My friend once asked me, “what do you want?”
I answered, “I want to be a better street photographer!”
What is depth-of-field? Without getting too technical, depth-of-field simply means the area in front and behind your subject which is in focus.
You know those photos with only a small part in focus while the background is blurred? Yeah, those are photos with shallow depth-of-field, also known as fancy ‘bokeh’ shots (which I can now take!).
I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford my camera with specialised lenses, but even if you’re just using your phone camera, street photography can be for you too!
Going on this journey to learn more about photography has been fun. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.
Photography Is a Form of Expression
You know the saying, “a picture paints a thousand words”? I like taking photos because I like the idea of being able to capture a moment. We can’t re-live moments (even if we really want to), and sometimes we find it hard to describe things with words. But a photo is visually stimulating – it captures a life.
As a street photographer, I travel and try to see things from a different perspective – angles, shadows, roads, and the interaction of these elements. It teaches me to be more aware of people’s different lifestyles.
In Kuala Lumpur, I learnt about the disparity and diversity we have through the lens of my camera. I see the skylines of KL grow taller with its high-rise buildings, but I also see the traditional food stores and humble livelihoods. Tourists flock to our city looking for luxury goods, but there are also cobblers making a living out of a cluttered shop by the street.
Being able to take a photo of these experiences is how I express myself. It lets me have a greater understanding of the needs of my country and the people in it.
I learn to be more appreciative. Whether I’m travelling overseas or when I’m in Malaysia, I take photos which reflect the country’s culture. Taking photos of food, dances, activities, art – this is how I appreciate the things unique to the country.
More importantly, I’ve learnt to appreciate people – couples enjoying a sunset together, retired men with big bellies by the beach, parents bringing their children out to play, families enjoying food together, security guards on duty, bartenders having fun with drinks, musicians at a gig – these are all people with unique stories and experiences.
I’ve also spoken to some popular photographers on Instagram to find out what is it about photography that they enjoy.
“Photography is like the story I fail to put into words… I love to express myself artistically through the medium of photography, either with film or digital.” – @jasmineecp
Jasmine’s photographs carry a deeper message – she tries to capture the unique emotions and stories not only through human expression, but also in the places she visits.
“First of all, you have to find the emotion in the streets through the person’s body language or facial expressions, then you have to be quick enough to capture it before he/she notices you… if you do it well, you will create an emotional image that people can connect with on a deeper level.”
There’s so much more to photography than just doing it for the gram – Jasmine pays attention to details like lights, shadows, and colours. These are important, but she says there are also more important things to observe and capture, such as expressions and feelings. She takes what’s around her and applies her own creativity into each individual shot.
Photography is also about developing a side you didn’t know existed and finding your own personal style. You’ve got to view things from a different perspective – and then clicking the shutter at the right time.
Patience is key
Honestly, I’m used to being fast-paced (typical city life, you know!), or perhaps I’m just very impatient. I’m not one to sit around to wait for things to happen, so I wouldn’t stay still just to capture a good photo.
However, being a street photographer requires tremendous patience. If I wanted to capture the rays of the sun as it breaks over the city’s horizon, I’d have to get up way earlier and wait on location. Or if I wanted to capture a bird on a lamp post, or a cyclist passing by, it’s the same – I’d have to sit and wait. Patiently.
I was walking alone in Phuket once and wanted to take a photo of a motorcycle passing by a green backdrop with posters. I stood under the sun for what felt like forever (probably only 5 minutes to be honest, but it was really hot) just to get the photo. In the end, I got it.
You need a lot of patience and determination to capture a good photo. A lot of times the moment passes, and you couldn’t even take a good shot of what you had in mind. Either that, or the photo doesn’t turn out to be as magical as you imagined it to be. It happens. You’ll just have to learn from that and move on.
Another Instagram photographer, Jimmy (@jimmy.visuals) from Penang, also believes in timing and authenticity.
“Street photography is a genre of photography usually done candidly without permission and without your subject’s knowledge. For me personally, it is the timing and the connection that counts. I would wait for the right moment to shoot.” – @jimmy.visuals
What would he do to get these two elements in a photograph? He once waited two nights in the rain just to get a shot of a Geiko in Kyoto at night with a nice background!
The lesson to take from Jimmy is that street photography requires dedication and planning. I should be intentional with the message I’m trying to express! Of course, this requires immense patience.
Practice, practice, practice (& courage)
Just like every other skill out there, being a good street photographer requires practice and time. It’s about familiarizing yourself with your gear and the right settings (the basic ISO, shutter speed, and aperture). Ultimately, you learn best through trial and error.
Digital photography is still manageable, as you can take multiple shots and readjust it immediately after viewing the photo. However, film photography is a whole different ballgame since you’ll only be able to view the photos once it’s developed. Film photography requires a deeper understanding of photography and much more attention to detail.
To be familiar with your camera, you need to explore and play around with the settings and angles. Preston Tan, a Malaysian photographer based in Edinburgh, thinks experimenting with your camera and being bold is crucial.
“I think this is really important for anyone involved in photography [to explore at your own pace and see places from a different perspective], rather than rushing around taking cliché pictures. Being able to shoot what you feel best conveys the present moment is a very fulfilling process.” – @preston_tan
Often times, being able to capture the perfect photo also means stepping out of your comfort zones (or perhaps onto dangerous roads – please be super careful). There are photographers who climb up abandoned buildings, approach wild animals, or lie upside down on the edge of the hill just for that one perfect photo!
It’s scary, really, so you need to be aware of your boundaries (physically and according to the law) and be extra careful. When asked, Preston had this to say about risking his safety just for a photo.
“I’m not one of those rooftop Instagrammers so there is a lot less risk associated with my photography haha. But if I had to share one risky experience, it would probably be shooting in the snowstorm a few weeks back. I must’ve slipped at least a dozen times! Thankfully my camera survived!”
I find how he prioritizes his camera more than his personal safety extremely funny. But the photos he produced are definitely worth the risks!
More importantly, you need to be bold simply because there will always be critics. There is huge social pressure to perform, especially on social media. Oftentimes, we are afraid to post something because it might not be good enough or it might not be a popular genre of photography.
However, if it does the job of expressing what you truly believe, or if you enjoyed the process, or just like the photo you took – then just be confident with your work and go ahead!
A photographer should be able to stick to their own style and not have to conform to current trends or norms set by others. Don’t be discouraged because you feel that your photos aren’t getting the attention they deserve. There will always be those that really appreciate your work.”
A picture paints a thousand words
Street photography has been a fun experience for me, and I always look forward to visiting new places and capturing the beauty of where I’m visiting. It’s also learning to enjoy being in the moment, and appreciating the message and story within the photo.
For anyone who’s keen to try photography, don’t be afraid, and just have fun!
For more Personal Stories from Chloe Lee read Why Internships Are Important.