Like many camera buffs, I've done a fair amount of street photography, stalking subjects in markets, parks and tourist areas. Unfortunately, I often come away with little to show for it. That's particularly frustrating, because I live in Paris on a beautiful street with endlessly interesting subjects and settings.
My challenges with the genre -- poor ideas, a fear of confrontation and technical challenges -- certainly apply to other types of photography. However, they're magnified on the streets, due to the improvisational nature and factors out of my control, like subjects, lighting conditions and weather.
To get better at this most difficult genre, I enlisted Valérie Jardin, a practicing street photographer who has taught the skill to many others in her workshops across Europe and the US. She has strong ideas about how to shoot (spoiler: it's about storytelling) and loves conveying her passion to others. "What's so attractive about street photography is knowing that you have a shot that nobody else has, and that nobody else ever will -- that to me is beautiful," she said.
We met in Caen, in the famous Normandy region of France, to chat about her techniques and put them into action. The day was a revelation and helped my photography immediately. Hopefully, the tips I received can help you too.
Get a vision
The first step to improving is to drastically raise your standards, according to Jardin. "There's a lot of mediocre street photography out there," she said. "There has to be a story, there has to be something really special to make it a great photo. And that's extremely difficult to see and to capture."
What makes a good photo? "It's about emotion. It's not about technical perfection. Because I see a lot of technically perfect, very boring pictures," she said. "There has to be a gesture or something really special."
Capturing that fleeting expression or movement is not easy, so Jardin tries to ease her students into it. If you've ever had the frustrating moment where you just missed that perfect shot, that's actually good news. "A lot of times, you miss the shot, but at least you see it, so you learn something," she explained. "And seeing the moment is 99 percent better than what anybody else can do. Now capturing it is another story, and that's why it's so rare to get that decisive moment."
Even when you don't have a camera, you should try to see potentially interesting photos in your mind's eye. "Notice the quality and quantity of light around you, notice the right gesture, and if you had your camera at that moment, when would be a good time to press the shutter button?"
As for style, there are a lot of ways to do it. "You can be very minimalist, where it's more about the background and architecture," said Jardin. "Others prefer to be up close and really get in people's faces, and some people prefer doing street portraits where you actually have an interaction. You can also shoot much more anonymously where the subject is not recognizable. So there is a type of street photography that will fit one personality more than another."
Jardin leans toward the unobtrusive style. "I don't like to be in people's faces to get a reaction. That is just not my personality, and I would not want a photographer to do that to me either," she said. "You can also do beautiful, artsy street photography while not revealing the identity of your subject at all. So that's another way to do it."
Equipment and setup
Jardin is a Fujifilm ambassador and shoots tmostly with a $1,300 X100F compact, but right off the bat, she downplayed the role of the equipment. "I think a good photographer can make an equally great photo with a $50 plastic camera, a phone or the latest Leica," she said. "It should not make a difference."
That said, you're less likely to draw attention with an X100F, Leica Q2, Ricoh GR III or other lightweight compact camera, than you are with a DSLR or large mirrorless model. And there's a reason why those models have fixed lenses in the 28-35mm wide angle to normal range.
"That's really important, the use of a fixed lens," said Jardin. "You're much faster with a fixed lens than a zoom. The better you know your focal length, the faster you're going to be at framing properly. And it's really all about working fast."
It's also about knowing your equipment and setting it up ahead of time. Many photographers swear by manual settings, but not Jardin. "Let the camera do a lot of the work. I find that I shoot mostly with aperture priority. I set my shutter speed," she explained. "On an average day, when I want to freeze motion, I will tell my camera, don't go underneath 1/200th of a second." If the lighting changes or is challenging, Jardin will usually use the exposure compensation dial rather than manual mode.
The extremely light-sensitive sensors of modern digital cameras are another boon to street photographers. "Just bring the ISO up as needed to stay at that speed," she said. "With today's cameras, I don't have noise when I'm at ISO 6400, and a lot of the time, I need to be. Because I'm indoors, I'm in cafes, I'm in dark places."
Silent shooting is another very useful modern feature that Jardin employs. "It's not to be sneaky. It's that if the person notices you taking the picture, then the moment is gone, so there's no picture anyway. It's really about not disrupting what you saw and what caught your eye in the first place." As is autofocus. "You have to work so fast that if you have to worry about focus, you're going to miss the shot."
Of course, you have to master your equipment before shooting. "You have to control your camera, but that's pretty easy.
Anyone can learn the technical parts of photography," according to Jardin. "I never have to think about the camera, and that's really important, because if it gets in the way, you've already lost the shot."