Street Photography - Key Points

Sunday, January 17, 2016

 

One of my favourite subjects to photograph (and quite possibly my top favourite) is people. People are dynamic, they act and react, they're organic, they're alive, and possibly the most important factor, they convey emotions. As humans, we always react to emotions in one form or another, so capturing a moment in time where someone is expressing a type of emotion will always have an impact on the viewer.

 

But good and spontaneous facial expressions are hard to capture in street photography. We see them everyday and on special ocassions, but as soon as you raise that camera, our game is up. Our subject realises the awkward moment that some stranger is trying to photgraph them, their facial expression changes completely and we are now faced with looking them eye to eye or take the picture - albeit maybe not the picture we originally wanted.

 

Unlike studio portraiture, and to some extent, street portraiture, we can't request our subject to stand in a certain pose, smile, laugh or cry as we see fit, thus turning street photography into a challenge.

 

Nevertheless, shooting people in the street going about their daily lives is very rewarding, we never know what we might find that day and what expressions we'll be able to capture. After dozens of shots you might not have anything interesting, but sometimes you will probably find one or two pearls in the thick of it.

 

A few pointers:

 

Scout

In general, as a photographer, we always need to be on the look out for our next picture, always keep an eye out for possible interesting moments, and this is especially true for street photographers. Street photography is very elusive and very spontaneous. What we see as a possible great shot may just last a second, or a few minutes. So keep your eyes peeled, look to the horizon when you're walking on the street, see that subject coming towards you as soon as you can to give yourself time to prepare.

 

Be inconspicuous

We can't become invisible to take our shots as well as we would like to, so we have to act like we're not even trying. One of the most successful tips for a street photographer is to act like an idiot, clueless, we're a tourist, we're not even trying.

 

Example: If you're outside, point the camera upwards to the sky or something above you, as if you were taking a shot of a bird or building, then lower your camera to the subject - as if you were looking at your "sky" picture - and take your shot of the subject you want. They will think you're just checking your recent picture. It works, but it takes practice to snap it at the right time.

 

Avoid using the viewfinder. If you place the camera in front of your face, you will raise eyebrows and turn heads, people will suspect you trying to capture them and react accordingly, which might ruin your shot concept. Get the right camera for your style, my camera has a detachable screen, I bought it like that on purpose, precisely with the intention of using it for stealth shots. I take a lot of pictures with the screen deatched and facing me, while at the same time I'm pretending to switch and press the camera buttons. Your subject will think you're just browsing previous shots, or messing around with camera settings, but in fact you're composing that ideal shot you've been looking for.

 

Don't mind the shutter sound too much, it sounds extremely loud to us since we're so close to the camera, but for anyone else at a reasonable distance along with other 3rd party sounds it will go unoticed. Even if they do look, if your eyes are looking elsewhere and your camera is just on your lap with your hand casually over it, chances are you won't be subject to any suspicion from their part as long as you don't mash that button like it's going out of style.

 

Get a black camera. Although silver is coming back into style, and it seems everyone wants a vintage Leica camera with silver body and brown leather case, you should probably steer clear of that and find a black camera body and lens. Don't draw any attention to yourself with your clothing style or colours, or outstanding hairstyles, again, you want to be invisible.

 

Go for a small lens like a prime, a 50mm is usually my default lens when walking the streets. If you want to be able to play around with a certain degree of zoom, then feel free to carry an 18-140mm for example, but avoid carrying any telephoto (large zoom range) lenses like 70-200 or 300mm, they're too heavy and you'll just give your game away before you even realize it. People will see your massive camera and think "there's a photographer", and suddenly you're not a clueless tourist anymore.

 

Know the gear you buy

In photography there is not a substantial definition of right or wrong, in the end what matters is the final picture. With that in mind, there is a massive range of paraphernalia, so we need to make sure that the gear we have works for us and makes our lives easier.

Knowing what and how you shoot will be a tremendous help to get the right photos, but for street photography, you will also need to figure out - with practice - how to hold your camera. These next examples are related to how to be inconspicuous, remember: you're trying to be invisible if you're planning to shoot people going about their business, so knowing where your lens is aiming when you're shooting from the hip is mandatory to get the composition right. Most times when shooting people, you will simply not be able to use your viewfinder, or even the detacheable LCD if you have one, so you have to go blind.

 

Example: Going up or down an escalator, if you see an interesting subject behind you, place your camera next to your hip/leg, facing the subject, aim, and shoot. Shoot multiple times with slight changes in aim and tilt to see if you can get just the right composition, make sure your focal length is appropriate and/or just a bit farther than you intend so you can crop later in post (but careful with distortion depending on what lens you're carrying).

 

Another example is shooting while sitting down. If you're sitting in a café, you can use a table to set your camera, aim and shoot while your hand is casually over the camera and your attention is focused elsewhere. Or if sitting on a train, shooting a subject in front of you is fairly simple with the camera in your lap, and again, your attention focused elsewhere.

 

In short, know the focal lenght of the lens you're carrying and know where and how to aim it in while 'blind'.

 

Use an appropriate lens

Aim for good quality glass. You don't need thousands of £ worth of lens to begin with, that will come when you have a sustainable income with plenty to spare. But aim for good quality lenses nonetheless. Usually the main manufacturers have the best quality control and standards, like Nikon or Canon. The auto-focus engine on these usually works better and faster (meaning faster focus times) and the glass and lens coatings are usually of better quality. In addition, the build is generally more robust and has a higher quality plastic type. With that said, it's always useful to check third party manufacturers like Sigma or Tamron, but make sure you do the homework and check reviews comparing equivalent lenses - or similar - from the different manufacturers.

 

Personally I love carrying the 50mm around; it's light (weighing around 270g) when compared to the weight of an 85mm, which is about 590g. Another plus is that it makes you actually think about your composition. If you're lugging around a zoom, most likely you'll find yourself moving less, and wasting time messing with the zoom ring trying to get the composition right. I find it handy on some occasions, but for the most part, I like not having to think about zooming or distortion and just work the composition with my feet, after a while you just know where the framing limit of your 50mm lens is.

 

Also, because most 50mm have fast aperture speeds, the 'bookeh' is also fantastic on these, you can really isolate your subject from the rest of the background, but still give it enough context to understand where your subject is. At only one meter away from your subject you get roughly just 4cm of focus, giving your shots a really 'creamy' depth of field.

 

Of course, the 50mm is not everyone's ideal one lens setup, you might find yourself prefering a different lens altogether and that's fine. For example, a 35mm with a wider field of view is also pretty great for street photography. Remember, what matters is that the final photograph looks good and to have fun while shooting.

 

 

 

These are some of the key points to aim for in street photography, I hope it's of some help for whoever is interested in picking this up as a hobby or otherwise. Just remember to have fun while doing it, practice a lot, get out there and shoot, and stay out of trouble. Inform yourself on what the law says about photographing people in the street in your country and you'll be fine.

 

Here is a video by Matt Hart that mentions some of the points above, among others.

 

Have some other tips or techniques you'd like to add? Have a different opinion? Please let me know in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

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