Recently on an “ask me anything “post Maria posed the question “What advice would you give someone who’s trying to get into street photography but is kind of intimidated by all those people who look at them when they shoot?”
This is a great question and one that is at the top of most photographers at some point in their career or still is, like me. I still struggle with this all of the time and it is nothing new to me, but rather how I deal with it on a day to day basis and the years’ worth of experience having to do so. Living here in Poland and not having the language to help me maneuver better, I must learn to use alternative means to gain trust and get my images to work and tell the story I see. But, I would also ask myself “why are people looking at me?” Am I spending too much time calling attention to myself? Am I fumbling with my equipment too much? Am I looking panicked and afraid? And my personal narritive is also one of I would rather try and take the shot and live with the moment rather than not and never see it again. Or as you may have heard the saying by Grace Hopper, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”.
Everyone has different techniques on how to deal with people in our daily lives and this remains true with the camera or not, so you first have to decide how that works for you and what approach will work for you in the long run. Be curious. Let that lead you. If you do a simple google search about “street photography techniques” or something like that you will see plenty of information about these techniques.
But here are a few that I use in a variety of different ways.
1. Be a tourist.
When you are on vacation, suddenly everything is worthy of a photograph. You don’t want to miss anything and the need to look back on it can override caution and the thought process. Try shooting like that in your own city. Spend a day as a tourist in your own city. Go someplace you may not normally go. Do things you may have not done before. Dress like a tourist, or like you might as you travel and be curious.
Here is a great article about Brandon Stanton (The guy behind Humans of New York) and his recent trip to Iran. Iran Street Photography
2. Zone Focus
Simply put, Zone Focus is predetermining a focal length and waiting for the subject to walk into the field. So, I can set my focus at 3 meters, using a f5.6 (the smaller the aperture, the more Depth of Field there will be…so if you are shooting at F16 then the scene will be sharp versus at 2.4 where you will have blur and less sharpness. I often shoot on the streets between f4.5 to f5.6) or so and then wait for someone to enter the frame. With practice you can get pretty sharp images that can be interesting and revealing. The point is that you let your subject do the work, just be ready when they do. I will often switch from AF to Zone.
Here is a really great article that describes it in depth Zone Focus Guide
3. Pick a Spot and Wait.
Using the method above, this is a great way to catch a good or cool scene if you have the time. Find an interesting scene and let people come to you. This is when you can also test your powers of observation and really work on composing the shot as people enter into the frame.
I will often find a puddle what looks cool and then set up there for a bit. I love to watch people watch me as I figure out my shot. Usually, seeing the big guy playing in a puddle of water is enough to draw some fun reactions from folks. Or sometimes I may find a cool tunnel or over pass and work there for a bit, waitign for the right person to come along and get my shot.
Jonathan Higbee is really good at this and will often wait hours and hours to get the shot he wants. You can check out his work here: https://www.jonathanhigbee.com/
4. Pretend you are shooting something else.
I do this often and will use my camera as a tool to help me to cover a spot. I will look at something higher and sometimes draw the subject’s attention to what I am shooting thereby giving me space to make the shot. I will also shoot into windows, using the reflection to get the shot. Whatever I can find that will help me to make my image and be able to execute it, I will use it. I have also used my friends and fiancee by putting them close to a scene and then shooting beyond them, giving me cover, but I don’t always have my friends to help out and so that is when I need to be creative. I really try to not bring or call attention to myslef, so I don’t duck behind objects or lurk around an obvious situation. I tend to make my shot and then move away without being noticed. Unless I am doing what I described above in number 3.
You know what? It works. I am always pretty respectful of people and what they are doing, and my work is not to be confrontational, but to help me tell my own story of journey. Along the way I meet people who are part of this story and like the friends they are, I smile at them. Smiling is something that really sets me apart from the life I lead here in Poalnd. People are not really accustomed to smiling and so it throws them off guard and makes them smile back…even when they dont really want to. But the basis of it is to not be a threat and smiling tells them that I am not. I will also wave to people, letting them know I am there and I am shooting.
And the funny thing is, that when you are on vacation, there are probably plenty of instances where this is true. Remember them and use them on your daily journey. Be the tourist who smiles in your own city.
BONUS** Be friendly, be respectful, be courteous. Offer to give the image you took of them. You can prepare a business card with your info on it and send the image to them later that day or when you have it ready. And if confronted negatively then offer to delete image right then and there, but again…be nice, respectful and courteous. YEARS and years in the hospitality industry really helped to instill this in me and I carry it with me wherever I go.
6. Work with friends and models to help build confidence.
All of this is about building confidence and it takes time to do so. One way that can help is to do street portraits and work with friends and models on the street, just shooting. You will see that after some time it changes how you approach subjects and how your confidence reacts to it. I know that the more I shoot models and friends on the street, the more comfortable I get with shooting people. I still have my own narrative that I work with but being comfortable with people really helps minimize my anxiety of when I am shooting them.
Bonus: While shooting your friends or a model. Stop someone as you are shooting and ask if you can take their portrait. Chances are that someone will be watching you and when you see someone that is curious, pursue them with your own curiosity and offer to do a small session on the spot and then send them the images They may say no…but what if they say yes?
Equipment can also be a huge factor for your confidence and control. Are you using the right camera for you? Are you confident how to work it? Can you use it without looking at it? I am using a Canon EOS 6DII with a 50mm lens and this is my day to day kit. I will also use on occasion my mobile, a Samsung Galaxy S8. Sometimes, I will use my mobile with my Canon around my neck in a tricky spot because I know that the perception of my camera around my neck tells one of mot using my mobile for shooting. So, people relax. But, I am a big guy with a big camera and there are plenty of times that when I put my camera up to my eye…everyone looks. So, I have also learned to shoot from the hip…which is exactly what it sounds like. I sometimes prefocus and shoot at that angle so I don’t draw suspicion. Sometimes I move through a crowd like that and sometimes I do that on the tram. The mirrorless camera trade is booming right now, and Fujifilm and Sony are really doing wonders in that arena. These cameras make it very possible to go virtually unnoticed in certain environments as the public perception is not so keenly aware of them. These days you can take very professional photo with a mobile device and the public hardly ruffles any feathers when you shoot with that. Something to consider.
All of this really leads to confidence. The process of being confident while doing street photography is a long one with many different types so learning curves and being patient is one of them. Personally, I have found that shooting through many of my own issues is what helps me to recognize and overcome some of the fears I have. I didn’t start out shooting what I do now, but I gradually moved to it over time. I also know that I am not a confrontational type of photographer or that I have a need to document less than desirable scenes around me and so with that knowledge I can easily find my story and pursue it. I admire those that are those things and LOVE the images they make…but that’s not me or my way of photography. And you have to decide what kind of photography you like, that draws you, that makes you smile or inspires you endlessly. And when you find it, pursue it with abandon.
The more confidence you exude while shooting, the less likely anyone will pay attention to you. If you look nervous, then it makes people suspiscious…and believe me, I have discovered that people here in Poalnd do not need more of that. The more confident you are or what you are doing, then people will tend to ignore you and go about their business…not always , but it helps.
Now get out there and shoot! Thank you for reading and I hope something here helps you a little bit. Until next time…see you on the streets!