I am, by no means, an authority on either journalism or photography, at any level. This piece probably would be best described as a note-to-self, or a self-improvement manifesto of sorts. If, by any chance, you feel enlightened by the content below, or have your own experiences to share, do leave a comment - it would be extremely appreciated.
Well, it is only wise to begin with delineating the area of argument: astute readers (or photography buffs) would have noted the odd terminology of 'Documentary Photography'. Let me explain.
All photography falls neatly (at least, in my mind) into the dichotomy of Living and Non-Living. The photography of non-living things is intuitive: Landscape, Still Life and some genres of Fine Art and Macro photography fall into this. This group of genres are best characterized by deliberate adjustments of settings, position and composition to befit the subject, which remains largely still.
The photography of living things is a little more iffy. Some, like Portraiture, do resemble the former to a large degree (though many might dispute this). But there's Sports, Wildlife, and the like. These usually involve a large degree of preparation for the unexpected and a large dose of fortitude and fortuitousness. Fast fingers, an astute, creative eye are usually the guarantors of artistic success. The khaki-clad, gear-decked, telephoto-touting archetype of the gung-ho nature photographer does come to mind readily.
The Street Photographer is a nature photographer interested in the most elusive, most vicious, yet most spirited animal.
1. Your Camera Goes Everywhere
I've always advocated a compact camera as part of an EDC (Everyday Carry)kit. Be it the Ricoh GR, or the EOS M, or the Fuji X100 series, a dedicated photographic tool that follows you wherever you go offers unparalleled readiness.
Of course, cameras aren't cheap. Make the most out of your next mobile phone upgrade to get a model that offers a responsive, sharp camera.
We have all lost count of the shots we've missed. Golden hour moments. The strongest, boldest shadows. Unforgettable characters. Important moments.
I'd go out on a limb and state that there's no point with carrying your EDC camera if you don't take it out. Walk to your next appointment with it in hand. Switched on. How many more shots have we missed because we've taken too long to fish our camera out and power it on?
DSLRs and kit-cameras do offer flexibility, robustness and resolution - but at what cost? Get a camera, a camera that goes everywhere with you.
My repertoire of work prior has always been predominantly street-photography based. However, the painful realization struck one day as I noticed that my work before 2015 was replete with street images of people - except they were people with their backs turned to my camera!
It's easy, I suppose, to get used to shooting living, moving, and feeling human beings with their backs turned to us. Especially in novice hands, framing of shots tend to take a lower importance to technical aspects like your shutter speed and making sure the flash does not go off.
Sure, some 'back' shots are effective, but I'd always remember to consider how much better the shot would be should the subject's face be in frame. That's where the fortitude comes into play: a cost-benefit of artistic merit against burning shame once the berating commences.
3. Get Low
A slight technicality, but a significant one no less. Sure, this is primarily a matter of taste, but anecdotal advice is important since anecdotes become statistics and statistics become significant given sufficient anecdotes.
"Get Low" oversimplifies it, but what I really mean is get to the appropriate height. If the subject is a child, or a detail that would otherwise go unnoticed, bringing yourself (and your camera) to the level does offer a unique perspective. Perhaps more importantly, doing so connects the viewer in an intimate way to the subject in question.
It's a virtually cost-free solution to create more impactful, meaningful and intimate images. ("Virtually" - I wouldn't assume to know the chances and costs of arthritis)
4. Back-alleys, always.
This comes with the important caveat: do so at your own risk, and always bear in mind your safety and the safety of your gear and belongings. I personally wouldn't go traipsing around the back-alleys of any city past 6pm (or whenever dusk is) openly carrying gear of any perceivable value.
Not just to get that different shot. You'd get a true sense of everyday life. The things they don't you to see. Even in sterile, spick-and-span, metropolitan Singapore, slip behind the bustling storefronts and you will bear witness to cottage industries: alleyway haircuts, rag-and-bone collection points. Vice, sometimes crime. Mostly the things that would otherwise go unseen.
What, where and who you aim to capture in your images should be strongly grounded in the ethos behind your photography. The raison d'être behind your craft.
