After swatting up on street photography online (I highly recommend you checkout Eric Kim’s fine blog). I gained a few insights and challenged myself to put them into practice. So, I went out to London last Friday with some clear objectives, which are as follows.
- Less is more. Travel light and use only one fixed prime lens. My choice was a Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 on a Micro Four Thirds body.
- Get closer to my subjects.
- Engage with people.
- Ask, what have I learned?
I don’t have a great deal of experience in Street photography and it can be scary if you are starting out. It can still be scary even if you’ve done some before and are prone to a little anxiety like me. That leaves me with expecting at least some fear every time, at least at the start of a day. I’ll list my fears and how I deal with them.
- Getting in close
- Travelling light
- Breaking out of your comfort zone
First, you’ll have to accept that this is going to happen anyway, I can guarantee someone is going to object to having their photo taken at some point. In my experience, it’s never quite as bad as my fears would have me believe. Try not to beat yourself up for being afraid in the first place, it’s perfectly natural and as human beings, fear is built into our DNA.
To mitigate the chances of confrontation, I have a few tips.
- If you have a silent shutter setting on your camera, use it.
- Hold your camera to your eye pointing away from your subject, move to point your camera at your subject and fire a few shots, move your camera away from your subject before taking it away from your eye.
- Stand in a scene and let your subjects come to you.
Most of the time your subjects will not know you’ve taken a picture. In using these techniques, I find that my confidence grows and my nerves lessen. If you are confronted, best to remain polite and friendly. If need be, offer to delete the photo you have taken. My last confrontation was when I shot from the hip and as I was walking on, a voice summoned me back to ask if I took his picture. Rather than deny it, and with a smile I asked, “how did you know?”. He said it was obvious as I did a bit of a wiggle as I walked passed, so I need to practice my hip shooting technique. I then explained that I am a street photographer and candid shooting is something I try to do. He wasn’t particularly impressed and then asked me if I was a policeman. Well no, and then he asked to see the shot. I showed him, it was a rubbish shot anyway and so had no qualms about offering to delete it. I also pointed out that I could have lied and said I took no picture. His demeanour then became a little friendlier. By the time it was all over we parted company on good terms. The confrontation was not as bad as I feared.
Getting in close
This is something I struggle with. Letting your subjects come to you is one way. Another way is to find something interesting happening and engage with the folk around you. Again, this sounds a bit scary, but have found that if you can find a way, you start to feel a part of the activity and shooting feels entirely appropriate, a bit like you are out with friends and taking pictures is all part of the fun. Going in cold, at the start of the day can also lead to some very nervous feelings. Allow yourself time to tune into your activity.
As an example, when I was out last Friday, I stumbled into a couple of buskers who had drawn a crowd. This was evening time at Embankment station in London just as I was about to take a train to start my journey home. I was attracted by Cristaly’s singing, it was her amazing voice that had drawn the crowd. By this time, I had been shooting all day and was very tuned in. My nerves were settled and it felt totally fine to just shoot, as I was part of the crowd enjoying the entertainment. Engagement with the folks around me was easy, as many were commenting on the outstanding quality of Cristaly’s voice. I leaned her name because later I complimented her on her voice, which led to a delightful conversation. I also spotted a man called “Joker”, and he wasn’t joking, he showed a credit card with his name on to prove it. Now whose parents would name a baby “Joker”? Nah, he probably changed it by deed poll himself. Joker is a character begging to be photographed, more on this later.
Something else I’ve struggled with. As I like variety in my photography, I tend to carry the kitchen sink on my back. A tripod, a collection of lenses, some filters etc. Carrying less gear (in this case one camera, one lens) is liberating and having the limitation of a single prime encourages creativity. It forces you to move around, zoom with your feet and compose more carefully. Trying different angles becomes a breeze without a ton of gear on your back. Your mind is freed up from trying to decide which lens to use.
Breaking out of your comfort zone
When you’ve been shooting a while and have some successful images, it’s safe and easy to stick with what you know. This is a hindrance to growth and I don’t think there is any way to improve other than to try new things. I don’t mean stop what works for you, but do both.
Allow yourself to make mistakes (I made a big one last Friday, more on that later) If you get home and find that you have a bunch of crappy shots, it’s disappointing. But don’t dwell on it. Instead ask yourself what you can do better next time? How can I prevent myself making the same mistakes again? How can I improve? View it as a learning experience.
What have I learned?
To round of this article, I’ll let you know my mistakes and how I plan to correct them.
As so much of my photography is on a tripod shooting cityscapes, landscapes and seascapes, I am conditioned to use low ISOs. As a result, in street photography I struggle with low shutter speeds and end up with some under exposed shots. Try to lift the shadows on them? The noise is awful and there’s no saving a soft shot due to camera shake or unwanted subject movement. I think this a big mistake on my part, as I ended last Friday with far too many soft shots, even though I had previously read this advice. It appears there really is no substitute for experience. At least the solution is easy enough, just up the ISO and focus on having a high enough shutter speed. Conventional wisdom advises 1/125th second as a minimum, the higher the better, especially for moving subjects.
You never know what is going to happen or what you are going to get. I set out with the intention of “giving it a go” and improving my street photography. My reward was a very enjoyable day, some lessons learned and the icing on the cake was my portrait of Joker. It was begging for some treatment in post and I’m very happy to have this in my collection.
I’m sure there are many more tips for overcoming the fear of street photography. If you have any, please let me know in the comments below, or if you have any other related comments, your input is very welcome.