To Catch the Devil’s Luck

Posted on August 23rd, by Danny Santos II in Articles, Tips. 18 comments

Henri Cartier-Bresson is the father of modern photojournalism and widely revered as the pioneer for the art of street photography. I was watching one of his documentaries and one of his quote struck me; referring to his timeless street photographs, he said “It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters. You just have to be receptive, that’s all.” Nothing can be more true about street photography. Of the 2 short years that I’ve shot in the streets of Singapore, I do not deny how luck dictates if I get a keeper or not. No matter how good a photographer you are, if lady luck is not on your side, you will end up capturing boringly normal street scenes that we can all see everyday anyway.

If it wasn’t for luck, Henri Cartier-Bresson wouldn’t have been at the right place and at the right time to capture that man leaping behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, or Trent Parke to photograph the white man walking into the light, or Matt Stuart to snap that pigeon walking along with men in black suits. Indeed, luck matters.. a lot.

Now before you run off to snatch a lock of hair from a clueless baby, there are more practical ways to increase your chances of getting lucky in the streets:

1) The first thing that comes into mind is, well, to be at the right place. Always choose a busy location that has good people traffic. Groups of people passing by in transit make good lambs to the slaughter.. I mean subjects to photography.

2) Look for good light.. the type and quality of available light usually dictates what kind of photograph you’ll be able to create, whether it’s hard harsh light that can result to a sinister photo, or soft evenly-distributed light for a more pleasant look.

3) Look for good background. This is quite important since the background can either provide a soft clean canvass that can accentuate the subject, or it can take the limelight and juxtapose with it.

So after spotting the perfect location with good light and good background, what’s next? Well… you wait. Look around, stay attentive,… and wait. One of the reasons why I prefer shooting alone is coz i get to concentrate on my surroundings and anticipate if there’s anything worth photographing. If you don’t see anything you like, walk around and start looking for other good spots. You’ll need to do a lot of walking and waiting actually. You’ll need the patience of a saint to catch the devil’s luck.

There’s this area in Orchard Road that used to have no shed in the whole stretch from block to block because of an ongoing construction of a mall. It was also located between 2 other malls so the foot traffic here was continuous. I figured that whenever it rains, it would increase my chances of capturing interesting scenes as people are forced to walk under the rain. It would be an opportunity waiting to happen… and it did. After waiting for quite a while during the heavy downpour, I was able to capture this shot. Oh yes, I got lucky.

Happy Umbrella by Danny Santos II

However, luck is only the first thing that you need.. when lady luck shifts to your side and that photographic moment suddenly shows up in front of you, luck disappears so quick leaving you high and dry to your own devices. This is your defining moment, coz that part where you have to capture that moment… luck has nothing to do with that. That will be all you.

18 thoughts on “To Catch the Devil’s Luck

  1. Nice article Danny, Thanks. I recently stumbled upon the following found it to be very true:

    “I knew it was a good picture. It was a happy accident, but as you get better you have more happy accidents” – Jason Bell

    Cheers, Guido

  2. Hi Danny.

    That’s so true about the luck. The photograph ‘behind the Gare Saint-Lazare‘ is the best example of it. Henri said, that he wasn’t even aware of the man jumping, he just put his lens into a hole in the wall and pushed the trigger.

    Thank you for a great post.


  3. True say, but you should also give credit where it is deserved, Danny. And that is a certain amount of dedication and diligence. Your degree of luck is improved with more time spent on the streets and of course, that witching hour of long shadows in the late afternoon. A confluence of events and circumstances but we have some aspects of control.

    Oh and a great camera that takes great pictures. Ha.

  4. @Guido: Thanks! Oh man, that’s a good quote, and I couldn’t agree more :)
    @Michal: Wow really? I didn’t know that about HCB’s shot… what a stroke of luck!
    @Paul: Thanks, Sir Paul!
    @Sue Anne: Agreed on the needed amount of dedication and diligence. It’s definitely not just something you do on a whim :)

  5. Thanks for writing this!.. it’s very inspiring. I always wanted to take this kind of photos, but I feel like I’m disturbing the people. I feel uncomfortable to take shots in that situations.

  6. I just discovered your blog and flicker account. I must say you are truly an inspiration. I’ve always thought about doing what you do, but never had the guts. Maybe I’ll be able to now!

    Amazing Work! – Add great writing as well!

  7. Great post. Just one comment on one example you cited, that of the white man in the Trent Parke pic – I have just finished watching a video of him on Vimeo and it looks like this was very planned and quite technically thought through (basic technical stuff, but still, it was thought through). Sure, luck of a sort was still needed for someone suitable to walk through, but given Trent’s approach I bet he’d go back for hours until he got the shot he wanted. Completely take your point in general though.

  8. @Doug: Yup, I also watched that video of him taking that shot (white man). The luck part that I’ve been referring to was the part where the man walked through the light… the technical part is where the photographer has to choose the right location with good light and good traffic, which I also mentioned in the article, which is also exactly what Trent did. That and patience is also needed for this shot. And as you guessed (as I did too), Trent probably waited for hours for that shot. So yes, the technical part is all on the photographer.. luck has absolutely nothing to do with that.

  9. Wanderful post. You are very generous in sharing your experiences. In Spanish there is a saying that sums up the issue of good luck on street photography: “A la suerte hay que ayudarla” (“good luck must be helped”). So, good luck and thank you very much. Best regards!

  10. The golfer Gary Player said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Sam Goldwyn supposedly said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” :)

  11. Great read, great image. I think you are more patient than lucky. If I had as much time to wait as you do, I would do the same thing you did.

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