Street Photography for the Novice

Street Photography for the Novice

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A Guest Post By Kimberly Gauthier

street-photography-novice.pngStreet photography is a fantastic idea in theory, but when I first took a crack at taking pictures on the streets of Downtown Seattle, I got nothing. I walked around for an hour, spotting great photo ops, holding my camera tight against my chest, waiting for someone to either yell at me for taking their picture or steal my camera. It took a couple of years to get up the nerve to start taking pictures and now I always take my camera into the city. Here are 10 tips that helped me get over my street photography shyness.

1. Thieves! They’re All Thieves! – No, they’re not

I was convinced that every person who showed any interest in my camera was planning to jack my gear. It never occurred to me that people were wondering what I was doing. A DSLR camera is pretty impressive if you don’t already have one. The interchangeable lenses practically make us professionals. And now-a-days, everyone is walking around with a DSLR camera; so I’m never alone on the streets of Seattle.

2. Leave the camera bag behind

I used to take my bag and lenses – I needed them. It was a pain to lug all that about the city and changing lenses was hazardous in a crowd. Carrying around my gear screamed “I have over $2,000 worth of camera equipment, wanna steal it?” Now I choose a lens, usually my 50mm, and head out on the town. I just look like a tourist now.

3. Don’t photograph people without their permission

Okay, if a person is 100 feet away, they’re background noise. I’m talking about getting up into someone’s face with my 50mm lens. Some people don’t like that; it’s apparently intrusive. And people morph into celebrities who “want to be alone” when they see the paparazzi (that’s me) walking around.

So, I keep people in the background, I focus on a hand or legs, or I offer to pay with a dollar or a print (yep, that works). I get weird when a family member points a camera at me; I have to respect that people are going to get weird when a stranger does the same.

4. Stay out of the stores

This is a definite no no. Thankfully, I didn’t learn this one first hand – I called beforehand. I can only guess that the stores think I’m from the competition, taking pictures of their inventory and layout, so I can open up shop across the street. A barista told me that competitors would take pictures of her pastry set up to use in their marketing materials. Ballsy! Whatever the case, you can’t take pictures in the big name stores. Some of the smaller, non-chain, boutiques are okay with photographers; it doesn’t hurt to ask.

5. Go to the tourists spots

Want to challenge yourself? Go to a tourist hot spot and take the pictures the tourists miss. I love hoofing it down to Pike Place Market. I’m surrounded by cameras, so no one pays any attention to me. The vendors, street musicians, and tourists are used to photographers so no weirdness there. And because I’m not a tourist, I can focus on finding and composing great shots. Take pictures of popular subjects in your own, unique way. Bring patience with you, because when it’s crowded, people always get in your shot.

6. On the flip side, go to a non-touristy spot

Challenge yourself by going to the non-obvious locations or a less traveled path to capture something interesting. Instead of taking pictures at The Market, go one block east or north. When I’m at the zoo, I’ll go to the exhibits that have fewer visitors and try to get close to the ones that are closed.

7. If the subject’s not interesting, get closer

Macro and close up photography isn’t the answer to everything, but it can help turn the mundane into something interesting. Show the texture in the tree instead of the tree. Show the bee on a flower instead of the bush.
For this reason alone, I usually bring my 50mm f/2.8 macro lens along with me; it’s has proven to be the perfect walk about lens.

8. One shot; get it right

I do two things to make sure I’m happy when I upload to Lightroom. (1) I compose some of my images to capture three things, focusing on one and (2) I take 3-4 pictures of the subject; landscape, portrait, centered, to the right. This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it when compared to the disappointment of realizing that I didn’t get the shot and there’s no re-doing that moment.

9. Jump Off Settings

Another reason why I shied away from street photography was because I thought I’d miss my shot while bungling around with my camera settings. Now, when I hit the street, I take a test shot and then adjust my settings accordingly – this saves me loads of time as I’m walking down the street, because I don’t have to change all the settings that often, just a few tweaks here and there..

Once I got over the anxiety of shooting in public, I was heading off to the city with my camera regularly. The only people who seem to notice are other photographers. We take a moment to size each other up, take a peek at what we’re shooting with, and (in my case) if it’s another Sony Alpha photographer, there’s an energetic chat about gear and “glass.” This brings me to the last thing.

10. Bring business cards

I hand out business cards to other photographers (networking) and photography lovers (blog readers) every time I’m out and about. This is one of the few times when I get to network with photography lovers face to face, so I jump on this opportunity to make contacts.

Kimberly Authier writes a photography blog for amateur photographers at Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier.

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Some Older Comments

  • Sara July 19, 2011 07:51 pm

    Very good advice for me because I would love to photograph the streets! But I'm too shy to do it especially when I'm alone. If there's a friend with me taking photos too, then it's ok. I shouldn't be shy because I live in China and the local people love taking photos of me and usually without permission! So I should be allowed to photograph them too, right?

  • C-Da June 27, 2011 02:16 pm

    Kimberly,

    It will be great to see some of the pictures you took following all your rules (tips). Hey, can I add another tip to your list please.

    Tip 11: Ignore Kimberley's tips. yes really ! If you want creative freedom then you must.

    It also depends on which city you live in. The first two tips don't apply to Bangkok. I find it relatively safe and there are so many tourists here and every one now a days seems to have a DSLR with a super zoom sticking out of it.

    I belong to the Bruce Gilden school of street photography. I offer no apologies, business cards, money, beer, candies, nothing.

  • C-Da June 27, 2011 02:14 pm

    Kimberly,

    It will be great to see some of the pictures you took following all your rules (tips). Hey Can I please add another tip please.

    Tip 11: Ignore Kimberley's tips. yes really ! If you want creative freedom then you must.

    It also depends on which city you live in. The first two tips don't apply to Bangkok. I find it relatively safe and there are so many tourists here and every one now a days seems to have a DSLR with a super zoom sticking out of it.

    I belong to the Bruce Gilden school of street photography. I offer no apologies, business cards, money, beer, candies, nothing.

  • Jaime Andres Davila June 22, 2011 06:54 am

    thanks for the complete advice, usually I have that feeling that I'll be robbed (well I live in a non-safety country) but I think you're right, it's possible to shoot in the city

  • Paul June 17, 2011 07:39 pm

    Not without it's risks, but sounds rewarding?

  • David Brewster June 17, 2011 08:36 am

    I'm also from the 'don't ask permission' school for all the reasons in other comments. Bottom line: over its long history, street photography has been about absolute candour, and that means not connecting with the subject.

    Best advice I took was from a previous article by James Maher posted on this site, the main point being to learn to shoot from the hip. The other point: shoot heaps, knowing you'll only end up with a handful of keepers.

    (As an aside, James Maher's article really ramped up my street photography to the extent that I now have a daily photoblog dedicated to street photography around Melbourne. Thanks DPS! www.streetsofmytown.net)

  • David Gee June 17, 2011 07:40 am

    The debate about whether to ask permission or not is very relevant. Kimberly Gauthier has provided advice which is most appropriate in this day and age as privacy is being valued and photographers rights to photograph anywhere and anything is regrettably being questioned. Yes by all means take photos up close without permission, but be ready for a hostile response. Ten years ago in China I took a photo from the other side of a street of a group of interesting looking people with a film SLR. One of the women yelled and spat at me as we crossed the road - I thought she had not noticed. Excellent studies in China of public outdoor mahjong players are available, but most participants resent westerners presuming that they are fair game for a photo. You do need to be quick and unobtrusive. In the past good advice seemed to be wide-angle lenses for the street, but now I think the use of short or even long telephotos is a good way to go.

  • Peter June 17, 2011 06:20 am

    Ad. item 3, if you want to see a really crazy street photographer check out this video:
    http://youtu.be/IRBARi09je8
    If you know Bruce Gilden you know what I'm talking about, he gets into peoples faces (with a flash) and doesn't care what anyone thinks. If someone objects, he simply says "I'm shooting the street, I didn't know you own it!". Hehehe, he's a character...

  • Courtney Dirks June 17, 2011 02:59 am

    Great tips! As a novice I think about all these subjects quite a bit and I'm still in the awkward, stumbling stage where I'm trying to figure out settings and such as I go. I take quite a bit of product shots indoors for jewelry I sell, but it's much different when you're out on the street taking shots of people, with different lighting and so on. It was neat to read through the eyes of a fellow Seattleite, thinking about the market and visualizing all the tourists, vendors and entertainers. Thanks for sharing & I hope to read further posts from you on DPS!

  • rio June 17, 2011 02:38 am

    Interesting pointers. I've only gone out once to do some street photography both in tourist spots and busy districts in San Francisco, had 2 bodies (both with grips) and maybe only 3 people even bothered to talk to me about it. Next time I go out, I still intend to bring two bodies but without grips (HEAVY!!).

    However, when I don't have my DSLRs, I do have a smart phone that takes pretty nice pictures. I use my phone more often for daily photographing.

