Friday, 10 January 2014

Try your hand at street photography

Street photography is right on your doorstep. The best way to increase your confidence is by stepping outside and giving it a try. If you love people, colour and chaos, you’re going to have a great time. 

You’ll be doing a lot of walking outside, so dress appropriately. I wear hiking boots because they’re rugged and comfortable. Your clothes mustn’t interfere with the photography, which means no gloves or umbrellas, and no heavy bags which will exhaust you. Street photographers travel light so you won’t need a tripod or tonnes of equipment – when I go out, I carry as little as possible.

The camera
Whatever you do, don’t use a point-and-shoot camera such as a Nikon Coolpix or Sony Cyber-shot. They take a couple of seconds to process each picture, which is no good for this type of photography, where speed is everything. iPhone cameras are much faster, and the iPhone 5 produces good enough quality images for an 8″x10″ print. My favourite photography app is Hipstamatic. You choose your filters and lenses first, then take as many pictures as you like. 

A Train Guard on the old Northern Line trains by Antonio Olmos

‘The blur and colour highlights the worn state of the train.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

I recommend getting hold of an SLR camera. At the top end of the market, you have the Leica M, which costs around £5,000. At the entry level you have the Nikon D3200, the Canon 600D or the retro-looking Fuji X20, which cost about £400 and all take great pictures.

It might seem complicated, but you must put your camera on to manual settings and learn how to choose the right shutter speed. If you let the camera do the choosing, you won’t know how you’re taking beautiful pictures. Automatic settings give you average readings – which in turn lead to average pictures. You are going to make a lot of mistakes at first, but gradually you’ll develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Choose somewhere that is likely to be crowded. If you’re walking around a small village, it’s tougher to fade into the background.

A man walks between the Millenium Bridge and the tate Modern Art Gallery in London Antonio Olmos

‘This works because the geometry of the Milennium Bridge and the Tate Modern draws your eye to the diminished figure of the man.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Cities and towns are more anonymous. Not only are there more things to photograph, no one’s going to notice you. The best street photographers are invisible. 

There are no rules about how to spot a good shot. Everybody has different interests and sensibilities. Some people look for humour. I look for melancholy. I like photographing overcast days and people looking sad. Once you start taking lots of pictures, you will develop your own style and discover what you do and don’t like. 

The first good pictures that people take tend to be accidents. I was once photographing kids outside a punk concert and someone walked in front of my camera. It was a mistake, but there was something really nice about that blurry figure. We hear about all sorts of rules that scare us: never chop off someone’s feet, don’t miss off a person’s head, but for every example I can show you a street photographer that breaks those rules.

Epsom Derby Antonio Olmos

‘This woman was telling her husband off for being drunk at the races. The crop helps you focus without being distracted by the chaos of the crowd that was behind them.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Another piece of advice: pay attention to light. That’s what makes for good photographs. Shoot at sunset or sunrise, use the light from windows, or street lights, and not a flash. Learn to use the light you have. 

A street photographer needs to be quick. If you want to take a picture, just do it. Let it be instinctive, don’t question it. Trust your judgment. You also need to learn to anticipate things and see a picture coming. Pay attention to your surroundings, wait around and something will happen.

When you are doing street photography, don’t do anything else. Definitely don’t try to combine photography with shopping or taking the kids out. The creative process is a very selfish act. You have to be in the zone and focus. 

For a random street scene, you don’t have to ask people’s permission – you would be there all day and miss the picture. If you want to take a close-up portrait of someone, just go up and ask. There’s no mystery to it. All they can say is no – and that’s OK, you should expect them to say that. But lots of people will be very nice and say yes.

A vegetable market in Casablanca

‘When I shoot colour, I love to capture bright, busy scenes like this Marrakech market. There’s so much going on, you never get bored.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

If you relax, you’ll find most people won’t even notice you. Common sense applies to street photography: if you are polite and kind, you’ll get that reaction back.

Learn from the masters
The best way to recognise a good shot is to look at lots of other photographs. Even if you mimic a photographer such Cartier-Bresson, you will never take photos exactly like him – the process of studying other photographers will help you learn your own style. 

Art is a good source of inspiration too. I always make my students go to the National Gallery, and especially to the Dutch rooms. The 16th-century Dutch were the first people to paint mundane activities: washing, cooking, cleaning, laying the table. People lived by natural light or candle light, and the way they depicted that is beautiful.

The final photo
When you get home, edit. Lots of people go out and shoot 100 images and expect 100 to be good. A professional photographer knows that you might get one good picture. Like a writer, when you photograph on the streets you are taking notes. You are trying a bunch of things out and hoping that one of them works.

Instead of developing all the photos you take, or worse, leaving them unseen on your computer, choose the best ones and get them printed professionally. Home inkjet printers cost a lot of money and the photographs fade after a year. A nice 12″x16″ print costs about a tenner and it will last for ever.

• Win a Masterclass

To win a place on Street Photography with Antonio Olmos on Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 February 2014 based at The Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, valued at £399, enter your street portraits at

Over to you: show us your street portraits

“Street photography is right on your doorstep,” says Antonio Olmos. “The best way to increase your confidence is by stepping outside and giving it a try.”

That’s exactly what we hope you’ll do. Inspired by Antonio’s photography tutorial, we would love you to grab your camera and hit the streets, then send your best street portrait to us. It might be a busy crowd scene, someone in an extraordinary outfit, or a group of skateboarders showing off their moves – whatever you spot, capture it and send it to us.

We’ll also want to know all about your portrait. Where were you when you took it? What is it of? What drew you to the scene? Why do you like your shot? Remember that we can’t feature photos of anyone under 16 without parental permission, and if you take a direct portrait of someone please do get their permission for us to publish it.

So don’t be scared – just go for it. “If you love people, colour and chaos,” says Antonio. “You’re going to have a great time.”

To take part, just click on the blue “contribute” button or download the free GuardianWitness app for your smartphone.

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