What does it take to make a good street photograph?

What's on a doorman's mind?
What's on a doorman's mind?

This article was originally posted on Eric Kim Street Photography blog. I am the author of the article and I reproduce it on my website with Eric Kim’s authorization.

What does it take to make a good street photograph? Many, many, many things. Some weeks ago on this blog, for instance, I discussed the importance of taking a picture at the right scale, that is, at the scale of the event you are photographing. As you can imagine, however, the scaling problem is not the only challenge one faces when doing street photography. I might be at the right scale, but not at the right position or angle; the natural light might create shadows masking important elements; the composition of the picture (that is, the organization of the different components of the image relative to each other and to the dimensions of the picture) might diminish the meaning and clarity of the photograph; the colors (if you shoot in color like me) might simply not get along very well (try flashy green on purple for instance :-) ); the contrasts might be too low to easily distinguish the foreground from the background; etc, etc. Street photography is an easy genre to start with (the easiest maybe?), but for sure it is one of the hardest to master as all these problems must be tackled under strong time constraints.

Among all these elements that you and I have to juggle with constantly, one has caused me more trouble than the others and is still my most important source of failures when it comes time to decide which picture to keep or reject after a long day of shooting. I am of course speaking of what is often referred as the “decisive moment” that can almost magically improve the quality of the picture, from mediocre to good, from good to great, from great to exceptional. But what is a decisive moment exactly? How does it work? How can we recognize one and capture it? I do not pretend I will be able to fully answer these questions in this post; like many of you, I am still in the long but rewarding process of building experience and acquiring knowledge in street photography. However, I will make my best to summarize what I have learned during these last months and to provide some (hopefully) constructive reflections on the subject.

The city is an adventure
The city is an adventure

- What is a decisive moment? Calling Henry Cartier-Bresson for help -

A quick look at blog posts, magazine articles, or book chapters dedicated to the subject might leave you with the impression that there are as many definitions of a decisive moment as there are people writing about it. One person, however, is consistently cited across all of this literature: the photography master Henri Cartier-Bresson (here his portfolio of Magnum’s website). The famous photographer did not invent the concept; many photographers before him used it more or less consciously. He did not even coin the term; publisher Richard L. Simon came up with it for the title of the English version of Cartier-Bresson’s book “Images à la sauvette” (literally “Pictures on the sly”). However, his work is so tightly associated with this concept, he explored it so deeply in his photographs that it is not possible to ignore his opinion on the subject. Therefore for the rest of this post, I will stick with Cartier-Bresson’s definition of the decisive moment, and I will keep the point of view of others for future writings.

In the aforementioned book, Cartier-Bresson refers to photography as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression”. If you’re like me, you might want to take a good 20 minutes to read this sentence again and again (and improve my average time on website statistics :-) ). It is not easy to understand, and my interpretation of it is still fluctuating. If you ask me again in some weeks, I might give you a slightly different one. “Simultaneous recognition” implies that both the form (the “precise organization”) and the content (the “significance”) of the event must be in harmony with each other at the moment where the picture is taken. In other terms, the picture should contain all the necessary elements to understand the captured event, and these elements in the picture should be organized in a way that facilitates the recognition of the event by a naive viewer. This suggests that each event, whatever its nature and duration, can be reduced somehow to a set of key features that contain the full meaning of the event when they come together appropriately. It is our job as (street) photographers to recognize these key features, to detect when they are arranged in the most meaningful way, and then to capture them during “a fraction of a second”; that is, the time it takes the camera to open and close its shutter. A decisive moment is not necessarily short; it can last more than one instant, but the camera will only fix one instant of it (otherwise, it is not photography anymore, but videography, which is fine too, but not the purpose of this blog).

I am a visual animal and I need concrete examples to understand all this heavy language, especially when it is my own :-). I could flood you with pictures and boring explanations for the next 50 centimeters (it is about 4 pages, but the concept of page is irrelevant for a blog post :-)), but I found someone else to do it in a more entertaining way. In the following video, the great William Klein (ok, I lied, I did not stick with Cartier-Bresson all along) comments on several of his contact sheets, showing how he progressively builds a picture and captures decisive moments. Because he shows sequences of images of the same event, you will be able to see the decisive moment coming and disappearing as Klein skims through his pictures. Take the time to watch it (about 14 minutes) and I will wait for you about 5 centimeters below here.

Wasn’t it great? Just for the pleasure, here is a link to another video you should keep for later, where Klein takes a look at his work with a lot of humor and self-derision. It is priceless!

