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Street Photography Tips – It’s OK To Talk To Strangers

SECRETS OF ACCEPTABLE INTRUSION | Darrin Henry

Street photography can be either an adrenaline rush or a cold sweat inducing experience. For many it breaks down as simply as that. I’m beginning to realise it’s a discipline with the camera that makes the nerves jangle for many a photographer.

Street photography is a definite skill. In fact, I’d venture it’s as much a specialist genre of photography as anything else out there. The confidence (brazenness some might say) to photograph complete strangers is not for everyone.

People expect a camera might point their way if they’re taking part in public events such as parades or sports. In those cases, ‘playing to the camera’ is often part of the event. But on an ordinary day, just walking through town as a photographer, aiming your lens at strangers could be construed as a breach of the privacy perimeter.

Me, I love street photography – both as a fan of other people’s work and shooting my own. I developed the enjoyment long before realising street photography was even a thing.

I’ve been asked a number of times over recent years for street photography tips, so here are my own personal top 10.

What Is Street Photography?

Something terrible or just having a doze? Taking a moment after the New Orleans’ rain.

 

Different photographers have different ideas of what defines street photography.

For me street photography is essentially capturing ordinary, everyday life, in a candid style that makes it instantly interesting to view. This can be achieved by the way a scene is framed, by clever timing or by shooting intriguing content.

Street photography can sometimes be just about objects; light and shadow, architecture or transportation, say.

I’m even OK with the idea that street photography, as a style, can be shot indoors.

But generally at its best, I think street photography is about people.

Not camera-confident models, but everyday, regular people. People in situations we wouldn’t normally think to photograph – simple, honest, ‘as-you-found-them’ moments. Scenes of bland routine, awkwardness, curiosity, wealth, happiness, patience, suspicion, purpose, despair, vitality… the possibilities of the human ‘street’ moments are endless.

And then there is the eye contact. The unnerving mystique of the stranger looking back at you. Invasion of personal space imagery; street photography that shifts from observing to engaging.

Gosh, no wonder it’s such an exciting category of photography.

While shooting graffiti down a backstreet in Istanbul a young man walking by just stopped and posed for me. We didn’t speak each other’s language so that was it, we both moved on.

 

Street Photography Tips No.1 – Which Camera, Which Lens?

Most of the advice I’ve found recommends compact cameras over larger DSLRs. The suggestion is smaller is less conspicuous, less intimidating for subjects.

While that logic makes a lot of sense, I’ve found there’s also an advantage shooting street photography with a DSLR.

Out in public there seems to be an assumption the bigger camera means a professional photographer is at work. It lends an unspoken legitimacy and therefore acceptance of the photographer’s presence.

I’m not a big fan of trying to shoot covertly in tight spaces, it can feel dishonest depending on the situation. My Canon 5D-MKIII lets people around me know I’m there and there’s no doubt what I’m up to. In general, I prefer this openness.

But, at the end of the day, choice of camera is always going to be a personal preference.

As for which is the best lens for street photography – I’m choosing wide-angle every time.

Shooting people at close range conveys intimacy; a connection. Standing across the street with a telephoto lens can sometimes feel a bit snoopy. I’m much more comfortable just asking someone if I can take their picture and using the wide-angle.

My own lens of choice is the Canon 24-70mm.

 

Street Photography Tips No.2 – Know Your Camera

Street photography tips – go low. A street performer on London’s South Bank.

This tip applies to all photography really. Confidence with your camera, how it performs, handles and responds in different situations is key to obtaining great results.

If a stranger on the street gives you permission to take their picture they won’t want to wait while you faff about getting your shutter settings right. That’s when your subject may start to feel self-conscious and you risk losing the emotion of the shot.

The street entertainer on London’s South Bank (pictured above) indulged me by playing to the camera, but it meant shooting quickly before he turned away.

A good indicator of how well you know your camera is your ability to operate with it at a night event. If you can make adjustments to shutter, aperture and ISO simply by touch and feel then chances are you will have good reactions for street photography.

 

Street Photography Tips No.3 – Sit Still

Street photography tips – shooting from the ground up in Toronto.

 

Sit down, wait, and street will come to you.

A homeless busker in London gave me this advice a few years back and I now swear by it. He was telling Sharon and I how this technique helped make the streets feel like home for him.

Street photography can be a little intimidating and it’s easy to procrastinate. Telling yourself “I’ll just walk a bit further until I find the right shot,” can be self-defeating.

If in doubt, find a safe spot, sit down and just wait and watch. The longer you remain in that one place your confidence and sense of belonging will grow. In just a short space of time the dynamic changes and you will ‘belong’ to that scene. People walking by will now be entering ‘your’ space. You also then feel much more confident raising the camera and taking pictures.

