Street Photography Tutorial #1: Hunter or Gatherer?

Street photography is probably one of the most miss-understood genres, not every photo taken on a street falls into the category and not all street photography actually happens there. Street photography is just as much photojournalism as it is art, in its simplest form, the goal is to capture people being people. There’s almost as many schools of street photography as there are photographers doing it, everyone has their own methods, preferences and visions but what unites us is our passion for recording the time in which we live. This series of tutorials, tips and essays will hopefully shed some light on what I’ve learned in the years I’ve been practicing.

First thing you need to decide is what type of street photographer you are. Almost all street photographers fall under one of two categories: I call them the Hunters and the Gatherers. Hunters get their photos by actively seeking out and hunting their subjects. Bruce Gilden, of Magnum fame,is a great example of this type of street photographer. Armed with his Leica and a small off camera flash he looks for interesting people and gets right up close for the shot, sometimes less than a few feet away. This style has a few advantages but to my mind, one huge disadvantage. By selecting his subjects and getting right up close and personal, Bruce is able to capture striking and tightly framed portraits. He also has the ability to choose when and where to take his shot. The main downside, for me anyways, is that by basically ambushing his subjects a lot of his pictures show looks of anger or surprise, emotions generated by his style and therefor unnatural. The use of flash adds yet another unnatural element to the shot, it’s entirely possible to use the Hunter method without a flash, but it makes things harder as your subjects may not always be in the most flattering light when they’re where you want to take the shot. On the plus side though, using a flash lets you use a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate most motion blur.

There’s also a sub-category of Hunters I like to call Snipers, these are the guys with 100mm or longer lenses picking out shots from a distance. This can help the photographer get more natural expressions be keeping some distance from the subject, but longer lenses by design tend to separate the subject from the background and don’t lend themselves well to showing the environment; what you get falls more into the area of candid portraits rather than street photography.

Overall, I don’t favour the Hunter method for the reasons stated as well as the fact that it’s intrusive and potentially frighting to the subject. It’s not technically illegal, as at least in many countries, you’re allowed to take pictures of anything or anyone in a public space, but I feel it gives street photography a bad name. I have no problem with someone taking my picture in public, but I wouldn’t appreciate being ambushed with a flash mere inches from my face.

I fall firmly in the Gatherer pool of street photographers. Gatherers don’t always get to choose the time, place or subject of their photos, it chooses them. I tend to stay stationary or walk around slowly, allowing my subjects to come to me instead of hunting them. My goal is to blend in with the crowd, ideally so much so that no one realizes I’m taking pictures. I use a small unobtrusive camera and most often shoot from the hip without raising the camera to my eye. A well known scientific principle is that observing an experiment can itself affect the outcome, I try to minimize this as much as possible. I usually try to find an interesting place or area of good lighting and wait to see what I get. The advantage is that I can capture people acting completely naturally. On the downside I often see interesting potential shots that I can’t take because I’m not willing to run after a subject or interfere with what they’re doing. I’m also limited as to when and where I can shoot, there’s many times when it’s just not possible to be inconspicuous with a camera. The Hunter can take pictures pretty much anytime, anywhere because they don’t care if the subject notices their picture being taken, while the Gatherer usually has to stick to crowds to blend in.

The Gatherer can also have a hard time practicing at night. Shooting from the hip usually requires small apertures and preset focus, which necessitates a decent amount of light. Even if you don’t shoot from the hip, night photography requires more careful focus because of the narrow depth of field that comes with large apertures, it can be hard to remain unnoticed if you spend too much time focusing on your subject. Many Gatherers, myself included, favour wide angle lenses; they’re easier to use when shooting from the hip because of their larger depth of field and because they capture more of the scene it give some leeway when framing your subject. You can always crop out distracting elements, but you can’t add details you didn’t capture. Unfortunately most wide angle lenses aren’t as fast as their 50mm and longer brothers which can also limit low-light use.

I also prefer the Gatherer method because I’m not a fan of confrontation, I have no desire to explain why I shoved a camera in some angry guys face and took his picture. While many people enjoy looking at street photography, they don’t always appreciate being its subject and I value both my camera and my face too much to endanger either. Although if I had to choose one, I’d save my camera, faces heal, cameras don’t 🙂 Both methods have advantages and disadvantages and you’ll have to pick the one that best suits your style and desired images. You can see more of my Street Photography on Flickr and stay tuned for more tips and tutorials. Next lesson will be: Knowing Your Equipment.

Street Photography Tutorial #2: Tools of the Trade ->