Many people want to improve their street photography or get involved with this genre for the first time. But the major aspect that holds them back is the issue of taking close candid pictures of people without their permission. While I promise that it gets much easier over time, it can very difficult to get over the hump early on.
However, there are some steps you can take that will help ease you into the world of street photography if you do it right. Here are a few important tips that I believe will make shooting candid street photography much easier for you.
1. What to do if you get caught
Before we talk about how to get closer to your subjects, the first step is knowing what to do if something happens. The toughest aspect of getting into street photography is the fact that you will feel very uncomfortable with the idea of someone catching you and asking what you are doing, at first. However, while those situations are usually rare, if you handle them the right way, they don’t have to be all that bad.
To help ease your fears, it is important to know what to say if anyone should stop you and ask you if you took their photo. Smile, own up to it and say that you are a photographer or photography student doing a photo project on the area and the people in it. Tell them you thought they looked great and wanted to add them to it. Just be honest and open about it. If they then seem uncomfortable, offer to delete the photograph. It can even help to carry a business card with your photography information and to offer to email them the photograph after. The more direct and pleasant you are, the more disarming it will be.
To further keep yourself out of trouble, pick and choose the people you photograph carefully. It can help to stay away from photographing anyone who looks like they are in a bad mood, anyone with some sort of mental disability, or anyone who is homeless.
2. Light camera and prime lens
Street photography can certainly be done well with an SLR and a zoom lens. I shot for a long time with that setup. However, using a smaller camera such as a mirrorless, micro 4/3rds, or a Leica will make you much less noticeable. In addition, it will be lighter, which will make you faster and can only help with street photography. The difference is night and day.
By using a prime lens you will get used to the fixed focal length which will make you much more spontaneous. You will be able to intuitively know what your camera can capture before you even bring it up to your eye. That, and your camera will be smaller since zoom lenses are usually very large. With a light camera and lens, you will eventually notice yourself capturing images so quickly that your subject barely even notices you. This is the type of thing that is much tougher to do with an SLR and big zoom lens.
3. Picking a spot / getting in the middle
The next tip, which is often the most important, is to go where the action is and get right in the middle. It will be important for you to eventually photograph in all types of situations, from less busy to very crowded, but particularly when you are learning, go where a lot of action is happening. Go to fairs, get out at busy times, shoot from busy corners. The more that is happening, the more invisible you will be, and the less you will be noticed by other people. This will help a lot with your comfort level.
By picking a spot and letting your subjects come to you, you change up the dynamic of the situation. Instead of you entering their personal space, they will be entering yours. You will seem less creepy and intrusive because you will already be there with a camera. It will look like you belong.
In addition, when a moment occurs, you will already be the right position. You will be able to spend more of your energy watching your surroundings for a good moment to occur. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t photograph while you are walking and exploring, just that you should carve out some time to linger in a specific spot.
There are some photographers who will run up to people and get right in their face. If that’s your thing, more power to you, but many photographers prefer to be less conspicuous about it. We want to capture an interesting moment, we love to people watch, but we want to try to make the situation as comfortable as possible for both parties, and we want to be inconspicuous enough to not ruin the moment.
This is where a little acting can come into play. The most important thing is to act like you don’t notice the person you want to photograph that much. Look at things behind them, and to the side. They just happen to be in your way. Play the role of tourist, looking around. The more you do this, the more you will be able to get away with taking the photo unnoticed.
5. The camera snap and the way you move your camera
Similar to the last point, the way you move your camera can play a big part in keeping the situation candid. There is one thing that most photographers do, called the camera snap, where they take the camera away from their eye instinctively right after they take an image. Of course, there will be shots that you take so quickly that people won’t notice. But for other moments when the people notice you, this will often give away the fact that you were taking their photograph. Instead, take the picture and keep the camera up to your eye. Then move the camera away like you were taking a picture next to them and slowly remove the camera from your eye.
Similarly, you do not always have to point your camera directly at people right away to capture the image. Instead, point the camera above or to the side of your subject as if you were taking an image of something behind them. Then at the last second, move the camera over them, take the image, and move on.
6. Hold the camera up high
Whenever possible, try to keep your camera in your hands and at attention when you are photographing. If you allow it to hang off your neck, then when an amazing moment occurs you will have to locate and grab the camera before putting it to your eye. This is the least conspicuous way to capture an image.
Instead, try to keep the camera up high as much as you can. Then, when you take an image you will stand out less. It will feel much less conspicuous.
7. Zone focusing
Zone focusing is the technique of turning your camera to manual focus mode, pre-focusing it to a distance of about 8-10 feet, and then capturing your subject once they are in the range of sharpness for your camera. This is easier to do with a wide-angle lens with a medium to small aperture such as f/8 to f/16 so that there is more area of your image in focus. Keep in mind that this is a skill that can be improved – there are many photographers who can zone focus well even at f/2.
You can read more about zone focusing here, and while it is a little difficult to learn at first, you will quickly get much better at it. The main benefit of this type of focusing is so that you no longer have to lock the autofocus in on your subject. This allows you to be a little more spontaneous with your shooting, and it will give you an added split second to take the photograph. That, in turn, will allow you to better capture those very fast moving moments.
Most importantly, it will allow you to be a little more candid than you can be using autofocus. Since you won’t have to point the camera directly at your subject to lock in the focus nor will you have to look through the viewfinder to make sure you are focusing correctly, you can be much more inconspicuous. This will allow you to shoot from the hip and still know that your shots will be sharp.
I hope these tips help you do better candid street photography, and with more confidence.
So get out there, get close, and capture some amazing and spontaneous photographs!