It is no surprise to say that street photography can be challenging, at times, and even more challenging in certain countries due to differing customs and laws. But that doesn’t mean that street photography is impossible, nor that you can’t make it easier to practice. Photographers should work hard to overcome the difficulties facing them when doing street photography. In this article I've shared some tips that any photographer will find helpful.
Clearly, you need to be quite close to your subjects to capture nice images, but 99% of the time, your subject doesn’t have a single clue about your identity or the reason why you are photographing them. This can lead to uncomfortable situations, which can often escalate into bigger problems involving the law. With this in mind, take the following reminders to heart.
Know Your Law
Whenever you are doing street photography, make sure that you are familiar with the local laws regarding photographing people in public areas. Also, make sure you know which areas are classified as public, and whether there are any government buildings in the background which might be illegal to photograph. In my own country, for instance, it is forbidden to photograph government buildings (even though that law is rarely enforced), but issues can arise when such illegal photographs are used for commercial or even editorial purposes (especially in an unstable political climate).
In practice, you would usually make eye-contact right away in order to engage people. That lets people know that your attention is focused towards them, and it encourages them focus on you. When you avoid eye-contact, however, it is usually easier to move around unnoticed, even though you are wielding a big camera. This probably won’t work at all times, but it will improve the odds of you going unnoticed.
Big Lens – Big Problems
Photo by Matthew G
Big lenses attract attention. That is why most of the street photographers use Leica’s and/or other mirrorless cameras. This camera is smaller, so it makes you less suspicious and you can slide easily between people without them noticing that you are actually taking pictures. When there is no choice but to use big lenses on big DSLR cameras, then you can pretend that you are doing something else while taking the pictures. For example, try to use live-view, and hold your smartphone in your other hand.
It Is Not All About 50mm
I’m still not sure why, but most of the street photographers stick to 50mm and they avoid almost all other lenses. That doesn’t mean that street photography is exclusively reserved to 50mm lenses and nothing else. I’ve seen great street shots taken at 8mm with a fisheye lens, and at 300mm with a good telephoto lens. Don’t limit yourself to just one focal length. Remember: the only limit is you. If you feel like it, use a long lens, or fisheye lens, or whatever lens you think fits the scene best. There is no issue with focal length.
Diversions and Distractions
Photo by Simply CVR
Recently, while I was watching a video on YouTube, I observed how one street photographer went around unnoticed with a videographer behind him. The trick was this: diversion. This means that if you (like the photographer in the video) are using something – or someone, rather – as a diversion you can probably go unnoticed as well, even if it is just your buddy holding your spare (or even broken) DSLR as if they were photographing something else. This can help draw the attention of your subjects away from what you're doing.
Start a Conversation
Photo by Nishanth Jois
Often, it is good to start a conversation with people and explain to them what you are doing and for what cause. This is particularly helpful for elderly subjects. Most of the time, folks won’t mind you taking a picture or two, if you are nice enough. This will work in your favor even after you take the shot. What I mean by this is that you can easily distract your subjects by asking them something trivial and completely unrelated to your activity. For example, if you just took a shot of a school teacher walking with a bunch of kids and she notices you, approach her and ask her about the school she is from and whether she needs any help. In the time it takes for her to answer you, the thought about the picture you took may be far gone from her mind.
Probably the most important thing you can do to improve your street photography is to gain confidence. I know that this sounds cliché and maybe even unimportant, but it affects your body language quite a bit, and thus affects the reaction that the people around you have. When you are confident enough, people tend to treat you with more respect, viewing you as a capable professional. They will trust you to get closer to them.
Do you have any tricks that make your street photography any easier? Feel free to share them down in the comments. I’m sure that other photographers will like to hear them.