Sometimes you just have to shoot.
It is what street photography is about. Getting out on the street, watching the street scene and capturing the moment. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way you want. I went to Abingdon, UK, to collect some photography equipment. As the town centre is steeped in history I thought I’d capture some street scenes while there.
Three tips for capturing the moment – consider the historical context of street photography
While in Abingdon, I had several important insights…
1. It is not just about the moment: In the historic town centre of Abingdon on a very hot weekday lunchtime not much happens. It occurred to me that there is an important principle about street photography… everything is part of the environment. If you cut out your human subjects in Photoshop you would lose the essence of the street scene. An important component of the scene is in the environment itself. Think of the historical context of street photography when you consider your scene.
Don’t lose sight of the environment. A shot is interesting because of the people… and it’s interesting because of where they are. There is an inextricable link between a street moment and the street itself. Abingdon town centre has some wonderful historic buildings. The character of the history brings out the moments as effectively as the hustle and bustle in the down-town area of a big city. When Englishmen venture out in the mid-day sun, there is not much to smile about – but it makes for a scene in a historical context. View image above large.
2. An important part of the moment: Capturing expressions is essential. It speaks character and mood. It is a general point about street scenes and something to seek out in your pictures. However, not all street photographers are forgiving about all expressions.
I know of one street photographer that will tell you…
Make sure people aren’t smiling. Otherwise you end up with a snapshot
Martin Parr – Documentary Photographer
Hmmm! Maybe Martin Parr is right. But not always. Years ago in France I saw two elderly guys playing dominoes in an old town square. They were having a whale of a time – they did not stop laughing the whole time I was there. They laughed more when I photographed their mirth.
For me it was a defining moment. My shot, taken on an old Pentax (back in the days of film), became my first really successful street scene. It spurred me on. I was young, and I can’t even find that picture now. Actually the moment was so vivid in my mind I remember its detail many years later. The lesson? Capture the moment in all its glory, not just the moment you think is right. Martin Parr would have missed a great moment in a street game. I was the lucky one! I got a great set of expressions in the wonderful, historical context of street photography. That old French square came alive with that laughter.
3. The environment and historical context of street photography Street photography is about the people you meet, but never let a moment of interest slip away. Here is a picture of an old stone gateway into the market square in Abingdon…
• Hidden Human History Revealed •
The damage on the columns of the gate reveal the historical context of street photography.
• Click image to view large •
Stone arch by Neven Guy.
The essence of street photography is about the character of the people you see. But here is a unique moment in human history that is so much a part of the street scene. Look at the deep gouges and scratches in the sides of the gate columns. Those marks have been made over centuries of use. Carts, trucks and all sorts of other objects and implements have banged off those stone columns and left an historical imprint.
I felt privileged to walk around those columns feeling the stonework and letting the history wash over me. As I did so I could see in my minds eye the busy street scene of a market square bustling with peasants and farmers of three or four hundred years ago.
Street photography is not just about pictures, its about you too
The moment you get out and into the street you are revealing yourself and discovering your boundaries. I did not engage with the people of Abingdon as I had hoped. But I did engage with their history. The historical context of street photography helped me gain some important insights into the history of the town. I also had some interesting thoughts about street photography. A powerful day of learning! It has made me want to go back and witness a busy Saturday market there. Those pockmarked columns would be a great backdrop to a busy street scene.
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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)
Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)
Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’