Forgotten in its old age

by Aditya

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I am enjoying taking candid photos of people, but the subject is usually someone I know, or it is during some family/friend event, so after a while the people get used to the presence of the camera and act quite naturally.

I like "street photography" which captures ordinary people in everyday situations and I am thinking about giving it a try.

If you have experience in that type of photography, could you share some tips on how to approach people in a way that the the presence of the camera is not too obtrusive, and you can achieve the natural look on your photos?

I am not interested in paparazzi-style shooting using telephoto lenses, but more in photos taken within the range of 24-85mm lens, which means that you need to be pretty close to the subject.

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Nothing grinds my gears more than seeing a perfect shot but feeling really awkward asking someone on a bus for a photo. –  Suspi Jul 16 '10 at 17:08
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You're definitely thinking of the right lens range for this. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 16 '10 at 18:04

11 Answers 11

up vote 71 down vote accepted

[This answer is a community wiki. Please contribute any other interesting and relevant articles or examples to list at the bottom.]

In a slightly different vein to answers so far: don't approach people first, just shoot them. This is mostly for practical reasons; you don't get good street photography by asking permission first (though you will get some great portraits that way).

Some examples in action:

Something you will see in common in these: they are all at ease. Even Meyerowitz bobbing up and down excited about the dogs - he's relaxed. They keep their cameras in their hands, raise it, frame and take the photo quickly, and lower the camera. Then they engage, briefly, and usually non-verbally. Even the quiet and contained Jeff Mermelstein gives a smile or a nod. This isn't impolite or aggressive, it's just a different set of mannerisms and timing.

In as few words as possible: Take the photo quickly and without fuss, then look at the subject, smile happily, and mean it.

That's where you engage your subject, and reassures them this is all totally normal and that you're not doing anything sneaky. It happens quickly, so it's not a big deal. This type of body language, communicating comfort and calmness, works incredibly well. It does not take as much practice as you might think, and you need not be the social butterfly extravert type; again, just look at Mermelstein!

In my several years of shooting street and trying to emulate this approach, the most usual reactions I've seen, in order:

  1. Nothing/vaguely puzzled (60%)
  2. Smile back
  3. Frown/scowl
  4. Ask me about my camera
  5. Apologise for being "in the way"
  6. Annoyed enough to confront me in some way

When you are confronted (it happens), remain happy. Remember that you have a right to be doing what you're doing, and also remember that they have a right to be annoyed. Be respectful and listen. Do not argue or contradict, instead attempt to calm and disarm. If they're yelling at you, often the best thing to do is to walk away. How to deal with all the different possibilities is a whole article in itself, but the thing to remember here is that this is actually quite rare; I've had conversations like this maybe a half-dozen times in total, over about five years of actively shooting street photography.


Other articles and links (please note the date of addition so people can skip to the bits they may not have read yet):

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thanks smillie, you are right confronting people before shooting can result in some nice portraits but it is probably not a real street any more, or at least some different style. I also think that street photography is not for everyone as you need to feel comfortable in what you are doing. Thanks again for all the good tips –  kristof Jul 24 '10 at 11:37
    
Thanks for the added link, I'd upvote this post if I haven't already done that before. –  che Aug 13 '10 at 6:07
    
@che - my pleasure! Just added another one, too. –  ex-ms Aug 13 '10 at 6:43
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Be aware that in certain countries (e.g. Spain) the dissemination on internet of images of a person without their consent may be a serious breach of data protection laws. –  pau.estalella Sep 21 '11 at 8:25
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What do you do after that with the photo? In my opinion, you don't have the right to shoot people. If you did it without their consent, at least, tell them afterward and tell them what you are looking to do with it. –  Omar Abid Dec 8 '12 at 18:17

One of the reasons the classic street shooters used Leica rangefinders was because they are not big and intimidating, plus being quiet and unobtrusive. When I shoot street scenes I prefer a small prime lens on a small body rather than a big zoom on a big pro body. I think the new Olympus retro-Pen bodies with the pancake lens and the clip-on viewfinder is ideal, if you can't afford a Leica M9. ;-)

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Kristof,

I answer to your question, I have just recently purchased a Canon EOS 1000D & having using it for just over 2months now!

One area which I have been interested in is doing street photography, In particulary portrait shots of people.

I am currently working on a project of collecting pictures of people from subcultures of Manchester such as goths, punks, indie, metal ect which I will be collecting in a printed book & I generally find that most people have absolutely no problem having their picture taken & most generally find it quite fun!

My approach is to just act natural, be calm, explain why you would like to take their photo ect! I also find it helps to offer to e-mail a copy of any pics you take of them!

In my experience, using this approach has worked without any problems & I have only had one girl who has declined so far, which was only due to the fact that she said she usually would but was feeling like crap on that particular day!

One thing you do need to consider when approaching people is how it will affect your pic & what you are aiming to capture. Most people consider taking candid shots & approaching people to be 2 different styles! Candids get more spontainious shots, where as posed shots are considered more "Street Portraits" rather than just "Street Photography"

Just decide which style you would like to do, but don't be nervous about approaching people as I generally find most people are quite willing to help out & some girls even feel flattered!

Have fun with it! :D

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I think the best thing you do is be honest, straight up and provide a way for them to verify and possibly receive the photo later on, watermarked, low-res or not.

I've only actually done this once, but I explained precisely who I was, gave them my card and made sure to not include any identifying marks in the photo.

