Street Photography for You and Me

I have missed out my shutter therapy session for the past weekend. I worked full day on Saturday and then I had the Proposal assignment to shoot on Sunday, leaving me with no space at all for my usual street shooting. Somehow, I felt incomplete without street shooting to cap off the week, and the void stayed with me until the following the working week. My hand has gotten very, very itchy for some shutter action, hence today I got off work early and stormed Chow Kit with my Olympus PEN E-PL1 which I carry around everywhere, everyday now. I finally caught up with my much anticipated and missed shutter therapy, and I am whole again.

Some people may say that I am crazy, for getting so addicted to my shutter therapy sessions. Some people question whether I have anything better to do with my life, or spend my time on. Seriously, I do not go clubbing or bars, I do not have expensive hobbies like golfing or go-karting. I am happy just to pick up the camera and go about shooting at anything. Some people also question about the value of my photography work. What for putting so much time and effort in my street shooting if I am not even earning a bit in return? True enough. However, they did not see my facial expression when I managed to nail down that shot that I really loved, or know the excitement and rush that went through my pumping heart when I found a rare, golden photography opportunity. The satisfaction from the shooting alone surpasses many other things I have come across in life. This good feeling is keeping my life together, and it stays with me. The best part of all, it costs nothing (besides the initial camera purchase). Is this not better than any drugs or alcohol?

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus PEN E-PL1 and 14-42mm Mk1 kit lens.

A reflection or a shadow?
GRAINY FILM Art Filter used.
Darn, that white paper should not have been there.

Exposed brick wall.
GRAINY FILM Art Filter used.

Somehow the motorcycle looks rather attractive in this image.
PINHOLE Art Filter used.

Just after the rain

Freedom to run
GRAINY FILM Art Filter used.

An entrance or exit.

Torn to shreds.

A passing company

Mobile phone culture.

It does not matter which street photography definition you choose and adhere to, the true approach in street photography has been an on-going and never-ending debate over the decades. While generally people agree that street photography should portray the scenes in public as naturally as possible, many are against the posed and direct eye contact with the people you photograph. In contrast to that, many also argued the importance of seeking the permission from the person you intend to photograph, prior to your camera clicking actions. To me, it is not important what rules or standards you apply, if your street photograph is good, no matter what definition you have applied in your style of shooting, it is still a good street photograph. I personally utilized a mixture of a little bit of everything, and really, rules are just rules. Lets just shoot and make more photographs happen.

There are multiple benefits that one can gain from doing street photography. You get to train your eyes to really open up, and see everything around you. Sometimes, it is not so much about how you shoot your subject, or the choice of camera and lenses that matter. Most of the times, it all depends on your choice of subject content, simply put, what you choose to photograph. You may have perfect technical execution, and the most expensive street shooting gear (throw in a Leica camera of your choice and a lens that costs three times the price of the chosen Leica) but if your subject content is not strong enough, lacking appeal and does not contain the interest and impactful  "wow" factor, there really is nothing to see in that photograph. Learning to see is one of the most important part of photography. You capture what you see, and you show your audience so that they can see what you want them to see in your photographs. If you did not see it in the first place, how can you expect your audience to see your subject content?

Street photography, being practiced over and over again, can boost up your confidence as a photographer. It is important how you approach your subjects. If you look insecure, hesitant, and doubtful when you come into a close distance to the people you want to photograph, the reaction from that person would be the mirror of what you have shown them. They will hesitate, if you hesitate. On the other hand, if you confidently come nearer, and strike a warm, beautiful, confident smile, the first reaction from most people would be a return in smile. That friendly exchange of very basic human action and reaction is the crucial opening key to create that sense of connection between the photographer and his subjects. If your subject is comfortable around you, the pose and look in their face would be natural and more pleasing. Likewise, if you exhibit a negative aura around you, your subject will surely respond with a bad facial expression. I have learned this the hard way. I was timid and very nervous in my first few street photography sessions, but as I gained my momentum and confidence, I become more and more courageous, and that evidently shows in the reflection I see from my subject's facial expressions.

