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Street photography is not easy. It tests your nerves, your hand eye coordination and your instincts, and lord knows I’ve missed more ‘moments’ than I can count, but the satisfaction of capturing that split second where everything comes together can make it all worth it.
This article is going to focus specifically on tips to help you get your camera as close to people as possible without them noticing. It is certainly not the only way to do street photography, but it is a very effective way. It helps you catch the world around you in an uninterrupted fashion. And if you happen to get caught then so be it, just smile and own up to what you are doing. You’ll be surprised at how understanding most people are about street photography once you are honest with them.
Now for the record, I use a pretty beefy Canon SLR, primarily because I can’t afford the Leica M9 and the Fuji X100 hasn’t come out yet, but I’ve still figured out ways over the years to get up and close with it without being noticed.
Speed is key and how you hold the camera can make all the difference in the world. I like to wrap the camera strap around my wrist instead of around my neck. It is much quicker and easier to maneuver the camera this way and it also allows you to easily ‘shoot from the hip’ if you need to. When walking down a street I usually hold the camera in front of me at a 45-degree angle, halfway between vertical and horizontal, with my finger on the trigger. This way, I can easily get my camera into the right position if something spontaneous should happen, without tipping off the subject that I am going to photograph them.
Unless you have a very small rangefinder, the reality is that it is much easier to photograph someone without them noticing if you don’t have to raise the camera above your chest or look through the viewfinder.
The advantage to shooting from your hip with the camera strapped to your wrist is that it really becomes an extension of your arm. You don’t have to shoot in front of you and can shoot sideways or even backwards if you need to. It frees you up to integrate your lens into a situation without anybody noticing. You can shoot from the hip with either both hands or one hand holding the camera, but one hand gives you a little more freedom to aim in any direction. Just keep your arm straight down at your side and then angle the camera up and in whichever direction the scene is happening. Then, if you need to, you can raise your arm or bend your elbow a bit to get the exact frame, but be discreet about it.
I prefer a 35mm (or 20mm on a cropped sensor.) When you shoot from the hip you have to get used to what the camera is going to catch without actually looking through the viewfinder. The prime lens allows you to easily anticipate this and with some practice it will eventually become instinctual. The wide angle helps because it allows you to get closer while also capturing more of a scene and it really injects the viewer into what is happening.
Also, wide-angle prime lenses are usually very light and small, are much easier to maneuver and are much less noticeable than the larger zoom lenses.
Another advantage of shooting from the hip is that you can catch people from a very low angle. I often prefer my candid photography to come from a close-up and low angle because it elongates people and allows the subject to fill the frame. This is obviously not true for every situation, but a lot of the time this is my personal preference.
The slight diagonal angle can be very pleasing, especially for vertical portraits. The angle injects some energy into a photo and allows you to catch a bit more of the surroundings. It creates a lead for the eye to enter the photo and keeps it there, bouncing around between the subject and its surroundings.
As a street photographer, you can benefit a lot from acting. You might play the part of a spaced out tourist, engulfed in something happening across the street, or perhaps someone who is lost and has to stop for a moment to collect himself, but you are certainly not someone who looks like he is about to take a photo.
I like to act like I’m walking around daydreaming, just spaced out by my surroundings and looking in the somewhat opposite direction of what I want to photograph. I will make my path intersect in the right way with the subject and then stop as if I’m gathering myself or as if I see something interesting. My body will often be angled away from the subject while my camera will be at my hip pointing up at it. Then I take a photograph or two and walk out of there like nothing happened.
Most importantly though, is to never point your head directly at the subject, or god forbid, make eye contact! There is something almost evolutionary about eye contact that will make a person immediately notice you. Even for a split second, it will ruin your cover. Instead, try to look ‘through the person’.
Sometimes stopping completely is not an option. It will just look too obvious. But at the same time you have to be completely stopped to take a photo. No matter how fast your shutter is, if you are slightly moving while taking a photo then it will probably be ruined.
So there is a move called the stutter-step (can you tell I’m a basketball fan?). It’s basically just a very quick stop in full stride, almost like you freeze for a second in mid motion. It probably looks a bit ridiculous to anyone who’s actually paying attention, but it happens so fast that nobody will notice. Once you try it out you’ll understand what I’m talking about and it takes a little bit of practice to get used to.
I often shoot on manual because I like to have my exposure dialed in before taking these types of photos. When getting close-up you never really know how the camera is going to read a situation and that often leads to a lot of messed up exposures. Manual shooting on the street however can take some serious getting used to, because if you suddenly go from a sunny street to a shady street then you will have to remember to change your settings. I usually keep a sunny and shady general exposure setting in my head and flip back and forth between them.
But what happens then if something sudden occurs? Say you’re walking down a sunny street, settings set up perfectly, when all of a sudden you look to your right and notice a couple of locksmiths in a very dark van, one passed out and one about to light his cigarette? The moment is about to happen! Well in this case I quickly switchover to Aperture Value on my camera, which I have preset with a low aperture value. Even though you will have a loss of some depth of field, you will be able to have it work in both extreme bright or dark situations with a fast enough corresponding shutter speed. You can also do this with shutter value as well.
It will help you blend in.
This is a little out of the realm from what I have been talking about so far, but after all there are a million different ways to take a great street photograph. Search out an interesting background and then wait for the right person to come into your scene. Be patient, it might take some time.
The accompanying photo is not close-up, but I waited for hours for the right person to stop in the right position and it eventually paid off.
This practice also allows you to be in the correct position before the person comes into the scene, so you can ::gasp:: actually look through the viewfinder! Just make it look like you are taking a photo of the background. Some of the best street photographs were planned instead of found. Find the right location and wait it out until the moment happens.
In this photo, because I wanted the camera focus to be on the NUTS street vendor stand (to emphasize the ‘nutty’ quality of this arguing group of tourists), it meant that I couldn’t get the people in foreground to be perfectly sharp. That just goes with the territory and sometimes you have to make some sacrifices. In this case I think it works… in black and white.
As a street photographer I’m much less afraid of blur and grain than a lot of people. The reality is that it’s not always bright out, you need a fast enough shutter speed and you don’t have the luxury of using a tripod. You will often be stuck with some blur, slight soft-focus or grain from a high ISO.
Now this is only my personal opinion, but I think that these types of photos just look so much better in black and white. You can really turn something that looks terrible in color into a great photograph by making a good black and white out of it. After all, street photography is about the content in the photo, and black and white often helps to focus on that.
My biggest critique of street photographers is when I see a photograph with an extremely interesting subject, yet the photographer decided to shoot the entire street and make what should have been the entire photo become just a small part of the frame. Fill the frame with what is important and cut out everything else. Leave some room for the imagination.
Also, with a prime lens and fast moving subjects you’re not always going to be able to be in the perfect spot or catch the perfect angle on the fly. Don’t be afraid to crop in or improve the angle afterwards. This is not landscape photography, where you are always able to plan out every aspect of your image before taking the shot. You should get used to using the crop tool, even if it’s just for a slight correction.
Just remember that the hardest part of street photography is getting out of the front door. The moments are flying around everywhere, but you need to be there and be bold with your camera to be able to catch them. Now get in there and get close!
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