  • Selena June 17, 2011 02:33 am

    This was a fun article to read and so many different point of views. In my experience it's been fun to photograph kids! They LOVE their photos taken and get all silly and giggly. I would probably ask permission though if it were just one kid by themself, but get a group of city kids together and they will put on a great show :)

  • Fairuz June 17, 2011 02:19 am

    I live in stunning Cape Town and I love going into the city to take photographs. I work in the city, but on the days I take my camera I see the streets differently. Often people will ask me where I'm from and are flabbergasted to hear I live just a few kilometres away. There is an energy on the streets that I absolutely love.
    I am drawn to little barber and hair braiding stalls.
    My next project is to capture my city at night. It is something I struggled with years ago using film. Now at last I've embraced digital photography and I'll take on the challenge again.

  • Mason Resnick June 16, 2011 04:19 am

    #3 kills the whole idea of street photography.

    Be confident. Smile. Engage people. Act non-threatening. Use a small camera. Develop a technique that will not tip people off that you're taking their picture, and practice it at home. But don't ask permission unless you want to ruin the spontaneity that makes street photography distinctive and special.

    And remember, the law is on your side. As long as you are in a public place such as a city street, and you only use the images for non-commercial purposes, you have the legal right to photograph anybody without permission. All legal challenges to this basic right have been thrown out of court.

    BTW to Jim Clancy: Nice shot!

    You might want to read this for a better understanding of street photography...http://www.adorama.com/alc/article/Sidewalk-serendipity

    Good luck! Try some of these techniques...I'd love to read your follow-up success story!

  • George L Smyth June 15, 2011 11:40 pm

    To each their own, but there are two things that I do very differently.

    1. I never use a large camera (okay, my large camera is my view camera and I have started using it to shoot street photography, but that's a different discussion), but use either my Canon G11 or my Nikon T-35 (what? film?). These are unobtrusive, which is the only way to shoot.

    2. I never ask permission, as it removes the whole idea of shooting on the street (for me). I want to take pictures of people doing what they do. If I stop them and ask for their permission to shoot then they are now doing something for the camera.

    Bonus. I have started playing a game where the goal is to see how close I can get when taking a picture, and have gotten to the point where my 35mm lens (on a film camera, which is about 28mm on my G11) gets me too close. The way in which I do this is to act like I am taking a picture of something else, point the camera elsewhere, but know where my subject actually lies. While still looking at that other location I lower the camera, reposition to the subject, then take the picture. This allows me to be as unobtrusive as possible and remain relatively invisible.

  • Niki Jones June 15, 2011 12:01 am

    I'm with Scott C. Mostly I just pack my G10, it may not be quite a high quality but I can fit it in my pocket whenever I go out, whether I plan to shoot or not.

  • Jim C June 14, 2011 08:15 pm

    [eimg url='http://clancynet.com/photo/Paris_9902.JPG' title='Paris_9902.JPG']

    Asking permission first would probably have resulted in no photo. It took about 5 minutes to convince the character in the middle that he should let us keep the image because he had an interesting face. 28mm.

  • Victor June 14, 2011 06:58 pm

    I always keep some business cards (well sort of, it just has my name and email address) just in case I shoot someone and I can give them a card saying "If you want a copy of the pic email me and I'll send it to you as a thank you for letting me photograph you"

    I have, in the past, always had a pack of cigarettes with me. "I'll tell you what, trade you a smoke for a pic." I guess you can't really do that anymore.

  • Kalen June 14, 2011 10:21 am

    This is some great advice, I can't wait to take my camera out on the street!

  • fomu June 14, 2011 06:59 am

    thanks for your article. personally i take only street photos without permission. it saves me money :) but more important, you will get the expressions on peoples faces that are not posed. but that's a question of taste of course. i shout with 28mm or iphone4. just be brave and show your balls!

  • Akshay June 14, 2011 04:36 am

    Very educating article. I'm an amateur photographer in India trying to get acquainted with street photography. I went to the Gateway of India once to try and click a different picture than what people everyday click out there. I noticed a flock of pidgeons by the side feeding on the floor. The picture came out quite well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/akshay-vijayakar_photography/5811884472/in/photostream

  • Kat @ Living Like the Kings June 14, 2011 03:46 am

    I've had my DSLR for just over a year now and I have learned (mostly first hand, sigh) about most of this by now, but I still find it very helpful! I do need some business cards though!

