Tips for Street Photography in a Small Town
French photojournalist and street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined and mastered the ‘decisive moment’ in the storied districts of Paris and throughout the world. With a body of photographic work that includes images oozing with form, geometry and composion, it’s a portfolio to behold, to say the least. In my green beginnings it was Cartier-Bresson’s work that I desired to emulate. A lesson that wouldn’t shape itself until years later though, was that it is crucial—not only for photographers but for all artists—to find a personal style of photography.
The allure of excellent street photography for me is that it is genuine, unposed and real! Street photography is what planted the seed of photographic excitement in my brain and one of the main inspirations for Village Voyager. There is a timeless magic to me when a real moment is captured photographically.
Instead of Paris, New York City or London, it’s the quite-rural northwest area of Michigan where I’m situated most. This acceptance and reflection helped me appreciate how special the area I’m in is and how fully rife with photographic possibility it can be. Getting back to a personal style—one way this can be achieved is by location. There isn’t much more unique than accessing the streets outside of our homes.
Street photography of course could mean heading downtown and being open to the people and buildings and whatever captures a photographers eye in such a setting; however, when it comes to street photography, street can be practically any place.
As with any craft, street photography improves with practice. If you wish to enjoy street photography in whatever city, town, village or crossroad you live in or near, the following are some tips for you:
Know Your Gear– This is of utmost importance. It’s not that a great photo can’t be captured with unfamiliar gear, but with gear you’re tuned in with, you’ll have a much better chance of anticipating moments, capturing those moments and at the least, having control over the quality of your finished images which is really what it’s about.
Try Different Approaches– Trent Parke, amazing street photography from Australia, has some excellent tips and videos online and often he can be observed walking quickly stopping, if at all, for only a small amount of time. It works great. Walking quickly and taking photos is a nice way to keep the blood going and to constantly be introduced to new things.
On the other hand, one can try to stay put. I attended a workshop by Sam Abell, National Geographic photographer, and he taught an excellent approach. His recommendation, and what he said he teaches others, is to visualize a scene and work it. This is a fantastic method. If you have a scene you’re feeling strong about, try to stick around and see what happens. Something as simple as a person walking past can provide tremendous visual interest and impact compared to the same scene without that person.
Push Yourself– Robert Capa said, “If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” For this, believe me when I say this can be gut-wrenching, especially in a small town. When there’s only two people in town, one being the subject and the other being you, it can be tricky. Some techniques for this can be to act like you’re clumsily working with your camera and take the picture while doing that. Garry Winogrand was a master at this.
Another method is to put yourself out there and take a picture confidently and with certainty of your intent. This often works. I’m six-foot four so with a camera I tend to stand out. I’ve found a surprising amount of success in being confident about my process and taking pictures close to people. Sometimes people keep walking and sometimes they ask what I’m doing. I always stay calm and explain who I am and what I’m doing. Don’t bullshit because people can smell that from the next zip code.
Practice– There are times when heading out with a camera can seem like a hopeless endeavor. Don’t give up though. The more you’re photographic, the more chances you give yourself to come across quality photographic opportunities. The simple act of being out with a camera and observing is excellent practice even without pressing a shutter button.
Be an Individual– It’s important to find YOUR voice and your unique style. If you’re not sure what this is then simply keep working at it. You’ll find trends and patterns in work which you are proud of and this will aid in your direction.
As I’m typing this blog and looking out the window, the temperature is around freezing, nature doesn’t know if it’s fall or winter and there’s hardly anyone outside. I know though that it’s a unique area and that photographing in these conditions can lead to fun surprises specific to the area.
I’d love to see any work from fellow small-town street photographers out there so feel free to leave your website or Instagram name in my comment section.
I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heat of the known awaits just around the corner.Alex Webb