6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

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One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in street photography is inhibition. Taking candid photos of strangers is not for everyone. Your demeanor should be cool, calm, and confident, even if that’s not how you feel inside.

Looking sheepish or, worse, creepy, is the last thing you want. The way you dress might have an effect. Rightly or wrongly, people will assess you based on their first impression. Think about ways you can blend in.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

If confidence eludes you when photographing strangers, there are other ways of approaching street photography—ways that are passive and non-confrontational.

#1 Pick a background

Before discussing the main topic, let’s look at backgrounds. One way of taking street photos is to find interesting backgrounds and wait for suitable subjects to move into view. This works especially well if you can establish a link between the person entering the shot and your chosen backdrop.

Perhaps you want someone dressed in a particular way or with a specific pattern or color of clothing. Often, style or elegance is enough. When you arrive at the scene before your subject, the feeling of invading his or her space reduces.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

The problem you’re most likely to face with this method is people stopping to let you take the photo, not realizing that they are the vital element. It helps if you’re ready to take the shot in advance rather than lifting the camera abruptly as someone draws near.

Working distance also plays a part: the closer you are the more noticeable you become. Master the art of loitering, and look relaxed while you’re doing it.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

#2 Aim low

Pointing your camera downwards is an easy way to take street photos. As in other areas of life, your presence will be better tolerated if you’re not in anyone’s face. People with a keen sense of personal space are less likely to care about a lens aimed at their feet.

Even if you’re a confident street photographer and have no qualms about taking photos of strangers, some great photos exist at ground level. This is not purely a technique for the shy or meek.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

One famous exponent of low-level pictures is Elliott Erwitt, who is especially known for photos of dogs and their owners’ ankles. You can emphasize the character of a pet by getting down to its level when taking a photo. In effect, Erwitt was humanizing the animal and making the human subordinate.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

#3 Pick a background and aim low at the same time

By combining both the techniques we’ve discussed, the process of taking street photos becomes simpler still. That’s not to say that good results are any easier, but you might feel more comfortable with what you’re doing. The only trait you’ll need is patience.

Choose an interesting low-level background and imagine the type of subject you want to walk across it. Then, wait.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

In a city, you’ll become almost invisible by standing casually around and pretending to fiddle with your camera settings. In fact, the more baffled you look by your own camera, the more innocent you seem.

This is the opposite of the “confident photographer act”. When you look distracted, nobody cares what you’re doing and they’re unlikely to realize that they’re the prop you’ve been waiting for.

#4 Cameras and Camera Settings

You can use any camera for street photography, but some degree of discretion is an advantage. A bulky DSLR with a big lens is likely to get you seen. A smaller rangefinder or compact camera is ideal.

The extra depth of field you’ll get from a compact camera is also useful for this subject matter. You can also configure an SLR to be more of a point-and-shoot camera (high ISO, small aperture).

Taking good street photos is so hard that you need to sort out the technical settings beforehand. There’s usually little time for fine-tuning once you’ve seen the picture.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

#5 Capturing movement

To capture movement in your subject, a camera or lens with image stabilization (IS) is useful. It will help keep the background sharp while enabling movement in your subject.

For this, you could shoot in twilight hours or even after dark. Or else, you’ll need to manually set a slow shutter speed of about 1/8th to 1/30th second and let the image stabilization take care of the background. Compact cameras typically allow low handheld speeds with good results, especially with a wide-angle focal length.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

#6 Background ideas

Photographing people’s lower extremities is easier if you’re on a slightly different level. To that end, slopes, steps, and escalators are ideal. If you don’t want your motives and character being questioned, be wary of your camera position in relation to the subject and don’t take photos that look remotely voyeuristic.

Ground-level backgrounds might include cobbles, grating, wooden boards, road markings, or street art. Above the ground, you could be looking for anything to complement the subject. It might be a wall, shop window, or an advertising hoarding.

The background is as important as the subject – you’re trying to find an interesting juxtaposition.

