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