Street Photography: Wandering While Observing Both City and Society
Some of my best street photography was shot while wandering the city with no apparent aim. Street photography is a genre in which you have little to no control of what your subject does, the light you’re working with, or the setting. You cannot force anything, and you cannot stage life in the streets or predict what’s about to happen before your very eyes. You’re just there, observant and ready to shoot. Here’s how I do it.
I consider myself what we call in French a “flâneur“. You’ll often find me wandering the streets with my trusty camera while observing society. I’ve always likened photography when sauntering the city to a form of meditation; the camera acts as a bubble, distancing me from the mad rush around me. It’s therapeutic, and observing people is also great entertainment.
Of course, some street photographers with a more aggressive style would miss my point, but to me, it’s the best way to calm my frantic brain, to turn the wild river of thoughts into a calm lake. Whenever I get the blues and urban life gets to me a little too much, I head out alone, and I wander fairly randomly with the aim to get lost.
Although I say “randomly,” I believe there is some form of energy taking me from my home to the place I may eventually reach (and everything in-between). If at the end of my journey, I capture one single good shot, I know it was just meant like that. It’s also known as “serendipity.” You just never know what great event may be around the corner. As Anatole France said: “Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.”
On a typical day, I leave home just before the rush hour and head for the underground. There, I have a couple of branches of the Northern Line to choose from, so I just take the first central London-bound train. Call it the “tube lottery.” Once aboard the half-empty carriage, I glance at the tube map and try to pick a destination or station I have never been to or visited before. After 16 years living in London, it’s harder to find than trying to find a black cat in a coal cellar (an idiom an old neighbor of mine often used).
For those of you who haven’t tried that before, I highly recommend it. Explore one new tube station per week, and in no time, you’ll know London or any other city like the back of your hand. So, any station at the edge of central London generally does it, and once I reach street level, I then allow myself to get lost.
If I have to make a decision between a street or another, I’ll opt for the one I’m not familiar with. That way, I discover new things and look at everything with fresh eyes, the perfect way to stimulate my excitable brain cells on the hunt for that street photography opportunity.
Londoners, but also many people living in large cities, can often forget that they live in an amazing city which people travel long distances and pay vast amounts of money to visit. It is possible, however, to rediscover it even if you’ve been there your entire life. Cities are constantly changing.
I find that walking with the sun behind me can help me in my photographic quest. People’s faces are brightly lit, ready for me to capture. If instead, I’m looking to shoot shadows and silhouettes, I’ll walk facing the sun.
Sometimes, without realizing it, it’s the gentle and almost imperceptible gradient that takes me from Soho’s dark back alleys to the river. From there, I walk the Thames Path towards Tower Bridge.
On other occasions, I may get a bit stuck in the crowds during rush hour in the city, so I simply drift and follow as if I were a log floating on a river until I eventually reach a side street where I can cruise at my own pace. It’s like a sudden oasis of calm in this sea of people.
I have always found that in order to produce my very best street photography, the ingredients are as follows:
- Know your camera inside-out, so well that you never have to fiddle with settings as the moment vanishes.
- Don’t search desperately for the shot, it will come to you, often as a pleasant surprise.
- Walk slowly and observe all angles. Looking up is greatly underrated and can yield interesting shots too.
- If you photograph people, a smile always goes a long way.
There are many more things you can do to help you on your quest for the perfect street shot, but wandering is by far my favorite. London is such an exciting place for street photography and some crazy stuff happens here constantly. Sometimes, you come across situations or things that are so incredibly beautiful that it’s difficult to believe they were not set up, like a present from London to you.
Love street photography? How do you usually get your best street shots?