6 Tips for Aiming Low and Going Unnoticed in Street Photography

Generally speaking, a “fussy” background (one with lots of small detail) is likely to clash with a fussy main subject. The main elements of the picture should not rival each other.

Finally

Aiming low with your photography doesn’t sound like encouragement, but good pictures await you at ground level. Perhaps above all else: learn how to loiter. Stay relaxed, move slowly, lean on stuff, and wait.

Until the moment you release the shutter, you’re only an observer. Try to anticipate, so you don’t have to lift your camera at the final moment. Keep an eye on who’s coming your way. Casually point your camera down and wait for the actor to enter the stage.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Glenn Harper is a writer, photographer, and all-around good guy. For almost 20 years, his photos have been licensed and syndicated through European photo libraries, resulting in publication all over the world. In the early 2000s he dabbled in writing for UK photo magazines, but then lost track of time. He’s okay with a camera, knows a fair bit about stuff and is here to help. Check out Glenn’s website here.

  • pete guaron

    Glenn, I have a wicked sense of humour and I have to muzzle it sometimes – this is one of those times, so I won’t say the first thing that popped into my head.

    I’ve been mad about candid photography ever since I was a teenager – and in many respects, it’s pretty similar to street photography. One “trick” I learned early was holding my SLR in my hand, down by my side, and casually (furtively?) pressing the shutter button. Everyone within range would be looking at each other – or perhaps looking at my face – but NOBODY ever looked down at my hand, to watch what it was doing, so long as I engaged them in conversation or whatever – even just connecting with their eyes was usually enough, and worked over a longer dfistance.

    Then along came cams like the Rollei and the Bronica, or if you had the money, the original ‘blads. And you could look DOWN, so people just thought you were fiddling with your camera. Most people in those days were NOT photographers and simply had no idea how these things worked. If they did have a cam, it was more likely to be an Instamatic or something and it still didn’t teach them how those other cams worked. So you could generally use them in much the same way as we can now, with a tilt screen.

    And now of course that tilt screen. I use it anyway – I’m old, now – can’t be bothered getting down on my knees to photograph people’s pets (something I do a lot of) and why bother, when I can dangle my hand down instead, and use the tilt screen? But I’m sure that technique would be equally hand for street photographers. 🙂

  • antidemagogue

    What a sad comment on the current state of things that we almost have to prove we are not voyeuristic perverts to avoid alarming others.

  • BlackEternity

    You see, it’s not reall about being voyeuristic or pervert.
    People have a problem with a camera that is not their own. It’s a fact. Look at people and when they take selfies. Heck, some people even take selfies in their own bathroom and share them in Facebook.

    The issue arises when there is a lens. A real lens. Not just a smidgy Pinhole in the side of a camera.
    If you point your camera just roughly in the direction of someone and look amazed like you’re playing Pokemon Go and you use AR, no one cares.
    Do the same with your DSLR or a big lens and people have issues.
    If you do the same with a small point & shoot, it’s not THAT big of a deal.

    Many people fear that a big lens might show something that people don’t want.

    I was out and about to take some pictures with my (pretty) small Alpha A6000 and it’s 16-50mm Kit lens. It’s a tiny pancake and can be seen as a regular point and shoot.
    There was a cat on a fence sitting in front of a house. I stood across it, looked around, talked to my girlfriend. Got over, wanted to shoot the cat. Aimed it AWAY from the house. A woman came yelling at me what I was doing here and I had to leave immediately or she would call the police. Mind you, I was not trespassing. I was on public walkways. Not even having the cat in Frame. It was just the presence of that camera that shot fear in the woman’s eyes.
    I couldn’t argue with her because the got enraged, so I left.
    If I would have done EXACTLY the same with my freakin’ phone, she wouldn’t have cared in any way. Oh yeah it’s a snap for facebook LOLZ. But with a camera? Oh my gosh – you can spy in the windows of that house!!!!

    That is the real issue here. Not so much pervy or whatever.
    It is not correct, but people always (!!) assume = Big camera and big lens = huge zoom.
    So people get afraid because there could be something that no one should see? Even if it’s just my pimple that I tried to drown in makeup. It’s visible because it’s no phone.

