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Terrified of Street Photography? So Am I! Here’s How I Do It

by Mridula Dwivedi.

I am truly terrified of street photography. It is such a daunting task to point my camera at a stranger’s face and click. I know in India (and many other places) not too many people mind, but I just completely freeze somehow. Yet I was fascinated by street photography. I would keep reading tips after tips thinking something would unlock the secret for me. In the end I had to discover my own way. I am still far from comfortable but I look forward to street photography as well on my trips. These are the things that got me started, even if tentatively.

My Street Photography Tips

Shooting Things

Street Photography

Since I was petrified of shooting people I started with shooting things. Most of the times, the street vendors are fine when you walk up close, exchange a glance towards their stuff and raise an eyebrow. They generally wave a hand to go ahead. I know this is not real street photography but I had to start somewhere. That is where I started and remained, for a very long time.

Use a Zoom Lens

Street Photography

I know, every self street respecting street photographer would advise you against it. But remember we are not dealing with a self respecting street photographer but terrified street photographer. I actually gathered courage only after I used a 75-300 to shoot people walking by at Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal. I was sitting on a bench under shade as it was too hot. I saw boats coming and going as well as people walking by the lake. I decided to use the zoom. No one took any notice as I was a little away from the scene. It helped that I stationary as well. Using a zoom lens certainly got me started.

Framing Wider

Street Photography
So, when I found myself in the colorful border market at Aranyaprathet (Thai-Cambodia border) recently I wanted to do street photography. I was using a 50 mm prime lens which would not let me zoom anything. I wanted to click the man under the umbrella but my nerves failed me as usual. I then decided to frame the scene wider. What to do, you have to think of ways to click things when you are scared of offending people.

Clicking Busy People

Street Photography
While walking through the Rong Kluea Market at the Thai-Cambodian border I realized that the vendors were so busy doing their business they hardly had any time for nosy photographer. Now that is a good thing for scared novices like me.

Positioning Myself in a Corner

Street Photography
But what has worked best for me is positioning myself in a corner of a busy street. That way I could watch the world go by and occasionally get a picture too. I must have clicked at least 30 pictures standing at this particular corner of Rong Kluea Border Market. Not one person stopped and asked me what I thought I was doing! A very happy scenario if you ask me.

Mridula Dwivedi is a full time academician from India. She blogs at Travel Tales from India. Her blog has taken her places as she was invited by the tourism boards of South Africa, Malaysia and recently Thailand.

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  • Elen

    Really great tips. I to have the same issue with photographing people. I feel it is an invasion of space and privacy. Your ideas are great and will use them in the future. I have also in the past taken distant shots of people from behind that were interesting enough to take.

  • TroverAmber

    All great tips that I use as well! I am super timid to approach people. One tip I’d like to add is my super stealthy technique: Shoot from the hip. This technique takes a lot of practice, but you will be surprised and occasionally delighted by the wonderful shots you get. The technique is exactly as it sounds, hold your camera at your hip and shoot away, adjusting the angle in your wrist. I generally will do this on Shutter Priority. You can get close and shoot away! Since the camera is not at your face most people don’t even realize you are photographing. Happy street shooting!

    Amber, Curator of Awesomeness at Trover.com

  • Keivan

    These tips apply if you just want to take SOME pictures and still leave you afraid of street photography. Extremely bad advice if you want to take memorable pictures.

  • Juan Castillo

    Glad to know I’m not the only one with this fear :)

  • Sita Carolina

    Wow I use these tricks as well! Although I’m trying my best to be less shy. I like to have control over my photographs too so I don’t like the “shoot from the hip” trick. But one thing is to ACT FAST – so set up the camera as best as you can (out of bags, lens cap off, etc) and when you think something interesting is about to happen, just pick up the camera and CLICK!

    http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com/

  • /clh

    I’m confused, Elen. If you feel photographing strangers is “an invasion of space and privacy”, why on earth would you do it?

  • 1107photography

    I think the author’s point is that you have to start somewhere and these are great baby steps toward better and better street photography. I have many of those same fears of approaching strangers and actually ASKING them if I can take their picture… so I can well understand the need to find creative ways to get closer to that goal. Here is a shot I took last week when I challenged myself to walk around NYC with a 50mm prime. This man had such sadness in his face, but he resolutely kept at his task–a great character study and a perfect opportunity for me to tell a story. I do wish I had approached him, just to say hello and ask whether I could shoot closer. But it was at least a first step, and gave me confidence to get closer next time.