Besides learning how to see and boosting shooting confidence, I strongly believe street photography can train a photographer to be more alert. You have to be aware of what is around you. Once you find a photography opportunity, you have to act quickly, and respond in the nick of time. You must be very familiar with your camera and its settings, and execute your shots without hesitation at all, because any delay in judgment will increase the risk of losing the shot. The technique employed to capture spontaneous moments can shape you up to be a very efficient, and effective photographer. There are so many techniques and approach to street photography, each has its own pros and cons, but whichever method you intend to utilize, you need to know it well, and use it to get the job done. Predicting certain events that is about to happen, and preparing yourself in time for that occurrence, will ensure higher hit rate.

Is his head bigger?

A headshot.

So what if my subject poses and gives me the rock on sign? I still LOVE this shot.

Mobile phone culture 2.

if you love what you do, it shows.

Taking care of the kids.

Father figure

Cat and strings.

Street walking. Just like what I do.

I guess the reason why I love street photography so much, is because it is a genre that is not entirely gear dependent. Street photography places more importance onto the photographer's vision itself. You have to get close enough to your subject. You have to be able to establish that connection with your subject. Yet, at the same time, you have to consider all your camera settings and make sure your focusing is spot on. There is a lot of things that go about just in one single frame, and if you screw up that one part, everything else will be affected as well. You have to be good at multitasking, and work your fingers on your camera subconsciously to a certain extent. Therefore, you cannot really blame your camera or lenses if your shots are not well accepted by your audience.

There are people who asked me "don't you get bored going to the same street over and over again? Don't you get bored of shooting street? Why don't you try something else?" Firstly, I do not get bored easily, and why should I, if I love to do what I am doing? How can I get bored of something that I truly love doing? Secondly, practice makes perfect. How can you be good at something if you just tried it a few times, I will do this again and again until I accomplish a standard that I personally would be satisfied with. I can only improve further, if I shoot more. Thirdly, shooting at the same street again and again does not mean my photography will become redundant and repetitive, There are different lighting situations, different people, and different ways to approach the people. I agree, street photography is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is mine. And I will do it again, simply because I love doing it. I will pick up other photography genres and dive deeper into them, but I wont stop shooting on the streets, at least not at the time being.

I am still very fresh to street photography (only been doing this for about a year now), but I am growing more and more in love with it. There is so much more to explore and learn, and obviously I have a lot to improve. I learn from my mistakes, and I will get better from each and every session I do my shutter therapy.

Street photography thoughts, care to share some?


  1. Portrait and fashion photography is the easiest. Sorry to all the fans of this genre but I'm afraid it's true. You're working in a cosy studio, in a controled environment. Street or photojournalism is much harder. It's not just clicking the shutter. There is chaos on the streets and you are suppoosed to give meaning to this chaos. This is difficult and beautiful. The most difficult genre is landscape photography. Just like Anselm Adams said: it's the ultimate test of a photographer. And very often an ultimate dissapointment.

    Keep that shutter clicking and don't mention all the bores who have no hobbies. They will never understand our passion because their eyes and heart is closed.

  2. Thanks Bartosz !!
    You nailed down your points nicely. True, street and photojournalism are not as easy as they seem to be. There are a lot more things going around to be considered.

  3. @Bartosz: While I agree on your remarks about landscapes - they seem to be the most difficult - I tend to disagree about your view on portrait, fashion, and studio work. Sure, it's true, it is a controlled environment, and you are the one who controls it, mostly. But since this might seem easy to you, most of the time that also means that you will fail ever so often, and fail big time. It's not about high frame rates and getting the lucky shot, it's about "Darn, I should have set this light about 1 degree higher, and that one 1/3 stop lower to get that sparkling in her eye!" - and most guys most of the time never even think (and learn from) thoughts like those... plus you really really have to be a post-processing artist as well.

    @Robin: wonderful images, like always, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I think it's just the step from a snap shooter - I used to be one myself in an learlier life - to someone who senses the world with all he/she's got, which makes the difference. Sure, it's not controllable, and most often not predictable, but it has something going for it that is hard to describe. You have to be very alert, that's true. And you also should be able to blindly set your camera, and even "shoot from the hip", also true. I don't consider myself a good street shooter (yet), but I definitely feel what you are writing about here - it can get you addicted, and it's all about a positive mind set, and to be open for everything that might come along. It's very nice of you to share your insight into this, since your street photography is miles ahead of everything I've tried so far, terima kasih again.

