One of the scariest things for the beginning street photographer is – yes you guessed it – photographing strangers. Whether they are walking alone towards you on an empty street, or even in the relative comfort of a crowd – many photographers are afraid to put the camera to their eye, aim it at what might be an interesting street scene, and press the shutter. I began this over twenty years ago, so in order to write this I need to go back a long way, and remember that sense of dread that filled me when I began doing street photography.
My heart was in the right place. I wasn’t looking to hurt anyone or make anyone look bad; but I wanted to be able to find design and meaning in the human experience.
So if you fall into this category of shooter, I have a number of exercises that may help.
This one goes back to the beginning of street photography: bring a friend along.
And it couldn’t be more simple.
Select your shooting spot. A place that is crowded with tourists is the easiest because everyone has a camera and is lining up friends in front of landmarks to document their trip.
With a full-frame camera, you would want a 50mm to 75mm lens. With a cropped camera you can do this trick with a 30 or 50mm lens.
And so you wait for something interesting and try and place your friend nearby, and wait for the moment – and move the camera away from your friend to capture the scene you wanted.
Important note for all street photography: after you take a shot of your subject(s) do not remove the camera from your eye. This gives away what you just shot. Keep the camera to your eye and bring it to point back at your friend. Continue the charade until people get used to you. Unless you’re very unlucky, or very obvious with your movements – you should be able to pull this off over and over again.
Walker Evans used to bring the great photographer Helen Levitt along to act as his foil. And I suppose it is one of the first “tricks” street photographers used.
[updated 2018. It is still a good trick if the aim is to capture candid shots where your presence is not affecting the scene. Of course, the polar opposite technique is when you simply make eye contact with the subject, and move on. Maybe they like being photographed. Maybe they don’t. But now by allowing them to see you shooting them, you are going to get a sort of street performance.
Sometimes that’s better.]