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During my holiday in Korea, I did a bit of street photography, and I enjoyed it.

Photography has been my hobby for 6 or 7 years now, I have a DSLR (Canon 60D) and a compact (Samsung EX1).

For street photography, my compact is sneaky but the image quality, response time, ease of use are rather disappointing. Also it's fps is around 1, maybe 1.5, pathetic.

The way I see it is street photography can either be candid or non-candid.

When I was in Korea holding a DSLR, people are noticing me like a tiger has gone loose. I was wearing black, I removed the camera strap and concealed the camera at hip height when walking around.

I did manage to get some candid shots, but of course, I also tried the "in-your-face" method, and tried to smile my way out of trouble. This is actually my first time doing something that may be perceived as rude. However I was surprised that a smile goes a long way. Most people actually smiled right back :)

So, apart from wishing that I can afford a fullframe rangefinder, are there any tips for using a huge DSLR for street photography?

While I was happy to have attempted some non-candid shots, and in all account it was a pleasant experience, when I want to do candid shot with a DSLR, how do I :

  • Better conceal my camera so the subject won't be scared off?

  • Drive my subject's attention away from me and my camera?

  • What is the most effective setup so I can leave the scene before the subject even notice that I have taken a picture?

  • What subjects are typically less aware of their surroundings? (I find it extremely easy to shoot people playing on their smartphones, they almost never notice anything but the game on their screen)

I find it rather hard to pretend you are just a casual tourist roaming around if you have a huge DSLR in your hand. (I am from Hong Kong so the Korean couldn't always tell I am a tourist, actually.)

It seems that with my compact I could put up a clueless face and people won't tend to think "omg my face is going to be used for some weird exhibition".

I wonder if there are any well-known street-photographers who shoot with a DSLR? Or even an interview where he/she shares tips with us?

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  1. Big glass tends to attract a lot of attention, if you can get something smaller that seems less threatening.
  2. Remove the battery grip if you are using one, again size probably intimidates.
  3. Smile a lot or be cheerful, the sunny disposition might help.
  4. You could wear one of those tourist hats to look more like one?

Personally I use a 5D MKII but have a Olympus EP-L1 for reasons that you state. Also it's lighter :D

If you conceal your camera you might be misunderstood for doing something illegal so I'm not sure that's really a great idea. Here's an example of what can happen.

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    Lens choice makes a big difference. You look more intimidating and invasive with an 18-55mm kit zoom set at 18mm than with an 85mm/1.8 prime. 50 & 85 f/1.8s are physically pretty small in most mounts, and if there's a pancake available for your mount (like the 40mm/2.8 STM for the Canon) the intimidation factor largely disappears altogether. Unfortunately, faster retrofocus wide-angles and wide-range zooms look an awful lot like long telephotos to the uninitiated, so it's possible to look even creepier when trying to ignore people and photograph buildings, etc. – user2719 Nov 8 '12 at 16:39
  • @StanRogers I don't know if I am the creepy one but sounds like you have been mistaken for taking some perverted shot with a huge wide-angle in your hand and a low pov. Man that must be tough lol – Gapton Nov 9 '12 at 2:01
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    Haven't actually had the problem myself, but I was with a fellow photographer who was using (IIRC) a Nikkor 8mm/2.8 circular fisheye (it's huge) who ran into a bit of "boyfriend trouble". It was pre-digital, so trying to explain that the pretty young woman would have been easily mistaken for a dust spot on the negative didn't go well. If we didn't have numbers and heavy tripods on our side, there might have been real trouble. – user2719 Nov 9 '12 at 3:35
  • It's illegal to photograph military facilities in Greece so your example of what can happen to people who try to conceal their cameras isn't really applicable to street photography. – David Richerby Jul 7 '14 at 22:14
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I have had limited success with street photography, but here's what has kinda worked for me so far:

