The things I had to re-learn

After I retired in 2011, I decided to keep busy through my fishing business, but it wasn't enough. I had dabbled in landscape for decades, so I went back down that road once more.

Didn't have fun.

Landscape no longer did it for me.

I had been playing around with manual lenses on a mirrorless camera and on a whim decided one day to take it out on the street. The buzz was back!

The buzz might have been back, but my results weren't going to impress anyone. We can only take so many pictures of someone walking down a street before it becomes obvious that these are boring pictures.

If I was going to be any good at this genre I had to go back to the early 1990's - the last time I did any appreciable amount of street photography. Back then I was working downtown Toronto, right off of Yonge Street, so imagine the potential. Now I live in a tiny farm town in the middle of nowhere. Hardly the world's mecca for street photography.

It was time for me to go back to the basics.
Empty streets in small towns

Target Rich Environment:

Go where there are people. Walking the streets of my tiny town, on a weekday, in a snow storm, might get me some interesting pictures, but the street potential is kinda low. I had to reorient my brain to think about when and where people may go, then what sort of people might be there. A downtown Saturday on a nice day in a city, will bring out the people.

Photograph Interesting People, doing Interesting Things:

Digital photography doesn't penalize the profligate. I never took that approach with film as I couldn't afford all the processing, so it's not a natural thing for me to do so now. With digital I could go out there with my camera on burst mode and blast away, then pick through the detritus to find the one or two decent shots. Even though it went against the grain, I tried that. Yuck! Loads and loads of editing for maybe one decent shot and that one shot was sheer serendipity. That was no way to work.

Had to become the sniper rather than the machine gunner. Had to re-learn how to see as opposed to look. Once that muscle had been reawakened, I began to see the images amongst the clutter. It's still very much a work-in-progress, but things are headed the right way.

Ditch the "ME" Cramp:

Freeman Patterson often talks about the "me" cramp interfering with our photography. He's right, it does. When on the street I had to learn to disengage the analytical brain and also drain the brain of useless thoughts. I had to re-learn how to shoot instinctively. Now I hardly take any time to think at all. I see something, I shoot. I worry about the details later in post. It's interesting how many times I spot something later in front of the computer that makes the shot. Something I did not recognize consciously at the time. Engaging the power of the subconscious by decluttering the brain and disengaging the analysis engine, has lead me to better images.


I tried to apply the instinctive approach to everything, including gear choices, but that didn't work. Just grabbing any camera and heading out didn't cut it. Too often I found myself on a sparsely occupied street with a wide lens. Try running up to someone, Bruce Gilden style, where the subject is the only person on the street. Doesn't work that well. I had to anticipate the pedestrian density and then select my gear accordingly.

Same thing for clothing, footwear, how much stuff to carry and so on. Now I take a few minutes to select the right gear before heading out rather than leave everything to chance.

Learn from the Masters:

I took some time to review the works of the greats in the genre. It's not me about copying a style, though that might be a useful exercise, rather it's about training my eye to see the worthwhile. I poured over the works of Vivian Maier, Garry Winogrand, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Bruce Gilden and others to exercise my eye to see the sort of things that they saw.

Composition is still important:

Having never taken an art course in my life (with good reason) I lacked any sort of formal training on artistic composition. I have always flown by the seat of my pants when it came to that. This time around I turned to my friends, Google and YouTube, to learn a few things on how the masters of old composed their images. Now when I look at photographers who were classically trained painters, like Cartier-Bresson, I began to recognize the genius in their compositions. It's had an impact on mine as well, even though I sometimes have to rescue them in post.