A Simple Way to Conquer Your Fear of Street Photography

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Frustrating, isn’t it? You are ready to go out, your camera is in your hands, it’s a nice day outside and once you actually go where people are….panic starts settling in. It’s that old fear of street photography.

It’s almost like, as soon as you start putting the camera to your eye, your heart starts beating faster and you start sweating. You can’t think about the picture anymore, it’s gone. You are pretty sure you can get a nice shot if only you could get close enough. But you chose to play it safe and settle for some wide angles where everyone is pretty far away.

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That, my friends, is called the fear of street photography. And if you are reading this, I am pretty sure you want to get rid of it, right? The good news is, you not only can, it’s actually probably not the way you think. Oh, and take it from a guy that couldn’t even look his own older brother in the eye.

But before diving into the logistics of fear, let’s get two things straight and out of the way first.

1 – Getting closer means nothing

There’s an unspoken creed amongst street photographers, it’s the notion that that you always need to be close for it to be a good image. While it is probably better to be closer than not, that’s just one thing. A bad image is a bad image, whether it’s close or far away. Just getting close won’t magically make an image good. Look at the image below, I’m not particularly close to the guy in the middle and he’s not even facing me!

fear-street-photography-3It’s not just about getting close. There are far away images that are great and very close images that are the epitome of boring. If anything, you might NOT want to get too close to people, so that you can include them and their surroundings. All of this to say what? Street photography is an art form, it’s about images, and getting closer sometimes has no bearing on the final results!

2 – A smaller camera is better

Some cameras bring more attention to them than others. No one would really notice a pocket camera, but pull out a double battery DSLR with a large lens and you will be noticed. So, use a small camera, it’s de facto less attention on you, at least for the time being.

With that being said, let’s get to the nitty gritty of fear!

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People don’t really care about what you do

Sorry to break it to you. You are not so important that all the people in the street want to do is to notice you. Except if you are Brad Pitt, or Beyonce. If you are, call me! If you are just a regular Joe like the rest of us, the bottom line is this; people just don’t care about you. They care about themselves, and it’s easy to prove. Just go out in the streets without a camera and ask yourself how many of these people actually notice you.

Hint: Very few, most likely none will notice you.

Psychology tells us we all have something called the spotlight effect, where we believe a spotlight on us, that everyone notices us, but that is not the case, it’s just how we feel. But it’s not the same when you have a camera with you and near, right? Yes and no. Again, most people won’t notice you with a camera, but even if they do, what’s the problem?

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Why you fear street photography

What’s the problem if people notice you taking a picture of them? Well, let me ask you a question. Don’t worry, it relates to the matter at hand. Do you feel guilty when your boss pays you? The answer (except if you are doing something fishy) is probably NO. Because you exchanged value for it. Your time and skills in exchange for his/her money, nothing wrong there.

But it’s not the same on the streets. There you feel like you are TAKING something from the person you are photographing. Something that is theirs, and you took it. That’s called stealing, right? So doesn’t it logically follow that you feel fear because you fear being caught at thievery? It’s easily proven. As soon as you ask for permission the fear dissipates because there is no more tension.

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You fear because you think you are doing something inherently wrong. Let’s look at it in another way, do you feel any fear when just walking down the street? No, because you don’t feel you are doing anything wrong. Fear in street photography comes from fearing the reaction of others to your perceived wrong-doing. And between me and you, if I was stealing, I would feel fearful!

The cure for fear

The answer then is understanding the value exchange that happens on the street. You are not taking anything, you are making a photograph. You are creating something. Of all the people and things to photograph, you have chosen one person to make an image of them. You have acknowledged that person’s existence and importance.

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Sounds cheesy? The photograph is the ultimate ego tool. Check your Facebook, everyone is clamoring for attention through their selfies. Why can’t you be the one that bestows that attention on them with your lens?
Images are so powerful, that a Japanese photographer got carte blanche to photograph Yakuzas, Japanese mafia. Quite powerful, no?

By making a photograph of someone, you are acknowledging their existence, something that every one of us needs and desires at a deep level of our psyche.

