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