The Rookie Street Photographer’s Mental Checklist

16 08 2012

I’m fairly new to street photography. I don’t remember when exactly I started consciously taking my camera, roaming the streets and snapping away, but it can’t have more than 12 months. In these twelve months, though, I have gone from being completely freaked out about shooting on the streets to being a little more confident about taking photos of strangers.

It’s been a huge learning curve. Here’s a little mental checklist that I’ve developed. It combines what I’ve learnt from my many street sessions, from blogs and various photo books.

1. Think ‘story’.

The photo needs to tell a story. It needs to offer more than just the immediate visual image. It needs to draw the viewer in on several different levels, first grabbing their attention visually, then probing them to look at the photo for a little longer, to seek out the story within.

Wahhh!! This photo focuses on the subject a lot, but there’s also a bit of a story to it. Why is the baby crying? And why is the mother looking as if she wants to hiss at the baby? What’s going to happen next?

2. Pay attention to background and foreground.

It’s an easy trap to fall into: focusing exclusively on the subject. While this can work on some occasions, such as a street portrait, I’ve found that to make a successful street photo, the background and foreground are just as important as the subject.

I took a photo of these two men were squatting on the sidewalk, who werelooking as if they wanted to take a dump! (They were actually discussing brick replacements) OK, so their odd body positioning is interesting…but there’s nothing more to this photo. No background, no foreground. Boring.

Untitled, 1956. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo above is much more interesting. It tells a story. There’s the subject, but there’s also the background, without which this would have been a boring photo of a worker. The middle ground too, of the dog, adds another layer of narrative to the photo. Background, middle ground, foreground, and of course the subject – all are important ingredients.

3. Look for likeness. Seek out similarity.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “What reinforces the content of a photograph is the sense of rhythm – the relationship between shapes and values.” Photos with nuanced relationships and unexpected coincidences embedded within them add another layer to the viewer’s experience. Ernst Hass noted, “The best pictures differentiate themselves by nuances…a tiny relationship – either a harmony or a disharmony – that creates a picture.”

Porte d’ Aubervilliers, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Can you spot the ‘relationship’ in the photo above? Jumping right out at the viewer is the relationship between the man and his silhouette. Looking closer, you’ll also notice the close resemblance between the ballerina on the poster in the background, and the leaping motion of the man.

Women outside a mosque, Kunduz, 2003. Steve McCurry.

The ‘relationships’ aren’t limited to physical shapes, either. Steve McCurry, in his photo above,  captures the subtle interplay of color and form. As the two women walk past the window of the mosque, two men are seen praying inside. McCurry snaps the shutter at exactly the right moment: the woman in blue is directly in line with the man in blue, and the woman in white is directly in line with the man in white. What’s the implication of such a photo? The photo has done the initial prompting, and the viewer can draw their own conclusions.

Keep calm and keep walking. I’ve tried to establish links and relationships in this photo, but of course, this photo is a very mediocre stab at being nuanced and subtle!

4. Hunting is good. Creating is even better.

Often I find myself roaming ceaselessly on the streets, hunting for that decisive moment that would ‘make’ the photo. Sometimes, though, I have to remind myself that hunting is a bit of a passive activity – there’s too much luck involved, even though a good eye is of course also important. Creating, instead of hunting, might be the better, more active alternative. Instead of hunting for the perfect moment, try to wait and create it.

5. D is for Detail.

Untitled, 1969. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Sometimes, it’s the tiniest of details that brings a photo to life. The dog, staring up at the kissing couple, adds a whole new dimension to the photo. I have to constantly remind myself to look out for details: dogs, expressions, shadows, road signs…little things that spice up the photo.

Behind the church of Saint-Sulpice, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

I love this photo. It gets me cracking every time I see it. It could probably fall under the heading of  ‘Look for likeness. Seek out similarity’ as well, but I’ve put it here because of Cartier-Bresson’s meticulous attention to detail here. He could well have just focused on the two dogs having sex, but instead he noticed the detail of the two other dogs in the lower corner, and included them in the photo.

6. D is for Diagonals.

You’ve probably heard of the rule of thirds. Well, there’s also diagonals as well. In fact, I think diagonals are just as, if not more important, than the rule of thirds. Adam Marelli goes into a lot more detail in his wonderful post here.

Untitled, 1953. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Notice how the photo is composed along the diagonal lines.

7. Don’t hesitate.

All too often, I see someone I desperately want to take a photo of, and yet am freaked out by the idea of them noticing me…There’s not a lot I can do about this, really, apart from practicing relentlessly to overcome this illogical fear!

Have you got a little mental checklist of your own? Is there anything I should add? Please leave your ideas in the comments below! 


The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography by Michael Freeman
Henri Cartier-Bresson: À Propos de Paris by Henri Cartier-Bresson
In the Shadow of Mountains by Steve McCurry




4 responses

17 08 2012
Bill Chance

Really nice lessons… and some good photos to boot.

Thanks for sharing – now I want to grab my camera and go out.

17 08 2012

Thanks for dropping by, Bill, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Looking forward to seeing some of the photos on your blog!

30 08 2012
Myles Kalus (@MylesKalus)

Hey Mary. Thanks for reading my blog post. Sorry that it’s taken a while for me to respond to you. I’ve read your post. And it’s a good read! Nothing I would change besides the photo in point No. 6. There’s more to it than just diagonals, I would say.

Bresson did used diagonals for that photo but for me it was just one diagonal. It looks more like he used the Root 4 composition and did it like this (yellow):

Also he seems to just cut the image (red) in half rather than having the 2nd diagonal as you illustrated. Sorry for overlapping your edited image. Couldn’t find the original.

But overall, good read. The photos you’ve chosen to illustrate your points are perfect for them.


1 09 2012

Good point. I didn’t notice all the extra compositional details – thanks for pointing them out!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: