7 Tips for a More Anonymous Approach to Street Photography - Digital Photography School

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7 Tips for a More Anonymous Approach to Street Photography

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©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

Can you imagine a world without street photography? Think of the legacy that Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, and lesser known pioneers of the genre left for us to enjoy for generations to come. We can all play a part in documenting the world around us, one photograph at a time.

One of the most common reservations people have about shooting street photography is the feeling of invading their subjects’ privacy. It’s a legitimate concern and one that can be addressed by following simple rules of respect. I always urge my workshop students to refrain from photographing people in vulnerable or embarrassing situations. It’s a simple rule: You should be able to put yourself in your subject’s shoes and be okay with your photograph being shared on social media. Photographing a beautiful story in a public place should never be a concern, anywhere in the world, if it is done with respect.

Unfortunately, as the genre gains more and more popularity, many photographers forget those essential rules of respect. That makes it even more difficult and intimidating for others to make their first steps in the exciting world of street photography.

If you are still hesitant, there are ways to include the human element in your photography without revealing their identity. Those methods can be very rewarding and make for very artistic images. So here are a few tips to help you do more anonymous street photography.

1. Photograph the back of people

Not every subject photographed from behind will make a strong image. Gesture will be the biggest factor to consider. Background and light are also strong elements. Basically, your image should be stronger shot from behind than if you had photographed the same subjects while facing them.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

2. Minimalist approach

In a minimalist approach to street photography, your subject is usually quite small but becomes the focal point in an interesting urban landscape. Look for interesting architecture, repeated patterns, geometrical shapes, etc. They all make for very interesting backgrounds. Wait for the right subject to enter your frame, et voilà!

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

3. Silhouettes

Who doesn’t love to photograph silhouettes? Again, the subject has to be well defined. There should be as few distracting elements in front of your subject as possible. Don’t hesitate to blow out the highlights for a more dramatic silhouette. The less distinguishable the background, the better! Photographing the right gesture or step are the key to a successful silhouette.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

Shooting into the sun is also a great way to create a dramatic effect while maintaining the anonymity of your subject.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

4. Far away subjects

Street photography is best done up close for a more intimate image, but shooting from above or far away can make interesting photographs as well. The human elements, even small, draw the eye of the viewer without revealing their identity.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

5. Motion

Long exposure to create some motion blur is also a really fun way to photograph people. This works well in busy places, such as train stations. The architecture has to be interesting as it will become the highlight of the image by being the sharpest element.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

6. Darkness

Crank up that ISO! Night street photography can be so much fun. Use your best judgement and stay safe!

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

7. Abstract

Think outside the box. Street photography doesn’t have to be about faces. Find more abstract ways to photograph strangers.

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

©Valerie Jardin

How do you approach candid street photography? Please share your experience with the dPS readers.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, Instagram. And listen to my new Street Focus Podcast!

  • Which is trivial for anyone in this day and age.

  • Linda’s experience working alongside government contractors such as Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Innoplex and TASC has positioned her as one of the most sought-after experts in her industry. Medical accounting

  • John Lambert

    I have found that most people don’t mind being photographed or else they are unaware that someone is pointing a camera at them. This is probably because photography is so ubiquitous these days – everyone is squinting at a viewfinder. One gimmick I have used is while I am sitting at a sidewalk restaurant. I rest my camera on the table with my coat draped casually over it, leaving the lens free of course. I have pre-focussed the camera, and whenever a likely subject comes into sight, I squeeze the remote shutter release. Sneaky? Any time you take a picture of someone without their knowing could be called sneaky.
    I have also photographed people engaged in some absorbing activity such as window-gazing, deep conversation, etc. I also have a 45 degree mirror lens that allows me to get a picture while the camera appears to be aimed at something 45 degrees away from the subject. I have noticed if someone doesn’t want his picture taken, he will turn away. So I respect that, and shoot something (or someone else).
    I have been refused only twice – and that was because I asked the subject beforehand, instead of just snapping first.

  • earl jules

    Sarah,
    try a monopod. . . it can be just as sturdy… and can also be much more versatile … for getting overhead shots without leaving the ground. . .

    (wink)

  • Thanks! That one is my favorite too πŸ™‚

  • Quite simply, excellent article. Indeed, I have followed some of the suggestions intuitively.