  1. Act natural. Unless all the Koreans are wearing all black, I wouldn't bother. It might make you even more conspicuous in a "Why is that guy trying to be inconspicuous?" kind of way. That's the heart of being inconspicuous - not trying to be inconspicuous, which is the most conspicuous thing, once somebody notices it.
  2. Have my staging area and camera ready to go in a configuration I want (for a certain lighting, depth of field, range, etc.) and keep it at my side, waiting for someone or something interesting to walk up to the street corner, news stand, or wherever, and snap the picture. Clearly, repetition is the mother of good photography here.
  3. Use a telephoto. People are less likely to notice you at a distance. I have a 70-300mm. It's not fast, but in decent light, propping myself against a light pole or something, I can get nice close up pictures across a big intersection. I think this is most key, because, well, I love photographing people, but if somebody randomly photographed me, I'd be concerned or at least curious.
  4. Look like you are taking a picture of something else. I have gotten my best results this way, especially combined with #1 above. Focus on an object at the same distance and then, right before shooting, just shift a bit, snap what you're really after while their attention is diverted, and then go back to the original decoy.

True story: my grandma HATES having her picture taken and always has, so there are very few pictures of her as an adult in existence, and they, mostly miserable ones. She is getting on in years her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have expressed great interest in something more recent than 1977, when she let herself be photographed (with me as a baby). So while visiting her and having breakfast one morning, I cleaned my lenses, tested my camera, played with different adaptors, showed her my homemade pinhole "lens" and more. All the while I was shooting pictures wildly in all directions. I got 200 exposures, about 100 of which even had her in the picture, about 80 of which were disfigured by her sneezing or something, or were irredeemably blurry because I was shooting at f/2.8 and she moved. Of the 20 reasonable ones, 2 were real winners. But she never knew because I never looked through the viewfinder in her presence.

That same weekend, at a wedding, I got a pretty good photo of her from like 40 ft because she thought I was taking a picture of the bride, who was near her. A little cropping, and perfect. If I could have composed more freely, I would change a few things, obviously, but in terms of getting a secret pic of a woman who has done physical violence to avoid being filmed, not too shabby, I think.

Grandma Unawares

  • The four points in the beginning are ok but I think the rest of the text is a bit too much for a SE answer. Just not very helpful for the question asker, nothing else. – Saaru Lindestøkke Nov 8 '12 at 23:20
  • It's a bit amusing that you have to use street photography techniques on family. Nice shot nevertheless! I think your story with your grandma is a great example of how to do successful family photos. Usually I just shoot, but they will be shy or they try to pose, or they complain they look awful. I have never thought of secretly taking photos of my family! They are not strangers afterall! However this sparks the thought that candid shots has the potential of the most natural expressions and there is no reason why I shouldn't capture my family's true emotion. Off topic but thanks! – Gapton Nov 9 '12 at 2:13
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    A bit off-topic text in comment but useful points as well. But getting a secret pic of a woman who has done physical violence to avoid being filmed and putting it on teh Internetz? I am curious about your fate when she accidentally finds this. – Sudarshan Kadam Nov 14 '12 at 6:00
  • My grandma is the same, she runs away when she sees me getting my camera xD – fortran Aug 28 '13 at 12:00
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    I am of the opinion that part of being a good photographer - in terms of bringing the profession forward - is also to respect the fact that some people do not want their likeness recorded or, certainly, published, including on the internet. There is nothing wrong with asking people after taking the candid photo, if you might keep it, and certainly if you intend to publish it. If they say no, we as photographers must have the courage to respect the subject's right to say no. – user59085 Nov 6 '18 at 17:24
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I've done it the difficult way and the inconspicuous way. I'd rather not have to do either again. My untested idea would be to use a model or a girl friend who could stand in for one. I think it would be easier this way to deflect the curious, annoyed, or suspicious so that you can continue to take pictures without changing locations. It should allow for ample quantity and increased quality. Shooting out in the open in public in a way that helps people to lower their defenses will produce an interesting mix of pictures where the subjects are aware and unaware that their photo is being taken.

