Developing your own visual style

Having our own philosophy is quite important in photography and in life. In today’s world of social media, it can become very tempting to take photographs that appeal to the wider audience, and let popular opinion influence the way we take our photographs. Much too often, a side effect of this is that the images would often lack the depth and emotional impact because what would be missing from those images is the element that is uniquely you – your heart, your mind, and your voice. We may inadvertently lose track of why we are on this journey in the first place.

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A consistent direction, along with hardwork and dedication to our goals and ambition enables us to get to where we want to go. Only when we work out why, can we really get to working out the how. After many years of doing street photography, one valuable lesson I have learned is that finding meaning and value in my own work is more important than popular opinion. The reason I got into street photography in the first place is that I wanted to capture the magic in our seemingly ordinary daily life.

Whenever I am out searching for a scene, an image I would ultimately take would be a scene that moves me emotionally or touches my heart, or it could be a scene that I find immensely intriguing. It is all too simple to be led astray and go for that enticing umbrella or silhouette shot, and sometimes, it is a shot that you are compelled to take, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it is an image that is guided by your own thoughts and ideas. When we take images that really matter to us, that is where its emotional impact will lie.

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When we are committed to our own ideas, we will create images that are aligned with our innermost emotions and those images are those we can proudly call ours. A practical tip when going out there on the streets is before taking an image, or even just before venturing out for the day, have a think about your own purpose of doing street photography and try to keep it in mind when you are out and about. When I first began to really do this, I was very surprised to discover that the possibilities are endless, and there are no boundaries. When we have the freedom to express through photographs what is on our minds, and in our hearts, and take the time to self-evaluate and learn, we become better photographers not for others, but for ourselves. We will start to see and develop our own visual style.

What I really want to encourage to fellow street photographers in this post is, follow your heart, and don’t be confined by the boundaries set by others or each other. Take photographs of people and things that fascinates you and in a way that you see them. Be your own lighthouse. You will find that when you start to follow your instincts and intuition, that is when you can really start to challenge yourself and grow into a photographer you are meant to become.

Don't hesitate - just do!

One of the biggest killers of capturing that ‘decisive’ moment is hesitation. We all hesitate on the street – whether it is we are scared or nervous about how someone would react, or how a scene would show up on a frame.

What usually causes me to hesitate, especially when I was just starting out, was how someone would react. I saw a scene I really wanted to photograph, but because of my fear, I let it go. However, because I missed the shot, I then would regret not taking that shot for a while after, sometimes the rest of the day sadly. Oh that torture!

Over the years, I have slowly developed a mindset and some techniques that I practice while out on the streets to try to minimise that hesitation and the much dreaded regret that dawns upon you after. I will outline a few of them here, and I really hope that they will help you with your street photography journey.

1.      Try not to think about the people around you

Photographing people on the streets is hard enough, but photographing people in front of other people? That could be very nerve-wracking. It is totally normal as good members of society to think about how others might perceive us. I have found that it makes the process a lot easier to think that I am the only person around – don’t worry about the others around you. In fact, they have so much on their minds already that they don’t even see you. And if they give you weird looks, never worry, you’re the one with the great photo!  

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2.      If you’re unsure of a shot, or scared of how someone will react, press that shutter

I am sure that all great street photographs that have been taken required some degree of risk. I found that with more courage in the streets, the images you will get will be more special. If you see a character (e.g. with a hat, briefcase, umbrella, moustache that we all love etc.) – sometimes directly looking your way or walking towards you, put that viewfinder to your face and click that shutter. Try not to hesitate, and try not to be scared, I promise you that the regret of not taking the shot will far outweigh the fear (albeit sometimes full-blown) of someone’s reaction. Trust me that 99% of the time, you will be okay. Some people may get curious, and what you can do in that circumstance is simply explain politely what you are doing, and most people will actually be very glad that you decided to pick them.

3.      Learn to take rejection/negative reactions with a smile

Following on from the above point, if someone reacts negatively, a great smile would always do the trick. Most people just worry that you are trying to do harm with a camera, but once they see that smile, and your kind approach, they will understand, and even pose for you! When you get questioned or rejected, it can be disheartening, but don’t let it ruin the day – better shots are ahead!

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4.      Work on anticipating the scene quickly and in advance

When you can anticipate a scene with your desired subject quickly, you would have more time to react and get that shot without being bogged down by hesitation and uncertainty. A very useful tip for anticipating a scene is to scan ahead – instead of narrowing your vision to a metre in front of you, scan ahead 10 metres. That way, you can see a subject that you’d like to photograph approaching from a while away, and have the time to think about how you want to frame the shot. The more preparation and time you have, the less hesitation you will experience.

