An interview with street photographer Craig Reilly

Street pro Craig Reilly talks observation, timing and the wisdom of Dorothy Bohm...

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You specialise in street photography – what do you find so interesting about people and places?
I’m fascinated by human interactions and love to people watch, so capturing these fleeting moments really appeals to me. Trying to find the interesting in the mundane, and to create artistic images from everyday life, is very exciting as well as challenging. In regards to places, I’m interested in the geometry of the urban landscape. The shapes, the lead-in lines and the sharp edges – these are things I use when composing a scene.

What are the key ingredients to successful street photography?
There are so many! From a photographer’s perspective I think patience, knowledge, control, intuition, quick reactions, skill and luck all play their part in being successful. 

How important is observation and timing?
Hugely important. I constantly observe what’s going on around me, and I don’t just mean my close surroundings. I look yards ahead, down side roads, above and below me where possible. This allows me to predict potential moments, which is where the importance of timing comes in. On a crowded street, elements sometimes go against you in getting to a certain position, but with practice you’ll find a way to get there if you know there’s a shot to be had.

How do you know when you’ve got the shot?
When the light, subject and composition come together, your idea is unique and you capture exactly what you were trying to show your audience. It’s a strange phenomenon really – you just know when you’ve got it. I compare it to how a bride-to-be knows the wedding dress she’s going to wear for her big day.

Talk us through your compositional process – where do you start?
I start by just seeing a particular scene, and then move around it to see which angle works best for filling the frame, while at the same time not having too many distractions inside it. Then I look through my viewfinder, checking all around the frame, again to eliminate any distractions. I do this by making minor adjustments to mine and my camera’s position. Once I’m happy with the composition, I make a point of reference for the position and then move away, trying to look inconspicuous, and wait for someone of interest to walk into my scene. Once they do, I move quickly to my pre-set position and get the shot.

What’s the best piece of street advice you’ve ever been given?
When interviewing street photography legend Dorothy Bohm, I asked her what advice she would give to her younger self if she were starting her career in photography again. Her answer was, “Be alive and cherish the life you have, and try at the end of each day to say that I have done nothing that I am ashamed of. I think it’s very, very important that one should lead the sort of life that they can be proud of.” I’ve really tried to take this wisdom on board.

Are there are any rookie mistakes or common misconceptions to avoid?
One of the most common mistakes we all make as beginners is being in too much of a hurry to get somewhere else. If you take your time and actually study a particular location, by looking at all available points of view, you’ll find your eye will improve and will see shots sooner, and you’ll see where you need to be positioned to compose. It’s a common misconception that there’s a best lens, mode and setting for street photography. There isn’t a ‘best’ of any of these factors – the best is what helps you get the shots you’re seeing with your eye.

Are there any technique ‘secrets’ you’ve learned over the years that could help our students?
One ‘secret’ technique I like to use, especially when close up to my subject, is disguising what I’m trying to capture by looking a few feet above or beyond where my subject is positioned. I then bring the camera to my eye and frame them as I wish. Once I have eye contact, I press the shutter to capture the shot. The important part of the technique is when you bring the camera away from your eye – make sure you’re looking in the same point beyond them to make them think you’re taking a photo behind them. This technique hasn’t failed me yet, and people often look behind them to see what I was taking a photo of.

Craig Reilly is a London-based street photographer and co-founder of the Street Photography International Collective (SPi), which has over 500,000 Instagram followers. His work has been featured in Time Out, Creative Boom and MirrorLessons. See more of his work here