5. Be Apologetic, But Don't Apologize
So you've got yourself round to shooting the faces of your subjects. What if you get caught? Be apologetic. But never apologize. Let me explain.
First and foremost - most individuals would not even expect you to have had taken a picture of them, especially if you were covert enough! Learn the skills of the trade. Hyperfocal distances. Prefocusing. Shooting from the hip. Dress in dark colours. Blend in the crowd. Choose a camera that blends in easily. Extra points if you pick a film camera - most would think you're an eccentric if they don't think you're a hipster.
But eventually, frowns will come. If you're unlucky, someone might eventually confront you.
I always smile. A tight-lipped smile. Eyebrows dip. Gaze averted. And I just walk away, in a straight line.
6. Be Confident.
Of course, not all documentary photography is candid portraiture. Don't be afraid to ask for a portrait. It usually is easier abroad than in your hometown.
7. Be Covert.
My wardrobe for when I travel is drab to say the least. Earthy, dark and monochromatic colours. I don't black out my gear, but I ensure my cameras are as nondescript as possible.
My D600 (D7100 in the past) remains as it is. Since I use it mainly for portraiture and landscape shooting, there's no real need to make it blend in more. In fact, the NIKON emblazoned across its forehead does come in handy in some situations. Some individuals take more interest in you. Others might even take you more seriously.
I obtained a Fujifilm X100S (35mm equiv.) as a dedicated street shooter in place of a 35mm lens. this helps out in expediency when I switch from a more 'covert' method of photography to a more overt one where I ask for poses and gazes. I made sure I got the black Fuji X100S. It was also available in a chrome top-plate version (a la most vintage rangefinder cameras like the Leica M series). I've not gone to the extent of blacking out the logos since they're pretty low profile anyway. Instead, I ditched the camera strap, preferring to hand-hold it, sliding under the radar and making from-the-hip shooting slightly more flexible. I added a vintage-style lens hood to add to its archaic look. Wouldn't be a bad thing if people thought me an eccentric hack.
8. Be Always Ready.
I've already advocated carrying a camera with you at all times, and also to ensure to take it out - but what do I mean be always ready?
As much as we've delineated the chaotic, unpredictable nature of street photography (as with other genres that photograph living things), planning is central to the discipline of street (and documentary) photography.
9. Primes, primes, primes.
I'd probably be able to write an article, or a series of articles - or even an entire book to the adulation of prime lenses.
They're cheap, they're good. They're simple. They never fail. They often give good or better (thinner) depth of field than zooms of equal price and focal length. They engage you with your subject by forcing you to orbit it, explore different angles and compositions, instead of twisting wildly away at a zoom ring. Sure, zooms do give added flexibility in allowing one more dimension to be considered when it comes to framing. Granted if it works for you.
Given my limited experience, the action of zooming makes us think about composition in a wildly different way. Whilst it might work for reportage, event and sports photography, the act of zooming tends to make me think of the end goal of zooming as composing the subject to fill up the frame. A distraction, in other words.
I usually keep a wide-angle lens (28mm) or a wide portrait (85mm) lens permanently afixed. My street shooting system is a fixed 35mm f2.0 APSC 'compact' camera. I own two zooms: an all purpose zoom for event shooting and 'street sweeping', and a wide-angle zoom for more accurate framing. That's it.
10. What's The Story?
The power of photography lies in the power of observation. There are plenty of prominent photographers who have made their mark simply by having their cameras out all the time, snapping away at unique, interesting and special events that they come across. But even these photographers strive for a certain depth to their images. Does it make the viewer think something? Believe something? Feel something?
I always ask my self what drew me to the scene in the first place.
A simple interplay of shadows, or stark, contrasting colours are often enough to make me feel a certain connection to the scene. If it was an individual, was it her clothes? His wrinkles? I'd think about how the environment complements these focal points.
I guess my point is to feel. The best stories are the ones that make you feel - not (only) in the emotional sense, but at a spiritual level, too. You feel you know the story when you emotionally connect with the scene or subject. Let it connect with you, the photographer, first.