I hope you will find the above tips helpful. As what I tell my students in street photography workshops, the most important thing is to have that 5 seconds of courage – you’ll be amazed at the results!

As with all techniques, practical experience is crucial. If you would like to learn and practice more, my next workshop will be held in Melbourne on 29 September. To make a booking, please click here. I would love for you to join me. 

Focus on one thing!

I find that when you’re out on the streets, everything moves so fast, and everything is a blur. You hold your camera, eyes wandering, and there is just an overwhelming amount of activity to absorb and process.

You panic and freeze and you don’t know where to start. You think that every photo you take will be subpar. And at times, you don’t even know what to capture!

I’ve been there myself. In fact, some days, I still find myself there. I am in the middle of the crowd, and I am blank on what to do. 

A valuable tip that I have is very simple – Focus on one thing at a time.

When you find yourself in the middle of the chaos, pause and focus on one thing. That thing could be a person, an object, a spot with interesting light, a colour, a pattern. Focus on that, and don’t worry about the rest. 

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It is true that street photography is about reacting quickly to everything that is happening around us. But when there is too much chaos, especially when you are first staring out, being more selective could allow us to compose more effectively and create more compelling images. If we are trying to frantically capture everything we see, the resulting images may lack thought and creativity. 

For example, the next time you are out taking a stroll through the streets, choose a specific theme or element for your mind to focus on – e.g. colour, and then look for photo opportunities that showcases colour. Or it could be a person with character, then look for moments to take such portraits. 

When I often find is that, once my mind has something specific it is looking for, more moments will present themselves. I could find a colourful backdrop that I find interesting, then slowly work the scene to get various shots. I also anticipate a moment much more quickly and therefore have more time to set the shot up more creatively. 

How we react the things is crucial on the streets. With more practice over time, we can slowly learn and adapt to focus on several themes and elements at once. Our eyes and minds could be trained and with practice, they will react more quickly, and more aligned with what we envisioned. 

On the streets, there will be plenty of times that we have to react spontaneously. However, starting slow could help foster originality from the very beginning. The philosophy of taking shots without thinking too much definitely has its place, however, if you have a rough plan and idea of what you want to shoot, you can work with a clear direction, and that is extremely helpful when first starting out. 

It is similar to the purpose of a story. Before we tell a story, sometimes it greatly helps to know the reason why we are telling the story so we could tell it properly. There are days where I want to communicate the emotions of a scene and there are other times where I really want to explore and experiment with light and colours. 

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the chaos around you, try to focus on one thing – let me know how it goes! :) 

Always find time to do photography!

This is going to be a short post, but I really want to share something that I have realised over the years that I have been doing photography. And that idea is – always find time to do photography.

Even if you don’t feel like it, grab your camera and go out, because 95% of the time, you are going to come across a scene or an opportunity that will really surprise you!

I’ve lost count of how many times when I actually debated again and again on the issue of whether I should bring my camera while I travelled to particular places. And here are the results of that decision:

When I didn’t bring my camera, most times I gathered regret, whereas when I brought my camera, I always captured at least one or two good photos – photos that I wouldn’t be able to get if I had decided that I wouldn’t bring my camera.

We all have really busy lives. And it is incredibly difficult to find time for photography. So the simple solution is to bring your camera with you, everywhere you go.

Ever since I adopted this philosophy, I have been taking photos at the most random places. There are photo opportunities everywhere!

My mum wanted to go shopping one afternoon, and in the short space of time that I had while walking around (looking at all the houseware xD), I managed to come across a few interesting characters, and guess what, I had my camera with my to capture those images. It was a treat! Here are some I took at the shops that day:

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I know, carrying your camera around can be a hassle, but time and moments in street photography don’t wait for us. We all know they’re fleeting, and once they are gone, they might not come around again. When we only photograph or take our cameras with us when we really like it, or really want to, we actually miss so many moments.

If your camera is too big to carry around, I’d recommend investing in a smaller camera – a camera that you wouldn’t feel burdened carrying around everywhere. Currently, I use both my Canon 5D mkiii and Olympus em5 mk ii, and for everyday carry around purposes, I use my Olympus much more than my Canon. It is also lighter, and people are not as apprehensive about it (it would also depend on the kind of shot you would like, more on this later :)).

