Street Photography Tips

Not getting any love? Just walk away! Preston, 2011

Not getting any love? Just walk away! Preston, 2011

Avoiding Confrontation on the Streets
Over the years I’ve read several articles by photographers regarding confrontations they have faced while shooting on the street. These encounters were usually the result of a photographer getting too close, invading their subject’s personal space and in some cases being disrespectful just “to get the shot”. The ensuing arguments escalated with a bevy of curse words and threats of physical violence and the “you’re not allowed to take my photo/yes I am” argument that most street photographers have had at one point or another. The question that I always ask myself or to these photog’s is “why are you putting yourself in this situation to begin with!?”.

Although unpleasant, the few disagreements I’ve been involved with have never gone to the point where we’re in each others faces demanding the police get involved or that I remove the film from my camera or delete the file from a card. I’ve received my fair share of insults, a flipping off and threats to break my camera – but nothing ever erupts beyond that. Maybe it’s my charming personality but I like to think it is my approach and how I diffuse the situation by simply moving on.

Body language can reveal a great deal about a persons willingness to accept being photographed. Learning how to read your subject before you take the photo is an important skill to learn and something that can take a while to master. Knowing if a photo is going to cause more trouble than it is worth can be a fantastic asset. If you feel it’s going to be an issue, try shooting from the hip (not using the viewfinder) or not bother taking the shot at all.

Avoiding confrontation is easily accomplished if you are not acting like a maniac running up to people shoving a camera at them. Most people don’t care about being photographed, especially if you are pleasant and respectful. Your canvas is the street, and you are creating a work of art from the urban setting. Think about your scene and the moment you want to document. Calm down and relax, it’s not a race. Some of the best street photographers are so good at what they do, they blend in and shoot almost as if they are invisible. They’re efficient, calm and focused.

And if confrontation is inevitable? Of course, you will often be shooting close to people, sometimes in crowded areas and you will quickly know how they feel about your presence as you click the shutter. They’ll either be at you without hesitation or not care at all. You might hear the “why are you taking my photo?” statement, which can be countered with responses such as “for my street photo project” or “You give more life to the shot” or “you have an interesting look”. Honestly, I try to avoid being asked anything, instead I’m off to my next subject. Let’s face it, unless you’re shooting street portraits, you don’t really need to engage in conversation with a person. If they do notice you, a “thank you” accompanied with a friendly smile upon taking the photo should be enough. If they get mad and don’t like it, smile anyway and keep moving. Most angry people just want their position to be heard and if they are loud they feel they’ve won. Do not give them that opportunity.

No single approach is right or wrong, but some simply work better. Experiment with your shooting style, your “street presence” to determine what works best for you. Street photography and street portraiture is an art which take considerable practice, patience and understanding of people and their environment.

Permission asked portraits
If you, like me, aren’t all that comfortable meeting new people, especially randomly on the street, take a deep breath and relax! Believe it or not, you will get rejected. This is normal as many people are cautious when confronted by a stranger holding a camera.

What is the worst that can happen? They’ll say no! Big deal, just move on and try again. When I first started doing this, I was rejected nearly every time. These days, my success rate is much better due to determination, being less tense and dedication to my project. Do not let a few rejections get you down. Instead, continue honing your skills.

A few tips: 

  • Take a casual approach rather than bursting forward camera blazing;
  • Without startling or scaring them, try breaking the ice with an upbeat “hello” and proceed to introduce yourself clearly;
  • Don’t hide your camera and make it known that you are a photographer doing a project;
  • The compliment method. People like to hear nice things, especially if it is true! Be smart with your words and try not to look or sound miserable (body language!);
  • Consider bringing along a small journal and writing down your positive and negative encounters. Create a list of things that worked and things that didn’t;
  • You might want to bring along some additional materials such as business cards and printed examples of your work to help break the ice and put your subject at ease;
  • Don’t be a stalker. I’ve seen many photographers chasing down people just to snap a photo. It’s creepy.

