is: There are no rules. Photograph what you love and do it for yourself. If you are interested in my experience with photography, read on and I hope you enjoy it. I hope you’ll share some of your valuable insight with me in return.

1. Don’t hesitate

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The number one biggest regret I ever experience while photographing people on the streets is every moment I miss because I didn’t just trust my gut. If you have a feeling something has the potential to be good, just shoot, don’t think. Why handcuff yourself waiting for perfection? Life doesn’t slow down for you so you can get a better glimpse, it’s happening and you’re missing it. Take off your lens cap and get snapping.

2. Take More Risks

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Nothing ventured nothing gained. Whenever I see a spectacular photo the one thing I always think to myself is “how did the photographer gain access into that environment?” How did James Nachtway find himself hanging out with the family in between the train tracks? How did Capa get his shots of D-Day on the beach in Normandy? They all had the courage to be in the moment and the intelligence to put themselves there. I’m not saying you need to risk your life or anything, but taking the safe route will always get you the safe image. One of the most important lessons any aspiring photographer should learn is to get closer. When you think you’re close take one more step forward just beyond your comfort zone. Push yourself. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.

3. Slow Down

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Sometimes it’s best to take it easy. Meander about. Loiter. Blend in with your surroundings. The longer you’re  in one spot doing nothing the less conspicuous you become. It’s amazing the way life can unfold in front of your eyes. If you’re patient the moment will enter your frame rather than you rushing around desperately seeking it out, trying to force it. My habit is to shoot fast and move on. I believe I do this to avoid any more confrontation than I am already causing by aiming my camera at them. This is a bad habit that I am consciously trying to remedy. Take a break, lean up against a wall for a little while, let life happen and see what unfolds.

4. Be Real

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Show empathy. Be sincere. Listen. It’s amazing what people say to you if you just let them talk. When I’m not keen on being social I notice that my photography gets a little worse. I’m not participating with the people in my environment. I feel like I must put off a pretty strong “leave me the hell alone” vibe, because sometimes no one approaches me at all. It’s like I’m a dark cloud and people are instinctively running for cover when they see me.Other days I can’t get anyone to leave me alone.

I believe human beings are more intuitive than we give ourselves credit for. If your having a hard time being social or you’re feeling awkward and getting a lot of frowns and sideways glances while your out photographing, check your mental attitude. Are you frowning yourself? Is you’re mind clear and open to new experience? Or is it clouded with suspicion and self doubt? If it’s the latter, or you’re just in a sour mood, point your camera at the inanimate, work on some urban landscape, explore the world beyond the people. Save your human interaction for a time when you’re more receptive to it.

That’s the beauty of life, it’s unpredictable and multi-layered, filled with infinite possibilities.

5. Pay attention

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Not everyone loves the camera. It’s okay to pass up a shot that you don’t feel right about. One of the advantages of living in a world with billions of people is that it won’t be long before you get another opportunity to land that one special shot we are all in search of. I think it is imperative that photographers who make a habit of shooting in the streets  have decent enough street smarts to be able to recognize a potentially dangerous situation. In our quest to document life and answer whatever burning questions about it we may have it’s not uncommon to find yourself uncomfortably deep in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s a razor thin line between courage and stupidity. Be wary of your surroundings, be careful, and keep your head on a swivel. Trust your instincts and live to shoot another day.

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5 Life Lessons I’ve learned through Street Photography

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58 thoughts on “5 Life Lessons I’ve learned through Street Photography

  1. Excellent job Jeremy, your blog is full of great street photos that definitely reflect the proper anxiety of a succssesful journalist!
    However, in regard to that, it’s important to keep in mind that Photography is a matter of sensitivity, a means to express how we conceive the (“our”) world; not in vain, it’s considered as an art. Then, taking photography as a way to express an intensely personal feeling, it has to do more with each individual character or nature than with pre-established ways to act. That’s why, in my opinion, no general or common rule must be applied to the manner of getting photos. Even tips or pieces of advice, as these useful five that you generously, and very well intentioned, has offered here, will work (possibly) only for people (photographers) who have the same temperament or purpose that you. What it really counts is that the result fulfills the expectation.
    Again, congrats for your exiting “percerptions” of street life. Great pictures and B&W esthetic!

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    • Thank you so much for this very insightful comment. I agree with your sentiment that Photography is a very personal experience and is an art form in and of itself. Thank you again so much for taking the time to visit my blog and sharing your thoughts.

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  2. I love this! I’m very interested in shooting on the streets, but I’m also a little shy. Do you usually ask if it’s okay to use the photos? Do people usually react okay towards the camera? Thank you!