  • Jordan

    A good place to start is with buskers – throw some change and in their hat and in return they’ll be happy for you to take their photo and will usually interact with you, whether it’s eye contact or doing whatever trick or act they do in your direction. They’ll usually do it first and then you toss the money, but I always stump up the cash if you are taking their photo either way.

  • Jordan

    I love the motion shots, but in most public places I know of a security guard will appear almost instantly if you have a tripod. I need to carry a cushion with me sometime and use a nearby railing! Or crack out my Gorillapod. One for the notebook list!

  • Luke
  • Valerie Jardin

    I never carry a tripod. Finding a counter or garbage can to set your camera on is part of the challenge and the fun!

  • Valerie Jardin

    Thank you Kiril!

  • Valerie Jardin

    It does if you don’t mess with it in post processing πŸ˜‰

  • Valerie Jardin

    I think you missed the point of the article. It’s not about not revealing the identity of the subject. It is intended to show new street photographers, who feel they are invading their subject’s privacy, different ways to approach it.

  • Valerie Jardin

    Street performers are a good way to make your first steps in street photography if shooting strangers is intimidating. You may enjoy this other I wrote for dPS: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-approach-street-photography-in-12-easy-steps/

  • This isn’t 1970. It’s 2015. I don’t even have to post process. Just point my phone at the screen. The phone/camera will auto adjust for brightness revealing the face you implied was hidden. I’m sure it would also work on a print with any digital camera.

    http://i.imgur.com/balh7Xdl.jpg

    Even if it didn’t auto-adjust the brightness it’s 3 clicks on any modern phone to adjust the brightness after taking a picture. Post processing is built into all phones now as a standard feature.

    https://www.apple.com/v/ios/j/images/whats-new/photos/capture_adjust_tune_large.jpg

    It’s irresponsible to tell people “Shooting into the sun is also a great way to create a dramatic effect while maintaining the anonymity of your subject” if it doesn’t actually maintain their anonymity.

  • This isn’t 1970. It’s 2015. I don’t even have to post process. Just point my phone at the screen. The phone/camera will auto adjust for brightness revealing the face you implied was hidden. I’m sure it would also work on a print with any digital camera.

    Even if it didn’t auto-adjust the brightness it’s 3 clicks on any modern phone to adjust the brightness after taking a picture. Post processing is built into all phones now as a standard feature.

    It’s irresponsible to tell people “Shooting into the sun is also a great way to create a dramatic effect while maintaining the anonymity of your subject” if it doesn’t actually maintain their anonymity.

  • Valerie Jardin

    Never mind, I can see that we are on a totally different topic. I still need to add that if you know how to use the exposure compensation on you camera or skillfully use your camera phone to expose for the highlights, you will have a true silhouette. It’s all about taking control of your gear and not let it make decisions for you.

  • I didn’t miss the point of the article. I loved it. I just pointed out YOUR CLAIM that shooting into the sun would maintain the subjects anonymity IS FALSE.

    Why is that so hard for you to accept? You made the claim. I showed it was it incorrect. Why are you arguing? Seems to me you should have just said something like “Oh, yea, oops. You’re right. That doesn’t actually maintain their anonymity. It’s good to be aware of that” or something along those lines. Even no reply. Instead you’ve been going on and on digging a deeper hole.

  • Yep, I know photography (though I’m not as skilled as you) but I also know image processing. You might be surprised how far you’d have to dial the exposure compensation down when shooting in raw and not be able to recover people’s faces with the sun behind them.

    The point is, I’m out taking photos, someone says “don’t take my picture”. I reply “Please? I promise no one will be able to tell it’s you. It will be just a silhouette. I read so on some article on the internet that told me that would be true”

    Then I post the picture. A friend of the subject sees it and thinks “that kind of looks like Jill”. They take out their phone, snap a pic and literally 5 seconds later they’ve recovered the persons face from the supposedly anonymous image.

    Oops. Sorry I just exposed that person. Hope that other guy with them was their BF.

    My point in posting was to point that out to people. If they truly want to make sure to maintain anonymity they’d better check the image can’t be turned back. If they don’t care about anonymity fine. But **you** claimed the technique would maintain anonymity. It won’t. It seemed best to point that out so someone doesn’t make the mistake of thinking it would.