If you ever had doubts on carrying your camera – just carry it. You won’t regret it. Even if you don’t get any good shots, at least you tried. The chances will be nil if you didn’t have your camera.

Carry your camera everywhere and you will always find time for photography, and you’ll always be looking around for shots, which also means lots and lots of practice.

Street photography is all about practice. Even 5 – 10 minutes a day makes a difference.

I think in a way, it is very much like gaming, or playing a musical instrument. I use to play the trumpet back in the days (and still game here and there now :P), I find that when I don’t play for a month or so, and when I play again, I am very very rusty. I have to take the extra time to gain the comfort and the confidence I had before I stopped. It also takes me a while to get back to the level I was at.

I find photography is very similar in this respect. Which is why finding the time to do photography, no matter where you go will really make a difference in ensuring that your skills are getting better and better, day by day. Each new day will build on the previous day, and you won’t move backwards.

You might not feel it, but every time you click that shutter, you’re getting a little better.

So let your camera be your companion, and a best friend when you go out. Even when you don’t feel like it, it might just cheer you up!  

Try it for a week and see how you go! :) 

How to overcome your fear in street photography

For those of us who have done street photography, we all know and have all experienced how terrifying it could be. I have been there, and even now, after a couple of years, I can still be fearful when it comes to pressing the shutter on my camera in front of a total stranger. Being shy and diffident is the most natural thing, I have missed shots because of my fear and hesitation. For me, my mind and body freezes and shuts down for a few seconds, and then what follows is intense regret. Overtime, I have managed to ease the fear and anxiety through changing my mindset.

Fear in street photography usually comes in two forms:

1.    We are fearful of our subjects’ reactions

2.    We are fearful of how others around us will perceive us

What is paramount to overcoming and conquering both of these fears is our mindset. Your thoughts determine your feelings, and your feelings will influence how you act. It really depends on how you view the world. I believe in the rule of reciprocity, that is - be warm and kind to the world, and it will be the same to you.

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As normal human beings, we will never dispel all our fear and anxiety when it comes to photographing strangers. What we can do, is try to lower the level of uneasiness and discomfort within us, and to manage and harness that fear, and to transform it into both inspiration and energy. Visually, this is akin to dispersing the emotions you feel within you outwards, instead of confining it within yourself.

Although street photography focuses on reacting to what is happening around you, overcoming the fear is about responding to your surroundings and your thoughts and emotions. Recognise and take control of your thoughts before they take control of you. Deliberately challenge your mind and your thoughts. It is a fact that most people on the streets will not hurt you. From my own personal experiences, no one has ever threatened to hurt me. Some have been really curious and interested in what I was doing, and many have smiled at me when they realise I took a photo of them. Some will be flattered that you picked them! The biggest and the most effective weapon or tool in putting yourself and others at ease is your smile. There is nothing better at fostering amiable relations and connections with strangers than your smile. It is contagious!

If you are worried about how others around you will perceive you, try to think about this: what are your goals when it comes to street photography? You are a storyteller, a documentary artist, someone whose passion and intent is to record our world as it is at this very moment. It is very important work, and we should be proud of it. With time, the significance of our work will increase and it will matter to more and more people. You are not trying to hurt anyone. Even if you think people are judging you, they will forget you in less than 5 minutes, trust me on that, most people are lost in their own thoughts, and they don’t even notice you.

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Remember, your mindset influences you feel and therefore affects how you act. If you feel overwhelmingly anxious, you will appear more furtive and suspicious. It is best not trying to be excessively secretive, the more open and honest you are, the more likely other people will receive you with friendliness and warmth.

It takes a tremendous amount of audacity and courage to do street photography, so congratulations on picking up the camera and venturing out! Although fear is one of our human emotions that make us vulnerable, it is also our emotions that enable us to capture the most human moments. Take little steps at a time, and commend yourself on the progress that you make, no matter how small they may seem.

Most importantly, don’t be so hard on yourself, feeling fear is a strength, not a weakness. If you can turn it into your friend, instead of your enemy, it can empower you to take even bolder and memorable shots.

Be resilient, be resolute, be you! 

How to train your eye… and your mind – Part 1

I think all of us have wondered about what and how we take photos on the street. While we are wandering around the streets, we might constantly ask ourselves questions such as what do I take a photo of? What’s the best way to take a photo?

Consider your mind as a blank canvas

I think a great starting point is to empty your mind, and consider it as a blank canvas, with no scribbles or any drawings. Try to get let go of all your assumptions and pre-conceived ideas of what a perfect photograph should be like. Keep an open mind, and let new ideas come to you. If your mind is already full of thoughts of how things should be, it would be difficult for your own ideas to come through.