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    • It’s 50-50 on people’s reaction. Some people love the camera, and those types are easy to spot. Flamboyant dressers, people in very fashionable clothing, flashy hats, etc… those are the ones that are obviously easy to approach. Some people ( the majority in my case) frown at you, or glare in your direction, but i never see those reactions in the moment, I only really catch them for that hundredth of a second. That is the thing about photography, it freezes time, so a momentary look of anger or confusion could have turned into a smile one second later.
      It’s up to you if you want to ask permission, but me personally, I don’t. I tried it a few times early on, and I just didn’t like the way it took away the spontaneity. The moments are no longer candid once you take the time to ask permission. Sometimes people will see my camera and cross the street or turn their heads or block their face with their hands, those people I respect their unspoken requests to be left alone.

      That’s why I say pay attention. I think if I was chasing people across the street when I obviously knew they didn’t want their picture taken. and doing it anyway, I would call myself an asshole. Some people think I’m an asshole for just sticking the camera in front of them for that brief moment. I don’t ask anyone if it’s okay to use the photos because I’m not really selling them or making a profit. It’s a delicate subject though. On the one hand, I am using their image to hopefully gain myself some notoriety as a photographer, but on the other, I’m not making a dime right now. Everything I produce is produced at my own expense in the name of art and education. If I was doing a magazine ad, then I would need to gain permission from the subjects in the photographs.

      So for me, I just use common sense. If they obviously don’t want their picture taken I turn my lens in towards my chest and keep walking. A good portion of the time, the people I photograph don;t even realize they got their picture taken until I’m already gone. Of course there are also the people who LOVE the camera, the ones who chase you down and beg you to take their picture. The ones who just instantly flash a genuine smile and make eye contact with you. It’s a crapshoot really. I think it is based on who you are as a person and how people react to you personally. You might get completely different reactions than the ones that a 40 year old guy with a beer belly, big glasses, and a graying beard like myself gets.

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  3. Great wisdom and depth in these observations, Jeremy. And the mental attitude…that’s great. Here’s a funny story. Sometimes when I go skiing, I wear one of those crazy joker/clown skins on my helmet. It looks like I’ve got blue dreads coming out of my head…or maybe frozen snakes. But when I’m skiing, I also get rather intent on what I’m doing. I forget my clown outfit and get overly mental about technique. All of a sudden I’ll notice someone smiling real big at me (often a child or even a really good looking young dude) and my first reaction is, what the…..? Then I remember what’s on top of my head and I have to laugh at myself and my seriousness! It’s like wearing a Santa suit with a frown on your face! Not good.

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  4. Jeremy, I want to thank you for publishing this blog.
    You’ve described in your own words what you really feel when you shoot the camera on the street.
    Very short time I found this passion for photography and street photography captured me entirely.
    Each day as I walk the streets I’m seeing situations where I don t have my camera and that angers me.
    Thanks.
    Tati from Buenos Aires
    (Sorry about my english)

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  5. I don’t do people photography much – basically because I’m not comfortable with it and, if I’m really honest, I prefer the world around them! Having said that, I like to observe and it’s interesting to see your chosen method for street photography.

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  6. pilgrim242 says:

    I put this post on Pocket on my tablet a while ago but only today got around to reading it. Glad I did! Some great insights from a person who is sincere about street photography. such a nice positive vibe on this comment list too. Such sense, decency and none of the macho BS I see so much of..well done Jeremy and thank you

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  7. Great post! It’s always great to get the perspective of another street photographer. It’s an incredibly unique discipline but I absolutely love the images that capture that split second in time that you can never duplicate, you truly get a sense for what someone was thinking at that time. All the best to you

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    • Great comment! Yes, I agree there is a discipline to it. I love that frozen time aspect of it. It is amazing how much people’s expressions change from one fraction of a second to another. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my work. I appreciate that!

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  8. Hello, Jeremy. I started following your blog after seeing your name in Linda’s (RangeWriter) blog. I am very interesting in Street Photography. And I, too, am a little shy. After seeing Linda’s street photos, I’m encouraged and did go out a couple of times and took several photos (Yeah!) Recently I took a woman’s photo at a donut shop and I only let the woman know about it after I took the shot. A week later, I went to the same shop and gave the photo to the woman. She was thrilled.
    My question is: at the end, what do we really do with these photos (other than satisfying ourselves, making ourselves happy, learning and sharing…)? At the end, do we delete them? Give them away? There is no way we can give the photo to the subject person every time.
    Also, is it possible you would be willing to give someone some constructive feedback on her street photo?
    Thanks. (Forgot to say that these are great advices. I appreciate them.)
    Helen

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    • pilgrim242 says:

      Hi Helen I know you’ve asked Jeremy this question, but if you don’t mind I can answer also. I think the most important thing I do with the photos of people that I make is share them with others. I post them all over the place (flckr Fb etc) and it is a way to share the little moments of real life with other people. I get a lot of comments from people about how they like to see them. This I think is because we are all humans and like to see our own lives in the lives and the little incidents in other people’s lives. My advice is just be yourself….smile if you are seen and be honest. Never try to hide and last of all, listen to Jeremy’s advice. I find him to be one of the most sensible people talking about street photography

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      • I couldn’t have said it better myself! Smiling if you are seen is great advice. My number one fear when I first realized I loved Street Photography and wanted to do it myself was someone retaliating against me for taking a photo. I’ve been banging away at it for a few years now, and I’ve only really ever encountered one person who wanted to argue with me about it. I’ve also had a couple of conversations about the rights of the photographer on the street with some guys who adamantly believed that it was against the law for me to snap their photo. No need to argue about the law with people who believe they know better. I really appreciate your comments and compliments. One of the things that drives me to street photography is that human connection. I get it not only from the people I photograph, but from the people who look at my photos as well.