I’ve done this ‘sitting still’ in a number of countries and it’s worked every time. After just a couple of minutes the street will begin to reveal itself and photo opportunities will start to appear. Like magic!

 

Street Photography Tips No.4 – Talking to Strangers is Good

What The Saints Did Next - In most situations people do want to talk, especially to visitors.
In-camera, one take capture. Tripod, slow shutter and flash setup as this reveller on Bourbon Street, New Orleans asked to be photographed.

 

Social confidence is a street photographer’s secret weapon.

As a school child I remember at every parents’ evening my teachers reporting that, ‘Darrin is a good student but he is always talking in class.’

Thankfully this has turned out to be an asset all these years later. Engaging in conversation with strangers is something both Sharon and I enjoy. When abroad this willingness to engage with people unlocks layers that hide beneath the typical tourism offerings.

In most situations people do want to talk, especially to visitors. Local people everywhere have a natural tendency to want to show off and share their town or village or country to an outsider.

Strangers are more likely to let you take their picture after a conversation. Useful tips about things to see and do (and photograph) can also come from talking to strangers. I’ve even had useful safety advice from a local photographer when he found out I wanted to go to a certain part of his city at night.

Yes, street photography benefits hugely from a willingness to talk to strangers.

It helps if your old school report said, ‘…talks too much.’

 

Street Photography Tips No.5 – Monitor the Mood

Nashville Pride, playing in the fountain.
Nashville Pride, playing in the fountain.

 

Sometimes with street photography you need permission, sometimes you don’t. Common sense and instinct comes into play here.

Certain situations allow you to shoot without permission, a news event for example. Demonstrators carrying placards on the street will generally welcome publicity for their cause.

Street artists/performers always appreciate a photographer who drops a donation in the hat beforehand. It’s then a fair exchange.

Children are generally a no, no, but not always. Try to read the situation. A child wearing rainbow colours, playing in a fountain at Nashville Pride really summed up the happy mood of the day. Her parents, standing nearby, gave me a smile and a nod that it was ok to take her picture. I gave them a business card afterwards and an offer to send them a copy of the picture.

With street photography always pay attention to the mood of the moment. Are you intruding on a private moment by taking a picture? Is the atmosphere relaxed or tense?

Consider security and safety issues, especially around government buildings where authorities can be twitchy. That said, I’ve found men (especially) in uniform love being photographed. Just ask nicely!

 

Street Photography Tips No.6 – Carry a Business Card

Long pavement shadows – street photography in London.

 

I made mention of this earlier – a business card is a great asset with street photography.

Handing over a business card is like handing over a doctor’s note! It lends instant legitimacy and gives people the option to then get in contact with you later. With smart phones it also means people can look up your website right away as well.

Often a quick explanation about who you are and what you’re doing is all you need for people to allow you to shoot freely.

 

Street Photography Tips No.7 – Go Low, Go High

Skateboarders in the ‘Bear Pit’ in central Bristol, England.

Changing the angles and positioning of the camera can create dramatic views of otherwise ordinary street scenes. Mind you, this applies to most photography styles.

I will often sit on the side of the street and hold the camera at ground level, pointing roughly in the right direction but shooting blind. Of course you will need to pre-focus for distance before doing this and then lock the focus to manual.

This picture of a skateboarder in the famous Bear Pit in Bristol, England, was shot ‘blind’ using this technique. I had watched him practising the trick a few times and worked out how close I could crouch without getting hit. The guy was more than happy to repeat the jump for me to get a shot.

I will sometimes hold the camera above my head, arms fully extended, especially in a crowd. You see photographers covering news events doing this all the time. Again, pre-focus and lock the range beforehand. The effect can be very interesting.

 

Street Photography Tips No.8 – Shoot at Night

Street photography tips - dragging the shutter for cool effects of mopeds at night in Hanoi.
Street photography tips – dragging the shutter for cool effects of mopeds at night in Hanoi.

 

There’s a different vibe and energy to night time street photography. Often people are more relaxed and open, more curious and happy to have their picture taken.

Try where possible to use the available street lighting to illuminate your shots as this retains the shadows and mood of the scene. It means ramping up the ISO and working with a wide open aperture, but even this can sometimes be helpful in conveying that after-dark atmosphere.

Flash, generally, has a tendency to change the appearance of a night scene completely, losing the realism. But that said, if you’re an enthusiast of strobist techniques then employing a flash can at times enhance street photography.

Dragging the shutter, or employing the second curtain technique when using the flash can introduce a sense of movement and drama to photographs. I did this from the corner of the road with mopeds at night in Hanoi.