- Why does it work? Some clues from neuroscience -

While I really appreciate Klein’s and Cartier-Bresson’s explanations, my scientific mind cannot be completely satisfied until I understand why these particular moments get my neurons as excited as teenagers at a Justin Bieber’s concert. Putting aside the purely graphical aspect of the picture (because it is not specific to street photography), I managed so far to identify two general categories of decisive moments.

In the first category, I put what I call “exceptional moments”. By exceptional, I am not referring to memorable events (such as the landing on the Moon for instance) but rather to events that challenge our perception of the reality. They can be rare events, so rare that the probability of witnessing similar events again is close to zero. They can be relatively frequent events but represented on the photograph in a way that goes against the usual experience we have of them. The reason why this type of moment shakes our brains so much is to be found, at least partly, in the neurological mechanisms we use to learn about our environment all throughout our life. When we detect an event (for instance a glass of water falling off a table), it is compared with an internal representation of similar events that we have experienced in the past. This representation allows us to build almost instantaneously predictions (or expectations) of what is likely to happen next (the glass will probably break and water will be spilled over the ground). Each time reality does not match our expectations, this comparison mechanism activates a neuronal circuitry that is in charge on the one hand of updating our representation of the event, and on the other hand of increasing our attention level toward the unknown situation in order to collect more information and/or to consciously solve the mismatch using other knowledge (if the glass does not break for instance, maybe it is because it is made out of plastic). When we face a photograph showing one of the “exceptional” decisive moments I mentioned earlier, this circuitry goes crazy and all of our attention gets focused on the picture, hence the fascination such images exert on us.

In flight
In flight

The second category of decisive moments, the “ordinary moments”, are more commonly found in street photographs. As opposed to the “exceptional moments”, they correspond to frequently observed events, and they are represented in the photographs from a point of view we usually experience them. One excellent example is the picture “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” by Henri Cartier-Bresson. This photograph represents a man jumping over a large puddle, something that you and I have already witnessed many times and probably done on several occasions. There is no element of surprise in this image, nothing that could activate the aforementioned neuronal circuitry. Why then are we fascinated by this picture? Research in neuroscience during the last 10-15 years has uncovered groups of neurons that have a very particular functioning. These neurons are strongly activated when we perform an action (such as jumping over a puddle) or experience an emotion (such as pain or happiness), but also when we witness someone performing an action or experiencing an emotion. For this reason, these neurons are called mirror neurons. While there is still a lot of speculation and debate about the exact function of these neurons, there exists evidence that these neurons could be involved in empathy; that is, our ability to recognize others’ feelings and intents, or in other words, to stand in someone else’s shoes. I would not be surprised if somewhere in our brain, some of our mirror neurons were activated strongly when watching Cartier-Bresson’s picture. Thanks to this simple snapshot, we can quickly imagine how this man felt when he reached the end of the scale and faced the large puddle, why he decided to perform a jump, and what he was expecting from this action. Our empathy allows us to virtually experience the moment, as if we were actually performing this jump (or any other action, or even just feeling the emotion of the character in the picture). If the picture had been taken an instant before or an instant after, the action of “jumping over the puddle” would have been less obvious, less identifiable, our mirror neurons would have fired less strongly, and as a consequence our virtual experience would have been less intense and the picture more… ordinary.

Free wheelie
Free wheelie

- Enough with the theory! How do we capture the Holy Grail? -

As you can imagine, there is no definitive answer to this question, no magic spell to capture a decisive moment in every picture. It would be too boring otherwise. However, there are many things we can do to increase our chances of pushing the button at the right place and the right moment.

Be technically ready. There is nothing worse than missing a picture because the camera was still in the bag, or off, or set up with unsuitable parameters. Rule number 1 to catch a decisive moment is therefore to keep your camera ready all the time. When out shooting, I always have my camera out of the bag and in hand. I use a hand strap that allows me to quickly bring the camera to my eye when I want to take a picture. In many videos of street photographers, I noticed that they often walk around with their two hands on the camera to ensure fast and stable shooting. I use this technique when I am in a busy area with many potential pictures coming continuously. My camera (Panasonic Lumix GF1) is always on, energy save disabled. Since the GF1 is energy-demanding, I carry with me extra batteries (3 batteries keep me going for more than 10 hours with the electronic viewfinder, which is enough usually). Finally, and probably more importantly, you want to preset your camera to make sure you will get a correct exposure where you take the picture. When the time comes to press the shutter button, the only thing you want to be focusing on is the composition of your picture. Cartier-Bresson himself used a very reduced set of parameters when taking pictures (as told by Ishu Patel in this great article). He wanted to diminish as much as possible the technical parts of photography to focus on the people and the stories he wanted to photograph. What are the best parameters to use then? I will keep this for a future post, this one is already quite long. Long story short: it depends ;-)