  • Hugh J

    Sometimes I use a window as a ‘mirror’ and catch what I want in a reflection. Sometimes with both thought and a bit of luck, you get a really interesting shot. And no one really pays attention to you because you’re not ‘aiming’ at them.

  • Malte Christensen

    I’m not terribly confident shooting strangers either. Most of my people shots are in Vietnam. Luckily, if you know a bit of the Vietnamese language, people are very easy to talk to. Okay, not necessarily so in rural mountains, but still. So I’ll walk up to them and strike up a simple conversation and simply ask for permission. Works nine out of ten times.

  • Firas Al Jundi

    These are actually terrible pieces of advice. The point of giving advice is to overcome your fear and shoot better photographs, and these tips will do nothing of that. Lose your zoom lens, use a fast prime, don’t shoot things, because street photography is a form of landscape photography, and not still life. You want to document the human condition here, and finally, frame narrow, not wide. The reason why all the best street photographers use wide angles and get CLOSE is because framing wide gives you an unsuccessful composition. Framing wide and cropping doesn’t improve your skills as a photographer, it improves your skills as an image editor.

    Here’s how you improve your skills for street photography:

    Use a wide prime lens: 35mm is the ideal focal length as it’s not too wide and not too narrow. Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens, which also works very well. Make sure it’s a fast lens, f/2.8 or faster, so you can freeze the motion and won’t be stuck using a tripod, as well as be able to shoot indoors and at night.

    Get closer: Composition 101 is getting rid of anything that is unnecessary in your frame. Framing wide loses your focusing point. You need to take a picture and show what you are taking a picture of. If your subject isn’t clear and upfront, then your picture is unsuccessful. Step in to the shot. The idea is to get over your fear and anxiety and become a better photographer.

    Shoot people: This shoot things tip is stupid so to speak. Street photography is not defined by it’s geographic location. Just because there is a chair in the street doesn’t make it a street photograph.

    Stand in a corner: This is actually a great piece of advice, but I want to expand on it. It’s not just standing in a corner, but standing in the same place over and over. One exercise to do is to go to the same location (say a city square) and spend 2 hours theres, every day, or twice a week, or whatever. Keep going back over and over and keep taking pictures.

    Take pictures of INTERACTION: street photography is about documenting the human condition. Having someone pose for you or asking them to smile isn’t doing much for documenting that condition. You’re imposing yourself, so the subject is reacting to you in particular, not to the environment around them. I put my camera down if my subject notices me and changes, because it changed the photo that I wanted capture.

    Limit yourself with the number of pictures you take: Digital photography has one major drawback, and it taught people to become lax when it comes to selecting their shots and editing their work. The ability to shoot thousands of pictures gives people comfort that they can shoot over and over and over and pick the best ones. While this is true, the problem here is that the beginner does not learn how to create good compositions and strong photographs. Yes, it’s a problem. Why would you want to be a mediocre photographer for 10 years when you can improve your work in a shorter period of time?

    Yes, everyone has to start somewhere, but starting off with bad advice is NOT the place to be.

  • Paul Donohoe

    all good advice and really some great images can be made following these tips. Some people don’t do anything else even if they are “brave”. Mind you I find that most people don’t bite, so getting a BIT closer rarely hurts..much!! LOL..well done and thanks!

  • Paul Donohoe

    not sure that’s true..i mean yes won’t help the fear, but not so easy to say you won’t make memorable images this way Many people have I think..but yes I agree..Have to just do the thing! People don’t bite! lol

  • Paul Donohoe

    yes good point. In my experience most people LOVE being photographed…and if someone is doing it and feels they are invading people’s privacy then they behaving in an unethical fashion IMHO..but maybe Elen didn’t quite mean that? Not sure..love to hear more!

  • nithin

    I’m from kerala, india. Good tips for photographers in india. In india there is a chance that you might not walk yourself home after pointing camera towards a girl.
    At many occasion I’d to answer a lot of people that what I’m doing with camera. They have their own reason to ask so i’ve to answer it.

  • ArturoMM

    Join a photography club, wear a big ID from the club, and some card to show where the pictures are going to be exhibited such the web page or wherever, now that you are ready to explain yourself, feel free and go for it!

  • Barry E Warren

    Great Tips and advise for Street Photography Mridula

  • Geoff

    I’m a pretty introvert sort of person, so doing street photography doesn’t come easy. What definitely helps is ‘situation’. Busy and noisy is a great place to start (if the subject is unsure whether a photo has been taken they’re less likely to complain). If you look like a tourist/amateur and not a professional all the better.

