What is the one thing that keeps people who want to do street photography from actually doing street photography? Is it gear? No. Street photography is perhaps the most democratic of all the genres in the sense that you don’t need any special gear — any camera will do the job. Is it location? Maybe, but not really. It’s true that cities provide easy, on-demand access to interesting subjects but you can find interesting subjects just about anywhere if you’re paying attention. So what do I think is stopping some people from getting into street photography? Simply: fear.
No Reason to Fear
It’s a common fear; getting close to strangers and snapping a picture of them doesn’t come easily for many people. What if someone gets mad or offended? You will have to bear the brunt of your subject’s displeasure and that is, understandably, an anxiety inducing thought. None of this, however, should hold you back from engaging in street photography if it is something you truly desire. I can only address this from my own perspective and experience, but one’s fear of street photography is typically unfounded, as people on the street fall into one of three categories:
- Those who aren’t paying attention – City life in particular moves about with a certain energy and speed, and people quite often aren’t paying attention to anything outside the very specific constraints of whatever's on their internal radar. You, as a photographer, will notice them but they won’t notice you.
- Those who notice you but don’t care – I can’t speak for other cities, but in New York it’s not uncommon to encounter subjects who look directly at you as you photograph them and they simply carry on about their business as if nothing happened. Lots of people just don’t care that they’re being photographed.
- Those who are happy to be photographed – Not everyone is camera shy and you will occasionally encounter those who are happy to have their picture taken. Maybe they think they’ll have their 15 seconds of Instagram fame. Maybe they just like being in front of a camera. Whatever their motives, these people always make the experience of street photography a bit more fun.
This is a simple overview of the attitudes I’ve come to expect when shooting on the street. Of course, these categories aren't the totality of what you might actually encounter and they aren’t perfectly defined — there is often some degree of overlap them. Allow me to illustrate and flesh this out a bit more.
The photo below is an example of one of those instances when my subject was fully aware of being photographed and didn’t mind at all. In fact, this gentleman nodded and offered an out-of-breath yet heartfelt “Thank you” as he passed by me. I have come to realize, through a number of other similar encounters, that sometimes people understand being photographed as an appreciation of whatever it is they’re doing at the moment.
The next photo features a man who made eye contact with me before I raised my camera to get the shot and maintained the same expression and pose even after I gave him a smile and walked past him. He was spectacularly unconcerned with me and my camera.
The following photograph is one that sort of blends categories. While my intent was indeed to combine the people and the architecture, I didn’t mean for this man to be in the shot — and neither did he. He just sort crept into the scene, not paying attention. Once it hit him that he walked into my shot he apologized profusely. I looked at the image on my camera’s LCD and informed him that he had just made my day, to which he replied with a chortle and a humorously self-satisfied gesture.
Finally, the next few photos are representative of what I most often encounter: people who are too busy doing their own thing to even notice me.
Final Thoughts on Fear of Street Photography
The point of all this is to help alleviate some of the fears you may harbor about doing street photography; it’s not as daunting an endeavor as you might think. Odds are your ventures onto the streets will go remarkably well. I’m not suggesting there’s no risk of it ever going poorly — but isn’t that true of anything in life? You might as well allay your fears and just do it. Street photography can be fun, exciting, challenging and deeply rewarding. So wrangle your fear and get out there and get started. Happy shooting!
This is some really good advice. Fear is certainly the mind (and creativity) killer. I’m really comfortable with landscapes and architectures where if people are involved, their probably incidental. I’m really trying to push out of my comfort zone and street photography is the genre of photography that just kinda terrifies me…
Awesome shots, as usual!
Thanks Jason. Street photography is definitely the final frontier for a lot of people. But once you get out there and actually start doing it, I think you start to get addicted and forget about fear. Go out with a buddy the first couple times, having company might put you more at ease. Thanks for reading!
Great article and I really need it!
I was so excited when I discovered the documentary on Vivian Maier–I was totally pumped to go out and really catch clandestine images in cool places—I did research, purchased a new, very affordable, cool little Canon 5.0-40mm with a little 8x IS, super fast camera that was really quiet so that no one could see me taking the images…but I was so scared of being beat up that, even though my photographic heart is still “pumped” for those shots, my street-smarts are…”meh”…then I pin more Vivian or Saul Leiter…and well, I know you get it. I make all kinds of excuses like, “They were in bigger cities” or “the streets were so crowded” or I have read articles from photographers that just go up and ask people…confusing, exciting, scary. Thank you for this one! Great shots as always!
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You really summed it all up with “confusing, exciting, scary.” I think most street photographers feel all three of those things at some point. Stay “pumped” and keep shooting!
What about those people who doesn’t like to be photographed? Those who get mad about it?
I love doing street photography. Just getting out and walking observing. You are right. Most people aren’t even aware or opposed to you or your camera. I think that like every contact we have with people on a daily basis, the key is to be respectful. If you are going to be right up in someone’s personal space, you better address them with a friendly “hello” and “would you mind?” Most people are receptive. One thing I didn’t see addressed and may have just missed, in this day and age NEVER photograph children with out permission from an adult. And have to say, expect that most won’t be willing to have a stranger keeping images of their kids. Get out there, look for and talk to interesting people! I’m actually a very shy person, but am definitely emboldened behind the camera!
Do you ever get a model release from folks
What are your thoughts in regards to model releases
Great article. Thanks for putting this together. I need the reminder. I feel there is a 4th category – “people who get don’t like to be photographed.” I enjoy street photography a lot as I find it’s the most “real life” photography I can do; however, the fear does kick in for me. In NYC I had a problem with a guy once. In Portland, I find most people are lukewarm; however, I’ve had many that don’t care. To get around this, a photo group I belong to went out and decided to “shoot from the hip” with small cameras to avoid any issues. You get odd shots but it works. What also I’ve found that helps is: 1) being inconspicuous (don’t be blatant) 2) small camera (don’t walk around with a zoom 24- 240 lens and a full frame camera and expect not to be noticed) 3) be courteous and ready to explain yourself/ask if it’s okay if you can.
Your point is right…fight the fear.