There are some workflow patterns—well known or not—for street photography that you can pursue in your wanderings. The acronym FFF represents one of them: fishing, finding, and following. But first, let’s think what we want in the pictures we take in the street.
In the street our purpose is to capture public scenes. Scenes of what? There are a lot of possibilities: portraits of non ordinary people, unusual actions or activities, candid gestures…and the list can go on and on. But you don’t have many choices of actions. You walk, see, take the picture. Or, you stand by an interesting backdrop, wait, see, and take the picture. You have to decide which workflow to pursue. And you can mix all of them the same day. Let me share my own feelings and experience with the triple F.
By «fishing» I mean to find a location that looks good, pretty, interesting to you. You stand ready by it, compose the content, paying attention to corners and sides. You design your frame. Maybe it’s a very concurrent sidewalk, a park, a sea sight or a spiral staircase. It can be distinguished from the surroundings by its forms, texture or color. Then, after seeing, composing, and stand in the perfect perspective and distance, you wait. What are you waiting? The subject. The perfect subject (normally a human being) that will fill the picture and completes the formal harmony.
This is probably my favorite F. Instead of pursuing the picture, you wait for it in the designated scenario. I have some urban scenarios that fulfill such purposes. Frequently I revisit them to wait. Almost every time I get one or two good shots. Shots that I’m pleased to see, store, and publish. It’s better to choose different places and collects them: windows and entrances, building façades, complex geometry places and objects. Choose different hours, days and perspectives to shoot them. Revisit the place once in a while. Make a project with the location. This will be its historical visual document.
One aspect of fishing is that you need to get a descent depth of field (DoF) from your settings. If not, you risk that when your subject approach the scene you can’t focus directly on it, and then get a soft or out of focus image, at least. Full frames are better from f/8. For APC-S cameras f/5.6 and above should be sufficient. But—there is a common workflow problem—what about poor light conditions, in shades or interiors? When you close the aperture, you need to slow the shutter speed or use a high ISO. Low shutter speed is good only if you want to show motion. High ISO will give you more noise. Then, what options you have for good «fishing» with apertures from f/2.8 or below? There are various considerations. Remember that DoF is commanded by aperture, distance from subjects and focal lengths. If you are far from the scenario, it’s probably that you have a good DoF by distance. Also you should prefer little focal length (35mm or 28mm in full frame metrics) and wait to crop in post-processing, if necessary. Other possibilities are available. For example, once in a while, I prepare the scenario and watch if an interesting subject is coming. Then, I focus directly on it, bursting shots immediately it enters, until it pass the scene. For sure, one or two of those images are good in focus. You have to prove your speed and the auto focus capabilities of your gear.
In very rare occasions I «follow» a subject. No, I’m not a shy person. It’s that I only had that feeling—the inner voice telling you: «Hey, follow him!»—one or twice in hours of walking the streets. You see a marvelous hair, very colorful costumes, out of ordinary features in gestures or faces, and you can’t resist to get more of them. You follow, trying not to seem as a stalker. That is the clue of following: you must be invisible to your subject. If you can’t, it’s possible that you ruin the opportunity to take the candid portrait you deserve.
It’s seem to me that «following» is the inverse of «fishing». Let’s me explain better. When you are fishing in a beautiful scenario, you wait for the perfect subject to be in place. When you follow, you wait for the subject to be in the perfect scenario to take the picture. The absent of a good backdrop obliges you to fill the frame with your subject or get a very shallow depth of field. And this is more easy to say than to achieve.
From the technical perspective, I try to focus directly to my subject with a big aperture of the lens, to pop up from all the surroundings. Maybe most of the time f/2 or less is too much to get a respectable focus. But from 2/8 to f/4 you can get both, a sharp subject and a blurred background.
In the middle of the other Fs, you could see the «finding» pattern. Many times, you are standing and waiting, or walking behind someone who interest you, and then…one view. You see a clown in the middle of black-dressed men, carrying their briefcase. Such event describes a «finding». You have to shoot. You can’t think about exposure settings, framing, or other technical stuff. You have to shoot instantly, because the clown will enter in seconds into the next building.
The surprises in the street are frequent. Your presence during these events are rare. Finding is not a workflow in the most strict sense. You can’t predict an accident of this type. But you should be expecting all the time such situations. You should be prepared. You should have your settings ready. You have your camera in hand, near your eyes. You set zone focusing and your aperture is closed enough for a good DoF. The principle is to be ready to point immediately and make your shot.
Then you have it! These are my thoughts about a common street photography workflow. I recommend you try yours. But be conscious of what you are doing. It’s part of planning, before wandering. The more you have think about those issues, and solves them, the more you get free to please every instance of street adventures, leaving technical stuffs behind.
Maintaining an aperture of f/8 and shutter speed around 1/250th, functions as standard settings, preparing me for any unexpected situation. It’s easy then to open or close even more the lens, when the occasion arrives, or to slow or increase the shutter speed, with a single thumb quick movement, without leaving the viewfinder.
Another final note. In film times, you would have to carefully measure each shot. With only 36 shots per role, you couldn’t spend one shot for a test in the streets. Also, the same camera mechanics didn’t allow to take several pictures in a row without a motor. You would have to learn how to instantly compose and shoot. Nowadays, the contrary is the good pattern. Shot continuously. Set your camera shutter mode to high continuous shot. Press the button, until the smoke clears. At least you increase the probabilities of a micro gesture, good focus, and the exact by millimeters composition.
Acting by patterns allows you to concentrate in the important stuff: taking as many pictures you can in less time.