For Jan Tichy, street photography is a passion, a source of artistic expression, and something else besides. It’s a training camp.
Anyone who’s tried their hand at street photography will feel that: it’s a demanding subject. It can be hard work, daring, exhaustive, even adrenaline pumping. After you shoot street you…change. All of this he says goes into making him a better photographer, both in street and anything else.
There are so many great skills that street teaches you,” Jan explains “the way you learn to control the camera faster, and the way you start to see things. Most importantly though, it’s in the way you learn to react: you get quicker, and you start capturing more and more of those split-second moments. You can bring all these things to portraiture, weddings or any events where you’re dealing with people.
As a street photographer, I want to remain unseen, unnoticed... I don’t want to ruin the moment with my presence. It’s the same now when I shoot a wedding, and in both cases, I find people appear more naturally when they don’t know I’m there. Natural reactions are my purpose. Some street photographers enjoy being part of the picture; they like to get a reaction – but I want to be invisible.
Best of all, the street training camp, Jan says, is at your fingertips whenever you need it: “You can shoot street anywhere and at any time. And it’s addictive: you start to like it and you spend as much of your free time as possible doing it.” This brings us to one of the street training camp’s best rules; you should always have a camera with you.
Knowing that street photography is all about opportunity, Jan carries a camera all the time, whether it’s his Sony α9 or RX1. “Everything I shoot in street is opportunistic. Everything. And there’s always something to shoot, even if I’m just waiting for a bus or a tram. You only get one chance. You can’t take it again. I guarantee if I leave my camera at home for one day I will see the most amazing thing and regret it!”
So, what are the techniques then that help him shoot unseen? It’s partly approach, he says, and partly aided by technology. “Actually one of the first things that helps me is a tiltable screen, so I can shoot at waist level. People don’t see me then, and if they don’t see me, they are being natural. When you compose like that, people think you’re adjusting the camera, or checking pictures, but you can actually be shooting. Waist level technique is so important for my style.”
It’s also a benefit, Jan says, to shoot in busy places and at busy times, where you’ll not only find a greater number of subjects, but also that people will be too distracted to concentrate on your presence. He favours working in tourist spots, too, “where everybody has a camera in their hands.”
Another way of avoiding attention, and to make arresting street images, is to find a good composition, or good light and wait for the subjects to come into it. This, Jan does often, seeing it as a more efficient way of capturing a moment than hunting for subjects. “The most complicated thing in street is capturing a great moment; you don’t know when or where it’ll happen. Sometimes you get lucky, but I like to find a composition and wait. It could be great frame, or a reflection…then I wait for people to walk through, to interact, and for something to happen. People actually think they’re in your picture and apologise, which is good, as they don’t realise they’re the subjects!”
He sets up his camera in a particular way, keeping everything as simple as possible, so no time and energy is wasted on settings when he could be observing and shooting. “I can react quicker that way,” he says, continuing “I know some photographers who want to change, for instance, metering modes all the time depending on what they’re shooting. But that would just slow me down. And it leaves more space for errors. I keep everything neutral, standard, so I can even work one handed.”
I shoot in aperture priority, but I use it with Auto ISO. It’s such a handy feature because it selects the longest shutter speed you can hold, based on the highest ISO you want to use. I set it to maybe 1/500sec and it won’t go under that, instead pushing the ISO, and these cameras can handle noise amazingly. I can move from bright sun to shadow and know the camera will adapt.
In terms of focusing, Jan uses Continuous AF with the smallest selectable AF spot, moving it as he needs. But he also depends on the α9’s Eye-AF, “especially, when I cannot check the focus on the screen. The wider the zone, the more scope for error, so I would make it even smaller if I could! And I only shoot in single frames, no 20fps bursts. This helps me to concentrate on the specific moment.”
But are there cases when the need to capture the moment takes precedence over the technical aspects of sharpness? “Yes, I think if there’s a great moment, or emotion then sometimes I can close my eyes and say ‘it’s not perfect, but I’ll select it because it’s true’. Like the picture of the women crossing the road, they’re almost all blurred, but I kept it because the picture had energy, more than sharpness. Sharpness is important, you need to know how to get it, but it won’t make a great street image alone – it’s just adding value. Every image is made of layers: the light, focus, the composition, the story… the more of these you can put in, it’s growing and getting better and better.”
"Photography gave me the greatest gift – seeing the world with a unique perspective. There is so much beauty and magic around us that is worth capturing. Just keep searching for it and always be ready"