Harveet, Winnipeg 2012

Shooting candidly
I think most candid street photographs require atmosphere; something that ties the subject to their surroundings. A photo of a street vendor might be interesting, but more so if you have a slice of their environment. I find that candid subjects will typically give you a lot of unfriendly or curious expressions if they realize you’re photographing them. If you want to avoid this and capture them in the moment, make sure you know your composition before clicking or try taking the camera away from your face. Read the scene and be ready to shoot quickly. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you’re standing around holding the camera for minutes at a time. That, and they might get upset and try to confront you.

A few tips:

  • Unless the voyeuristic style is your thing, avoid snapping photos from 200 yards away with a telephoto lens as people will likely get the wrong idea if you’re caught;
  • Better yet, keep the telephoto at home and invest in smaller prime lenses that will get you into the action;
  • Know your camera settings and be ready to catch the person without them seeing you. Just like the decisive moment;
  • Use the background to your advantage, a bit of atmosphere can sometimes benefit the image;
  • Don’t linger around once you’ve taken the photo;
  • If your subject notices you and doesn’t like getting photographed, get out quick to avoid confrontation;
  • Take the shot! If you notice an interesting person / scene and your gut is telling you to shoot, just go for it. You will regret it later if you miss the opportunity. I don’t know how many great images I’ve missed because I hesitated;
  • It might be a good idea to have a copy of your countries photography laws with you. You can always present this to the person if confrontation is unavoidable.

Love, Hong Kong 2013

Don’t be afraid to get close
Sure, some atmosphere is required for certain shots while other times it is better to get in nice and close. It takes a bit more guts if you’re doing this candidly, but it can make for a great challenge. Use your discretion on what types of portraits are better suited close or a few steps back. If the location is dull, you might want to get in tighter, for example. How close is too close? I think if your getting into someones personal space, you’ve gone too far. Use common sense and put yourself in that persons shoes.

Candid portrait, Bangkok 2013

The best tools for the job

Whatever gear you decide to take along is completely up to you. A camera is simply a tool that does what you tell it; a good photographer makes the shot happen.

A small camera and lens is less intrusive, and will help you be a lot more discreet. Nothing is worse than trudging around a busy street with a gripped DSLR and a huge lens! That type of selection is heavy and essentially a large beacon saying “hey look over here, photographer!”. You’re not out there to impress anyone with your massive camera equipment. Many of the smaller cameras these days are brilliant with makers such as Sony, Olympus and Fuji having developed some solid street machines. Of course, Leica has been designing superb cameras for decades and are definitely worth a look. Whether you shoot film or digital, I believe small cameras are ideal for street photography. I rarely shoot a telephoto on the street (although sometimes I break this rule when I drag out the 100mm for a portrait or two!). For lenses, I would recommend the 35, 40, 50mm focal ranges or in some cases a wide angle.

Some street photographers like to use a flash. I’m against this approach as I think a flash does nothing to the photo other than forcing your subject to give a very unpleasant expression. If using a flash is your thing, go for it. For me, I don’t see the point of blinding someone.

I’m usually without a camera bag so cannot make any recommendations. The less cluttered, the better.

My (typical) street photography kit:
Digital: Canon 5D Mark II + Canon 40mm STM
Film: Leica M3 + 50mm Zeiss Planar

My gear: Leica M3 | Canon 5DII

A few loose ends
Tape: Some street photographers love to tape up their gear in an attempt to make it appear more discreet and less like a fancy camera. I’ve found that most people don’t care about what kind of camera I’m using. The general public wouldn’t know a $7,000 Leica from a $1,000 Fuji X100.
Straps: I either go strapless or have a low-key non colourful strap.

The final click
If you have made it to this section, you will have realized that this is all based purely on personal opinion. You can choose to utilize some, all or none of this article for your own photography. In the end, how you shoot (your street presence) on the street will probably determine what type of images you’ll get. Everyone goes about their work differently and that is a great thing. What works for one person might not go over as well for another. Form your own opinion on what is best and run with it, never forgetting that you must always train your eyes to see not only things or people on the street but an interesting story or perspective. Bottom line, don’t be nervous and just enjoy street photography / street portraiture!