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7 Common Mistakes That Newbie Street Photographers Make

Over the last few years I have worked with enough budding new street photography enthusiasts, to notice a common thread of early mistakes that many of them make. A lot of these are very simple tendencies and changes, that can make a vast difference to the final output. It’s for this reason that I try to teach these 7 tips from the very start. Follow along so you can avoid the seven common mistakes that newbie street photographers make:

Grand Central, NYC Street Photography

Grand Central, NYC.

1. Thinking too much while shooting

If you are reading this article, you are on the right back. You should read about photography to teach yourself, and study the work of great photographers. However, when you are out there, in the process of shooting, try to not over-think things too much. There are so many tips and tricks, and you may worry a lot about capturing bad images, but that can all get in the way sometimes.

Instead of worrying about the results, get lost in the process. You can assess your results during the editing phase. When you are out there shooting, have fun. Explore, take your time, relax, and just watch everything go by. This is a type of photography that you really have to enjoy to do well, and the best part about it is that you can go out and do it nearly anywhere and at any time. You can do it in 10 minute spurts, or during your lunch hour. You can even do it with your iPhone if you don’t have your camera. The more fun you have with the process of being out there, getting lost, and exploring, the more dedicated you will become, and the better street photographer you will become.

2. Traveling too heavy

There are many great videos of the old masters shooting street photography. You know what is the one common thread between many of them? It’s that they had manageable sized cameras, that they could easily take anywhere, and they more often than not they used small prime lenses. You can certainly shoot street with an SLR, and do it very well. There are top photographers that do just that, but at the same time are you really going to want to carry that tank of a camera around on a daily basis? That’s the big advantage of a smaller camera, and the technology is catching up quickly with the large bodies. A small Fuji camera, or a Ricoh, will do wonders, and you can even get an older used version for much cheaper than the new ones. There are many iPhone street shooters as well.

Astor Place, NYC Street Photography

Astor Place, NYC.

Likewise, you do not need a big bag of lenses and filters. If you haven’t tried it, I can’t stress enough, how freeing going out for a day with a single small camera body, and a single prime lens, can make you feel. Leave the rest behind. Yes, you will miss out on that 200mm zoomed shot of the water tower, but you will come back in the long run, with so many more good photos, and you will have a lot of fun doing it.

3. Trying to get somewhere too quickly

We’re all in a rush these days, running from place to place. Luckily, that is one of the worst ways to do street photography. To do street photography well, you need to slow down, and take your time. You can’t always be in a rush. Look around, and wait for things to happen. Wait with your camera, and let the subjects come to you. The slower you go, the more aware you will be of your surroundings, and the more able you will be to capture those extraordinary fleeting moments. Use photography as a way to break out of the rushed lifestyle, and to get lost and slow down for awhile.

4. Not standing in the middle of the action

Broadway, SoHo, New York Street Photography

Broadway, SoHo, NYC.

It is so easy to get intimidated when you are first learning. Many people start by photographing from a distance, and they never really push themselves to get right in the middle of what’s happening. Carry your camera proudly, put a smile on your face, and get involved in the action. Get in the middle of the street.

You might notice that if you are standing too far away and shooting, then people will actually think you are up to no good. But, if you are directly in the middle of the action, people will walk right by thinking that you are doing nothing wrong. Sometimes you’ll even blend in more being in the middle. How could you possibly be doing something wrong if you are right there in the middle? Nobody that obvious would be doing anything bad, but that photographer creeping around over there in the corner, just has to be a stalker. Stop and wait right in the middle of an area where things are happening, and just let everything happen around you. Engulf yourself in the experience.

5. Not putting the camera to your eye enough

I hip shoot a decent portion of the time, particularly when things are happening incredibly fast, but I also try to look through the viewfinder as often as possible. A lot of new photographers only hip shoot, and it quickly becomes a crutch. After a while, they become even more afraid to put the camera to their eye, than when they started. Force yourself to get comfortable shooting through the viewfinder. Just stand in a busy place, with the camera to your eye for a while, until you feel comfortable. After that you can add in the hip shooting. There will be situations where a hip shot is beneficial, but you will get better shots, and better framing, when you look through the viewfinder. Take pride in seeing it all coming together, and capturing that split second moment where it does.

Fire Hydrant, SoHo, NYC

SoHo, NYC.

A tip that helps with this, is to not take the camera away from your eye right after you take a shot of someone. It’s a natural habit to remove the camera from your eye briefly when you take an image. Instead, get in position, and wait for a person to be in the right spot, Then, take the image, but continue to keep the camera to your eye as they walk through the scene and past you, as if they got in your way and you are trying to photograph what is behind them. This trick works incredibly well in areas with quite a few people walking around.

6. Rapid firing with the camera

Turn the machine gun setting on the camera off. A lot of people think that if they take 10 photos of the same scene, they will be guaranteed to get a good one. Where’s the art in that? I actually find that holding down the shutter button, and taking a stream of shots, is a way to guarantee that you will screw up the shot. You need to be able to visualize what you are getting. See the moment as it happens, then capture the elements as they all fall into place. That only takes one shot. Then, as a scene further develops, you can take more, but see the moment and grab it. If you miss it, and you will miss some, there’s always next time. Let go of the fear of missing a shot.

In addition, with rapid fire you will end up taking 10 times the number the photos, over the course of the day. How are you going to find the perfect moment in all of that? Nobody has the time, or the hard drive space. With less, and more purposeful photographs, comes a much more enjoyable editing session.

7. Under and over-editing

East Village, New York Street Photography

East Village, NYC.

A lot of new street photographers will both under, and over-edit their photos. What I mean is that they will show too many photos, and they will over-process them. Be ruthless with narrowing your photos down to the best ones. You want people to actually give your work attention, and if you show too many photographs at one time, they will tune out. By showing too many photos you are relying on the viewer to do the editing in their heads about what they like. That’s not fair to them, do that work yourself. Spend that extra time organizing. Use a starring system to give your photographs ratings and make sure that there are not too many five star images. Spend the time after each shoot to narrow it down to just the cream of the crop. If you don’t do this consistently, you will allow your archive to pile up into an unorganized mess.

When you do the actual editing to your photos, keep a light touch. You can, and should fix the exposure, blacks and whites, vignettes, color temperature or black and white tones, contrast, and all that other good stuff. However, a lot of new street photographers go way too far. Part of the extraordinary nature of street photography is that it was actually captured in the real world. It was not made up. If your photos are too edited, and lose that real feeling to them, it kills the thing that makes them special.

Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? How have you overcome them? Do you have any others you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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