  • Michael Owens

    That’s exactly how I started out lol. Got some great shots because of it too. Here, take a look at what I got:-

  • Just wanted to share one of my fav’s I took from my first time downtown with my photog friends.

  • earl jules

    * * *
    Jessica… I love the notion of the viewer imagining his/herself there. . .

    (wink)

  • Doris K.

    Thank you very much for this article and great photos. My brother is quite relaxed and simply walks up to people with a big smile and they’ll happily pose for him. I am quite shy in comparison and your examples of a more indirect approach are very encouraging. For the time being, I will be happier with silhouettes, reflexions, shadows etc though a few weeks ago I chanced upon this chap who was very happy to attract a crowd and have his picture taken with his beautiful horses.

  • RA Wagner

    You made your bleedin’ point, Greggman, time to move on and show someone else how smart you are. Geesh.

  • Can we agree to disagree here and move on? If this continues I will either close the thread or start deleting comments. Thank you – the Editor.

  • Bonita

    Nice shots ! I personally love the first and third. His jacket gives it a cool effect. πŸ™‚

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you, I really appreciate that. He was a willing subject once I’d thrown him a few pound coins! πŸ™‚

  • Bonita

    I can see Valerie’s point and I thank her for her tips which for me are great btw. And Greggs point are valid also, I just don’t agree the aggressive way he approached her. Even as I was reading I felt that aggressiveness. There are ways to say things and to make your point come across. Good points Gregg, but less aggressive approach? my feel anyhow. Thank you both. Certainly some points to keep in mind. πŸ™‚

  • Bonita

    WOW! NICE ! πŸ™‚

  • Bonita

    Thank You Valerie for all your great tips for me. I’m a newbie at photography. I am more into nature, but I’ve tried once in downtown and I found myself having that problem. “See picture below, added some frame”. Being shy at taking pictures when you can’t avoid the people. When I took this picture, the person in the white coat was across the street standing there for some time. Sometimes I even feel frustrated that a person crosses just at the moment when I can take a shot where there is no people around but cars. πŸ˜› guess, need more practise on that. I have encountered people see me with my camera and just as they are passing by me , they flash this huge smile..lol… I sometimes wonder what they are thinking at the moment. πŸ™‚ If they only knew I’m a rookie at photography. πŸ™‚

  • joelluth

    Love your articles Valerie. Great tips and beautiful images!

  • Another great article Valerie! Street photography can be really intimidating for many
    people. I’ve found that, for the most part, people don’t really mind being
    photographed. Sure you’ll get the odd person that objects, but most people are
    friendly – even if they don’t want their photo taken. Anonymity is a great way to engage in street photography. As you say, you don’t always have to have people’s faces in the photograph.

    Here’s an image I made in Glenelg (South Australia) last year. This guy was gazing out
    to sea, lost in his own world. I decided the image would be much stronger from
    behind, rather than disturb him and have his face in the shot.

  • Thank you very much πŸ™‚

  • divarants

    Hi Sarah, I’m a fellow Chicago photographer. I’ve been doing this for about year, fascinated with street photography. I agree, that street photography makes me uncomfortable. I have to push myself to do it. It helps to sometimes go out with a buddy – we encourage each other to be courageous. If you’re interested in going out and doing some street photography sometime, let me know! My work is here http://www.flickr.com/ronitbez

  • Sarah Tobias

    Love your work. I don’t get into the City much and usually go with friends, but will definitely let you know when I am heading in again or when my local buddies can’t go and I need a City outing. We had planned to go the the Sears (Willis) Tower that day, but the city was socked in under clouds. Decided to save our money. I love the idea of encouraging courage. Here’s my flickr page. https://www.flickr.com/photos/16033511@N00/

  • Dave Harley

    650-1300mm? WOW!!!
    Even from a mile away, they can’t see you? lol

  • Galactus

    Found this very helpful. I’ll now be able to use your tips to optimize my photography on the streets.

  • Kelly Whitaker

    Love how the shadow on the water repeats the same shape as her dress!

  • Bob Brewer

    Thank you the keen ideas.

  • Tapas Basu

    Very useful discussion . I read it with interest.

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