  • Geoff

    Why is taking a photo of someone on a public highway an invasion of their privacy, Elen? Picturing them in their back garden or through their bedroom window… okay. That’s private. But walking the streets, or shopping, or driving past or waiting for the bus… it’s all fair game I reckon.

  • Cindy

    Hi, Ive never done street photography before, On Sat 5 Oct i was part of the Worldwide Photography walk that happens annualy, and with a small group of other photographers we walked the streets of auckland. I found courage with the others, and found if i wanted to photograph a person, I gave them a big smile, slowly walked up to them, very breifly gave my name and what I was doing, complimented them in some way on where they were, and how they looked in their environment and asked if they would mind if I took their photo as they went about their business. They were all really lovely, I overcame my fear, and got some lovely shots. I was so nervous inside the first few times, but people are generally really nice, and if they were not keen, there is no way I would continue with them, and politely say thanks, and move on. When they we’re on board, I found getting in closer with my 50mm prime good, and got some great natural shots. Check out the flicker worldwide photography site for some great street photo’s.

  • monstermum

    Not sure why you take such opposition to this, Firas Al Jundi. Some of us are VERY timid and anything that will help us get onto the right track is a good thing. Sure it may not be technically correct at this point in time but those that persevere will get there. Please give us a bit of slack to get where you are in good time.

  • Chandima Gunadasa

    Being in Sri Lanka, I totally understand what you mean. Dont get me wrong, people are not aggressive.. but the photographer will instantly become the center of attraction.. the little street kids will all want to have their photo taken… and you will be swamped with people wanting to pose.. so the candid-ness is lost !! It is that type of stage fright i have.. thank you.. this is a very helpful article for me. I think techniques like the subtle eye contact with the fruit seller will work for me.

    I have a Canon 550D+battery grip + Sigma 150-500mm… these really do not help me to blend in.. !

    Many, Many thanks Mridula :)

  • LH

    This might have more to do with your style of approach. Naturally if you are photographing a littel girl with a massive zoom luring around a dodgy corner people will wonder what your motivation really are. If you are upfront and obvious that your are trying to create art most people will not mind and if some ones questions your activitiy answer honestly that the girl had a great expression or bowtie or what ever that you thought would make an intresting image.

    Furthermore I personally found photographing people in India very easy going and enjoyable as most seemed to cheriss the attention.

  • subroto mukerji

    I agree with Firas Al Jundi that most of the ‘advice’ in this post is not very useful. But I do recommend that one uses a small yet powerful camera with a fast zoom e.g., the Nikon Coolpix P7700, Olympus E-PL5 or the fabulous Sony RX100 are, IMO, ideal for street. I do mainly impromptu street / environmental portraits, having easily overcome my initial hesitation at photographing strangers. It is my experience over two years of street, that only one out of a hundred people will actually notice / object (if they realise you’ve taken a shot of them). In fact, I sometimes even chat up my subjects till they tire of me and don’t even notice what I’m up to thereafter, or even care.

    Bus stands, markets, crowds, street hawkers, pavement entrepreneurs, hard-hatted men at work and ordinary people going about their daily lives are a fascinating, never-ending panorama flowing past a street photographer — all grist for the mill.

    I normally use the wide end of the zoom, which makes it very important for me to go very close to my subject (“If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough” — Robert Capa). Not once has anyone ever bothered asking me what I was doing (maybe no one takes the Sony RX100 or the Olympus E-PL5 or me seriously — they give the appearance of being just point-and-shoot cameras being used to pass time snapshotting by someone with nothing better to do). I don’t sneak around nor do I use stealth. I am right out in the open, looking inconspicuous and blending with my surroundings, and because of that I become sort of invisible. I do it for the challenges involved (technical, aesthetic, human) and not for acquiring fame, blogging (in bad English) or getting invites to visit exotic locations. The action is all around me, I don’t need to go anywhere.
    But I DID learn to shoot FAST and just keep going …

  • Mauro Castaldi

    I’m quite introvert too ! Acting like a tourist is a great advice. Sometimes I would like to be like a japanese, they shot a lot and couldn’t care less of surrounding, We should learn from them :)

  • Pat Bloomfield

    This is great advice although you were really too hard on the guy ;)

    Having a big zoom is also bad because people could think you’re taking inappropriate images. I think things have eased off a bit but some people are a little paranoid about such things still.

