There are some things you can be taught; things like reading and writing, how to drive a car and how to bake a cake. (Well, in theory anyway. I’ve never mastered the art of baking a cake!)
But there are other things that no amount of coaching can ever help you become an expert at. Some things can be natural skills while others come with years practice and passion.
For me, photography is one of the things you can’t be taught. You can be taught the basics and shown how to use your camera but a good photographer has a natural eye for a good picture. They see things that regular people don’t see and manage to pluck out beauty, style and extraordinary moments from what would normally appear to be an everyday scene. Their attention to detail is incredible as is their patience as they wait with anticipation for that perfect moment.
While I don’t think photography can be taught, I do think it can be copied and that’s exactly what I did during my street photography course in London with City Academy.
Our photography instructor was Dave, a professional photographer and all round cool-guy.
The aim of the course was to teach the group to take better street photos, the hardest photos to capture. We were looking for those natural moments and candid photos that show people for who they really are. These are my favourite kind of photos because I hate unnatural, forced smiles. As a travel blogger, I’m always trying to capture moments and show a place and its people for who they really are.
But I was skeptical before the course. I’ve taken a photography course before and learnt very little that I couldn’t have picked up from a YouTube video. I wanted to watch how a photographer really worked to see how they got those incredible shots. And that’s exactly what I got with the street photography course.
We spent an entire day walking the streets of London, beginning near Liverpool Street and heading to Brick Lane, one of the most interesting and vibrant areas of London. There were just six people in the group, the perfect amount to bounce around ideas without crowding each other while taking photos.
We weren’t given a specific brief but we were told that at the end of the day we’d be analysing our 10 best photos with the group. One of these photos had to be a portrait and we’d have to ask for permission from our model to take it. A competitive but friendly spirit was ignited and we set off with our cameras and creativity in hand.
At first it felt awkward to take pictures of people. We were getting in the way, attracting unwanted attention and quizzical gazes and we were making other people feel as awkward as we felt ourselves. But as we got into the swing of things and built our confidence I noticed that we blended in a little easier.
I spent some time following and watching what Dave was doing and here are some things I learned:
Street photography tips from the expert
Don’t be nervous about asking to take someone’s photo. Just ask. The worst they can do is say no.
Create a cover story
When you’re taking photos of a normal, everyday street scene you’re bound to be asked some questions.
“Why the hell are you taking pictures of market foods and that man’s shoes?”
You can understand why people would be confused.
One thing I learned from Dave was to create a good cover story. Invent something that may be a little white lie but makes people much more understanding and accepting of your weird photos.
“We’re working for the council,” he told a market stall owner who had angrily swatted us away from her stall. “We’re taking photos of the area and interesting people for a local exhibition.”
The stall owner dropped her guard, glanced at our cameras and instantly began to pose, lifting her chin and placing a hand on her hip.
Dave had managed to charm her and make her feel interesting while also making her less suspicious of our photography.
If you’re uncomfortable telling a lie like this then tell someone that you’re working on a photography project for a course you’re taking.
If you’re a blogger then this could be a great opportunity to promote your blog by asking people if they wouldn’t mind being featured on it. Everyone loves to get their 30 seconds of fame so take some business cards with you to make sure they can find your blog. If you’re doing this, be prepared for lengthy discussions about what a blog is!
Confidence is key
I noticed that people warmed to Dave’s confidence and felt comfortable with him taking their picture. If you timidly ask to take someone’s photo they will probably say no or they’ll end up feeling just as awkward as you do which is going to lead to a bad picture.
Make people feel good
If you’re taking a person’s photo you want them to feel happy and relaxed rather than stiff and awkward but this can be difficult with a complete stranger. The first trick is to be totally natural and confident yourself and this will put them at ease.
The second trick is to compliment them to make them feel good. We all know that if you feel good you look good. Tell them that you love their outfit or they’re the most interesting person you’ve seen all day. Tell them you love their cute little dog or they look exactly like a celebrity. Ask them a question for the ‘project’ you’re working on and take their photo as they tell you their answer.
Basically, do whatever you need to do to make them feel comfortable.
This can feel a bit weird at first but imagine if someone came up to you in the street and told you they loved your coat and asked where you got it from. I don’t know about you but I’d be beaming and I’d happily pose for a photo.
Show them the photo
If someone doesn’t seem happy about having their photo taken, show it to them afterwards to put them at ease.
I think this is particularly important if you’re using a large DSLR because people don’t know if you’re zooming right in on their spots. It’s even better if you’ve taken a nice flattering picture!
There’s nothing worse than asking to take someone’s photo and then spending five minutes fumbling around with your camera while you find the right setting. If your model even sticks around for this long then you will have lost the moment and their smile will be forced and unnatural.
Take photos from different angles
Different angles will give your photos a unique perspective so climb up high or crouch down low.
A few of my suggestions
If you’re new to street photography (like me) then I’d suggest using a smaller camera to begin with rather than a DSLR. For me, street photography is more about capturing the moment rather than amazingly high quality images. It’s easier to capture moments using a camera photo because it’s unobtrusive and barely noticeable. We have phones in our faces all day so people barely flinch when you take photos with them.
I had so much fun during the street photography course. It was a million times better than the last one I took and the hands on approach meant that I felt like I learned a lot.
I’d recommend it to anyone with a love for street photography and wants to improve their portrait photos. It’s perfect for anyone who knows the basics of photography but they’d like to see how a real photographer actually works. Sometimes it isn’t until you see what a photographer does that you realise what you’re doing wrong.
Make sure you go with lots of questions and chat to your teacher as much as possible. It would be easy to traipse around after the teacher and learn nothing but with such a small group it’s the ideal opportunity to get all your photography questions answered.
The course is £95 which is pretty pricey and that’s why I’d recommend going with lots of questions so you get as much out of the course as possible. Most people in my group had been given the course as a present and I think this would make a great gift for any budding photographers.
Massive thanks to City Academy for allowing me to take part in the Street Photography course. I was a guest of City Academy but, as always, all thoughts, opinions and very random photos are my own.