Understanding Awareness in Street Photography

julius motal the phoblographer understanding awareness street photography

A friend asked me recently, “How do you get photos of people without creeping them out?” The short answer is that it lies in awareness. The photo she inquired about was one I shot in a bookstore, and while that doesn’t fall in the loose tenets of street photography (candid photos in public spaces), the principles in making that image are the same. Ask any street photographer about their craft, and you’re bound to hear about how essential awareness is.

In street photography, there is little control. The polar opposite is studio photography, in which you can control every element of the image making process: from your subject’s pose to the direction and intensity of light. In street photography, you have to be able to let go and give yourself up to the ever-shifting dynamic outside. What you can control, however, is your awareness, and that comes in several forms.

On the street, you need to have spatial awareness. That is to say, you need to be aware of everything and everyone around you, and that changes with every step you take, as well as the steps everyone else takes. Everything is a part of the frame, and where those elements are determines the type of image you make. When everything falls into place, then you click the shutter.

An extension of spatial awareness is situational awareness. It’s not just about the physical position of elements in a three-dimensional space, it’s about what’s happening. Of course, not all street photographs have people in them, but for those that do, the person (or people) in them are in the midst of doing something.

The street photographs that leave a lasting impression capture emotion. If you can properly gauge emotions in your subjects, your photos will be better for it. Emotional awareness comes with constant practice in observing people, with and without your camera. The visual cues are there in body language.

Awareness and anticipation exist symbiotically in street photography, and you can hone those skills by getting out there and photographing as much as you can.