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The exchange between you and the subject

Go down the street, give a nod to someone. Smile, and say hello. You have just altered someone’s day with your acknowledgment. Images are like that, they are visual acknowledgment. Once you stop seeing what you’re doing (photographing them) as something that’s wrong and actually see it as something good by exchanging value (they get to participate in the making of an art piece in exchange for their photo) your outlook will start to change. And by doing so you change your way of approaching street photography and the fear will dissipate.

The street photographer’s posture

This is truly where the magic happens because here’s a truth – the street reacts to you. The way you are in the street will dictate how people react to you. That’s the whole secret. But wait. If that was the whole secret, why then did I write all of the stuff above? Couldn’t I just cut to the chase, get right to this part? The streets react to you, so it’s all about appearing confident, right?

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Well, not really because I don’t believe you can fake it. I could tell you to go up and down the streets and act confident, to fake it till you make it so to speak. But I think people smell these things like a dog smells fear. If you think you are doing something wrong, it’s probably going to show in your posture and people will react accordingly.

Street Karma

Think about this with me – you look out your window and this guy is just strolling by your house, all happy go lucky. Then you look out your window once again and see this shady looking guy, looking right and left, as if he is doing something wrong. How are you going to react towards each one? Towards the first one you might even smile, but to the other, you may be ready to call the police.

The same rule applies on the street, it’s called street karma. You will get out of it the energy that you put into it. And it’s no woo-woo stuff either. It’s because of mirror neurons, those things in your brain that make you tend to mimic others. The street reacts to you. That’s what makes the difference between getting a dirty look and a smile of amusement.

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Conclusion

As you have seen, people care less about you than you may think, and the streets react according to how you hold yourself. Act like a thief, be treated like one. But act like you are enriching the world, and people will react differently.

Such things can be faked. It all comes from knowing that what we are doing in the street isn’t anything wrong. Indeed we are not thieves because as photographers we seek to simply interpret the reality that is in front of us with our lens. Now go out there and shine forth. Be yourself, stay focused, and keep on shooting.

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Olivier Duong

is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

  • slobizman

    I’ve always somewhat disagreed with the widespread notion that you will bug people less if you use a small camera or smartphone. In my opinion, when we do this (and that’s what I do, btw, I don’t have a DSLR), the subject probably thinks, “what’s that man doing taking my picture?” But if you look like a “photographer” with a larger setup, the subject probably thinks that it’s just a photographer doing what he does, taking photos–that it’s nothing personal.

  • Joaozito Polo

    exactly… with the mobile or small camera, we seem like a hunter.

  • Jim Wolff

    I agree about using a smaller camera, and today, there are some pretty good, smaller, mirrorless DSLR cameras that are perfect for Street Photography. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to have one (yet). Even they can be quite pricey, especially when you have already invested a lot of money in a good DSLR (such as a D750) and all the glass you have purchased for it.

    For me, in the meantime, I use my 70-300 zoom to get fairly good shots from a distance without being noticed, however, the drawback is that I always have to have good bright light.

  • Jacques du Toit

    “People don’t really care about what you do
    Sorry to break it to you. You are not so important that all the people in the street want to do is to notice you. Except if you are Brad Pitt, or Beyonce. If you are, call me! If you are just a regular Joe like the rest of us, the bottom line is this; people just don’t care about you. They care about themselves, and it’s easy to prove. Just go out in the streets without a camera and ask yourself how many of these people actually notice you.”

    Tell that to the lady that was stabbed to death while doing street photography, by two homeless guys that noticed her and wanted to be paid for their photos.

  • Marty Martel

    I guess she should have paid them. I don’t normally take photographs of homeless people but when I do I offer them a cigarette or a dollar etc. I don’t smoke buy I always have a pack going for the right situation.

  • Harold Lindsey

    You make a lot of very good points, but there is one I’d like to have your opinion on. What if people are offended because their image is personal and they want to control what happens to it? What if the street person doesn’t trust YOU? The way images can be altered and manipulated these days is amazing. Once I take a photograph, it belongs to me! If someone just randomly began taking pictures of ME without my permission, I would be seriously concerned about that. AND, I try to consciously treat people the way I want to be treated. Your thoughts please.

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