How to Take Better Street Photographs by Staying Inconspicuous


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.

Streets of Milano

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.”

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.

Si parlava di sport, di Pertini e Bearzot.

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.

B&W Shades

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.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Being a male and being tall are two strikes against me in being conspicuous. But, you’re…practice is the key. Plus, people are so engrossed in their thoughts, cell phones, etc., that they rarely notice you, as well.

I used to like to shoot in pubic or do street photography but two recent incidents has me leary aboutit now. I recently joined a photography meetup group so I could network and find better opportunities to shoot. On the first outing I went to it was an event for kids doing a treasure hunt around a park area. I took my 9 year old with me so he could treasure hunt and I could get photos of the event. I found only one group memberwho also hadher kid with her. After not being able to find the group leader to figure out how we were going about the shoot, I just walked with my son and took pictures of him on the treasure hunt. After he found the items on the map we went to the general play area so he could turn the paper in. He started playing i the play area and I was taking pictures of him when Iwas approachedby some lady running the event telling me I cant take pictures of the childen. I informed her that I was takingpictures of my son, just like otherparents were taking cell phone pics of theirkids out there. Only difference is I have a DSLR. Then my son came to me and shewas like oh, OK. Then couple of weeks latermy wife our new born and my 9 year ols was downtown, they were poke hunting and I was taking pictures. We walkedbya streetside cafe that hada wrouht iron fence in front of it.I thought the fence would make a good picture with a bokeh depth of field look. This fence was about 2to 3 feet high so I stopped and got down on a knee and was looking at it at different angles to see if I saw the shot I wanted. My family kept walking. A lady walked out of the cafe and through the fence opening with her young daughter I waited til they were out of my field of view and was about to take my shot whensome guy walked upbehind me and asked, are you taking pictures of that little girl? My first inclination was to cuss him out andtell him tomind his own business, but not wanting to cause a sceene I explained what I was doing and brouht the images up on my viewer and insisted that he look at them. Afer declining and my insisting, he finally looked at the shots and sever others I took during the course of the day to which he replied, those are some nice pictures. Truth is the only kids I like are my two boys, I hate other peoples kids and the only reason I’d intentionally shoot someone elses kid that doesnt happen to be Interacting with mine is because Im being paid to do so. But I cant stand being approached and questioned about whatIm shooting, especially when there are kids around.

I am very careful not to shoot children I don’t know. I completely understand people being leery about someone with a camera shooting images of kids without permission. If I find I’ve inadvertently taken a photo of a child while shooting, I generally will delete it from my camera after going through my shots. I have just recently started street shooting, so am still attempting to learn the techniques required for capturing quality images.

I went to shoot the sunrise a few weeks ago at a local beach…got my shots but then for the first time ever took a few random street shots.. loved the results but felt scared doing it for some reason..actually put my 70 to 200 on to get some cool shots without having to be in peoples faces. Working on taking the next step!

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