  • Dave June 14, 2011 02:18 am

    I agre with Woods and Rob, #3 doesn't make much sense. What's the point in shooting street photography if you are going up and asking everyone if you can take their picture? If anything, THAT seems creepy. Agree with most of the other points though.

  • UA June 14, 2011 01:25 am

    The most best advice one can give to a street photography novice is..

    take a friend (with a camera) with you! For the first time at least.

    It helps a lot. It removes most of the shy factor, because you are both making "fools" of yourselves. Also, strangers will think that you're group of tourists and therefore they couldn't care less. And you quickly notice that actually most of the people do not really care, when you monitor your friend taking a picture. Strangers may take a quick look at you, but 99.99% of time they will just ignore (of course there are cutural differences here).

    Think about yourselves. When I see a group (that is 2 or more) of japanese tourists, there is always a hefty set of DSLRs in their hands.. and no one cares what they are shooting, since we automatically assume them to be tourists.

    And if you happen to live in a country, where stealing is a problem, the friend will be another set of eyes to look after your equipment.

    And when you finally are able to go on alone, remember that you will get less "bad" attention, if you look more casual and relaxed while shooting. If you look and act as a papparazzi/stalker or have a strong anxeity, you WILL get more bad attention.

  • carl June 13, 2011 09:24 pm

    I hope you can feature Loomax from Flickr, a great street photographer with a touch of hollywood.

  • Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier, Photography Blog June 13, 2011 02:23 pm

    A thank you to everyone who posted/share/read - and to Darren: http://www.kimberlygauthier.com/blogging/a-digital-photography-school-thank-you/5977/

    You guys made my weekend and taught me a lot!

  • diaha June 13, 2011 09:39 am

    Of course, being a kid always helps too. People just think I'm just playing around and don't ask questions other than "oh ain't that a nice little camera honney?" which is annoying but nothing more. Grin.

  • Jim C June 13, 2011 07:26 am

    This article is good for what it's good for...it just isn't what I think a novice needs.

    Shoot Shutter Priority 1/250th to freeze most action.

    Adjust ISO to the lighting scene for the desired depth of field from the f-stop you get at 1/250th. Test it. adjust it.

    Use a 28 or 35mm fixed lens. A 50mm is fine, too. Street photography has a lot to do with wading into the action you're trying to photograph. By using a fixed lens, you move into the scene rather than playing with your zoom ring. Better off working the focus ring.

    No bag, as noted. If you attach a battery grip, you may want to leave that at home, too.

    If you ask someone for permission BEFORE you shoot, you won't have a very candid scene. Just shoot it. Smile. Give them a thumbs up. Share a view of the photo and offer to e-mail them a free copy. Smile. If they insist they don't want to be in your shot, delete the photo in front of them. Smile. Having cards is a plus, but not the biggest part of this exercise by any measure.

    Get different angles, not just the ones fired from eye level.

    If your camera's auto focus is slow, go to manual focus.

    Work a scene...get different angles of ongoing street events.

    Try to put some context of where you are and what's happening in the background. In fact, work the background first and wait for the foreground subjects. Pay attention to eliminate garbage cans, parked cars, distracting signs and all the rest.

    Be aware of where your light is coming from and keep it to your side or back.

    Get faces, the backs of people aren't nearly as interesting.

  • Elizabeth June 13, 2011 06:01 am

    Living in the area, I've been to Pikes Place a few times since making the leap to DSLR, and have always found great shots. The last time I was there, I even spotted a wedding photographer (wedding party in tow) with umbrellas, gloves, and pretty dresses against a perfect brick wall, even an arch! I've made a mental note to get back there eventually.
    On my first visit, I made the mistake of hauling around my camera bag. I felt klutzy, and had a difficult time navigating, and was always worried about someone pick-pocketing my lens.
    By my second visit, I got smarter-- rather than only take a single lens (I have yet to purchase the 50mm), I opted for a backpack instead, which actually worked fairly well.
    I hope to continue into the future!
    Who knows, maybe one day, we'll happen to meet. :P

  • Richa June 13, 2011 04:22 am

    I am an amateur photographer and have recently developed this hobby. Street and people photography attracts me a lot. I always want to bring my camera out and click the crowd and market here in Kolkata (India) but I hold back. Every time I feel that someone will come and stop me. It has happened two or three times. I always wonder how other photographers click beautiful street and people shots. I have been looking for the articles related to this subject since the day I was stopped for the first time. This article is really helpful. It's very comforting to know that everyone faces this kind of situation and I need to learn how I can do my work tactfully in such situations. I have Nikon Coolpix P500 that is not big in size like D SLRs, but still it attracts people's attention. So I am planning to buy either a small compact camera or a mobile phone with camera for this purpose. Thanks for this article.

