Street photography is normally a very open and free-form photography genre, but sometimes because we are traveling it’s better to plan a shoot rather than relying on luck.
Fortune, they say, favors the prepared, and when all you have is a few hours in a new land, better get ready to make the most of what you’ve got. Makes sense, no? Here’s how I prepare a street photography shoot when I know time will be limited.
What to do a few days before
A few days before your shoot you will need a few apps and tools.
The first is an offline map, Google Maps allows you to save chunks of the map but some areas are off limits (I tried to save a map of Osaka and wasn’t allowed). You need to find apps that have offline maps from the get-go and download the map of the area where you are going. It sounds stupid and you might be tempted to skip this part, but when I went to Hong Kong, I wasted an hour and a half trying to get out of the subway area into the main roads.
The second app you need is called the Photographers Ephemeris (iOS / Android). It’s designed for landscape shooters but it’s also useful for street photographers because it allows you to know where and when the sun will rise and set. It tells you what to expect in terms of light. It is a paid app, but alternatively, you can get that information for free online.
This is very useful information that you can use to predict what camera/lens you may require also. No need to get your high ISO camera if you plan to leave before the sun sets, for example.
Planning your shoot
Here’s the deal, if you had all the time in the world, you would stroll and go wherever you feel images are calling you. But you don’t, probably one or two days is all you have while traveling. So you need an idea of where to go while leaving things open to opportunity and chance as well.
1- Check the weather
Don’t miss this step! It may sound stupid but this not only allows you to plan ahead and might tell you to bring extra protective gear. I usually check the day before because the weather is very unreliable and the forecast can change quickly.
2- What are your numbers?
You need to know when you are arriving and leaving. For example, imagine you are arriving at 8 pm and leaving at 4 pm the next day. What I recommend first of all is to set an alarm that tells you when to start and stop shooting, it usually takes an hour to get situated so I would set an alarm for 9 pm and 3 pm the following day. You need to figure out the amount of time it takes to get from the airport to where you are staying and to return again. I personally have an alarm for when to eat too.
While this might sound tedious, it gives you the freedom to shoot because it will tell you exactly when to start and when to stop, and you do not have to worry about it. When traveling you have no familiar bearings so the alarms get you grounded.
Consider your arrival time
The other reason for knowing your numbers is knowing what you can expect. Remember the information you got from Photographer’s ephemeris or online. When are the sunrise, midday, and sunset?
Let’s say sunset is at 7 pm and sunrise at 7 am. If you are arriving at 8 pm you would know that you will arrive at night. So if you want to shoot the morning light, you need to wake up before 7 am and you know that you will miss the sunset. This kind of information will tell you what kind of light you can anticipate. But you also need to know where you are going.
Where to go
When going somewhere new, I try to find the population centers and busy streets. So I google “[city name here] busy street” look at the results, and try to find the names of the busiest streets. It’s not magical, it’s probably overshot but where there are more people, usually there are interesting shots. Here are my results using Hong Kong as an example.
Note: This is where you want to google according to your project and style. If you have a project with businessmen, you want to find out where the central business district is for example.
When looking for populated areas, there is usually a long stretch of road that is popular that provides great opportunities. For example:
- Market Street in Philadelphia
- Times Square in New York
- Dotonbori in Osaka
- Ocean Drive in Miami
- Gangnam in Seoul
- Nathan road in Hong Kong
Then I map out how to go there from the airport. When you know your times and where to go, you have a clearer idea of what you can expect. All of your energy is saved for shooting and not figuring things out when you arrive. Like I said above, after sweating like a pig trying to get out of the subway area in Kowloon, Hong Kong, it zapped my energy levels greatly. I doubled down on coffee.
Use your gathered information wisely
It takes some experience but after a while, you start to know what to expect with all the information gathered. In the morning, you know what direction to be in to shoot the sun or have it at your back. You know when stores will start opening and people go to work. Knowing where you are going will help with your expectations. For example, if there are a lot of high-rises that will create shadow areas.
Knowing what time night falls will tell you when street vendors will start to close, the light from stores will create a new light source, or when to pull out a flash if that’s your thing.
You have to be careful. What you believe is a camera is someone else’s next meal for a month. Population centers and busy streets are opportunities for street photographers but also for street thieves. It depends on where you are going, some places are safer than others. I like the anti-theft Pacsafe brand, but you can make yourself less pick-pocket friendly if you turn your backpack and hold it against your belly.
Also, don’t flaunt your camera if you know you are going somewhere there are lots of pick-pockets. You have to be careful not to damage the camera, but some tape is perfect to uglify the camera. And as much as you can, avoid backpacks and bags that scream “camera bag”. It immediately flags you as having a camera.
There you have my system for how to prepare for a travel street photography shoot. I would be the first to say that it’s better to go somewhere and leave things open, but sometimes that’s just not a good use of your time when you only have a few hours or days to shoot somewhere. It’s better to prepare and then leave things open. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.