Using Humor In Street Photography

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Humor may very well be the toughest assignment the street photographer will take on. It takes a keen eye to see humor in the streets and some skills to capture it in a fraction of a second. Here are a few things to consider before you head out on a quest to photograph humorous situations in the streets:

Humor can be subtle ©Valerie Jardin

Humor can be subtle ©Valerie Jardin

Story in a frame

Just like a good joke, no explanation should be necessary. A catchy caption should suffice to enhance the humor conveyed in the image. Many newspapers used to have a ‘feature’ picture in every issue. Many still do. Think of it as a visual treat for the reader. Its purpose is to provide a break from all the dreary news that fill the newspaper pages.

Cultural differences

Different cultures have a very different sense of humor. What may be funny in one country, can be interpreted entirely differently in another. What one photographer finds funny in one part of the world, can even be considered offensive in an other. Yet, thanks to the Internet, those cultural boundaries are becoming softer, as one is exposed to the world at large with the simple click of a mouse.

Tired Tourists ©Valerie Jardin

Tired Tourists ©Valerie Jardin

Funny is a personal thing

‘Funny’ is very subjective and personal. What I find funny may leave you completely unresponsive. This is not only a cultural difference, but also a personal one, based of life experiences. Age, gender, culture, education, etc., will all play a part in what qualifies something as funny.

Practice seeing first

How do you practice? Instinct and the ability to anticipate are skills the street photographer acquires with experience, and a lot of practice. The more you walk those streets with your camera, the more in tune you will be with the world around you. As a street photographer you constantly scan your surroundings. No expression or gesture escapes you, the challenge is to record that story in a frame.

Humor adds another level of difficulty to your street photography. The opportunities are there but they are often very subtle and extremely fleeting. I recommend practicing ‘seeing’ first and become proficient at telling a story in a frame, before you add a new dimension to your street photography with the element of humor.

Legs ~ ©Valérie Jardin

Legs ©Valérie Jardin

Funny versus Ridicule

Is everything that looks funny also fair game? I believe that the number one rule in street photography is respect. Humor is great, making ridicule of your subject is going too far. Turn it around. If it were you in the picture, how would you feel? Would you mind it being posted on social media for everyone to see? If the answer is yes (you would mind), then you should probably think twice about using the image.

Caption this! ©Valerie Jardin

Caption this! ©Valerie Jardin

What works

In general, contrasts will make people smile, so will extreme situations or juxtapositions. The unexpected and the unusual are also often winners in conveying humor. Sometimes several components come together in a fleeting moment and you only have a fraction of a second to record it. This requires some quick thinking and a very good knowledge of your gear so that it doesn’t get in the way. Ideally, it should become an extension of your vision. Other times, a bit of planning, a certain degree of patience and some luck will all come together and give you the shot you envisioned. Setting a stage as a way to gain some control of the situation is a great way to capture some funny situations. You can position yourself in front of a billboard that will make the situation funny when the right protagonist enters the frame.

This mannequin was the perfect opportunity for a fun shot. During my NYC street photographer workshop, one of my students managed to capture this shot. She found her stage, envisioned the shot, was prepared and grabbed the opportunity when the right subject entered the frame. Well done Yevette! ©Yevette Handler

This mannequin was the perfect opportunity for a fun shot. During my NYC street photography workshop, one of my students managed to capture this shot. She found her stage, envisioned the shot, was prepared and grabbed the opportunity when the right subject entered the frame. Well done Yevette! ©Yevette Handler

It is often better to let your camera do some of the work. Practicing street photography is not the best time to show your skills in full manual mode, you’ll probably miss the shot!

It is clearly impossible to set out with the expectation of capturing humor in the streets every time you go on a photo walk. You can certainly train yourself to see better and work at increasing your response speed to a situation. Serendipity will play a big part in the outcome of your quest to find humor in the streets. The more you train yourself to observe the world around you, the more prepared you will be to get the winning shot.

I highly recommend you check out the work of amazing photographers such as Martin Parr and Elliot Erwitt among others for some inspiration.

Now get out there and shoot! Please share your images in the comment section.

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Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!

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