This post is written by James Maher – author of The Essentials of Street Photography.
Hi, my name is James and I’m recovering from a fear of shooting on the streets.
I’ve been capturing strangers for a long time and while I’ve become much more confident and carefree, sometimes I still wake up feeling like when I first started.
Photographing people on the streets candidly from close distances can be petrifying, especially if you’re naturally introverted like I am. The most common comment I see about street photography is that people are too nervous to try it or that they go out to try it and then freeze up.
We all froze up. We all freeze up. Street photography is so rewarding once you fight through these humps, especially if you’re introverted, but the problem is that most people stop before they learn to get through it.
So if you’re completely new to street photography or haven’t had much practice with it, what is the process or the techniques to help you get over your fears? Ultimately, time and practice is the only true way to do it, but there many steps you can take to make it easier on yourself from the very beginning.
Step 1: Try Street Portraiture
Street portraiture is when you ask someone to take their portrait on the street. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it’s easy. In addition to getting some fantastic portraits and experience with portraiture, it is the best way to quickly become comfortable around strangers on the street.
Start off by picking someone in a flashy outfit. People in flashy outfits generally want to be seen and want to be photographed and they are great to start with. Then, move on to more regular people.
What you will learn is how truly excited most people will be when you ask them and it will make you feel good about what you are trying to do. You will become the most interesting moment of their day and the story that they will tell when they get home at the end of it.
Step 2: Pick a spot and let people come to you.
If you are constantly walking around and moving then it is so tough to not only see moments, but to change directions and run into place without being noticed or feeling self conscious. Doing this will make you feel like you are invading someone else’s space.
Instead, pick a spot with a lot of foot traffic or an interesting background and wait for people to come to you. This way, your subjects will be invading your space and the tides will have turned. You will feel much more comfortable photographing them and it will also be less likely that they will notice you.
Step 3: Use a small, wide-angle prime lens.
I love zooms. Many different focal lengths at your fingertips for whatever photographic situation you might encounter. But if you are afraid of street photography they can be your worst enemy. Zoom lenses are heavy, cumbersome, and large, and are the most noticeable element of your camera. It’s not the heft of your camera body that is noticeable, it’s the length of your lens.
When I put that 24-70 or 70-200 lens on my Canon 5D Mark II, every person that passes me by stares at it, whether it’s dangling around my neck or in my hands. However, when I attach my light, tiny 28mm prime lens, the camera just disappears. People walk by it without noticing even though the 5D Mark II body is fairly large.
The difference is incredible and not only will knowing that people won’t notice you make you feel much bolder, but the speed at which you will be able to manuever your camera will make you much more daring.
Step 4: Shoot from the Hip and Zone focus.
Shooting from the hip is when you photograph without looking through the viewfinder. It is easiest to do with a light, wide-angle prime lens where you are used to the perspective, so that you can frame correctly without looking. Zone focusing, or pre-focusing to a specific distance, is necessary for shooting this way and is a subject that needs its own article. You can read more about that here.
But shooting from the hip does not mean that you should swing your camera all over the place and shoot randomly. It’s quite the opposite. I generally shoot from the hip with my camera right below my neck. It’s the same frame that my eyes see just ever so slightly lower so that it doesn’t look like I am taking a picture.
In addition, if you are not in a crowded area then it can help to keep your camera strapped to your wrist at your side and out of view until you need to take a shot. This will keep people from noticing your camera at a distance.
Step 5: Pretend you’re a tourist who’s photographing the background
I do this all of the time, especially when I’ve staked out a general spot and am waiting for people to enter the scene. Try not to look directly at your subjects and make it seem like you are photographing the background behind and a little to the side of them. Then, after you capture the person, keep the camera still like you are still framing what is behind them.
Keep a smile on your face and look lost, like other tourists. People give tourists a lot of leeway.
Step 6: Look confident
This is the true key to not being noticed. It’s so interesting, when you look confident, like you know what you’re doing, then people will ignore you, even if you’re weaving your way all around the sidewalks. It’s when you look scared and tentative that people will start to notice you because they will pick up on that nervousness. After all, if you look nervous then you must be doing something wrong, right? And if you look confident then you must be doing something good.
Even if you don’t feel confident, act confident and bold. Keep a slight, knowing smile on your face.
Step 7: Choose your subject wisely
The old ancient street photography axiom goes: “Be careful who you shoot; they may shoot back.”
This is probably the most important tip. You need to pick your subjects wisely. If you see someone that you think is dangerous, such as a drug addict or someone with an angry look, then don’t photograph them (unless the photograph will be the best of your life, in which case do anything you can to get it). If you pick your spots wisely then you will not be as afraid because you know that you won’t get into an altercation. The times you do get caught will turn into friendly affairs, where you tell people what you’re doing, show them the photograph with an enthusiastic smile, give them your card, and offer to send it to them.
Your biggest fear will suddenly turn into the best moment of the day.
This is not for everyone, but if you want to take a major step in getting rid of your fear, then here is the way to do it. Take a candid shot of someone and show it to them after. Offer to send it to them. Rip the fear away like a band-aid.
A comedian whose name I forget once told a story about the most memorable moment in his comedy career. It was the first time he bombed on stage in front of a big crowd. He had been frightened for so long of bombing and then it happened suddenly, as it does for every comedian at some point. What amazed him was that it ended up becoming a freeing experience. He realized that it didn’t kill him and wasn’t even that bad, and from then on the worry went away, he became more confident, and ultimately better at his craft.
Similarly, getting caught taking someone’s photograph is not that bad. So get rid of the fear and go out and get caught. Tell them you’re learning street photography. Couples embracing are the best people to try this on because they will love the photos and want them. Most couples don’t have photographs of themselves candidly embracing and they will cherish them.
Some of these tips may seem easy for you and some may be frightening to try. Remember that we all started somewhere and the ones that succeeded are the ones that kept walking out the door to try. Don’t expect the fear to go away quickly and don’t give up when it doesn’t. If you are feeling exceptionally nervous one day then that is the day you need to force yourself out of the door; that is the day that you are going to get the best street photograph of your life.
Your goal should be to become ever-so-slightly better each time you walk outside. Then, one day, you’ll wake up and the fear will be (mostly) gone.
Learn more about Street Photography in James Maher’s eBook The Essentials of Street Photography.