Practical Tips To Build Your Street Photography Confidence

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The noble pursuit of street photography requires a good measure of cunning and bravado. Of course, there is the ever present hurdle of luck and opportunity. Beyond knowing your streets, their patterns and ad hoc events, getting that wonderful shot is a guessing game.

When you are in the right place and you see the converging paths that will result in a great decisive moment, you need to be able to capture the scene. This can be learned and practised. Here are some practical tips to help you build your street photography confidence.

I feel like I’m wearing a sign that says, “Look everyone, a street photographer!”

I know what you mean. When I first started out, doing street photography, I was so focused on seizing photo opportunities I could see people staring back at me. On numerous occasions people I spotted as a potential photo saw me and moved away. Market vendors are deeply suspicious and, even now, I still get glared at.

I quickly realized I was missing shots because I was looking conspicuous and acting a bit weird. That slow purposeful walking and excessive bobble headed looking, then stopping and staring for longer than normal people stop and stare. Very conspicuous.

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What changed?

Tourists. London is a tourism mecca and even on week days, the capital is buzzing with visitors from all corners of the globe. I take quite a lot of photos of tourists but, when I don’t want them in my shot, they can be quite annoying. In fact, tourists annoy everyone as they parade through other peoples’ photos with no remorse. Here’s the real value though. While people are irritated with tourists being in their way, they are also tolerated. Others, particularly locals, don’t shy away from their business. They jostle through the visitor throng, or continue their conversations. Tourists are, for the most part, ignored!

This was a great revelation for me and, as a street photographer, I decided to be just like a tourist.

Don’t look conspicuous

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Dress casually and for walking

Check the weather and wear layers for the best and worst of the predicted forecast. I would steer clear of photographer jackets and other ‘practical’ photographer clothing. Think tourist: jeans, sweaters, hoodies, etc. I’ve tried a street photo walk in a three piece suit after a morning meeting. Don’t wear a suit either!

Personally, I recommend a small camera

Before you all jump to berate me, this is my recommendation for being inconspicuous as a street photographer. I used to walk the streets with a 1D Mark IIn and a 50mm f/1.2L lens. An extraordinarily capable camera with a decent fast lens. More often than not, the people I paused to photograph would see this camera and curtly move aside because the professional wants to take a photo and we’re in the way. And the shutter! On a train, I would stealthily raise this camera and fire off a shot. The looks I would get from people being loudly ‘papped’!

Use the neck strap on your camera

Raising a camera from your side to your face could be enough to be seen. With your camera around your neck, raising it to your eye is much less apparent. Of course, you can point your body and shoot ‘from the hip’ without moving the camera.

Carry a small bag or backpack

I take a spare battery, SD card, lens cleaner pen, business cards and a waterproof bag. That’s all, for the entire day’s shooting.

You don’t need a tripod.

Now step forth and be bold

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So now you look pretty much like a stereotypical tourist with a camera, how do you act like one?!

Tourists look around a lot and walk slowly, but casually, taking in the scenery. As an exercise, try putting your camera in its bag and just walk around taking in the location. Can you still carry off that casual saunter with your camera in your hand or around your neck?

The second tip, and equally as important as the first, is to look through people rather than at them. Tourists look at the scenery and other people are simply obscuring their view. People will quickly realise they are not the focus of your attention if you are looking past them to what is behind them. It will take a while, but you’ll become practised with seeing a potential photo whilst still looking nonchalant.

Personally, I shoot with a rangefinder. Most of my shots are from around 15 feet away, so I leave my lens focused at that distance for quick response captures, like when someone walks toward you.

Otherwise I will focus for distance and then frame the shot. The trick here is to focus on another object which is the same distance as your subject. Then turn to your subject and shoot. You have minimized the time you are gazing at them by focusing elsewhere.

Street Portraits

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Occasionally I will see someone who would make a great street portrait. I carry business cards around and this supports my brand as a street photographer. It’s this that gives me that needed boost to actually approach someone.

Be bold and polite and, this is imperative, know how you want them to pose. You have one chance to get them in position, after all, they’re doing you a favour.

As I approach the person I might say, “Hi, I really like your outfit/tattoo/hair/etc and I wondered if I can take your portrait?”

Take one shot. Check composition on your LCD. Take one more if necessary.

This is where I thank them and hand over a business card. I explain I’m a street photographer and point out my web site so they can go find their picture. This post photo exchange makes me feel less of an intruder and, hopefully, they are not fazed by the two minute distraction either.

Final thoughts

Hopefully these small tips will help you take street pictures while getting over the nervousness of simply trying to take photos. Through practice and experience, you will learn how people react and what you can get away with.

I don’t like to invade the intimate privacy of people or chase them down or ask them to walk back along the route I liked, so I do have a line I won’t cross, but I don’t miss a shot through lack of confidence.

Good luck!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Michael Walker-Toye is a professional Photographer, based in Essex and just outside of London. You can follow his photo blog, The Stormtroopers Are Coming!, on Facebook, on Twitter as @RealMichaelToye and 'michaeltoye' on Instagram.

  • Trevor

    I am not the best street photography but I love this photo I took in the Philippines in January.

  • Really good sense of movement and fun there Trevor. Well done 🙂
    Michael

  • Hugh J

    I love the fully articulating LCD on my Panasonic. Find a place to sit and have it on my lap. It helps get rid of or greatly reduce the characteristic ‘profile’ of the photographer holding up a camera.

  • Wileenie

    Great article. Can you tell me what small camera you use? Thanks!

  • I use a Leica Monochrom with a 35mm Summicron-M. My wife has an Olympus OMD-EM5 and I think that would make a great street camera too.

