Street Photography and Your Visual Intentions

Visual intent is a must-have mentality of a street photographer when out looking for a good shot.

Snowy S Bahn train Station in Berlin, 2021
S Bahnhof Yorckstrasse, Berlin in Winter

If you just wander around just hoping to see something happen, you probably won’t see much in the way of good street photography material.

Photographers look for change that happens before their eyes. Walking, looking, observing, is an active mentality. You’re looking for something that is connected, in some way or another, to a strong intention that you have.

Your intention helps you discover the moments when you can capture a shot that is worth keeping.

I find that when I think about my intentions before going out to do street photography, I am thinking about finding a scene that gives me the opportunity to express myself in the way I see life.

It might sound heavy, but as a photographer, and a writer, I’m automatically inspired and fascinated by the fact that, really, we are alone. We desire to be together, and sometimes we over do it when we try and build friendships. It’s the human condition. Aloneness, trying to find a way into other people’s lives to create fulfilment. That’s the short version.

Man walking across Potsdamer Platz in Snowy weather
Man walking across Potsdamer Platz in Snowy weather

So, when I’m out taking street photos, I’m automatically drawn to single figures bobbing along the street.

If it’s summer time, you see a lot of people drifting around enjoying the warmth, the blue skies and the heated breeze. That creates a mood. Not of loneliness, but of ‘happy to be alone’. Those are positive feelings. I can’t photograph feelings, so, I intend to look for that decisive moment when a person shows me with physical actions that they are aware of their aloneness, but happy with it. That’s an idea, and I find it challenging, but worth pursuing as a photographer.

Berlin 2021, shadows on the wall. Sean P. Durham, copyright

If your intentions on finding a moment of action on the street is challenging, it’s worth pursuing. Think of that old saying, if you can imagine it, you can create it.

But right now, your brain might not have enough material to work with in order to figure out how. Practise on the street, and you’ll begin to see things happening that connect to your own intentions as a street photographer. That’s how growth as a photographer happens.

Copyright - Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2019

Growth as a street photographer is about learning to see clearly. The camera is a tool we use to practise that action.

If you take street photography seriously enough, you’ll get better. This happens because of your strong intentions on finding scenes and actions involving people that reflect those small moments in life that make us wake up. Hopefully, when you see that moment, and you capture it just right, people will look at your photos and see it, too. Often when you achieve this, and a people love your photos, they know that something is there in the photo that is highly attractive. Your photo is causing a reaction. You created a little piece of magic that connects with other people’s feelings.

We can’t photograph feelings, but the results of our work on the street can connect feelings.

Often, those connections are very important ways that helps other people confirm that we are all basically the same inside. We all have the same needs, and fears, and we are all in this together. That helps people to feel less anxious about life.

Street photography is an art. It certainly isn’t a way to make money, and to be honest, that’s a good thing. It means that it stays pure as a practice, similar to painting and music.

The artist works hard, learns, deepens their knowledge and produces great work. When they offer it to the world, the world says, “oh wow, yes, give it to me, but I can’t pay for it.” That’s life. But it keeps the arts pure of intention.

Intention is a powerful mentality in all the arts. It doesn’t feed our stomachs, but when it’s the main motivator, it brings us what we are truly looking for, great photos that make people stop in their tracks and begin to think about something important. Life.

Photographic intentions are really about wanting to see something that you think you have missed. You want to hone your skills at discovering that small moment of joy, sadness, or some other emotional activity that humans experience. We practise seeing like any artist would practise using their main tool. The eyes.

The eyes are another tool, it’s the brain, really. How we think is how we perceive the world. Then we begin to understand what’s important to us. Some of seem to be born with a bit more accent on the visual side of thinking, so we go for the eyes and learn to use them.

Others like moulding things with their hands, so they learn how to use physical touch to a fine degree.

The intent that is important when working on street photography is up to you. You may be a visual person, but that doesn’t mean that everything is in colour for you. Black & white photography is beautiful when done well. To work with the fine tones that slide into each other is a difficult skill to master.

When I went to art school, I thought I’d be splashing colourful paint around the studio. I was immediately told that it’d be a year before I can start using colour. Firstly, I had to understand the tones, their values, and their finesse. That’s when I discovered the beauty of simple black and white tones in a visual work.

If you work in black and white photography for a while, you’ll produce some great work. When you go back to colour photography you’ll immediately see how working only with simple tones, and avoiding the extra work of colour, gave you a better understanding of how to combine the balance of chromatic tones. Your sense of colour balance will be so much better.

When we learn how to see with a camera, we are also practising how to use the camera. Don’t use automatic – it isn’t better that what’s inside of you. You can discover your true intentions as a street photographer when you practice everything on manual settings.

Here are the manual Settings

Manual shutter speed, manual ISO, manual F stop, and above all, manual brain setting. Don’t coast and drift when creating photos on the street. You’ll thank yourself for putting enough thought into what’s important to you personally.

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