Hunting the Image

Street vendor, Paris market

Certain types of photography have a lot in common with hunting. At least some types of hunting. This can heighten the experience for many artists.

Some of the ideas for this article come from Michael Freeman’s excellent book The Photograper’s Eye. I encourage you to read it. It is part of a series, all excellent. And no, I get nothing from recommending this. I seem to base a lot of ideas on Freeman’s writing. He is one of the most articulate and insightful photography authors I know.

Street photography, wildlife photography, even portrait photography have the characteristics of having a “decisive moment”, as the great Cartier-Bresson said.

He also said: “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. ” He also said “once missed, the opportunity is gone forever“.

In my opinion, street photography is perhaps the highest form of this art. It is done in the chaos of busy, uncontrolled scenes. The photographer does not influence or position the subject or typically even ask for their cooperation. He has little control over lighting or crowds passing by. All the many decisions of recognition of an interesting scene, composition, exposure, framing, and the trigger of the decisive moment must take place in the artist’s mind in an instant. One second is a luxury in this field.

And when the moment passes, it is gone forever. Forget it and go on the the next opportunity.


The artist can do some important things to prepare for street photography. One of the simplest is to become so familiar with your equipment that it is an extension of your mind. Adjustments must be instantaneous, automatic. If your camera requires traversing through menus to adjust required settings, that will probably not work. You should be able to set up your camera in the dark.

Another thing to do to learn to be good at this is developing an enhanced ability to observe and be aware. In flying this is called “situational awareness”. It really just means you are constantly attentive and alert. The US Marines would say your “head is on a swivel”. You have to be aware of everything going on around you. The more quickly you can recognize a developing scene, the better chance you have of capturing it.


This brings me to the hunting analogy. I used to really enjoy bow hunting. Stalking through the woods tracking a quarry really focuses you and heightens your senses. I was successful in never actually shooting an animal. Eventually I realized I enjoyed the process of hunting much more than I wanted to kill something and I would be much happier hunting with my camera than with a bow or a rifle.

Cartier-Bresson also said, in an uncharacteristically Zen-like statement, “In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between eye and heart. One must come to one’s subject in a pure spirit.” I choose to interpret is as meaning that when you go out seeking images, you must focus your whole mind and attention on what you are seeing. You must have all your skill and concentration turned up full. All your spidey senses tingling and ready to pounce.

It is best to go out empty, as the great Jay Maisel says. He means do not bring preconceived ideas of what you want, because that is all you will see. Instead you must be completely open to what is going on all around you. It may be totally different from what you thought would be happening, but that’s OK. Embrace what is there and make the best images possible.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I love street photography. It takes me out of my comfort zone. It gives me intense practice in mental focus, fast reaction, decisiveness. I may not be great at it, but I enjoy it and I think it helps improve my other photography.

This awareness and tension and flow becomes almost a spiritual state. Hours can pass without you being conscious of the time. Like with any state of flow, it can be euphoric We are called by instinct and intuition to be intensely aware of those peak moments that define our subjects.

The hunt is on!

Let me know what you think!