I once heard street photography referred to as amateur journalism. I didn’t like the phrase at the time although it has since grown on me. “A science of pictures of people on streets” I think is technically more correct. However, moving in and of itself on the streets can at times be an art.
Here are a few techniques:
The streets of a big city are vast and you have virtual anonymity, which is something that is hard to grasp at first, but you could do just about anything to make a fool out of yourself on one side of town and no one on the other would know. Knowing this is really key to getting over the stress that can come from going out and interacting with thousands of people.
There is a big difference between the way someone who’s tense walks and is seen and someone who is comfortable and happy.
A basic exercise most actors learn is to “shake” out their stress. This is something I do several times a day when taking pictures. The general exercise is to shake out the knots in your arms and legs momentarily to psychologically familiarize yourself with the area. This particular exercise may not be for you, but experiment to see if something works.
If you see someone that looks like a great model ask them if you can take a picture, approach them calmly, make eye contact, offer them your business card and smile. You can get business cards online for $5; put your e-mail and Flickr on them. It’s one of the best value for money purchases you can make.
People will be less surprised to see your hand at face height (with a camera) if your hand has been at face height with a bottle of water or shielding your eyes from the sun. Making the raising of a hand to face height common is one way to throw away suspicion when you go to compose.
Another thing to keep in mind is your role on the street. Try and be something that’s not intimidating. I usually try and act like a tourist or walk with friends.
Pausing only at boutiques or at bus stops may seem like a no brainer but a lot of people forget that in cities most people don’t stop walking unless they have a reason to. Stopping in the middle of a sidewalk is an attention grabber. Unless there’s a really good image waiting for a store or natural stopping point usually makes more sense, or at the very least taking the picture while moving.
Sometimes we can find ourselves with an interesting person but the wrong background, or a great background, but no real people to put in front of it. One thing you can do in this situation is find a great person walking towards the background. The idea is to get the person in your back pocket.
Pockets are voids around the photographer, when a photographer walks they can keep pace with people around them, which lets them hold onto people until they need them for a setting or background.
Taking pictures of buildings, cars and daily life is a great way to keep pace with your pocket; it also lets you take more pictures. Chimping and playing with settings works too; if you need to speed up then take out your phone and glance at it. This subliminally says you’ve received a message to “come home” from a friend.
Being covert often works, but sneaking around is a bit creepy. It also doesn’t always work. Hurrying through a scene will draw everyone’s attention to you, but not necessarily your camera. With your camera at waist height you can easily shoot from the hip. People will generally not expect you to be taking photos if it looks like you have somewhere you would rather be; subliminally you will be less worth their time if you’ve occupied less of it.
Being effective on the streets has much to do with how you are perceived and how you perceive yourself, confidence and good humor are as vital as a good camera. I hope the tricks mentioned above help illustrate ways of keeping those perceptions where they should be.
John recently published his new book Cut Me Up available in the Amazon Kindle store.
He has also been published in Landscape Photography Magazine and In the Hills Magazine.