Monday, September 23, 2013

Street Photography 101: How to Take Street Photos versus Stealing Photos

Fuji X-100S. 1/1300th sec F/4 @ ISO 800. Walking man in a hat and poster girl in a hat both giving me a glare. Subject out of focus due to wrong aperture setting. 
There are many ways street photographers can get great images. The romantic ideal is to walk around randomly and find the exact moment where subject and background come together serendipitously. This works about 10% of the time (or less), at least for me. Exact place, exact time, all by accident. Don't get me wrong, I still try and get these completely spontaneous shots all the time, and if I'm lucky, I'll get a couple after shooting all day. If I may suggest another way of getting a good shot, where one element is not by accident. I like to call the 'National Geographic' shot. NG photographers must get portraits of people within the context of their environment, as they merge the portrait with landscape or cityscape photography, very much like a street photographer. Once they arrive at their location, they immediately start scoping out great backdrops for their upcoming portraits. These types of images rarely happen by accident. What's the best way to get these types of images?
The key is to find a good backdrop for your image first. Don't let it happen by accident. Walk around and find an area where there are lots of people passing by, but the background is interesting. At this stage, you're just trying to create a frame for your image, or what will outline the subject. Are you trying to create a simple backdrop (trees, building, crowd), juxtaposition, similarity, irony, etc. Which direction is the light coming from, or are you looking for even lighting? Are subject and background parallel to each other, or is the background at an angle? Will the subject be walking across, towards, or away from the background?

Fuji X-Pro 1 w/14mm F/2.8. 1/500th sec F/8 @ ISO 1600. Standing by a light pole. Shooting while on my iPhone

Once you've found your background and where you want to shoot from, decide on how you want your image to look like. Who will be in focus, the subject or the background, or is everything in focus? Are you going to use high shutter speed to freeze the subject, or slower to give the sense of motion? Do you want grain or no grain? Take a few test shots to make sure you can get what you want. This is where digital is advantageous, since you don't have film to waste and can see instant results (this is why we use to carry Polaroid cameras or Polaroid backs to get on-location results). If you have film, you're going to have to trust your instinct and learn over time (this is what I did for makes you a better photographer as you learn to imagine your shots in your head before seeing it), or just carry a cheap point and shoot as your modern Polaroid test camera.

Now the easy part begins as you just sit and wait (or stand) while the subject comes to you. Yes, since you've already framed your image, checked for effects and exposure, the best part begins: enjoy your time and focus on getting that great shot. I would recommend not to look at your viewfinder too often. Maybe for the first few shots, but once you know everything is right, keep your eye focused on the subjects approaching your image frame. Notice the guy with the crazy hair approaching from the left, or the girl in the cute red polka-dot dress skipping along to your right. 

Ricoh GRD4. 1/84 F/3.2 @ ISO 80
If you're out in the open (the above shot I was between two cars so most didn't even notice me standing there) people may realize you're taking their picture and might not act natural as they pass by, or even worse, cover their faces. This is another reason why you shouldn't be looking at your camera viewfinder or back LCD screen. Sometimes if I'm in a really crowded area and I need to be as discrete as possible, I'll be on my iPhone while blindly shooting from the corner of my eye. Perhaps you're new at this and a little shy at first, maybe try to frame a nice image from a cozy coffee shop with lots of foot traffic going by. I'm not advocating a predatory or paparazzi-style photography, as street photographers in general respect their subjects and only wish to capture people in their natural surroundings. Let's not be creepy with how we get our shots. Let's be respectful and do our best to make them look good in our images.

There is a fine line between us and them (street photographers vs paparazzi), and maybe we can discuss that down below in the comments section, or perhaps in another article in the future. My basic philosophy is this: I love people and want to capture everyone in a way that contributes and enhances my overall image, but also beautifies my subjects at the same time. I prefer interacting with my subjects and I would like to get to know them whenever I can. 

If a person tells me they don't want their picture taken, or after taking an image they want it deleted, I will respectfully comply with a smile. If I take a great portrait of them, I'll show them and ask if I can either e-mail it to them personally, or I'll tell them when I'll be posting the image on my blog and leave them my business card. This is the biggest difference between us and paparazzi: we care about people more than our craft. This will be the subject of my next street photography article: How to effectively ask permission to take portraits on the street. 

Until then, I hope this article has been helpful. Please ask any questions or comments below, and if you see me on the streets shooting, please come and say hello. I'm still looking for a videographer to help me start shooting some how-to videos in the future. Anyone interested? Happy shooting!  


    These are some very nice ideas! I just bought a Fuji x100 and try to make more street photography. So this will help a LOT!
    Also, i like your "street photographers vs paparazzi" point. I think the same way.

    1. Hey Stefan, thanks for your positive comment. Much appreciated. I looked at your blog and I don't think you need any tips from me. You have amazing images. Maybe you should do a 'How to' article yourself! Take care.

  2. Nice tips. And I totally agree about how the photographer should be like with the people.
    If I have a chance, I usually go and talk with the people that I took photos. I am asking their permission, and if they are insisting me not to publish the picture, I am trying to convince them by showing their photo and being cute. But at the end of the day, its their decision to be published or not. So yes, its better to be respectful to the people that we're dealing with.

    BTW I am glad that I find this blog, keep up the good work.


    1. Hey cknvisualstory, thanks for your comment. Yes, I think the best photographers are good with people. If you don't like people, then take pictures of trees and mountains and buildings. I'll continue my series once I'm back from Tokyo and finished with Leica X-VARIO series. Keep checking back for more posts! Thanks again and keep shooting! BHT


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