Seize the moment: 6 reasons why timing is important in street photography

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What separates street photography from other genres is that it focuses on capturing fleeting moments of life instead of staged shots.

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Photo by Rene Bohmer

Every photographer strives to seize that split-second magic when everything fits together to make a perfect image. Henri Cartier-Bresson, an influential pioneer in street photography, called this experience “the decisive moment.”

Although chance sometimes plays a part in capturing “the decisive moment,” it depends more on your ability to anticipate the shot. Timing is critical in street photography, and here are six reasons why you need to learn it.

01. Life doesn’t wait

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson

Life happens fast. Keep your camera turned on and with you at all times in case you stumble upon a good subject to photograph. Capture the moment as it happens because it will not wait for you.

Photo by Boris Thaser
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Photo by Fred Mancosu

It’s hard to plan shots when you’re in the streets. However, choosing places filled with people will give you plenty of opportunities to encounter exciting situations. Just be observant and follow where the action takes you.

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Photo by Enric Fradera

Although the idea of having a quick reaction time may seem intimidating, it’s easy to master if you know what to do. The secret is predicting what your subject will do next. For example, when you see someone riding a bicycle down the road, you can more or less guess where that person is going. With that in mind, prepare to point your camera towards where you expect your subject to pass you. It doesn’t matter how fast the bicycle is going. As long as you know where it’s headed, you’ll know exactly when to press the shutter.

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Photo by Sjoerd Lammers

02. Lighting conditions change

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Photo by Guiseppe Milo

When you’re outside, you’ll notice how quickly the light around you changes. Although poor lighting shouldn’t discourage you from taking pictures, you still need to get into the habit of chasing perfect lighting. Take note of the best times to take photos. Bring your camera when the sun’s out and the weather outside is perfect. Doing so will increase your chances of going home with beautiful images. If you shoot an hour after the sun rises or an hour before it sets (also called the golden hour), you’ll be surprised at how the colors in your photos look more vibrant.

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Photo by Bulkan Evcimen
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Photo by Guiseppe Milo

Use your imagination when it comes to places with tricky lighting. For instance, shooting among tall buildings may cast long shadows that could ruin your photos, but you can use the interaction between light and darkness to create images like the one you see above. Use rays of light to compose your shot in situations where the background or foreground makes your picture look busy. Frame your camera just so the light is focused on your subject, and let the shadows mask the parts that you don’t want in your frame.

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Photo by Aaron Mello

Always look for light sources that add an emotional layer to your image. It doesn’t matter whether it’s natural light or artificial light, as long as it gives your picture a certain mood. Different lighting situations elicit different emotional responses from people. For instance, seeing an image of someone in bright sunlight may make people happy, while seeing someone in the fog or under a street lamp may make people either curious or anxious.

03. Every frame is a different story

Nothing is static in the streets. Everything that happens in front of you changes with every frame. When you find a subject you want to photograph, compose your shot quickly and immediately press the shutter. Sometimes you only have a split second to decide on your image. Once you miss the right moment, you lose the picture.

Photo by Cory Gazaill
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Photo by Fred Mancosu

Show in your photographs that life doesn’t stay still. Don’t just take regular photos. Create dynamic images that communicate the energy of the place and the people. Experiment with different shutter speeds (like the pictures above taken with a slow shutter speed)  and make the viewer feel the movement in your images.

Depending on how you want to represent movement, you can either use fast shutter speeds to freeze action or use slow shutter speeds to apply motion blur. When you’re shooting fast, set your camera to burst mode to capture every moment.

04. You can’t always ask your subjects to pose for you

Since street photography is all about taking candid pictures, you generally can’t ask people to pose for you. Catch them when they don’t expect it. The most captivating street photos make viewers feel like the camera isn’t even there at all.

Once people become conscious of your camera, there’s a good chance that they’d stop acting natural, and that’s something you don’t want to happen. You can’t be invisible, but you can at least be unobtrusive.

Not asking for permission from other people can be a touchy topic for some photographers.  However, you break the spontaneity when you ask people if you could take their pictures. It’s good if you merely want to take portraits, but in street photography, you generally want to capture authentic experiences, not staged scenes. Don’t be afraid to click the shutter. Just be nice and always smile. More often than not, most people don’t mind having their pictures taken as long as you’re friendly and non-threatening.

05. Happy accidents usually don’t happen twice

Happy accidents are lucky moments that photographers capture unexpectedly. It happens a lot in street photography since its primary goal is about documenting unplanned scenarios. Although street photography involves a lot of skill and intuition, it also relies on chance every once in a while.

Don’t overthink. Take pictures of everything that you find intriguing and have fun. Experiment with different angles and different camera settings. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes, errors produce the most amusing images.

Take your camera anywhere and always look around you. Interesting things may occur when you least expect them. Keep your eye out for anything unusual. The moment you’re waiting for may or may not happen, but when it does, you’ll have an image that’s worth capturing.

06. You might not see the same people ever again

Street photography is all about interacting with other people using a camera. It’s a great way to document different kinds of individuals that have made an impression on you – even if they happen to be strangers.

Interesting characters make interesting subjects. Look for people that stand out, because there’s a great chance that you might not see anyone like them again. Unique individuals have an air of mystery that creates curiosity in photos.

To become a good street photographer, you have to make the strangers you photograph look like your viewer already knows them intimately. Compose every frame in such a way that it tells a good visual story. It needs to have enough clues to help your viewer decipher what’s going on. At the same time, you also need to keep the viewer curious by making your image mysterious. Remember that what you leave out is also as important as what you keep in your photo.

If you’re just starting out, use a zoom lens to provide a comfortable distance between you and your subject. However, if you’re ready to take your photography to the next level, use 35mm or 50mm prime lenses to get extremely close to your subject. It takes confidence to use them when taking photos of people you don’t know. However, in return, you’ll have images that are more engaging since they make your viewers feel like they’re there.

The real allure behind street photography is that you don’t need to follow hard rules to excel in it. Let go of your inhibitions and trust your intuition. Stop thinking and let the moment guide your eyes. No matter how counterintuitive it sounds, it’s quite liberating to go out with your camera not knowing what you’ll discover. So explore the streets, start taking photos, and surprise yourself.