Making Sense Of Chaos: One Method For Street Photography

Work the perimeter of action to get your bearings and come up with a plan.

I've had a few workshop clients comment on the chaos on the streets of Mumbai and how difficult it is to really focus on something to photograph. I can feel their confusion because I had been there once myself. One of the ways I've overcome the crowded streets of India was to simply step back from the action to get my bearings.

Perimeter of action

It's a simple concept. To make sense of any situation on the streets, it's best to step out of the crowded streets momentarily and locate the perimeter of action (POA).

The POA usually takes the shape of a natural or man-made physical barrier, like the sea or the wall of a building. It could also be quite arbitrary and without obstructions, where crowds begin to form during events or public gatherings, say in markets. Think of POA as a zone where there's a cushion of space orbiting around the chaos.

Here's a three point plan I highly recommend as one method to overcome the chaos on the streets.

* Identify the perimeter of action

* Position yourself there from the best possible vantage point

* Formulate a 10 minute plan

A word on positioning - if there isn't an obvious vantage point from where to gain maximum perspective of the scene, find the closest or easiest refuge away from the action. This could simply be a sidewalk or an alley. It could mean stepping into a cafe or restaurant if the streets are completely full, like during festivals and Friday markets. You'll know it when you see it.

The 10 minute plan

The most important thing is to keep shooting. And we address the crutch of the matter, which is how can you keep shooting if you don't know what to shoot?

Once you're in the POA, make your observations. Things to ask yourself:

What are people wearing? What are people doing? Are there any interesting repeatable actions, like porters hauling baskets on their heads to a local shop? Locate an interesting wall with graffiti or a stationary object that you can frame subjects against as a backdrop. Find any aspect that would be worth your time shooting for the next ten minutes.

But the number one thing you should always be looking at as a photographer is the light. Are there any spaces where beams of light are shining through to illuminate your subjects in fascinating ways? What is the quality of light where you are - is it soft or harsh? What direction is the light coming from? Is it natural or artificial, or a combination of both? How can you use the light to make a great image - regardless of your subject matter? Run to the light, baby!

What you'll hopefully discover on your own after you've decided on what to photograph for 10 minutes is that you won't need to regroup as often or at all to get your bearings. Once the location is more familiar, finding subjects to photograph will come more naturally to the point you won't be thinking about it - you'll be in the zone.

But if you do have troubles getting started, regroup every ten minutes until finding subjects is no longer an issue. And if you can't find your stride, consider dropping the location and moving on to the next place. There's no sense forcing yourself if after an hour you're not getting any shots you like. Move on and start afresh.

If you've found this information useful, consider subscribing to my blog and sharing your experiences in the comments.

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