  • It helps if you have a small and silent camera.

    Sarah,
    Avangard Photography – Toronto Wedding Photographer

  • Ian Gayton

    Ian

  • Ian Gayton

    I have found to be overt, when taking street photography as if I’m taking a landscape picture. People can clearly see you, and then seem to view you as a professional photographer taking a serious photo for some reason. I find that people either smile at the camera, avoid it, generally they don’t want to walk into the picture and ruin your photo, and some may stop and ask what you are photographing out of interest. Being open with a smile… works for me, or pretend to be tourist…

  • pete guaron

    I shoot both ways – depends on the circumstances – but I do care about other people, and I do ask, when I think it’s appropriate. Sometimes it just isn’t – it couldn’t do anything except spoil the moment.

  • Brett

    A lot depends on your mood at the time and the environment you are in, both of which are hard to predict. I use a largish DSLR and sometimes take on the attitude that, well, hey, I am a professional (which i am not) and therefore I will be taking shots here there and everywhere. It can work – it can make you bold – and confident, and those attributes can sometimes push you along to be confidently daring, creative and bold. If you are out street photographing then you really are a kind of professional anyway (in approach), as you have your own ideas, projects and vision for what you are doing. You can be proud that you are a ‘street photographer’. So it can be an effective style to capitalise on that ‘professional’ feeling and be overtly bolder. Try it.

  • Not in my experience. When upgrading to a DSLR, I imagined that what you said would be true: that a bigger camera would make street photography more difficult. However, I find that whether I’m shooting with my small, silent point-n-shoot or bigger, noisier DSLR, people are just as bothered – or not bothered – by either one. It’s the situation, not the camera, that gives (or doesn’t give) you away.

  • Glenn Harper

    Honestly, I rarely even tried taking street photos with a DSLR, though I understand what you mean by acting professional. I did have a go with a 60D for a while and perhaps a 5D, but they felt like overkill to me. Several of the photos above were taken on a small Panasonic LX3. It’s true that I’ve been busted a few times even with a compact camera and
    ended up with a curious or accusing glare straight into the lens – Bruce Gilden style photos.

    At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think there’s a kind of relaxed mental state you can get yourself into when you’re focused purely on the picture, and then you’re oblivious to almost anything else. I like that feeling. Street photography sometimes feels poetic when it’s in progress, even if the results disappoint.

    Depending on the situation, I’ll try all the other tricks – fumbling with camera (sometimes genuine), acting like a naive tourist, etc. Your location obviously makes a difference, too. It’s tough to blend into the background in a back-end-of-nowhere town where nobody normally carries a camera.

  • Glenn Harper

    Among the public, generally, there’s a complete lack of empathy for the photographer’s mindset. This is fed largely by the media, I think, so the level of mistrust varies from one country to another. A large number of people don’t comprehend why anyone would take photos of complete strangers. Of course, everyone’s a photographer of sorts these days, so “real” photographers with genuine, innocuous intent have no easy way of identifying themselves.

  • Glenn Harper

    You can say what you like to me, Pete. I owned a Bronica, being one of the unfortunates that couldn’t afford a Hasselblad. It was a popular choice for pro wedding photography, I remember, but I used it for general travel photos. I also had an old Mamiya C330 TLR (another poor man’s MF camera).

    Among digital cameras, I enjoyed using the Sony DSC-R1 for street photography (c2005). It was inferior in many ways to today’s cameras, but it had a swivel screen that fitted flush into the top of the camera and thus acted as a proper waist level finder. I haven’t seen this feature since in a consumer-level digital camera.

  • I use a small mirror-less camera with a flip up screen. I hold my camera at waist level looking down at the screen – no one even knows I’m shooting this way 🙂

  • Ian Gayton

    Likewise, I approach street photography in a similar way.

  • SmoothHead

    Leica M3?

  • SmoothHead

    Could of been a Diana or Quaker Oats pinhole! Sure weigh MUCH less than a 500CM ‘blad…

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