Street Photography Tutorial: Becoming Invisible

So you saw an interesting scene with the people, the background and emotions all coming together. It’s no doubt the perfect scene to capture. You decided to come closer, raised your camera and the moment you looked through the view finder, everyone ‘s looking back at you. Completely halted whatever they are doing. Expressions gone. Picturesque no more.  Yeah, it sucks.

In this chapter, I will share to you how you will become unnoticed in the streets and capture images without influencing the scene with your presence. Here are 6 tips to become the invisible man in street photography.

1. Personal space

Back from the year I was reviewing for my Architecture licensure exam, our professor in Theory of Architecture explained to us what a personal space is and how it affects you, the person next to you and other people’s personal spaces in relation to any other else.

Imagine you are standing inside an empty room when suddenly a stranger stood directly next to you. Feels weird right? Now this time imagine yourself inside a bus or a train full of passengers. You’re literally rubbing elbows with them. Do you feel weird too? Not really. Am I correct?

This is what personal space is. It’s like a bubble around you that gets bigger or smaller in relation to the space you are in. When a person goes near or enters that bubble of yours, your senses get more sensitive and you get the feeling you are being intruded. 

Huge empty space= huge bubble, Smalls crowded space= small bubble.

Now let’s relate this to being invisible in street photography. Basically, a person waiting alone at a bus stop has a huge bubble. The moment you walk into this bubble, that person can feel you. It’s instinct. If you’re in a crowded place, the bubble gets smaller. This means it’s easier to get closer to the subject without them noticing you. To cut it short, for you to become invisible, do not invade their personal space.

 A pretty crowded scene where I just casually walked in to take this photo.

A pretty crowded scene where I just casually walked in to take this photo.

2. Just wait till it neutralizes

Let’s just say: Oops! Too late, you’ve stepped into their personal space and that person is now aware you’re there and he/ she's staring back at you.

This is what you're gonna do: Wait.

Eventually, as long as you’re not doing something weird, that person will just ignore you and will go back to whatever he's doing.  When things return back to normal, that’s the time you click for a photograph.

This also works well with a group of people. Once they have noticed you, just act normal. Bring out your phone and pretend you are calling your mom or something. Eventually, they wouldn’t mind you’re there, so be patient and wait until they go back to their stuff. Soon you’ll become invisible again. Once they turn their heads away from you, that’s your chance!

3. No Sudden movements and if it failed, no eye contact

Anything sudden like walking towards your subject too fast or raising your camera too quickly will catch attention. As much as possible, try walking up into the scene very casually as if you have no intention of taking photographs.  Be normal and don’t create distractions. Think as if you are there for the same reason that they are there. If it’s a café that your subject is in, walk in there as if you are buying a cup of coffee. Once you are in shooting distance, just observe for a while without getting any attention. And as you do, compose the image in your head, set your camera settings so as the scene comes clear, you just basically snap a photo.

Sometimes as careful as you are, some people will just notice you no matter what. In cases like this, always avoid eye contact. For some reason, an eye contact is enough to tell somebody your intention. The moment your eyes meet, it’s as if you already said: “Hey, I’m about to take your photograph!”

 This is the effect of the Pokemon Craze. They're too busy catching the elusive Bellsprout for them to notice me.

This is the effect of the Pokemon Craze. They're too busy catching the elusive Bellsprout for them to notice me.

4. Pretend you are photographing something else

Think of it as if you are a tourist that’s just wandering around town and taking photographs of everything.  One way you can execute this technique is just walk up to your subject without making any eye contact. Just look at something else behind them. Then raise your camera, take the shot, then walk away still without eye contact. You can take a few more shots, maybe chimp a little bit but just do not look at your subject directly. This move or technique confuses your subject into thinking you’re just taking a photograph of the background or whatever that is near them.

I advise you use wide lenses around 35mm or wider. This way you can get your subjects inside the frame without actually pointing the camera directly to them.

Another way to look invisible is to pan your camera. Let’s say your subject is somewhere in front of you. Compose the image earlier in your head, then bring your camera to your view finder and pan it from left to right or vice versa.  The moment you reach your desired composition, press the shutter. Again, no eye contact. 

I know you risk exposing yourself in the first place, but the key here is to make them believe you are not taking their photograph but something else near them or next to them.

 This photograph was taken by panning my camera initially pointing to the pond on the right going to the left.

This photograph was taken by panning my camera initially pointing to the pond on the right going to the left.

5. Silent camera

Having a quiet camera will help you photograph your subject at a close range and it will also allow you to take a photograph multiple times without your subject noticing you. Although there are still a lot of photographers who wouldn’t mind cameras with a loud mirror slap, many street photographers opt for cameras that have little to no shutter sound or those which you can set to silent mode and eliminate the beeping sound when the lens focuses. It helps them to fire the shutter without distracting the scene.  

I personally use a Fuji X100T and set the shutter to mechanical and it produces a very faint noise. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a “noise”. When it comes to my film cameras, I prefer using rangefinders than slr’s. Rangefinders don't use mirrors unlike SLR cameras which produce that loud noise commonly called as the “mirror slap”. One slap of the mirror can be enough to reveal your position. Some don’t mind it but if you want to work the scene while maintaining a close distance to your subject, get silent.

6. Compact and/ or stealthy camera

Like silent cameras, compact and stealthy cameras exploit humans senses.

Small cameras are least to be noticed because of its size and normally bigger cameras and lenses draw more attention to you which will definitely expose you sending you to your way to the walk of shame. Also, in the eyes of non-photographers, bigger cameras means professional cameras. In other words, big cameras pointing directly to them will ring the alarm.

Stealthy cameras are those cameras that will blend well when you bring it out in the open. I don’t really believe it has to be a black colored camera as I’ve used a silver and champagne colored cameras without any problems. As long as it’s not too flashy and screaming for attention, you’ll be fine.

BONUS!: Shoot from the hip

Honestly, I do not recommend this because it has a very high risk of ruining your composition and it makes you lazy, but because I am guilty of still using this technique the I guess I’ll share it to you.

This technique probably has a very good chance of you getting away with that photograph but you have to be very skillful of framing your shot without looking through the viewfinder. You can fire multiple frames and hope you get a right shot but it’s only ideal if you’re using a digital camera. With film camera, be prepared to burn some useless shots. Also, shooting from the hip makes you lazy and it’s a very bad habit to have. I’m trying to avoid this technique.

 Shot this with my Leica M6. This guy has that stern look and I want to exaggerate that look by shooting from a low angle. I'm lying. I got intimidated by his look so I shot it without raising my camera as it hang around my neck.

Shot this with my Leica M6. This guy has that stern look and I want to exaggerate that look by shooting from a low angle. I'm lying. I got intimidated by his look so I shot it without raising my camera as it hang around my neck.

Alright! That concludes some techniques that I want to share with you. They all prove to work very well and with just a little practice, soon you’ll be the invisible man on the prowl for the next victim.

Did I miss anything? If you have one, share it in the comments and maybe I can make a part 2 of this topic.

Alright, now, get yo a$$ up and shoot the street!