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"Learn” Serendipity for More Compelling Photos

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Paris is not only the City of Light, but also the city of discoveries. Its busy streets are full of life day and night, which makes it a perfect place for street photography. However, in order to get some really compelling photos, spiced up with a bit of magic, one needs some luck and that is where serendipity can help.

Known as one of the most difficult English words to translate, serendipity means the accident of finding something good without looking for it. As one might guess, it is essential for urban photography. However, due to its accidental and unforeseeable nature and certain vagueness (how does one find something he is not looking for?), it is not an easy instrument to use.

Sophnos Greece, by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1961)
Sophnos Greece, by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1961)

Still, there are ways of “learning” serendipity, or rather “taming” it and using it for your street photography.

Let’s learn from the classics. Famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was known as a master of composition and a genius of “the decisive moment”. From his early age, a book on the Golden Ratio and the principles of composition became his bed reading. The rules he learned and applied helped his images to be extremely well composed.

Salerno Italy, by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1933)
Salerno Italy, by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1933)

Cartier-Bresson used the following method: he began by picking a background that already seemed interesting to him because of its texture, geometric structure or accumulated images and signs, something he defined as ‘screen’. Then he waited for children or passers-by to come along and find their place in this layout of forms, which he described as “instant coalition”. As a result, his images started off from considerable mastery of composition, but still left a part to chance.

By Henri Cartier-Bresson
By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Here are the key techniques for “learning” serendipity:

1. Take your time. In most cases, photography requires time and patience. It means wandering the streets, staying for some time in one place, observing life around you and waiting. Yes, it may be annoying for your fellow travelers, but that’s the price of a good image.

2. Be aware. Taking your time does not mean just sitting on the bench with your camera and yawning. It means constant observation and anticipation of events, including tracking the speed of passers-by, observing behavior of their dogs and calculating the itinerary of pigeons.

3. Frame your image. Just like Cartier-Bresson, choose a background that you find interesting, think of what and how you want it to be filled with and wait. Here’s where serendipity comes to play. You will never know what happens and when, and in most cases it will be much more than you thought.

4. Train your composition skills. Once you are familiar with composition basics, apply them as much as you can and finding a good frame will become easier.

5. Train your reaction. While waiting for someone to walk into your frame, you may certainly miss a photograph or two, or maybe more. A quick reaction is not only a matter of luck, but also that of training. With time you will become a true photographic sniper.

Boat, by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Boat by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Making good use of serendipity will become a wonderful tool for your street photography. All you need to do is to be ready for unexpected good things to happen to you and be prepared to press the button in the “decisive moment”.

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.