Focusing in the dark might be a problem depending on the available light. I now carry a small Maglite in my camera bag at all times which can assist with finding focus.

 

Street Photography Tips No.9 – Use Flash In the Daytime

Street photography tips - using flash in the day. This security guard at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh was a perfect model.
Street photography tips – using flash in the day. This security guard at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh was a perfect model.

 

Using flash to compensate for backlit portraiture on the street can be very effective.

It can take a minute or two longer to set up the shot, so capturing a spontaneous moment might be difficult. However, if your subject has time and doesn’t mind posing, it’s possible to shoot interesting street portraits with a flash.

At the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh I used this technique on a security guard who was more than happy to wait until I got the flash unit out the bag.

 

Street Photography Tips No.10 – Safety and Local Customs

Street photography tips – capture the movement. Traffic police in Bangkok are the ultimate multi-taskers.

 

Last of my street photography tips – be mindful of your location at all times.

There are two elements to this advice; personal safety and sensitivity to local customs.

Safety first – always be aware of your surroundings. Walking with the camera, it is easy to become distracted as you search for the next shot. Narrow side streets and alleyways are sometimes tempting to explore for street photographers. Obviously, if that’s you, then pay attention and don’t take unnecessary risks.

Sometimes I keep my DSLR camera in the bag to begin with in a new place. We will do a touristy walk-a-bout using just the compact, to get a feel for the local vibe.

London, a city where we’ve lived in the past and generally feel very confident and safe, was experiencing an increase in moped street crime during our most recent visit. We immediately stopped using our mobile phones on the street, stepping into a shop or cafe to check Google Maps or to make a call instead.

Respect of local customs is the other part of being mindful of your location.

For the street photographer, knowledge of social etiquette can help reduce difficulties in unfamiliar locations.

It might be something as simple as wearing appropriate clothing in certain places, not photographing government buildings or making inappropriate hand gestures. I tend to use the ‘thumbs up’ often, a normal method of communication for me, but apparently this is interpreted as a very offensive gesture in many countries.

The key advice here is to research your destination ahead of time.

Street photography on a train – one well-behaved passenger sitting up straight.

 

Go Break The Rules

So there we are, my top 10 street photography tips.

As is always the case with photography though, don’t be afraid to bend and re-shape the rules, they are just guidance after all.

Mix it up, get creative and find out what style of street photography suits you. You never know what you will come up with.

Good luck, hope these tips help.

Street photography tips – sometimes the zoom lens comes in handy; a window cleaner at work on St Helena.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Very useful and interesting essay (my wife interrupted to ask what had my attention -oh nothing). I am terrible at photographing people so now you are responsible to get me to try harder…
    By the way in the US the law as established by the Supreme Court allows for no expectation of privacy in a public place or in any place that can be seen from a public place. For non commercial photography anything is fair game. Which as you so gamely pointed out may not be well mannered even when legal. It’s worth thinking about whichever end of the camera you may be on.

  2. A very useful article with great pics. You didn’t mention the need for model release forms and when they would be needed. Does the use of these vary from country to country, please?

    1. Thanks for the comment Sue.
      Re, release forms, in the most basic terms, it’s the difference between either ‘commercial’ or ‘editorial’ pictures that determines the requirement of a release form.
      Commercial as you might guess means the picture will be used to generate money or for business use. This might be for advertising/marketing, product packaging, film/tv, books etc. A signed model release form is an absolute necessity for this.
      Editorial use means non-commercial, typically used to illustrate/support newspaper/magazine articles, blog posts and such written commentaries. Basically journalistic or informative/educational use. Model release forms generally not required for editorial use.
      Of course the topic has many layers and can get complicated in certain situations. Consider a photographer selling their non-released work to a newspaper for editorial publication for instance. Just one example.
      This is a useful article I think: https://digital-photography-school.com/model-releases-need-know/
      We do use release forms in all of the commercial work we shoot. And we carry a few forms in the bag with us when out and about, just in case.
      Cheers 🙂

  3. Wow, thanks Darrin. Really helpful tips, especially the ‘legitimising’ effect of a big camera, whuch turns the whole concept of street photography on its head – being completely open about what you are doing. Loved the bubbles man in London. I’ve probably taken pictures of the same person, but focusing on the bubbles rather than him! Thanks again for a great blog. Now, where’s my DSLR…?

    1. The street artists in London are brilliant, always great subjects to photograph.
      Yes, get your camera out and go for it. It’s such a buzz when you capture a great image.
      Glad the post was helpful, thanks for the comment Chris.
      Cheers 🙂

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