I set the countdown timer for 10 minutes. The clock was ticking.
When the timer reached zero, my phone would vibrate and I would take a photograph wherever I happened to be. It had to be at that exact moment, and therefore I had no idea what I'd be photographing.
At that point, I would immediately have a look around me - identify what shot I wanted to take - and shoot. Then I'd reset the timer, and keep walking. Ten minutes later I'd take another shot in the same way. And then repeat - until I had a total of ten randomly dictated shots I'd probably never otherwise have taken.
So, ten photos - one every ten minutes.
Why was I doing this? I wanted my photography to challenge and surprise me in a new way. I wanted to do something that turned my style of photography on its head somewhat - that forced me to shoot, and think, in a way that was different from the norm.
In a nutshell, the rules are as follows:
1. When the alarm goes off, I have to stand still and take a photograph exactly where I'm standing.
2. The photograph can be of anything, or anyone that takes my interest on the spur of that moment.
3. I am allowed to take a reasonable amount of time to consider and compose the shot - but no waiting around. I have to make do with what I've got at that particular time.
4. I am allowed one attempt at the shot, and that's it.
5. In between shots, I can walk around favourite areas - but I mustn't deliberately engineer exactly where I'm going to be.
6. Aside from the above, I can keep shooting as normal!
So overall, I spent one hour 40 minutes walking through some of my favourite areas of London, and came back with a selection of ten images - none of which I would have taken were it not for this specific challenge.
That's the first thing I liked about the idea - the randomness of it, and the element of chance. None of the ten photographs I've produced are what I would call my best shots, for obvious reasons. But the fact is, they do now exist. Those small, passing moments - selected at random by my countdown timer - have been preserved in time. They will now be seen, when they might otherwise have long been forgotten. Or perhaps never noticed at all.
And I think that's very much at the root of street photography. It doesn't have to be about the aesthetic beauty or technical perfection of the image - it's also about the most ordinary, randomly encountered moments of life that are photographically preserved through a whole chain of chance events, encounters and timings. Every single photograph we see is the culmination of an infinite number of different factors, all converging together, and resulting in that one image being captured by that one photographer at that one moment.
But back to the challenge itself. What was it actually like?
First of all, it's surprisingly difficult. When I felt my phone vibrate, and it was time for the next shot, I felt an almost visceral pressure and alertness to find an immediate photograph. That can be difficult when you're, say, next to a parked van and a wall. It really did feel like I had to make something out of pretty much nothing on occasion. It forced me to scrutinise my surroundings, lock onto an opportunity, and capture it. Unexpectedly and under pressure. I actually think it's a great exercise for anyone who does any kind of event or wedding photography and needs to keep themselves sharp in all these exact same ways.
What was perhaps even more surprising was how I felt in between shots. When I reset the timer and got going again, there'd be a brief period where I'd feel more relaxed, knowing that it was still a while before the next 10 minute shot was due. But I deliberately didn't look at the timer (my smartphone remained in my pocket), which meant as time went on I was already mentally preparing myself for the next photograph at any given moment. Where would I be? Where should I walk next? Where would offer me the greatest potential for that unexpected shot? I was constantly looking around for an opportunity, making sure I was set up and ready to take the next photograph at a moment's notice. It forced me to stay alert. It forced me to work hard mentally; to picture the images available around me on an almost continual basis.
So it's hard work. But I'd really recommend anyone gives this challenge a go. I chose to do ten shots, at ten minute intervals - but there's no reason why you couldn't do five minute intervals, or take only five shots. Or 50. Whatever works best for you!
Who knows what photographs you'll have at the end of the day? But that's all part of the fun - the element of surprise. And I hope, like me, you'll not only enjoy yourself - but feel that it's helped you think more clearly as a photographer as well.
If you have a go at doing this, let me know how you get on in the comments below!
Meanwhile, here are the ten photos I finished up with, in the order I took them:
1. With this first image, I was half way up a set of stairs on South Bank, and not in the ideal position to capture this artist at work. But I liked the scene in general, and when he conveniently took a moment to scratch an itch with his paintbrush, I thought that would be a detail worth capturing.
2. Panic. I was half way along Northumberland Avenue with not many people, not much going on, and too far away from the Extinction Rebellion protest at Trafalgar Square to make anything of it. Quick - I had to find anything that would make a photograph. I saw the man in the green jacket passing, and immediately noticed a colour match with the green on the bin. Click. I didn't even notice the additional green of the plant tubs in the background until I got home.
3. I'd spent a short while at the Extinction Rebellion protests in Trafalgar Square, and was pretty sure I'd have something interesting to photograph when the time next came. I hope you can get an idea of what I was trying to achieve with the composition of this photograph - but I don't think it's as effective as I'd liked it to have been.
4. Chinatown. And this image came together surprisingly well. The alarm went off, and I knew instantly that I wanted to make something out of the red lanterns. So I crouched down low to get a more dramatic angle, and made sure I got the approaching passer by in shot as the subject. Lucky for me that his jacket complemented the lanterns rather well. So I think this is probably the most successful of my ten shots.
5. Soho. And by contrast, luck was not smiling on me for this shot. First off, the timer ran out just as I was walking between a wall and a parked van. So I had my work cut out to find something to photograph. However, I thought I could get an interesting image by framing passers-by on the other side of the street through the window of the parked van. I composed the shot, and - a van drove right into the frame just as I pressed the shutter. Oh well...
6. Still in Soho, and another challenging moment at which to shoot. There were no people in convenient places - I struggled to identify the potential for a photograph, so tried to make something out of the reflections in the car windscreen and the passers by in the background. But at that exact moment, the elements just weren't really there to pull it together. So I think this is one of the least successful shots of the series.
7. Regent's Street. And this isn't the first time I've enjoyed capturing people waiting to cross the road. I enjoy seeing the range of stances and expressions on the groups of strangers - temporarily bonded through their simple, mundane action of waiting together. I've even considered making a series out of it, so when my alarm went off at this point I reckoned it was good timing, and knew this was the shot I wanted to take.
8. Mayfair. Standing between a parked truck and some fairly nondescript shops, with not many people around, I actually hadn't noticed the man standing on the lorry. But upon looking around I thought he would be a good subject to bring narrative into my shot. I don't think I'd have got it were it not for the alarm going off.
9. Near Piccadilly. And I felt a bit nervous taking this photograph. I've never found it easy photographing people as they eat and drink in restaurants - I admire those of you who have more guts than I do! But I liked the reflections, and on the spur of that moment, this was the obvious shot to take.
10. Near Piccadilly Circus. My last location was quite a challenge. I had to scrutinise my surroundings to find something of interest to photograph here, but felt that I could make something out of the black and white graphics on the base of the plant pot. So I crouched down low for compositional effect, and waited for a passer-by.