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      • Hello, Paul. I just visited your site. Wow! You are a master, too. (Be my teacher. Be my teacher… I cry out loud inside. 😉 I also enjoy reading your stories. One question: how do I follow your blog? I only know how to follow WrodPress ones.
        Thank you so much for taking time answering my question. I have lots of passion and I am eager to learn. I am going to write about what I have learned so far and whatever comes to my mind at the time 😉
        You were right. The key thing is to share with others, to bring a little joy in other people’s life.
        Thanks again.

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      • Hi Helen You are very kind If you scroll dow onn my blog you shoud see the Follow button on the right side Also near the top is aSubscribe by email option. If you like contact me by email with any questions

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    • Hi Helen! Of course I would be happy to give you constructive feedback on your photos! I love talking about photography. I’m glad you felt compelled to go ahead and attempt some street photography despite your shyness. It has been helping me slowly get over that shyness. I am working constantly to get over that aspect of my personality. Street Photography really makes you face that fear. I think it’s great that you took the time to approach the woman you photographed and even gave her a print. That’s awesome! There are lots of great things to do with your photography these days. You can self publish your own book which is a lot easier these days through self publishing websites like blurb.com. Just sharing them to your blog or flickr or whatever other social networking you might be involved with is great. It keeps the conversation alive, and we all take part in that collective internet brain, learning from one another and helping to promote what I think is one of the most difficult disciplines in photography. I aspire to be a journalist, so for me, street photography is my practice ground. I think the lessons to be learned by photographing people in the streets can be applied towards all types of photography. Thinking about composition, background, layering, the inclusion of geometric shapes and timing are all a part of the genre. Getting as close as you can for just that brief moment, just long enough to capture a true expression. You never know, you or Linda may may be the next Vivian Maier! I’m so happy you chose to visit my blog and take the time to join the conversation by leaving a comment!

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      • pilgrim242 says:

        great advice Jeremy. another way is just to make PDF ebooks and put them on places like Issuu and give them to friends.

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      • Good morning, Jeremy. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you answering my question. What you said makes a lot of sense. I salute you with respect and appreciation!
        I still have a long way to go. I did take several photos and enjoy taking them, but I am sure that I didn’t get as close as you said in this article. I am working on it 😉 In the mean time, why using zoom lenses is not a good idea?
        I appreciate any feedback you can give to me. Like I said to Paul, I have lots of passion and I am eager to learn. Any help is deeply appreciated.
        Have a great day. Mine will be, I know… because of you and Paul’s comments.

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      • I personally prefer prime lenses because it forced me closer and provides a sharper image, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a zoom lens. It’s all up to personal preference. I like restricting myself with a prime. If you use the same focal length for a long period of time you really get to know what your getting inside the frame without really having to look through the viewfinder. That helps if you want to “shoot from the hip” which is really beneficial in some situations.

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      • Oops, did I delete one of your replies? I was trying to delete my unfinished reply because I want to make sure I was on the right thread. If I did delete yours, so sorry. I am still learning WordPress ;-(
        Thanks again, Jeremy. You were right that prime lenses would take better picture. I forgot about that. I just thought using zoom lenses, I could stay in a comfortable distance.
        I posted some photos on my blog today, 7/1. I would love to get some comments from you. Thanks.

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      • pilgrim242 says:

        I’ve used zooms for YEARS, but lately I’ve become very frustrated because it makes me so slow, which is okay if you are framing and all that,but when things are happening quickly you are far better off with a prime. I try to leave the zoom on the one setting, but it’s too tempting, and like Jeremy says, if yfou have the one focal length you learn to see in line with that length.

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      • Paul's Pictures says:

        Just made a long rambling reply on your blog Helen.Hope you can read it!! lol. I cant’ figure out how to follow your blog! Also I only gave you info on following the blog on my website which I don’t use too often. The better one is http://instantsoutoftime.blogspot.com/
        I like your vision and photos very much. and yes you are VERY much on the right track

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      • haha..well being sixty I have a saying paraphrased from Forrest Gump’s mother “60 is as 60 does” LOL. And you are very welcome..a voice of sanity is always needed! (not sure who said that haha)

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