I think it could be helpful to seek guidance from others, but ultimately, in order for you to create your own original photographs, keeping an open mind is paramount. Harness the true power of your mind, and the results will surprise you!

The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

Don’t restrict yourself

Sometimes, we all have to ignore the rules, and deviate from the norm to create something original, and uniquely you. Growth is very uncomfortable, and for street photography, this is definitely true.

So today, or tomorrow, try something you haven’t tried before. Get out there and experiment. You have immense talent, and you wouldn’t know what you’re capable of, until you try and achieve it.

Try listening to some music

I find that I find the best moments to photograph when I am extremely concentrated on it. Sometimes our eyes, and our minds can wander, and it is easy to find ourselves distracted by the external noises and commotions.

I don’t listen to music all the time while doing street photography, but I find that when I do, it makes me more relaxed and I feel more empowered and creative. It helps me to not dwell on my worries and fears associated with street photography, and it keeps me in focus. Currently, I am obsessed with jazz music! I found it really soothing and motivating. J

If you do try listening to music, please be safe and still keep an eye around for traffic!

Try doing a ‘photo-walk’ without a camera

Sometimes, the pressures of making a great photograph and the nerves of clicking the shutter can prevent us from thinking clearly, and as a result, we may not embrace the true capabilities of our creative minds.

When I tried it, I found it an incredibly liberating experience to walk around the city, and noticing and appreciating the small details. It really gives me the freedom to really enhance my senses, and see, and feel the energy and the character of the city, and the emotions of the people around me. It really strengthens the connection between what I see and what I feel.

Instead of taking actual photos, try to keep a mental note of what you find interesting. These mental notes could be used as a guide for you next time, when you actually have your camera with you. You will find the process so much easier, and more natural, and you would know what to look for.

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Explore – but also revisit the same places

I find that each time I visit a place that I’ve been before, I discover something new, and something I hadn’t seen before. For those of us who are not travelling, it is quite difficult to visit new places every time. But! The good news is that you can still explore and discover exciting things, from the places you’ve been before.

This is a great way to train your eye to see differently, from the same scenes and circumstances. Sometimes, it is not what is presented to us, but how we see it. One of the key skills in street photography is observation and anticipation, and when you’re in a familiar environment, it is much easier to practice this skill. Keep observing, keep noticing, keep absorbing.  

Developing your own style

Each one of us have our own ways of defining beauty, and expressing our emotions and our imagination through our images. All of us are storytellers of the stories that we have the opportunity and privilege of writing.

The most important skill when it comes to developing your own style is patience, and lots of practice, like with any skill or craft. It would require significant amounts of trial and error, and taking many average photographs.

I believe that our own style or theme comes naturally with time, through taking countless photographs.

It is also about listening to yourself and being in touch with what you feel. For me, what makes me hit the shutter is the emotions I feel within myself from what I am seeing. If you truly know what inspires and motivates you, then you’ll find that would become the common theme for your images. And the beautiful thing is, you are unique and no one else is like you.

Have the courage and the audacity to be yourself, and always keep your eyes open for the unexpected.

Tip: Which focal length to use when starting out street photography?

It can be really confusing choosing the right focal length for street photography. There is a general rule that 35mm is the conventional focal length one should choose. My personal thought is that there is no rigid rule that everyone must abide by. Each person has their own preferences, and most importantly, they have their own eye and style - when it comes to seeing and capturing moments. 

I'd love to share some of my own personal experiences - of when I first started out. Like most people, I started street photography with 35mm. However, I felt uncomfortable being too close to strangers and as a result, I found myself cropping lots of my images. As a result, I decided to try shooting at 85mm or 135mm. I felt much more comfortable keeping some distance from the subjects, and I was able to focus more on what I was seeing. In my opinion, using telephoto lenses can create powerful and moving images (particularly portraits). I grew to really love using my 85mm and 135mm lenses. If you're just starting out street photography, or have been struggling with wider focal lengths, I really encourage you to experiment with long-focus length. You might grow to love it like I did! As time went on, I was eventually bold enough to take images at 35mm - though I still love using my 85mm. 

Here are some examples of my street images taken at 85mm: 

Use and experiment different focal lengths, and discover what you're comfortable with, and what is most compatible with your style and what you're trying to capture and communicate through your images. There's no one rule! 

What lens do you like or have tried? What do you like? Let me know! :)