Lessons learned from Brian Lloyd Duckett
For Brian, it all started at school. Every day on his way there, he walked past an old camera shop. There were lots of fascinating bits and bobs to look at but the piece of gear that grabbed his attention was a Zorki 4. He thought to himself, “I love that. I need that camera!” Brian didn’t have the money, but the shop owner was willing to hold the camera for Brian and allow him to make payments as a sort of layaway plan. This deal was agreeable to Brian’s dad on one condition: Brian would need to get a job. And so it was, the dream of owning the Zorki 4 launched Brian into the working world as a 13-year-old petrol station pump operator.
Brian said with a laugh, “[After I finally bought the camera], I thought I was the coolest kid at school. I felt like David Bailey, and I thought, if there’s one thing that’s going to make me more attractive to girls, it’s walking around with a camera around my neck. It didn’t quite pan out like that, but that was the expectation.”
Even though the girls didn’t come flocking like Brian had imagined, he was hooked on photography. At age 15 he started got a job as an intern in the school holidays with a local newspaper, where he learned more about photography and how to use a darkroom. Then, after working initially as a press photographer, Brian went to university to read economics and eventually ended up in corporate PR with a more “serious” job.
Brian stuck with his career for many years, but his heart wasn’t in it. So, about 20 years ago he gave it up, just like that. He started leveraging his corporate contacts to do editorial and corporate shoots for a living and, at the same time, he started shooting the streets. Though he didn’t realize it right away, street photography was his real love. When Brian talks about shooting life on the streets – all things interesting, playful, quirky, and funny – his passion for street photography is evident. It wasn’t long before his friends began to notice too.
With a little encouragement, Brian realized he was quite good at teaching and communicating about the genre, and so his street photography workshops, and his business, StreetSnappers, were born. He’s been teaching them for about 8 years now.
Brian’s ability as a teacher really is exceptional. You need only watch one or two of his YouTube videos to see. Take this video on street photography composition, for example. His knack for clarity when communicating pays off during his workshops too. “A good workshop pulls no punches,” he says. “It needs to identify what street photography is and show people how they can be good at it.”
An Essential Street Photography Skill
Brian’s workshops help students overcome street photography misconceptions and build the core skills they need to feel confident and take truly good street shots. Brian explains that street photography is so much more than just a photo of a random person exiting a shop or walking on a sidewalk. Convert it to black and white, add all the grain you like in post-production, it still doesn’t mean you’ve got a true street photo. There has to be something interesting in the frame – a moment, a story, a strong aesthetic. And the key to incorporating those elements, he says, is to develop your powers of observation. You have to become tuned into details and be curious about your surroundings.
“Observation is a skill we can all learn and it’s an essential skill for street photography,” Brian comments. Over time, he’s seen students develop their powers of observation, and as they do, their photos become more and more interesting. Brian recommends slowing down and simply being interested in the details of life around you to make better photos.
Common Street Photography Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)
Brian also explained that there are a few common mistakes that most people new to street photography make. Fortunately, they are relatively easy to overcome with some good advice and plenty of practice.
The mistake he sees most often is expecting too much from a day’s shoot. Brian insists that capturing a truly great street photo takes time, and a lot of it. You can’t expect to head out for one day and come back with multiple epic photos. It just doesn’t work like that. Personally, Brian says it can take him weeks to get a great shot. Instead of setting the bar too high, enjoy the journey. Have fun shooting the street, savor a coffee or a beer, talk to people and just enjoy the day. You’ve got to be patient and persistent to get a good street photo, but it’s much easier to do if you can enjoy yourself each time you hit the streets.
Another mistake Brian sees all too often is street photographers going too heavy on post-production. Brian believes you should never have to go home and spend hours editing a street photo. For him, street photography is all about authenticity.
Shooting with a long lens is another no-no as far as Brian is concerned. Pictures taken with long lenses don’t capture the realness, the authenticity of a street environment – the perspective is all wrong. If you struggle with shyness, Brian says working down from longer lenses to shorter ones can be a good exercise in developing courage but try not to get stuck shooting from afar. Brian recommends shooting in the focal range 28 to 50mm, with 35mm probably being the ‘sweet spot’ for street photography. He says: “Make yourself totally familiar with one lens. Understand what that lens ‘sees’ and how it describes the world. This will make you a more instinctive and intuitive street photographer.”
And finally, one of the biggest hinderances to street photography he sees is lacking confidence as a street photographer. The misconception that street photography is intrusive and confrontational can hold you back and cause you to feel afraid when shooting on the street. The negative body language fear causes just looks wrong, creepy even, and street photographers must get beyond it. Feeling comfortable in your own skin as a street photographer is key. In fact, it will make the people around you more comfortable with your presence.
Building confidence as a street photographer is a big part of Brian’s workshops. He teaches several techniques to help people move past their fears to a place of confidence. One practical tip he shared was to avoid making eye contact with your subjects. Not only do you not need to most of the time, Brian explains, avoiding eye contact can make things easier and more comfortable if you’re the nervous or reticent street photographer.
Continued Growth as a Street Photographer
Another way to build confidence (which coincidentally is probably the single most important way to improve as a street photographer) is to keep practicing. Brian confided that it isn’t always easy to practice when leading a busy life. One way he overcomes the challenge is by setting aside time specifically to practice. Allocating “me time” he can spend on the streets has been vital as he continues perfecting his craft.
A second way Brian keeps his street photography alive and well is by working on projects. Street photography projects are what drive him. Without them, he believes he would flounder as a photographer. And this is an important lesson he tries to convey to his students. If you want to improve as a street photographer, if you really want to get good, you need to take on multiple projects at any one time, he advises.
Currently, Brian is working on nine projects. That may sound like a lot, but the reason is that to work on a single project takes a lot of time, effort, and luck. If you head out to the street with a few projects in mind versus only one, you are much more likely to capture something that contributes to one of your bodies of work; it helps eliminate much of the ‘randomness’ from your street shooting. And building a specific body of work over time, something that started as a concept and could end up as a zine or a book, leaving you feeling much more fulfilled, productive and motivated as a street photographer.
Where can you find inspiration for specific projects? Brian recommends reviewing your photo archives. You might notice a pattern or theme you’ve already been developing subconsciously. Or you might find a single image that sparks the idea for a project. Other times, it might be a specific place – a park, city, or country – that can be the focus of your project.
Brian’s observational and quirky photos of street life and human behavior are proof that his techniques for making good street photos really work, and this article has only scratched the surface. There’s much more we can all learn from Brian, a photographer who is as masterful at teaching as he is at shooting the streets.
Photographers Brian Admires
- Gary Winogrand
- Helen Levitt
- Elliott Erwitt
- Sergio Larrain
- William Klein
- Saul Leiter
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Bruce Gilden
- Martin Parr
- Joel Sternfeld
- Harry Gruyaert
- Chris Killip