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Warming Up for Street Photography

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Warsaw, Poland. 2022

Have you ever found yourself stepping out onto the street, yet can’t quite bring the camera to your eye to take a picture? Maybe it’s shyness or fear, maybe just rustiness. A familiar circumstance street photographers experience is the need to settle into the right frame of mind. In much the same way as an athlete needs to loosen their muscles before training for peak performance, a street photographer may have to warm up.

Why Hesitate?

Where does this hesitancy or lethargy come from? It may be a temporary lack of confidence. Particularly when shooting film there may be an unwillingness to press the shutter, fearing a waste of a frame. The practical upshot of this is to convince yourself of not “seeing”. At other times it may be anxiety of confrontation. The reluctance to raise the camera fearing a subject may become aggressive.

Occasionally, I will shake it off and find my rhythm after only a few minutes, and from time to time, my needle doesn’t hit the groove until an hour or so has passed. How, then, to warm-up?

First Step? Walk Out The Door

It begins with the decision to pick up the camera, even if the weather is discouraging, and get out on to the street. I live in the suburbs and now and again, rather than use public transport, I will walk to the centre, choosing unknown or unexpected routes to give me time to warm up. From the moment the camera is on my shoulder – as it should be the moment I walk out my door – it is warm-up time. I remove any distractions. I turn off the music, I mute the podcasts, and I take the Airpods out of my ears. It’s important to focus on what’s around, lest you miss something happening behind you.

London, England. 2022

Rip Off The Plaster

Thought not always easy, one strategy is simply to rip off the plaster. Get in close to a subject or two and and snap a few frames without any great effort. Worry less about what you’re shooting and more about getting finding the tempo of the street. Find a crossroads or a busy crossing. This is a good place to get started here. In an effort to conserve film, I may even pretend to take a shot – going so far as to even feign winding the film on. Here, though, you risk missing a shot, so it’s worth just pressing that shutter, regardless. The goal here is to drop the fear of confrontation and shake off any lingering self-doubts.

Slow Burn

Another approach is to start slowly and build up a level of confidence before those first, unashamedly bold photographs of people around you. Shoot with abandon. Play with other ideas to warm up your fingers, your eyes, and fine-tune your muscle-memory before hitting stride. There are couple of easy ways I’ve found that help me slip into a day’s photographing.

The first I employ when I’m slow to get started is something that I have built into a semi-regular series all of its own. While warming up, look for reflective surfaces that could be used in a composition. I have used the reflections both to photograph myself, and – keeping myself angled out of the way – to photograph others, all the while my creative engine is turning over and the rotors are spinning faster.

Glasgow, Scotland. 2021

Another option is to begin by choosing some inanimate subjects to get the synapses firing. I will look for interesting, odd things on my way. Objects juxtaposed with their setting, or things found out of place are a good start, though it may also just be something ordinary that catches my eye. The purpose of this exercise is to get my brain ticking over, to start looking and to start seeing.

After a while confidence will rise, hesitancy will drop away, adrenaline will start flowing, and the needle will finally hit that groove. Warm-up is over. It’s time to get closer, and get the photos you’ve come out onto the street for.

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