Here is a little tip that has helped all of the aspects of my photography.
It is not a tip about a fancy new lens, a special photoshop technique, or a camera setting.
It is a tip to help develop your confidence and conquer your fear of shooting out in public - a tip that will make you a more confident and positive shooter, allowing you to make connections with the subjects that you photograph, should you choose to do so.
The tip is simple - talk to strangers. Talk to people on the street, whether you are intending to photograph them or not. Greet them with a smile. Be relaxed. Breaking down the barriers that we put around ourselves when we walk around a town or city by making a connection with a complete stranger, whether small or profound, can be a powerful medicine for the soul and a boon for your photography. I see it as an essential part of being a street photographer.
This may seem a little contradictory to those who look at street photography as a genre that aims to document daily life in its raw, candid form, seeking moments that otherwise may slip us by.
Alex Webb, one of the greatest contemporary street photographers currently practicing, writes:
"For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more…”
Why would a street photographer interrupt a candid moment by talking to the very subjects that are to be documented. The answer to that seemingly paradoxical question is that street photography is as much a state of mind as it is an act of doing photography. That is to say, if there is no “flow” present when you are shooting then I think you are going to miss the moments that are unfolding in front of you. The lesson I have learned from talking to strangers on the street is that this act starts to build your confidence and shakes off nervous tension, allowing you to connect to the “stranger” and in doing so gives you confidence. That confidence leads to a flow state and translates into more easily being able to make images as you see them, anticipating, seeing and responding to triggers and finding compositions.
When it comes to getting used to making street portraits of course, this ability to talk to strangers comes into its own as well. It is a little disconcerting at first for someone to be stopped to be asked for a portrait on the street by another complete stranger with a camera and of course it can also come across to some people as creepy until you get used to being confident enought to explain what you are doing and present the ideas behind you project. In order to present that case you need to be confident, and to be confident you should try and get used to approaching complete random strangers and exchange pleasantries and perhaps even find out a little more about who they are.
Being able to strike up conversation and make small talk and then a connection in this way also can help when you are doing more formal portraits or documentary work, as it allows you to get used to making the subject feel at ease with you and the camera.
If your subjects can forget that the camera is there and just be themselves and tell their story, or go about their business, that is the opportunity to capture their true story, and as a documentary photographer ultimately, that is your job.
Start out small, and say hello to a complete stranger today. Let me know how you go!