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Some of the things that I do (or have been told to do):

  • Try to pre-focus to minimize the time pointing at the subject
  • Use a prime lens (they are usually smaller and faster)
  • Do a casual sweep, like if you are probing the environment, and then stop for a fraction to snap...
  • Or anticipate the movement of the people and wait for them to get in the frame while you hold your camera still...
  • But do not track people, that looks terrible!
  • Stay for some time in the same spot 'to melt with the environment' (it kind of feels less aggressive for people to come to a place and seeing you already there rather than just arriving and start taking pictures)
  • You can try to make your camera more discreet by using tape to black out the logos...
  • Or you can go the other way around and make it flashy! If you have a funny camera (with Hello Kitty stickers for example) people will be amused and will even pose for you spontaneously!
  • And of course: if the moment is missed, it's missed for good. Do not chase people.
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You might like the new Canon 40mm F2.8 STM. Its a tiny, high quality lens. And the STM auto-focus is supposed to be really fast. So it is going to be ready to take candids.

Of course, the classic street photography camera is a Leica. But they are something like 10 times the price of your Canon.

  • Actually my 60D costs 1/6 of a Leica M9. Sorry just messing with you :P hehe but heck yea Leica is expensive and I cannot afford one lol. – Gapton Nov 9 '12 at 2:14
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If your camera has a flip screen, just hold it at waist height and flip the screen horizontally.

I find this method very effective. To people, you'll look like you are reviewing your photos of adjusting settings, people don't expect to be shot if the guy with the camera is not looking at them.

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Trying to look inconspicuous doesn't work

Anyone trying to be inconspicuous, who is already feeling anxious about being seen, is going to look like an anxious person who doesn't want to be noticed.

Furtive behaviour, like pretending to be photographing something else (or worse, to be doing something else), stands out a mile; sneaky equipment like telephoto lenses gets noticed too.

Certainly you don't want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself, but I think that trying not to let people notice what you are doing firstly won't work, and secondly will distract you from what you should be paying attention to, which is your photography.

Being confident does work

Two things will really make a difference in your favour.

Firstly, being wholly confident in your camera and its operation. You should be able to concentrate on seeing and framing (not even focusing, even if you don't have auto-focus). Unless you can operate your camera's settings without even needing to think about what you're doing, set your camera to roughly appropriate exposure settings, set the focus, and after that just fire the shutter without fuss when you need to.

Secondly, being wholly confident in what you are doing, i.e. taking pictures of people in public without their explicit permission. There's no way to get good at this except through practice, unless you're one of the few people blessed naturally with that kind of brazen self-confidence.

What you can do to develop and practise self-confidence

There are a few things you can to help yourself though.

Walk around with your camera already at or near face level, so that you don't lift it up to take a picture, but mostly sideways in front of you.

Keep both eyes open, even with the camera in front of your eye.

After each picture, look directly at the person you photographed, with a glance of acknowledgement. It doesn't need to be a smile, and it shouldn't be a strained grimace, just a moment of natural eye-contact - if they even return your gaze. Then go straight back to your photography (this is not the time to start peering at your camera's LCD).

If you find hard even to get started past your own inhibitions, try standing in one place and allowing people to walk past you.

Become really interested in people, so that your attention is absorbed in the people around you, not in the fact that you are trying to take pictures. You can practise this without even having a camera on you.

Dealing with objections

In the rare case that someone doesn't look pleased, just keep moving on. Their mild and momentary displeasure won't hurt you.

If you sense that it's more than that, or they explicitly object, respond appropriately: You're unhappy, because you don't want your picture taken? Would you like me to delete it? (Obviously, that won't be an option if you're using film, but you can still acknowledge how they feel about it, and show that you respect their feelings.)

However, don't apologise, and don't try to justify what you're doing. That won't satisfy them, and won't help improve your own confidence.

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