  • Haha, very sneaky Hugh!

  • Elindaire

    Good tips, also another great tip is to camp out at location and wait for the right people to set the rest of the scene.
    http://elindaire.smugmug.com/Elindaire/i-DbpBwfH/0/L/DSCF1814-L.jpg
    http://elindaire.smugmug.com/Elindaire/i-jNLtwTF/0/L/DSCF1913-L.jpg

  • Joseph C. Halliday

    Good article. Another thought to keep in mind is the fact that everyone, at all times, now carries a camera. Literally everyone is snapping pics with their phones, so why shouldn’t you? Just because you use a dedicated still camera, it shouldn’t be a faux pas. Just relax, let your mind be free, and good pics will follow.

  • That is a super tip but, honestly, this isn’t going to boost your confidence to shoot people up close.
    Michael

  • Joseph, it sounds like you’ve gone through that nervous first stage! I do hope with this article that people who are still in that stage might use my pointers to go out whilst still a bit timid.

  • Manas Pradhan

    The tip of being a tourist and taking photos is really helpful since people do not mind taking photos of the things around them . So, it can act like a deception and still maintain what you want from the photograph. I am trying to get closer to the people and shoot but i guess will take me a lot of practise and patience.

  • Brett Ossman

    Curious. Do you sell street photography? If so, what about model releases? Kind of hard to be inconspicuous, and get a model release. 🙂 Also, if you do get a release, how many folks want a cut of the profits? LOL

  • Joseph C. Halliday

    I most definitely went through that stage… At times I’m still there!

  • I sell my work as fine art, so I don’t get model releases. I do promise street portraits a cut of the profits, but I haven’t had to cross that bridge yet – I rarely take them

  • Paul McGuire

    Kids in the Philippines are always fun to photograph. Though they tend to pose as soon as they realize you are there, as seen in this photo I took recently..

  • Deborah Maguire

    tried to capture the colours and busi-ness of a European street

  • JVodicka Photography

    Love these tips and can’t wait to get back out shooting!
    https://www.facebook.com/jvodickaphotography

    Back Street Boys- taken in Bali in January

  • Johan Bauwens

    I love my new Canon 6D as it’s so quiet

  • Bryce Steiner

    Declaring work fine Art means you don’t have to get a release? I never heard that before, but I’d be interesting in knowing more. That has been one of my hindrances of street photography.

  • I travel with an unobtrusive Nikon 3100 and a cheap 50 mm 1.8 lens. Usually I simply ask strangers straightforward for their permission if I could take their photo. Sign language works well too. Four out of five do agree. Maybe, because I am old.
    Find examples at My Trip to Java.
    Safe travels, Matt http://www.konniandmatt.blogspot.com

  • Cora Chasm

    I love photography … this is once of my streetphoto 🙂 The photo was taken in Barcelona (Spain) two years ago … Have a nice day

  • Jay Fitz

    I spent two weeks in Mexico, practicing my “street photography” for the first time. Although nervous at times, I did as Michael says, tried to be bold and to blend in. I never much used auto settings before, but I felt it helped me avoid losing the moment. I used a 5D Mark II, switching lenses often (24-70 and 70-200), but I feel it was worth it to have the full-frame and higher res. Great article. https://www.flickr.com/photos/timshel2010/sets/72157641080550025/

  • Dave Carter

    Street photography can be dangerous to your career and reputation. Because I took a photo of three girls in bikinis at a public beach, with their permission, I am now being “assessed” by the F.B.I. to see if I am a “threat” to the children of the community in which I live. I have had to end an 8 year relationship and lost my job as a substitute teacher. My attorney has said they have no case but the mere accusation was enough to destroy any credibility I had as a photographer.

  • Andrew S

    I am still trying to get the skill in my veins. Still an amateur.

    (1st): When I saw this lady nodding to sleep, I was all ready to fire the shutter. Had to wander around as if looking for something to snap, to prevent her from knowing that she is on my crosshairs.
    (2nd): Seated by the roadside and watching the world go by and this lady happen to catch my attention.
    (3rd): Did a fast snap and walk on. Love the focus and concentration on people plying their craft.

    I tend to not look the subjects in the eyes. I look around them and “act” as if I am shooting something else, for fear of insulting them. Hope I am not breaking the street photography ethics.

    The pictures were all taken in Hanoi, Vietnam.

  • Johan Bauwens

    Actually it doesn’t seem busy :-). And the colours are off and it’s too dark.

  • Johan Bauwens

    I find taking pics of kids without their parents consent not done, but maybe outside of Europe it’s different.

  • richard cooper

    I have found out by trial an error after doing street photography for several years, NEVER ask a subject if I can take their picture or portrait. Most often they will say no.
    Instead, ask the subject if I can give them their portrait. Most often they say yes. Take no, give yes.

  • Shaz

    You only need model release for images that are used for commercial purposes i.e.. to sell a product. Not to sell the image itself.

  • lday54t

    Love the pointers but what about posting the pictures or selling your street photogrpahy . Is there rules on street photography?

  • AndrewM

    Hi there. Nice article 🙂 I just wanted to ask you a question, since you’re a professional street photographer. Do I always need to have my photos in B&W to count as street photography?

  • Keith Lecky

    How does the legal side of this work? As in ownership of the image etc etc.
    Going to Rome in a few weeks and hopefully get some nice candid shots, but can I then post them on the internet for example or print them if I wish?

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    I throw peanut M&Ms on the sidewalk to distract people. Always worked well for me until a kid with a peanut allergy ate one.

  • I would recommend a small camera such as the Fujifilm X70. The clunky noise of a DSLR just put me off.

  • hocestquisumus
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