I took a long exposure shot of a neighbour's Christmas lights on their house from across the street and afterwards, knocked on their front door, explained I was a photographer that lived down the road and asked if it would be ok to use the photo of their house. Gave them my card too. They were fine with it.

Not everyone is so sympathetic, so if they don't want you to use their photo, delete it in front of them.

The most important thing for them is to trust that you're not some creep. One way is, as I've said, providing a business card with your website for example.

Also, the bigger your camera the more "pro" you look :-P

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And the bigger the lens is, the more "pro" you look too ! Good tip for the business card ! +1 –  Philippe Lavoie Feb 17 '11 at 1:06
    
+1 for the business card tip. Sometimes looking a real professional with zoom lenses helped me too. Like this one: flickr.com/photos/arunv/5390217106 To ask, I didn't even speak their language. –  mixdev Feb 17 '11 at 1:44
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Oh and use a battery grip if you don't have a pro body :-D Oh and if you wear a black polo shirt, you often look a bit pro too... –  Nick Bedford Feb 17 '11 at 2:58

In my own opinion, this is a tricky question because :

  • If you ask the person, you just change his mind set and the innocence of the picture is gone.

  • If you take the picture, then ask the person, they can be mad at you to have taken such picture.

Sadly, I think it's a case-by-case situation where you must figure out by yourself. But a good rule of thumb suggest that you just ask directly, "Do you mind if I take a picture of you ? I can send it to you later on."

I found out that offering to e-mail the picture disarm any bomb that can tick there.

So, be direct and offer a sample is my way.

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+1 for offering a sample. Actually I have done that once. –  mixdev Feb 17 '11 at 1:38
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I think this depends on the type of photo you wish to capture, you might not want to lose the candidness if it is a candid shot you're after, but you might want the person to look at the camera for you as well. –  JamWheel Feb 17 '11 at 7:34

DPS had an article on this only today, which I found interesting. Worth a read, and obviously comes decorated with some lovely street scenes :-)

http://digital-photography-school.com/10-tips-for-the-aspiring-street-photographer

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after you posted this, I thought it would be a good idea to make my answer a community wiki so that anyone could add good links (like this one). Please feel free! –  ex-ms Aug 26 '10 at 17:44
    
thanks alastairs –  kristof Aug 27 '10 at 9:33

I just found this on Photojojo. It's a pretty dorky accessory, but I wonder how well it would work. It's a fake telephoto lens that has a 45 degree mirror built into it.

http://photojojo.com/store/awesomeness/candid-photography-spy-lens/

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Must admit. That's pretty funny. –  Nick Bedford Aug 26 '10 at 3:38

If you find a really interesting character, ask permission, you can get up close and create very vivid and telling portraits. You must be able to get them comfortable. Talk a lot, ask a lot of questions, tell some jokes, etc.

Otherwise, if you just want to capture moments and situations and brief expressions, etc, you won't gain anything by asking, in fact you may lose the candid moment.

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ahockley is 100% right. Your ability to get those sorts of shots depends on your ability to engage people in conversation. I got this shot while chatting up a large group of people at a company picnic. Also, be prepared for people to say no sometimes (some people really don't like to be photographed).

People who are having a good time tend to be more open to being photographed, at least in my experience. Definitely keep an eye out for couples. Especially if they're in a new place, or on vacation, couples seem to want pictures to share with their friends to show where they've been. They'll generally have their own camera and ask you to take a picture of them, so following ahockley's advice from that point will generally net you a couple of shots for yourself too. That's how I got this shot (for which I should have used fill flash).

The other rather odd thing I've noticed, is that if you look like you know what you're doing, sometimes people will just ask you to take their photo. I've been out a few places shooting, and the mere fact that I had a 24-85mm zoom with a lens hood on it was enough to make people think I was some sort of pro (which I definitely am not).

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Scott, thanks for sharing the shots and for good advice. I guess it is ctime to take the camera and start shooting and see what works for me best. –  kristof Jul 17 '10 at 23:22

I think there are many small steps you can take, but it will depend on your personality how fast you move through each.

One thing that helped me a lot was going to public events. During public events people are more inclined to be photographed, so that will help you break the ice. Try not to go to a G20 protest though :) Maybe Mardi Gras or something like that.

Another thing that helped was shooting in crowded places. It's easier to just turn around and pretend you are doing something else if you feel too uncomfortable with the situation. But be careful, shooting in a crowded Subway is not the same and can be stressful.

And I think the last thing is just to be courageous and do it. Most of the times it's your own fear that stops you from doing it.

I'm still working on this one, but I've noticed that if you just lift your camera and shoot nothing bad will happen, and more often than not you will strike a conversation and come out ahead.

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+1 for courage. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 16 '10 at 18:24
    
thanks Rezlaj, I was thinking about starting by taking photos during some local parade, sport event or similar and see how it goes from there. You are also right about the fear, but I do not think I have enough courage at the moment, so will try step by step approach –  kristof Jul 17 '10 at 23:09

A lot of it depends on the ability to engage and develop a bit of rapport with casual conversation. Ask a person about what they're doing. Compliment them on something they're wearing. Ask them if they have email and offer to send them a copy of your photo

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I think it is a great advice, it take some sill to engage with people, but then I believe it would be worth it, I would feel much better knowing that the person is ok with me taking photos, it is probably a matter of personality. I know that it would make some types of shots impossible but from my perspective it would be more interesting to know a bit more about the person you capture on the photo. –  kristof Jul 17 '10 at 23:15
    
Along the email lines, you can just have some cards ready and tell them to email you if they would like a copy of the shot. –  BBischof Aug 13 '10 at 22:55

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