Street photography is not a job. It’s a passion. Unlike commercial photographers or photojournalists, it’s rare that street photographers get paid for their work. The impetus to be in the mix of reality and make sense of it can only come from a genuine place deep down inside that has nothing to do with the need to make a living.
We all have our own stories of how we got here. For me, even as a natural-born optimist, street photography is what keeps my head above water. It enables me to focus on what’s right in this world and, to some degree, ignore what’s so wrong with it. Your reason for becoming a street photographer might be different, but what we all share is the need to incorporate this exceptional genre into our lives while juggling other imperative matters, like making money, raising a family, going to school, taking care of our health, etc.
The writer John Cheever once said, “art is the triumph over chaos,” and that’s what this article is all about: helping you create a framework that supports your street photography, so you can continue to make photographs amidst all the loose ends that surround you.
I began my professional career in an office setting in another field, so once I found photography and knew it was for me, I had to dig my way out of a past that was quite different from the future I envisioned. Following are some ways that helped me while I made the transition, and that keep me focused, organized, and productive today.
Get a Job That Supports You
The key matter that needs to be taken care of first—at least for most of us—is to figure out how to earn a living. Ideally, you want to get a job that interferes least with your creative and physical energy, so your street photography doesn’t take a backseat. It helps a lot to get a position that:
- you can do with ease. If you are just starting out or you want to create more time in your life for street photography, think about the skills you have naturally or have already acquired, and figure out a way to get paid to put those skills to use. A job that has a natural fit, even if it is not your ideal job, will preoccupy your mind less when you are off the clock.
- requires less than 40 hours a week, so there is
actually time to dedicate to street photography, and/or…
- has a flexible enough schedule that you can carve out blocks of time to dedicate to street photography. This might mean you have a seasonal job where you work more than 40 hours a week for months at a time, but then work much less or not at all other months, or it might mean you work freelance, taking work when you need it.
- evolves your artistic sensibilities. Having a job that is tied to photography, like being a photographer’s assistant or a photography teacher, or one that is in another discipline, like working in a museum, a bookstore, or a sculptor’s studio, can help you grow as a street photographer in ways that may or may not be immediately apparent.
- increases your exposure to photography and/or the photography community. Working in a photo gallery, a photography equipment store, a rental studio, etc. could help your goals greatly if it means you come into contact with a lot of other photographs, photographers, and/or patrons of photography.
We all solve money matters differently; what is a supportive job for one person may not be for another. Be honest with yourself about the skills you have and the compensation you need. Ideally you want an adequately paying job that doesn’t overly preoccupy you, so you have the energy you need to get inspired and produce.
Determine When You're Most Productive
There are certain times that are more amenable to street photography than others, depending on your location, personal preferences, and subject matter. What’s helped me stay focused when there’s always so much to do is to work with the seasons. Because I’m based in New York City, where there are four full seasons, I photograph primarily in the warmer months when the days are longer (May to October) and look at/make sense of the resulting photographs in the colder months when the days are shorter (November to April). It’s a lot like waking up to the sun; it just feels natural.
The warmer months where I live also happen to be richer visually. In New York City, the streets come alive in late spring, summer, and early fall in ways that just don’t compare to the winter. People are more open, flamboyant, agreeable, and liberated when it’s warm out, whereas in the winter, New Yorkers tend to be pretty pent up, hiding under dreary black coats, scarves, and hats, and leaving the apartment only when necessary.
Obviously inclement weather can also produce amazing photographs; the snow and rain can be astonishingly beautiful, and indoor street photography is always an option. But dedicating these large blocks of time to either photographing or looking at my photographs allows me to concentrate on one activity at length, and that’s helped me be more productive. It’s also quite a nice lifestyle, because I don’t feel split in so many directions. I can actually focus.
I also like working with the seasons because it carves out an appropriate amount of time to look at my photographs. There is the misconception that photography is largely about making pictures. That's where it starts, but that's not where it ends. Photographers actually spend just as much time (if not more) deriving meaning from their images and figuring out how to present them. Selecting the strongest images, sequencing, titling and captioning, etc. are some of the key actions that distinguish a photographer from someone who has a camera.
The colder months with shorter days are also just a cozier time of year, so for me it’s been really helpful to save indoor activities for these times. Doing research, marketing my work, applying for calls, scanning negatives: it's all much more enjoyable when I’m not longing to be outside.
