I used to grab every chance that I could to go looking for that overly-clichéd “defining moment.” It is the “golden hour” of street photography.
Documentary/candid picture taking is a great exercise in training your creative eye. It is how you develop a “nose for news.” You nearly become psychic in the process. It takes a while to get there. Practice.
I remember when I saw the most adorable kid with character parents looking like… like I needed that photo … and before I could mess with my camera, they were gone. I could have chased them, but on the streets of Los Angeles, they disappeared as quickly as I found them.
Lesson one: Chasing the shot would not be a re-creation of a bygone opportunity. It would be stalking something or someone you can’t bring back. Let go. The next chance will come along, but you missed this one. Try for less misses.
The next lesson: Have the camera ready and if you want settings, especially when you’re starting out, go for P-mode on the camera dial. Let the camera do its thing while your eyes develop their nose.
Addressing the fear factor: Just do it. People are sometimes afraid that they are going to get caught. I never did. I pretended that I was messing with the camera, shooting beyond the person and then whipping it back to the person if I had time. If you catch someone looking at you, act like you’re looking at your camera, appear to be disappointed, shake your head and pretend to hit the delete button. In most countries, you are within your legal rights to take anyone’s photo in public. You might need to remind some or you can offer to delete it knowing it might be saving your ass from a hostile confrontation.
Speaking of asses: I read about a photographer who was documenting his neighborhood and he shot a picture from his apartment into an open window apartment. He photographed his neighbor’s backside in that window. There was a gallery show. The neighbor went. The neighbor sued. The photographer won the case. When you hang your backside in the window, the question is, what is your expectation of privacy.
Know your limits, though. Don’t shoot where you are not allowed and assume nothing.
I moved to a small town where public photography will always be met with confrontation. One night, I was doing a night shoot of a building. The white trash across the street sat on the lawn and drank. It was a large group watching me. After a few beers or whatever else floated their brains, someone got crazy nuts with what I was doing and the crowd became aggressive. I was ready to swing my tripod at them, but that could have been even more complicated. I left, letting them think that they won the territory. The next day, I went to the police station to find out if there were any issues with photographing in the streets. The policeman encouraged me to go out and do my creative thing, but asked that I do them a favor, “if you go out at night, call the station and let us know where you are so we can look out for you.”
Finally…. I read that nobody buys street photography. The author said that the only one who loves your street photography is you. Who wants to hang pictures of strangers on their walls, this critic asked. I have recently sold a couple of photos in which the subjects are interesting people in public places . One of my photos was likened to a Norman Rockwell scene. Mr. Rockwell put a lot of strangers on a lot of other strangers’ walls. It can be done. Get out there. Challenge yourself. Don’t let the moment get away.