She's not who you think she is
She's not who you think she is

Be mentally ready. Street photography is practiced live. There is no possibility to stop the action, to make adjustments to the scene or to repeat the shot until it is perfect. Concentration is therefore required to anticipate events and to react on time. I do not have a secret recipe to stay focused. Some people use music to help them reduce outside disturbances. Personally, I find that I need a “warm-up” time during which I walk the streets looking at people, thinking of them. Then all my other “problems” vanish and I can focus only on taking pictures. However, an average human being like me can probably focus intensely for 20-30 minutes in a row only. Thus, it is essential to take breaks regularly in order to rest the eyes and the brain. I noticed that shooting with a partner helps a lot with this issue by providing a natural relaxing activity (socializing) between two shooting sessions, without losing track of the main reason why I am in the streets.

Be perceptually ready. Observation is the key for a good street photograph. I spend maybe 99% of my time looking around me and only 1% looking through my viewfinder. The viewfinder is a tool to compose a picture, but it is too restrictive to help me have a good idea of what is happening or about to happen around me. I would even say that the less time I spend looking through the viewfinder, the better are my pictures. The key is to keep my head and my eyes always moving to get as much information as possible from all directions around me. And I mean all directions possible: left, right, up, down, in front and behind. When I am walking, I stop briefly very often to have a quick look behind me, or to kneel down, or to climb on a bench or a fence. Getting information is essential, both to anticipate the decisive moment and to learn how to anticipate it faster the next time. This last point (learning to anticipate) is probably what I have been focusing on the most during this last year. As an ethologist, I have been trained to observe the behavior of animals and to detect patterns of actions; that is, series of actions or behaviors that come frequently together in a particular order. When you know such a pattern, you can anticipate when the subject will perform a given action by simply observing what he/she is doing right now. Some are easy and stereotyped. Chess players for instance repeatedly pick and drop pieces, and you can predict relatively accurately when one of them will lift a piece and be ready to capture this moment. Other patterns of actions are less obvious. For instance, people tend to avoid pedestrians coming in the opposite direction by stepping toward their right side (it is true in most countries, but exceptions exist, for instance in Japan). As a consequence, busy sidewalks are often organized in two lanes of people walking in opposite directions. If you step into the “wrong” lane, you will automatically attract the attention (and the eyes) of the people walking toward you because you will break their routine, and this can give you great candid street portraits. How can one learn to recognize these patterns? Practice, practice, practice. The more you are in the streets, the more you will observe the people around you, the easier it will be to recognize these chains of behaviors and to anticipate a decisive moment.

Master and pupil
Master and pupil

Compose and wait. In street photography, it is often a matter of half a second or less between a good and a great picture. You snap too early and the moment is not yet here; you snap too late and it is gone forever. One thing that I have noticed during this year was my tendency to shoot too early (and surprisingly not too late), as if I wanted to be sure to get something. I would feel that something was about to happen, put the camera in front of my eye, compose as fast as possible and take the picture, often just before the “decisive moment.” Then it is too late and before I could push the button again the moment was happening and I could only blame my impatience. To conclude this post, I’ve decided to show you the following video of an interview with Sam Abell, a famous documentary photographer for National Geographic (among other things). He is not a street photographer, but he gives what I consider the best piece of advice that I have received this year to improve my street photographs: compose and wait. Wait 1 second, 1 minute, 1 hour, but wait until the anticipated decisive moment shows up. Sam Abell waited 1.5 year to get what is probably one of his most iconic picture, as he tells in this interview. Enjoy the video, and thanks for still being here at the end of this pretty long post.

If you would like to know more about me and my work, you can follow me:

And thanks very much to my friend Albert Kao for kindly correcting my wonky English :-)

2 Comments

  1. Woah! I have all the information in me to do street photography but I get bored very easily & I lack the means to know if MY PICTURES are good enough. I keep on doing it but, like I said, I’m bored very easily doing so. I don’t know how to get out of that funk. Your post reassures me, I’m on the right track. Just have to work on myself… (I guess)

    • One good way to get to know whether your pictures are “good enough” is to submit them to the critique of others. Not always easy to accept if the critiques are harsh, but if you can get over it, it’s invaluable. There are a lot of places to get critiques online, pick yours and get started ;-)

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