Photographing with the seasons might not work for you, but designating blocks of time to certain steps in your process when it feels right can be very helpful. Maybe Saturdays you photograph and Thurday nights you process. Think about when it feels most natural to do various tasks and try to work with that flow.
Set Aside Time to Photograph in Advance
After you decide the ideal time for you to work, actually plan for it in your calendar. Set aside specific days and hours, just like any other appointment, so that this time doesn't get usurped by anything else. Be specific about what you plan to do during that time and then actually do it. It takes discipline to keep a passion alive, even though it's self-initiated—perhaps precisely because it's self-initiated—so stay committed to your plan.
Hard work always pays off; it's never a waste of time, even when you end up scrapping the results. The fruits of your labor may not show immediately or in the way you had planned, but the benefit of your focus and continued efforts always comes, because the experience of any process forces you to evolve. Life might not be fair, but in this aspect, it is. Work hard, and you will reap the benefits.
Look at Your Outtakes Later
Another way to cultivate focus is to concentrate on photographing when you're photographing and to save looking at your outtakes for when you’re done. For those of you who work in film, you’re probably already aware of what a huge gift this is. It’s one thing to check your exposures on the first couple of digital frames, but once you’ve dialed in all of your settings, try to refrain from looking at what you’re making as you go; that way you can concentrate on one action at a time. The mindset required to photograph is very different than the mindset required to assess your photographs, so don’t do yourself the disservice of splitting your mind in two when it’s not necessary.
This might be too extreme for some of you, but during the warmer months, when I am out with my Rolleiflex, not only do I not look at my images on the spot (it’s a film camera, so I can’t), I also don’t make contact sheets of my images until autumn rolls around. I get my film developed as I go to make sure there are no light leaks or other major problems with my equipment, but I don’t study my negatives at length on the light box, and I don’t cut and sleeve them until the season is largely over.
Saving contact printing for later not only allows me to stay focused on photographing for a large swath of time, it also places a helpful distance between me and my photographs. When the experience I had photographing is still a strong memory, it can color my assessment of what the image actually shows. I’m less likely to misunderstand my images if there is an extended period of time between when I make them and when I look at them.
I do photograph digitally everyday with my camera phone—regardless of the season—as I go about my life. But even then I don’t look at the images I’ve made until the end of each day. People who see me photographing sometimes ask, “Did you get it?” It never occurs to me to check. Maybe that’s a habit left over from my use of film, but for me, taking the time to look at the image I just made might mean I miss another photo opportunity coming my way. I don’t want to risk that. If I’m out, I want to be taking in the world as much as possible and leave the deciphering of it for a quieter time.
And honestly, some of what I see excites me so much, I don’t want to know if I “got it” or not, because I don’t want to be disappointed if I didn’t. I’d rather feel the excitement of looking and capturing while I can, and wait until later to confront my failures.
Find Your Equilibrium
There is always so much to do personally and professionally, it can paralyze you just thinking about it all. Obviously prioritizing what needs to be done now over what can be done later helps a lot. But sometimes always putting off what can be done later creates a troublesome imbalance.
So far as I can tell, the purpose of life is to experience it as easefully as possible. When we are calm, we experience the benefits right away—but so do others; our ease is transmitted to them in various direct and indirect ways. So being content (which is not to be confused with being complacent) is really a public service as much as it is a personal achievement.
One way to cultivate that is to not bear down too hard as you strive to succeed or evolve, and instead keep track of the bigger picture. Sometimes we can become so focused, we lose sight of what’s important without even knowing it.
Taking the time to assess whether there are imbalances in our life can uncover areas we have neglected that, in the end, harm our productivity and our ability to be happy anyway. When you’ve met your obligations and it’s time to choose what to do next, select the task, or experience, or event that you haven’t chosen in a while.
Sometimes going to the beach with your friends or visiting your grandmother in the nursing home will give you the softness you need to be as productive as you want to be. It’s also a way to make sure you have as few regrets as possible. Life can be short. If we waste it, we’ve lost, no matter how far we've come from our striving.
Aleve yourself of financial stress by getting a job that
pays you adequately, perhaps contributes to your artistic growth, and doesn’t
interfere with the time and energy you need to make street photography. Determine the most productive times for you to make
and look at your photography, possibly using the seasons as your guide, and then set aside those times in your calendar and stick to them. Look at
your outtakes after you’ve completed photographing, not during, so you can
focus on one important task at a time. Keep tabs on the areas of your life you
neglect so you can tend to them and live a more content, balanced, and inspired
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