In street photography and any type of photography actually, it's no secret that photographic opportunities come to those who observe carefully.
You'll often hear photographers say “You cannot teach someone to see”.
As if all you can learn in photography are the technical aspects but you’re either born with the ability to notice or you're not and then you’re pretty much screwed, might as well give up!
It's a fact of life, some people observe and some don’t.
This doesn't mean however that observation skills and the good taste needed to make a good photograph are impossible to learn or develop.
My personal experience with photography is that, in fact, I wasn't born a photographer (none of us were). My passion for photography sparked from my interest in Graffiti and Street Art when documenting it back in 2006-2008. I had to be constantly on the look out for the latest piece and they're not always easy to spot. But I developed my ability to observe better and find the best street art, looking in the least obvious places, streets and abandoned warehouses. These two years spent doing that were very beneficial and made me see and notice other things. Generally what's around me that I would normally not register.
So how does one become more perceptive and develop a deeper relationship with their environment?
Here are a few tips, things that worked for me, to try before you completely give up:
Slow down to increase your focus
This is probably the most important. We live life at such an increasingly fast pace that it affects our ability to notice. So take a deep breath and maybe walk a little slower than you normally would. If anything it'll relieve your stress!
“To take photographs […] is putting one’s head, one’s eyes and one’s heart on the same axis.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Look in all directions
Most people struggle to look anywhere else than straight ahead. Change this by looking up (except by the sea, seagulls will target you), looking down, left, right and even behind. Become the Meerkat of all photographers.
Be well rested and alert
Like anything you practise in life, how well rested you are will affect your ability to notice. You know...you go to work, you've had a bad night and it seems the whole day goes wrong, well it's the same with photography.
Actively acknowledge everything you look at whilst out taking photos, this will become second nature and after lots of practice you’ll eventually get to a point when there’s no rest period. Also consider not only looking at things for what they are but also look at the aesthetics of shapes, lines, contrasts and shadows and how that all falls and comes together in the viewfinder.
Find your inner child (dude...that’s sooooo deep!)
As adults we see things simply as they are. Be curious and be amazed.
Trust your gut feeling and always remain a step ahead
Try to anticipate what is about to happen and unravel in front of you. Also trust your instinct. Ever wondered what brought you an opportunity, or why you are in a certain place at the right time?
Forget your preconceptions
Thinking it’s useless to visit a particular place based on preconceived ideas is a barrier. Places change constantly and people that populate areas do too. Visiting places you wouldn’t necessarily consider interesting may yield unexpected results. This could also simply come from leaving your comfort zone. Ever noticed how new places always seem full of opportunities?
Revisit places you think you know
Having just mentioned the importance to get out of your comfort zone, it’s still not bad to revisit places you think you know as it’s a constant changing world out there.
Purposely look for the small and easily missed details
Become the Sherlock Holmes of street photography (but for heaven's sake...loose the pipe). Look in the detail, what you will see is what others will miss.
Always remember that observation is a skill and like any other skill, the more you train yourself using these tips, the better you will become. The added bonus is that learning to observe and analyse a situation quickly has applications in all other areas of life.
Now go out, shoot and remember above everything else to simply enjoy, photography should be fun!