Images shot with Super-Takumar 28mm f3.5
Your photography used to be the shit. It was fantastic. The bomb. You were a natural. I’m-a-coming for you, Adams / Arbus / Cartier-Bresson.
That’s what you thought when you first started, anyway. Not anymore, though. Not in your own mind. You’re past that. You’re more realistic. You’re also more pessimistic.
You no longer think your work is the shit. You now think it’s just shit. So was it ever any good? And is it now as bad as you believe?
The truth, as ever and as we’ll see later, lies somewhere in the middle.
The stages of a photographer
There’s a graph you can find here that shows the development of a photographer. It compares your knowledge with how good you think you are and then with actual quality of your photography.
While hardly scientific, it resonates with me. Chances are it will with you too.
Thinking about it now, it does throw up a kind of paradox. Save for a few fleeting moments where the lines cross, your actual level is never the same as what you think it is.
So if you take encouragement from the graph and tell yourself you are better than you’ve been believing, you’re again changing your opinion of your work.
But have you just taken it too far? Are you now overestimating it? Have you once again slipped into the stage where you think it’s better than it really is?
It’s all very confusing. And pointless too, because you can never be objective. The best way – the only way – to understand how good or bad you are is to let other people be the judge.
Your average street photography
I’ll tell you now which bucket your street photography can most likely be placed in. It’s the one marked average.
My reasoning is thus: if your street photography was much above average, you wouldn’t be reading this. And if it was much below average, then based on that graph from earlier, you’d only argue it wasn’t.
With so many people doing street photography nowadays, the average bucket is a very big one. It’s also very full. What needs to be said too is that it’s a poor average.
Being an average Olympic athlete still means being in the top 1% worldwide. Being average at a hobby countless people do worldwide means being just that. Average.
The good news? To stand out, you don’t need to be great. Not yet. For now, you only need to be better than average.
Becoming better than average at street photography
Better than average street photography requires some effort. Everything worth achieving does.
I believe becoming better than average at street photography is easier than a lot of other things, though.
To reach an Olympic equivalent level of something countless people do worldwide – to reach the top 1% of street photographers – might be beyond you.
For reasons you can’t control, it might be completely out of your reach. Again, with countless people worldwide doing this, the numbers are stacked against you.
I hope you do become as great as you want to be, of course. Put in the work and who knows where it’ll get you. Prove me wrong and give me a shout once you reach the top of the mountain.
If you do though, you won’t be going straight from average to great. The next step up from average is above average, and that’s where you need to get first.
Because the average is so low though, I don’t think it needs too much extra effort to take this step.
When most people are treading water, a little extra effort – a little deliberate practice to improve your street photography – goes a long way.
What follows is a short, inexhaustive, and hardly groundbreaking bunch of things you could do to push yours above average.
They’re not difficult. They just require you make the effort to carry them out, because reading them and not taking action will get you nowhere.
1. Find your favourite street photographer(s) and shoot like them for a while
Famous street photographers are famous for a reason. The reason is that they’re very, very good. So why not see what you can learn from their work? Let it influence yours.
Instead of continuing to shoot the way you do, which may be directionless and continuously average, find a great street photographer whose work you love and consciously shoot in their style for a bit.
I’m not going to list any suggestions because I don’t want to influence who you choose as your inspiration. Or even how many. You could choose more than one and combine your favourite elements from them all.
Whoever you decide to go with, take the time to analyse their work and see what makes it great. Then try to do something similar. Hell, shoot as close as you can to the same, for a while at least.
You don’t have to shoot like them forever. But when you stop doing it deliberately, some of what you’ve picked up will stick in your subconscious.
This should elevate your photography well above the average.
2. Pick a theme you can include in at least a few of your day’s photographs
I wrote a post on choosing a theme for your street photography a long time ago and my feelings on this have not changed since. It’s a great way to give you a purpose for shooting what you’re shooting, and that purpose will shine through when you present the set.
The individual photographs used on this post are pretty average, in my opinion. But they do all have either a bicycle or a scooter in them.
It’s a mini theme, but it gives them something a little extra when viewed together. Perhaps it’s not a great example, but that’s fine. Use it as a level you aspire to be better than.
In a world where many people shoot single images without thinking how they relate with each other, having a common element can elevate a set, even if the individual shots are average when viewed separately.
Just be sure to present them as a set, no matter how small. This added depth will give people reason to consider the set as more than the sum of its parts, and so above average.
3. Stop hiding behind the idea that street photography has to be candid
Some of the very best street photography ever taken has been done so without asking permission. The problem is, so much of the very worst street photography being taken today is too.
Conversely, I don’t recall seeing a single street portrait that made me roll my eyes. Even average ones are almost always engaging in some way. Certainly more engaging than a picture of the back of someone’s head. They’re also far less common, as a lot of street photographers don’t seem to like to asking.
I spent a day or two photographing some local people in Chongqing, China. Of all the images in that set, I think the two simple street portraits are the best ones.
It’s too easy to hide behind the idea that street photography should be candid.
I know, it’s hard to ask a stranger if you can take their photograph. It’s weird, even. But how much do you want your photography to be above average? Not even so much that you’re afraid someone will say… ‘no’?
4. Learn that using colour in your photography is different to just shooting in colour
Right now, this one is personal to me, but I hope it stirs something in you too.
As I’ve been looking at other people’s street photography recently, be it the work of some of the older masters or the work of people shooting today, I’ve realised how much more impressed I am by good colour street photography than I am monochrome.
When I talk about average street photography, I mostly think about black and white work. Probably because it’s more common. A lot of it blends into one big indistinguishable mass after a while.
It seems colour street photography – especially good colour street photography – is far less common. That means when I see it – especially the good stuff – I’m more impressed by it.
It’s just the numbers game that makes it above average.
However, the really good stuff is good because it uses colour, rather than just being shot in colour. Too few people learn how to do really use colour.
So learn it, and learn it well (I’m working on it now). Then you’ll be above average too.
We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just putting in some effort
None of these four suggested ways to elevate your street photography to above average are revolutionary. They just take a bit of extra practice, planning, or work.
That’s why doing any or all of them can help you get above average, because the average person doesn’t like to do extra practice, planning, or work.
Put in the effort. Stop being average. Go that extra mile, because it gets you a mile closer to where you want to be.
… p.s. Yes, I know. The images used here are monochrome. And there are no street portraits. And they’re not really copying any famous street photographer that I know of.
They’re just left over from a previous set but it’s better to use them on a post than have them sit on my hard drive. 😀