    I did a day training course on street photography a few years ago. The tutor advocated prime lenses too. Anything from 28 to 50 is ideal assuming full size sensor. Staying on one place is great because you melt into your surroundings. I’ve seen some great street photography by a guy who literally stood by busy junctions and photographed the scenes as they occurred in front of him.

    To get specific portraits you can ask permission. Then when you get really brave you can get in closer and record the reactions – not something I’ve ever dared do though :)

  • Colleen

    I have been reading the comments and find it interesting no one mentioned simply asking permission to take a picture? I ask (especially children’s parents) to take a photo. If they say no, I thank them and walk away. If they say yes it is usually fun. In other countries I point at my camera and then them and they understand. It seems to me photographers are fearful of the reaction if the start snapping away, this way you have an understanding.

  • simón

    my biggest sad is that Mridula have public space to write some enormous pice of non sence advices, is very very sad.

  • Blake Lewis

    Wrong. There is no ‘wrong way’ to photograph something. What matters is the photographer, the client (if applicable), and the shot. If I use a zoom lens to get a great shot and crop into it, it’s not the ‘wrong’ way to get the photo. Anyone that saysd otherwise has lost the spirit of photography.

  • JS

    It’s not hard to simply ask someone to take their photo. Most people are not opposed and actually welcome it, as long as they get to see or receive a copy of the end product. The photos you included in your piece are not spectacular in any way, but you will get more comfortable taking street photos and portraits of strangers.

  • Alejandro

    Fast lens? It depends… I do my street photography the old-school way (using film and a manual SLR), and I tend to use a 28mm lens stepped down to f/8 or so for added depth of field. First, because it makes focusing easier. Second, because context is an integral part of street photography (ie it’s not about headshots taken in the street)

    In any case, there’s more than one way to do it. If the OP is helped by those excercises, good for him.

  • Holly JHolty

    Thanks for your honesty about this subject. Encouraging article!

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Great information. I love the idea of taking pictures of people as opposed to shooting things.

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Great point. I prefer asking someone to take their picture. If you are truly shy start by photographing street performers.

  • http://www.thef8blog.com/ Olivier Duong

    People react to your state of mind. If you go out in the streets as a thief taking pictures, people will be suspicious. If you go out in the streets with the intent of MAKING pictures, slowly, as someone who is there to create something…people are very open.
    Say Hi, say Thanks, say How are You? To people in the streets, acknowledge them. I used to be so shy, I couldn’t even look at my own brother in the eye. It takes getting used to but the rewards are worth it.

  • Wayne Birrell

    I have a fear of doing street photography too and read so many tutorials and still cant take the plunge, but i dont agree with using a long lens. If im going out this week to try again, im using my 50mm 1.8 and thats the only lens ill be taken. so I have no choice but to get close and force myself out the comfort zone

  • Natasha

    interesting comment. why not do your own article contribution for this blog so more people can read it ? :D

  • http://vannachithirangal.wix.com/pugaipadangal Karthik Natarajan

    True that!!!

  • Sindhoooo

    I am scared about capturing people too! Thanks Mridula! This post will surely help me :)

  • Guest

    This was taken from a mobile camera,my first ever street photography..
    their have always been a fear,how would the people react,what if they objected or refused..
    but in the end i was able to overcome my fear to an extent..
    had a wonderful experience while shooting the pic..

    please,share your view..
    i am open to suggestions or tips for better photography :)

  • Chris Sargeant

    I always hand the people I photograph a card with details of where they can see the photos if I use them. They can also request that the photos be removed should they not be happy about the final image. Just ask people. They will either say yes or no…..if it is a no however do not then attempt a ‘sneaky’ one. I was a but nervous but once you start taking photos and if you can give an air of of confidence people are generally pretty good.

  • Guest

    Shot reflection in side mirror of my car

  • Guest

    Shot the view from my car side mirror

  • Guest

    Another drive by shot from side window

  • mtphill

    drive by shot

  • Shaz

    I’m a street photographer I don’t use prime lens. It’s arrogance to suggest that prime is better. Both types are fine. Just because someone decades ago used a 50mm (Cartier Bresson) doesn’t mean we all should today. I use a 24 – 105mm
    Street does not by definition have to include people, just evidence of them, but people are in my opinion usually more interesting.
    I agree with standing, or sitting still for some time and letting the action come to you at first. Also, shoot in spots with lots of tourists if you can, then you won’t feel so self conscious when you start out.
    Take another street photographer with you at first for some extra courage.

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