For most beginners, street photography can be a daunting challenge. Closing into a complete stranger and pointing the camera to your subject sure sounds easy but the truth is it can be quite a task to tackle. But before you quit even before you try, let me try and give you a few tips to lessen! Or hopefully, eliminate that fear the next time you do street photography.
Let the scene neutralize
Before you do anything with your camera, I want you to just walk into a crowd. Something that you will surely be noticed. Just step into their space and observe. Surely they will look at you. Maybe stare at you for a moment but the moment they realize you are just another passerby, they will go back to what they were doing before you came in. That is just how we humans behave. In the animal world, if a snake doesn’t feel any threat, it will not strike and just slither back to where its supposed to be.
Once they are back to what they’ve been doing that is your chance to capture the scene. The more you do this the easier it gets. It’s actually a simple trick but you can learn so much from timing your shots to finding your best angle. Check out this article I wrote about becoming invisible and learn more about neutralizing the scene.
Become a tourist
Ever went to tourist spots and start firing shots with your camera like a madman? Yeah? Exactly like your aunt hogging the best spot to take a million photos right? We all have that aunt.
This sounds silly but this actually works like a charm. I don’t know if there’s a scientific study about this, and I find it too silly as well to Google, but for some reason when we are at places of interest we tend to care mostly about taking some photos and care less about other things.
Shoot from the hips
We’ve all done this and it’s understandable. It’s the easiest way to get an image without worrying about getting caught. This technique requires you to shoot below the eye level. In other words, you will pretend you’re just standing in front of a person with a camera around your neck but in reality, you are firing multiple shots.
I would recommend this that you try it but I would never recommend you sticking with it for a long time. Somewhere, someday you have to let go before it becomes a bad habit. *cue dramatic music*.
The reason why I wouldn’t recommend this to be used very often is that it’s very difficult to achieve the image you intend to get. It’s a hit or miss. Not having your eyes in the viewfinder means you don’t see the frame and you have limited control over what you are shooting. Unless you have a tilting LCD. Another reason is that because you take the image from your hip, this means you are taking an image at an angle below the eye level which means it’s probably not the angle you initially intended to capture. Unless you’re Vivian Mayer who does an excellent job using TLR cameras with waist level finders.
By the way, for some experienced photographers, they use this for their own artistic approach. Some use it because it’s the most practical technique given the moment they’re in.
Choose your lenses
There are 3 lenses with different focal lengths that I would recommend you to try out. You can start from there and progress as you gain courage.
50mm: This is the lens that I actually started with. It’s not as intrusive as the wider lens and you are able to get your shot without getting to close to your subject. It also creates that isolated feeling to the images it takes. I would not go any narrower than this as to me, it feels like I’m running away from my fear rather than fighting it if I use focal lengths around 85mm and up. Unless you’re doing a project that requires you to use longer lenses then fine.
35mm: My sweet spot. This is the lens I’m currently using most of the time. Not too wide, not to narrow. Just enough. At a range of about 1.5-2m, I’m able to capture what I want to be included in the frame.
28mm: This can actually be challenging for you as you need to be close to your subjects in order to fill the frame since it’s a wide lens. But the beauty here is you don’t have to point your lens dead center to your subjects. You can anywhere except the middle and still able to snag them within the frame. As you get comfortable using this, you can go even closer to your subjects and photograph them without actually pointing your camera straight at their faces. It takes quite some courage than the 50mm though.
See these examples below taken by different focal lengths:
Now, from these focal lengths I have mentioned, you can’t start from there and either gain courage by taking advantage of the lens’ strengths or progress from there. I started with a 50mm then moved to 40mm and now at 35mm which is what I often use nowadays, although I’m also comfortable switching to 50mm.
Find your distance
In relation the focal length of your lens, you also have to find your comfortable distance. This is how close you can get to your subjects without affecting your courage.
Personally at 1 meter away from my subject feels too close and anything beyond that will start to wreck my nerves. Around 1.5m to 2m would be my comfortable distance and the most effective with regards the lens that I use. Of course, anything further than that is a piece of cake but it sacrifices the composition too much.
Look for that comfortable distance and move closer as you get used to. But remember the closer you get the more you invade the personal space, the easier you get noticed. So watch out for that. If you want to know more about the personal space, check this article I have written before: HERE
By the way, if someone told you that the closer you are, the better. DO NOT believe that. They probably interpreted Robert Capa’s famous quote literally.
Street photography is not about how courageous you are and how it feeds your ego with the taught of getting caught and getting away successfully or how close you can get to your subjects for the sake of being close. It’s about capturing that moment in life that you found interesting or impactful. It’s about being there to capture the essence of the scene.
Be an ordinary curious citizen
Just like being a tourist, just go out there but remove the idea of taking photographs for a moment. Stroll around your city and if you find something interesting that has caught your curiosity, move closer and watch, ask what they are doing, be friendly and look interested. Then the moment they get comfortable with you speaking with them, you can now ask if you can take their photos, in fact with your camera hanging around your neck, they probably know already that you’ll be taking their photo eventually.
It’s important that you yourself become comfortable with conversing with them before you raise your camera for a snap. Don’t make everybody, including you, feel that your agenda is to snap a photo. Just relax and socialize.
Go to the busiest, crowded places
When people are busy with their stuff, they notice less. They are too busy doing whatever it is that you basically are unnoticed. Let’s say a fiesta or the carnival where everyone is having fun watching and enjoying the scene, most of the people here are either having so much or simply overwhelmed with emotions that they fail to notice the people around them. Take this chance to photograph them while they are stuck in their own world. Snap while they are preoccupied. You won’t really worry about you getting caught ‘cause even if you were, they usually go back to what they are doing immediately.
Get rejected and move on
The best teacher is experience. I know that the worst we ever want during our street photography session is to get ourselves caught, rejected, and confronted. But these are all part of being a street photographer. Like everything, nothing sails smoothly and that is something we have to learn. One of these days you’ll get caught taking photos, one of these days you will get rejected, and one of these days you will be confronted. And once you’ve experience all of these, you will realize that it wasn’t really that bad at all.
This is what you signed up for choosing the street photographer path. Learn to deal with it, embrace it, and grow.
It’s all about progression. We all start somewhere basic and we move up from there. Just keep on repeating this until you get comfortable and move up to a harder challenge you have to conquer. Just ask yourself this question every time you are out for street photography. Which one is more important to you: Go home with the photo or go empty handed?
Now shrug that fear off of your head and see you on the street!