  • Frank Codispoti June 13, 2011 12:29 am

    i appreciate the advice in this article, but I do wonder about the advice to take the same lens on each trip. I would think that it would be better to vary the lens one takes to change the possible pictures that are available over time.

  • Madison Raine June 12, 2011 11:56 pm

    You said when your taking a picture you take it like a landscape, portrait and centered to right. You should also do it centered to left. When a person looks at something MOST of the time they look to the left first. I saw a study on it on the television. Just saying. But I like the article. Good advice. :)

  • Dick June 12, 2011 04:21 pm

    You are missing the point of Street Photography if you do not do people. Ask and talk and take the photo. What you are describing is more pictorial or architectural or city photography not Street!

  • Woods June 12, 2011 02:13 pm

    DO shoot people without asking their permissions, or that's not street photography. If you can't do it, find another type of photography where you feel comfortable. And Read Marco Fiori's post (3rd comment).
    -- Woods

  • ScottC June 12, 2011 01:22 pm

    I think being a foreigner living in Germany makes street photography a bit more challenging. I don't think the Germans are receptive to it either. Though great subjects are everywhere, I've personally never seen a photog here shooting street (at least in the obvious style in which street is usually described).

    The best I can do is use wide angle and aim off, and that's a bit sneakier than I prefer. For now, I stick to markets and other places where cameras are common and people are more used being photographed.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4960238945/

  • Jim June 12, 2011 11:29 am

    I live in a town with a population of very paranoid and suscipious people, Memphis TN. so most of my 'Street' is done cross street with my D7000 DSLR and a 70-300 vr without the lens hood and Battery pack, Then too I use My P7000 when on street so it is not screaming CAMERA. When I was in London a couple of years ago I did quite well doing street cause it really helps to have lots of people on the Street and no one is really paying attention. I guess the old saying of you got to blend in is True, so no funny hats or blazing orange clothes and when I get someone with a disapproving look, I just continue to look through the viewfinder until they pass on. But I will have gotten the frame.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 12, 2011 10:46 am

    This was a hybrid of action on a pier, which had a street going down the middle. I have no fear of wielding my camera anywhere - I guess it comes with confidence and lots of travel. My fave lens now is a 70-200mmf 2.8

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/on-the-pier/

  • Wayne June 12, 2011 09:24 am

    Great suggestions, this can be a lot of fun. From my experiences, I prefer a wide-angle zoom. With a DSLR, I'll literally 'shoot from the hip' to avoid attracting attention.

  • Rod June 12, 2011 08:48 am

    Very good advice. I use a Canon EOS 7D with about 6 lens and often take my Powershot G12 round when I don't want to lug the SLR gear round. My city Christchurch was hit by a big earthquake with lots of buildings down and there's plenty to shot now.

  • GradyPhilpott June 12, 2011 08:41 am

    Great article, especially for those of us who've not have the greatest of experiences in our street photography forays.

  • Luke P June 12, 2011 07:51 am

    I have not shot a lot of street photography for some of the same reasons that you have mentioned. Though I usually think of vacation or traveling when I think of street photography, I am sure there are just as many opportunities around my city. I'll try to use some of your tips.

  • Marco Fiori June 12, 2011 07:34 am

    Great piece and interesting opinions. I've written a rebuttal / response piece over on my site:

    http://www.facesoflondon.co.uk/2011/06/our-rebuttal-street-photography-for-the-novice/

  • Rob-L June 12, 2011 07:27 am

    Item 3 is just plain ol' bad advice.

  • Scott C June 12, 2011 06:34 am

    I'd rather use my Canon G7 for street, because my old 10D (with grip) is so enormous heavy and slow - think a 1980s mobile phone 'brick'. While a p&s isnt ideal in some respects, at least its inconspicuous.
    Thanks for this post, it's very encouraging.,

  • Brian G June 12, 2011 06:25 am

    There's a reason people use rangefinders for street photography. An SLR just screams "HEY EVERYBODY! I'VE GOT A CAMERA! I'M TAKING YOUR PICTURE!!!!". Rangefinders are so much less obtrusive and nearly silent. Just pick up a Yashica GSN or Canon Canonet and see how much less you're noticed and how much better the shots are you can get because of it.

  • LaShonda June 12, 2011 06:09 am

    At places like zoos and the like, do you take your flash with you?