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Street photography is widely known for producing “candid” images that, in most cases, show people’s truest natures in their regular context of work, traveling, leisure, etc. This leaves us with breathtaking natural images of the human being. They may be raw, they may be bold or sweet, but they tend to show us human nature in all its multifaceted glory.
Capturing a moment that leaves no trace of a pose may require a voyeuristic way of doing things. It’s hard to stay unnoticed up close, but that’s one of the most fascinating things about Street Photography. You can take images from a safe distance, but for me, this closes the door to the real connection you can get from being near the things you want to capture.
Everybody knows you can shoot from afar if you use a super-telephoto lens, but there are two reasons why this is not the most meaningful way of going about it.
First, you’re not connecting with your subjects or with the mood of the scene you’re capturing.
Second, it’s harder to keep yourself unnoticed. (This is what we call “being inconspicuous.”) I like quotations, and there’s an amazingly true and wise one from Robert Capa, who used to say, “If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.”
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Why is Being Close the Key to Better Street Photographs?
This observation is important when working on the streets, because people want and deserve their own privacy. If you feel a certain shyness or restraint when taking photos of strangers in the streets it’s because, consciously or not, you acknowledge this point about privacy. Taking photos of people in the streets may been done in two ways: with or without permission. In both cases, being inconspicuous is important. The greatest benefit of being inconspicuous is that you are less threatening to people around you. Regardless of whether you you ask for their permission or not, people will be more comfortable if they don’t notice you.
Yes, you can remain inconspicuous even when you ask for permission. This happens because after you ask for permission, you gain your subject’s confidence. As time passes, they start to forget about you or just get used to you being around them taking photographs while they’re conducting their business. This also happens when working on social documentary projects in which you’re invited to enter people’s intimate spaces. So the big lesson about the importance of remaining unnoticed or inconspicuous is that you can capture natural moments with natural results if you successfully achieve this “laying-low” at a certain level.
How Do You Achieve Intimate and Close Street Photographs?
The best way to achieve this characteristic of street photography is to blend in with the context. This covers a lot of things, not just “blending in”. The best way is to have gear that doesn't attract much attention. Avoid big bags, since they make you look like a tourist or somebody who just doesn’t belong in the context you’re in. You should also (and this may sound funny) wear clothes that blend in with the average in the crowds.
Another way to keep yourself inconspicuous is to use neutral black straps, without camera brand names emblazoned on them. Anyway, most of us aren’t sponsored by camera companies, so there’s no problem in not showing a brand. Try to use only one lens for every outdoor activity and, last but not least, you try using film. It has an interesting look, but is still inconspicuous since it’s now considered an old-fashioned “hobbyist” thing to do. Don’t hang your camera around your neck like a medal – keep in your shooting hand, with the strap wrapped around your wrist, and always keep your camera in your hand if you can. Don’t keep it cross-hanging from shoulder to back, because this makes it impossible to hide the camera behind you.
Why Using a DSLR is a Great Teacher for Remaining Inconspicuous
I know that I’ve said you should use small gear or a small camera, but I think that using a DSLR in the streets is a great way to learn how to be inconspicuous and appreciate the quality of being unnoticed. I think everyone should start working with a DSLR with a decent wide lens that’s not so big. This must be done with the objective of training yourself in the ways of being inconspicuous or even stealthy.
By getting used to big gear, you'll teach yourself how to do this in an unnoticable way. You'll find your own way to read the streets and know when you can shoot and when you can’t. It’s difficult to not rush and start shooting like crazy – but believe me, achieving great images requires you to do exactly the opposite. But it’s understandable if you start in “crazy-finger” mode and then start developing a certain level of discernment about what deserves a shutter press and what does not.
Don't forget about your role in the context as well. There will be moments when you’ll be inside the flow of the social context – perhaps you’ll be eating breakfast or traveling on the subway, sometimes you’ll be at a traffic light waiting for traffic to move, or at the market, minding your own shopping business. Such situations allow us to always have a camera with us, and it's very comfortable to have a compact yet powerful camera in our hand. Sometimes even a powerful phone can save the day. The best way to be inconspicuous is to be part of the overall social scene.
There is no definitive guide to getting this right, so my best advice is that you practice and practice your moves so you can gradually make yourself unnoticed while shooting – whether you have permission or not. Natural results will blossom from this way of doing things.