Street photography is like hunting—you go out and wander around looking for good images to capture. Your “prey” could be just about anything: an interesting face, people sipping coffee at an outdoor café, a street vendor, a beggar, someone window-shopping, a crowd crossing Times Square—whatever you see that rouses your image-making desires. It doesn’t have to be on a street, of course. “Street photography” is a term that is used for shooting in any kind of public space, whether it’s a park, a beach, a sports stadium, or whatever. You’ll run into a huge range of subjects. Here, we’ll talk about ways to make images of people you happen upon. (For details about shooting portraits of strangers, please see the "Informal Portraits" Tips Flick and Actual Info.)
There are three ways to photograph strangers in public places: Impromptu, Stealth, and With Consent. During a successful street photography foray, you will probably use all three.
Impromptu street photography is all about being able to grab good photos on the fly. Say you’re walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague. You see a woman posing for a caricature. She’s engaged with the artist, who is engaged with his work. There’s a boat coming down the river. Soon it will disappear under the bridge. You need to be able to get the shot quickly. You raise your camera and shoot before the moment dissolves.
In order to shoot quickly like this, you have to be ready at all times. When I’m street shooting, I like to have an 80-200 mm zoom lens on the camera so I can frame the shot quickly—and it gives me a bit of “reach” so I can shoot from a distance. (But I also carry a wide-angle zoom for shots like the one at left). I set the exposure shutter speed and f-stop as soon as I hit the street so I don’t have to fiddle around with controls as I encounter good situations. All I have to do is raise the camera, frame, focus, and shoot. (A tip: If you can, set your camera to record images in RAW mode rather than jpeg. Among other benefits, RAW gives you more latitude, so if your exposure is off a bit it won’t matter so much.)
There’s another kind of impromptu street shooting: rather than wander around looking for images, you stay still and let them come to you. If you find a doorway or a wall, a street corner or an avenue lined by beautiful trees—something that really attracts you and you think would make a terrific background for a shot— take up a position that gives you the composition you like. It could be sitting on a bench across the street from the wall or simply hanging around at the corner. Compose the frame the way you want it, then wait for that missing element that will make it the photo you’re after. It could be a person simply walking past the wall to give it scale. It could be a couple kissing as they wait for the light to change at the corner—just about anything.
This kind of photography requires patience. Sometimes you get a good image right away. Sometimes you have to wait—and wait, and wait, and wait. But that’s not all bad, especially if you are in some place you’ve never been before. The waiting gives you time to observe and absorb the character of the place and the people. And that can only help your photography. Like the photo above: While in Prague, I was visiting a synagogue that is a memorial to the Holocaust. The walls are inscribed with the names of victims. I made some photos, but felt the image would be stronger if it had people relating to the memorial. So I waited. The waiting paid off—I got the photo I wanted, but more importantly, waiting gave me time to more thoroughly feel the meaning of the place.
Even when you think you’ve got your picture, it pays to stay just a little bit longer. Situations change—you may not always get better pictures, but you will certainly get different ones.
Sometimes you see a person or a situation that really appeals to you but you can’t get close enough or at the right angle to get a good image. Your antennae are telling you that the situation is fragile—if you get closer or otherwise intrude, if the subjects become aware that they are being photographed, it might dissolve. Then you might have to use stealth.
There are a couple of ways to do stealth photography. One is to use “natural” cover to get into the right position. You can hide behind a truck parked across the street, behind a tree or the corner of a building, or use the cover of a crowd as a sort of camouflage. You can often get off a few frames before anyone notices.
Another way is to shoot from the hip—that is to get near the subject and, with a wide-angle lens on the camera, aim and press the shutter button while the camera is still dangling from its strap by your side. Be aware that the noise of the shutter opening and closing may give you away, and it’s pretty hard to get great composition when you’re not looking through the view- finder, but sometimes you get lucky. I’ve done this when photographing arms dealers, thugs, and other folks who would probably have killed me if they knew I was taking pictures but about whom I felt no moral qualms in being stealthy. Extreme photography of this sort involves hiding cameras in briefcases and other spy-like stuff.
Stealth photography can be quite useful in getting candid moments, but please always be aware of how your subjects are reacting. Sometimes people become aware of you and simply go back to what they were doing. Sometimes people become upset. Depending on where you are, and who the subject is, this can be dangerous to you. It is always rude. Once you have been discovered and if you can tell that your subject is uncomfortable, it’s best to stop trying to be stealthy and move on to
WITH CONSENT, which is usually the most pleasant way to work with people—and often yields the best photos. And it’s easier than you might imagine. Let’s say you see a street vendor with an interesting food stand that you want to photograph. Walk right up to the stand, buy a sausage (even if you’re not hungry), and while you’re munching it, ask the vendor about the stand—anything you can think of to get the conversation going. Establish some sort of rapport with her. Then, after you’ve engaged her a bit, ask if it’s okay for you to make some photos of her and the stand. If the person feels comfortable, if she likes you, she will probably say yes.
Don’t start with portraits of her—having a camera aimed at you can make anyone self-conscious. Back up, use a wide-angle lens, and make images of the whole stand. Wait for customers to show up and photograph the woman selling to them. Work the situation over.
Slowly make your way closer and closer to the stand. If you hang around long enough, the woman will get used to you and ignore you—she’s got work to do. This is when you will get good candid shots. When you’ve got the images you want, get your frame ready and ask the woman to look at you. Fire off some portraits. Before you leave, don’t forget to thank her.
The same routine applies to all sorts of situations—in cities and villages, on the street or in someone’s home. The important thing is to establish some sort of relationship with your subject. It makes them more comfortable and less self-conscious, which will make your pictures better. It gives you more of a sense of the person’s character, which will also make your pictures better. And it helps the subject understand what you are about. The fact that you are willing to spend time with them and are working to make good photos shows that you are serious about your images and not just another hit-and-run tourist. I’ve seen people walk up to a person, take their picture, and walk away without ever uttering a single word, as if the subject were a potted plant. It leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. People who are treated like this are unlikely to be very welcoming the next time someone wants to photograph them. Out of consideration for your subject, and for other photographers, don’t leave a messy trail.
So remember: When you are out shooting people in public places, use whatever method will yield the photos you want. I find that Impromptu and With Consent yield the best images, and With Consent is the most fun—I get to know people a little, and learn more about the place I’m in. Stealth always makes me feel a bit creepy, but sometimes is necessary.
And I find the best way to do street photography is just to set off walking. I wander around, often getting totally lost (because it doesn’t really matter where I am). If you are in a place that’s new to you, you’ll be amazed at how many photographs pop up in front of you, in all sorts of neighborhoods and areas. Things you could not possibly plan or even know about. Just be in the place, with your antennae tuned and your camera ready—you can worry about getting back to the hotel later. I often go for long walks as soon as I’ve arrived somewhere—I dump my bags in the hotel and head out. It helps stretch the legs after long plane rides, and everything I encounter has that lively quality of being new to me. I see pictures that I would probably miss after I’ve been there a while. So, and I don’t mean to be rude about this, if you want to do street photography, get lost!
Actual Info: Text © 2010 Robert Caputo
Photos © 2010 Robert Caputo, © 2010 Cary Wolinsky