    Yeah, landscapes (my mind is wandering as you can see)... I've tried it, and that might really be the ultimate test. Trying to pre-visualize how the lighting will be at a scene some hours later, for only some minutes. Sitting and waiting, camera on tripod, and then to be disappointed again and again because the weather isn't really playing nice. Or an epic fail because you were in just the wrong spot. Plus: around here, exactly 50 degrees north of the equator, nights can be long and bitterly cold (which is good because cold means clean air, but which is bad for humans).

    Still I love photography, and I wish I had much more time for it. Seen that way, it also means shutter therapy for me :-)

  4. wow, that is a long feedback. wolfgang, appreciate it. will get back to you later, quite hard to type long comments on my mobile phone.

  5. Me likey the motorcycle and 'Freedom to run' photos.

  6. thanks chong!! lets go gong cha again!

  7. Hello Wolfgang,
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    I believe strongly that there are two types of photography, one that we have to create from nothing, and one that we just merely capture what is there. The one to create, is based purely on what we have in mind, the conceptual layout, the control down to every detail, the subject content, lighting setup and everything else in that frame of photograph. This covers fashion photography, studio works, and portraitures as well. We have to control everything, and I do admit that it poses a very different set of challenges. It is not easy, as you have highlighted, and the photographer must know the game well.

    The street photography is more fitting to the second category I have described earlier, the one capturing whatever that is just there, without having much control over the subject content. I do not think making a direct comparison is fair, because those two categories of photography are completely different things. They both have their own places, and demand different set of photography skills to master and bring out the best.

    Landscape photography I have not explored yet. Perhaps one day, I shall give it a try. Malaysian weather is rather disappointing I must say !!

  8. 我也是自己拍自己爽。。。(sounds better in Chinese)

    "....I do not have expensive hobbies...." Photography is not exactly a cheap hobby, a DSLR, a prime, a standard itchy for a longer zoom... it add up to quite a lot already...

  9. Hello Anonymous,
    If you have taken the time to know me through my blog, you will realize that I have complimentary E-5 body and the fisheye lens. All my other stuff, I buy second hand at very, very low price.
    Also, if you have taken the time to read into my Portfolio, I do take in paid assignment. Instead of purely wasting money, I do get returns from my photography works.

    Obviously you are misreading my intentions in talking strictly about "street photography" only. You do not need a DSLR with expensive lenses.

    I DID NOT USE DSLR OR ANY EXPENSIVE LENS in this particular entry. READ CAREFULLY NEXT TIME. I only used the PEN and a kit lens.

    Please stop this non-nonsensical comment. Furthermore, if you dare to make such statement, kindly leave your name and email. Don't be such a coward to comment anonymously. I can easily choose to delete your comment as I please.

  10. Robin, I am looking forward to trying some more street photography. I understand what you are saying about seeing and noticing. I was first a nature photographer (hobby) and I really enjoy nature photography with my new PEN. Yet, your photos and writing about street phtography and people on the street really has me intrigued. I went to the Farmers Market the day after I got the camera and I was uncomfortable with shooting people and they looked at me suspiciously so I focused on the flowers and produce and the whole scene. I was afraid to get too close to someone, plus I had my 5 yo with me and he was a distraction. ;) This might be a really nice way to get out by myself sometimes. ~Cori in Oregon

    P.S. Here are some shots from my first full day with the PEN e-P3. I hope it is OK to post a link to Flickr. If not please delete.

  11. Hello Cori,
    Thank you so much for sharing those wonderful photos !! The colours are so vibrant and alive.

    I am sure you will gain more confidence as you shoot on the streets again. Remember to smile, and don't worry too much about nailing the shots, just enjoy yourself, and the photography opportunities will come. If the people you intend to photograph rejected your request, return with a kind smile and move on. there will be more opportunities, betters ones waiting next, so just continue shooting.