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7 Tips for Overcoming Nerves When Doing Street Photography

Good street photography can sometimes look deceptively easy to do yourself. All you have to do is be in the right place at the right time, get a little lucky, and bam – you have an incredible, one-of-a-kind photograph.

Astor Place Newsman, New York Street Photography

However, the reality is much more difficult than that, and it’s something that can surprise photographers when they try it. Suddenly, everything is moving so fast. You look around, but you don’t actually see any amazing moments. Then when you do capture something that you thought looked good, it didn’t turn out anything like you imagined.

These are all things that take time and practice to improve at, but the hardest obstacle for people to overcome with street photography is fear. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of it all. People are looking at you. Even the people who you aren’t photographing are watching from the side. You freeze, you have trouble putting the camera to your eye, and it doesn’t feel as fun as it should because you are so nervous! Fear stops too many people before they start, and this is a shame because it’s a very enjoyable type of photography.

Here are some tips to help you get over those street photography fears so you can enjoy yourself out there.

1. Think about what you will say if someone stops you

SoHo, New York Street Photography

The thing that will make you the most comfortable out there is knowing that you have a plan if someone stops you after you have taken their photograph. This rarely ever happens to me, but when it does, I feel confident in how I can handle myself.

First of all, if someone notices me, I always smile. Acting confident and like you’re not doing anything wrong will make the subject more comfortable. If you’re sneaky and look sheepish, they will see that you look guilty and be much more inquisitive.

Then if someone asks you why you took their photograph, tell them the truth. I say that I am a photographer doing a cultural project on the people and streets of New York, and I thought they looked fabulous. Flattery will help you get out of most situations. Or tell them you are a student. Offer to email them the photograph. Explain that you find people and fashion and things of that nature just as interesting as the buildings. If the person then continues to seem uncomfortable or angry, apologize and say that you didn’t mean to make them uncomfortable and you are happy to delete the photograph. That will diffuse most situations.

2. Choose your subjects wisely

SoHo, New York Street Photography

If someone looks angry, stressed, scary, or in any way that makes you uncomfortable, you are NOT to photograph them. More subjects will come soon after. By picking the right people, you will make things much easier for yourself, and that will also make you feel more comfortable.

3. Go to a busy place and let people come to you

Canal Street, New York Street Photography

This is one of my favorite tips. While street photography can and should be done in areas without many people, one of the best things you can do is to photograph where a lot is going on. Go to busy street corners, markets, or festivals. Go at times when things are happening. Follow the action.

This will immediately ease your fears somewhat. In those areas, people will be too busy to notice you and will be used to people with cameras. It will give you time to practice and to get comfortable with the act of shooting street photography.

Take this a step further, by picking a spot and letting things happen around you. You do not always have to walk around to search for a photograph. By staying in the same location, you will be quicker to notice moments as they occur, you will already be in position, and people will be entering your personal space instead of you entering theirs. This will help to make you feel a lot more comfortable.

4. Try some street portraiture

Skater, Street Portrait, New York Street Photography

Start out the day with some street portraits. Stop someone, tell them they look great and that you’re doing a project on people in the area, and ask if you can take a few quick photographs. Some photographers will then just capture a couple quick photographs, mumble a thank you, and run off, but I want you to interact with them.

Make conversation as you photograph and capture them from a couple angles. Compliment them and make their day. Doing this will make both you and the subject happier, and it will help remove the creepy feeling that can happen when shooting street photography.

5. Learn to be candid

No matter how comfortable you become shooting in these environments, it is important to learn to act candidly. If everyone stops you to ask if you took their photograph or if everyone notices you right away to ruin the moment, you will not get anywhere. Learning to act candidly will make you feel much more comfortable.

SoHo, New York Street Photography

The camera snap

The most important tip, probably in this whole article, is what I call the camera snap. As photographers, one of our instincts is to slightly take the camera away from our eye right after we take a picture. Everyone does this, and this is how people notice that you have taken their photograph – it’s the main thing that tips them off. So instead, take the photograph and keep the camera to your eye as they pass completely by. This will make them think that you are just photographing the background and that they got in your way.

This way of shooting works fantastically well in busy areas, but in areas with fewer people, it can help to change it up a bit. Instead of aiming the camera at a subject right away, this time, aim the camera at a building above or a scene to the side of them. Then at the last second, act like you took the photograph and are moving your camera down, take the picture of them, and move on.

It cannot hurt to play a role as well. Some of the best street photographers are fantastic actors; they have a way of looking the dumbest with their cameras. They furrow their brow and act like they don’t know how to use the camera at all, are testing it out, and don’t even notice that the person is right where they are photographing. Some even act like tourists. It’s hilarious and it works.

6. Don’t shoot from the hip

SoHo, New York Street Photography

Shooting from the hip is an important practice in street photography. I do it about 30-40% of the time, but I do it with my camera right below my eyes, looking like I’m standing there waiting for something to happen instead of putting the camera very low down. If you are just starting out with street photography, particularly with a large DSLR and zoom lens, this will be your first instinct.

It can be important to learn to shoot from the hip, particularly for the moments that you really want to keep candid, but I suggest staying away from it at first. It can become too much of a crutch and it can make you more uncomfortable in the long-run as you will always feel like you are sneaking around. You need to learn to put the camera to your eye at first to both get good photographs and to improve your confidence. Force yourself to shoot with your camera to your eye as much as possible, and as you get more experienced, then you can experiment with shooting from the hip some of the time.

7. Repetition

5th Avenue, New York Street Photography

Nothing will get you more comfortable out there than shooting frequently. Even if it is only ten minutes here or there, try to not go too long without photographing. These skills are like any other in that you will quickly get rusty, and this will make you feel more self-conscious. Turn your photography into a routine, even if it is only once every two weeks, and you will become much better.

Now that you’ve read all of this, just get out there and go for it. Put a smile on your face, enjoy the walk, and have fun with it!

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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