Matt Stuart: Three F's of Street Photography

When you are out on the streets there are a variety of different approaches that you can take to getting your shots.  I heard a on a talk on youtube recently that street photographer extraordinaire {and recent Magnum nominee)  Matt Stuart coined the term “the three F’s of street photography” that I think summarise best the three distinct approaches to street photography. I have tried to find this reference on the net but have had no luck, so I thought I would interpret here and shout out for contributions and opinions.

The first ‘F’ is Fishing and refers to finding a background or a scene or a situation, setting up with a ‘trigger’ and waiting for the right combination of elements to appear in the scene.  There are some distinct advantages to this approach. Obviously you have the benefit of making sure your exposure and focus is set up well before hand. You have time to meter the scene, decide on the elements that need to contribute to your overall composition and make sure that these are all in place.  This is particularly useful where you need the lighting to be dramatic and you are varying your settings from the base exposure.  

There is also the opportunity when fishing to base your selected spot on a ‘trigger’.  A ‘trigger’ and it is a very powerful tool to use when searching for a shot. An example of a trigger might be some sort of incident happening in the street, a puppy dog or an attractive person walking past the scene. The idea is that the trigger provokes a reaction or gesture from those in your scene. Bear in mind that the trigger does not necessarily have to be the subject of your image and in fact it may even be off camera and away from the scene.  The key thing is that it is provoking reaction or gesture in subjects that are in your scene. If you find a great setting for a composition and there is also a trigger involved it can yield success. The other consideration when fishing is to consider how long you are going to wait at your spot before moving on.  There is always a risk reward to this decision, especially if light is changing and the day is ending and you are not getting what you want.  I tend to force myself to stay a little longer past the time when I start to get antsy about moving on because I find in those last moments there is always something that happens that sometimes fufils the vision. Besides which, street photography is an timeless pastime, there is no agenda and no time limit and there are endless opportunities for an image even if those opportunities are never going to be the same as those passed up. That is the beauty and romance of street photography, right?

On the other hand, Following, the second ‘F’,  is a totally different technique that relies on a subject centric approach. You identify a subject first and then follow them through the changing scenes and lighting conditions.  Their path throughout the cityscape effectively determines what your composition will eventually look like, including background, compositional elements and exposure settings.  On top of this is a decision by the photographer to assess how far to look ahead based on focal length and pace of the follow.  This is much harder to do successfully and you need to pre-visualise a potential shot and then discard it if the subject changes course or doesn’t hit the mark, and move on to the next idea.  



This can also be very confronting for a new street photographer because it feels like you are stalking your subject.  The best advise I can give regarding this is that you always should know why you are wanting to photograph a subject; If you are asked you should be able to politely elaborate on what it is you are trying to achieve. Keeping this approach in mind stops you from taking uninteresting images - the end does not become simply taking someones photo in a street setting, but rather making an image out of a spontaneous moment that makes the viewer see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  It will also help in diffusing any uncomfortable situations and is a much better response than ‘it’s just art, man’.  

The concept of the ‘trigger’ also most definitely applies to the Following approach and adds an extra degree of difficulty in that you need to look ahead to identify potential triggers.  Although the hit rate from this type of technique is lower than Fishing I find that it is one of the most rewarding if achieved successfully.

Matt Stuart has apparently added the third F to this Fishing and Following technique, and that is the “F#$%!!”.  That is, despite all the planning and premeditated compositions, when you are out on the streets you need to be ready for the unexpected to happen - things will just appear in front of you that last sometimes for fleeting moments or unfold and escalate beyond what you would normally expect, and you just have to have the camera out, ready to go - settings and exposure be damned if you miss a moment because you were 1/3 of a stop under and wanted to adjust.  


I would love to hear more from Matt Stuart on this but I can not find anything on the internets about his thoughts.

So that is my take on the three ‘F’s of street photography. If you have any links to Matt Stuart on this topic I would love to see them, and Matt if you happen to be reading I would  love to have your comments :-).