London street photography walk

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"Always treat a jar of gherkins like a person." This eccentric piece of photography advice, from Eleanor Church of Fox&Squirrel Lifestyle Walks, struck me as deeply profound. At last: the key to taking great pictures! In hindsight, I may have got a little carried away, but at least it was a good reminder to get up close and personal with your subject, however banal it may at first seem.

In fact, that was one of the main lessons I learned on a street photography walk in east London: anything can make a good picture. What might seem meaningless now could be of interest to future social historians. (OK, it's unlikely that anyone will write a thesis on the Pickled Foods of Early 21st-Century Britain, but you never know.)

I took the pickle picture as part of a warm-up exercise at the start of the walk. Over coffee and a chat with Eleanor at Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch, one of London's excellent New Zealand-owned coffee shops, I was told to pick a colour (I chose green). The walk began on Brick Lane, where I had to take photographs of anything as long as it was green. Eleanor advised me to keep an open mind and be – or at least act – confident.

I felt a little nervous aiming my camera at assorted shoppers, cyclists and street sweepers, but most didn't seem to mind. Street photography is so common now, thanks to the ubiquity of cameraphones, that no one bats an eyelid. And in this part of London, half the population choose their outfits with "street style" photographers in mind. I was soon snapping every green object in sight: shop fronts, shoes, bikes, sunglasses ...

When we went through my shots, any embarrassment I felt at having an award-winning photographer and documentary-maker looking at my out-of-focus snap of a woman in green trousers soon dissipated. Eleanor was positive and encouraging about every photo, even finding something to praise in the most prosaic picture of a green door, and making gentle suggestions of how each could be made "even better".

I was on a private preview of the walk, a new one for Fox&Squirrel – they also run art, fashion and vintage walks – so I had Eleanor all to myself, which probably meant I got more detailed feedback on my photographs than the average customer. Usually there will be a group of up to eight with one guide, or up to 12 with two, and people will be encouraged to critique each other's photographs. At lunch, the guide – either Eleanor or Stuart Beesley, another professional photographer – will give feedback on each person's pictures. That kind of personal attention usually commands a premium, so this walk is remarkably good value for ?30, especially as lunch is included.

Eleanor stressed that the experience is a guided walk, not a photography lesson, but I found I was focused entirely on finding photo opportunities rather than enjoying the stroll. I picked up lots of useful photography tips, but I didn't really learn anything new about London, as you might expect to on a city walk. On the other hand, I noticed things that I would usually stride right past: a sculpture of a crushed car high above my head; a clump of grass pushing through a sea of concrete; a cyclist with six baguettes poking out of his rucksack.

These details were important in the next exercise in and around Spitalfields, which was all about capturing a moment and telling a story. This was a lot harder than just photographing anything green. At the end of the segment I felt I'd done badly (not that it was a test). But actually my favourite shot of the day, of an elderly woman at a tea dance I stumbled across (pictured below), was taken during this exercise. It just goes to show that you have to take a lot of bad photographs to get one (relatively) good one.

After lunch at the Barbican's Foodhall, a modern cafe with light installations and tables out on the terrace next to the lake, my next brief was to use the arts centre's brutalist architecture as a stage for photographs. I tried to implement the things I'd learned: symmetry, the rule of thirds, straight lines, light and shade, colour, detail. The end results weren't exactly thrilling, but I felt I was starting to frame my shots with more purpose.

The walk usually ends with a photoshoot at King's Cross St Pancras, but Eleanor had been warned by a police officer that anyone taking pictures at a train station during the Olympics would have their camera confiscated and destroyed. On balance, we decided to skip that part.

A bonus feature of the walk is the aftercare: Fox&Squirrel send out instructions on editing your pictures for maximum impact, and there is a Flickr group to add to as you practise what you've learned. For as Eleanor says, good street photography ultimately comes down to a little bit of luck – and a lot of practice.

• The three-and-a-half-hour guided walk was provided by Fox&Squirrel (; it costs ?30pp, including coffee and lunch. Next walks on 11 and 15 August. Suitable for smartphone cameras, compact cameras or SLRs; lomography walks also available

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