Shooting street photography of people can be nerve-wracking for the beginner and the experienced photographer alike. Many people ask me how I get shots of people I don’t know. It can get uncomfortable to point a camera at unknown subjects. The image of voyeurs, stalkers and spies with huge lenses is forever burnt into everyone’s mind thanks to Hitchcock and TMZ.
Follow these steps and you will go from shooting feet to shooting faces in no time.
Step 1: Take Photos of your Friends
Take your camera to your next get-together and start taking shots. You may already do this. The idea is to get as comfortable shooting people as you can while they are interacting with others. Don’t just hide in the corner! Get up and be a part of the room. Engage yourself. Lay on the ground or stand on a chair to get the shot you want. Don’t let good shots be a mistake. Make them happen.
Step 2: Shoot Street Portraits
Set up a challenge for yourself to shoot 12 different portraits of people. Go to a neighborhood park or public area and ask interesting looking people if you can take their portrait. If they say no, thank them for their time and move on to your next subject. If they say yes, then step back, smile at them, and prepare to take their shot. Take your time. They have already given you permission. Compose your shot, take two or three different variations, tell them thank you and move on to your next person.
Tip: Try using an interesting camera for this challenge. My vintage Rolleicord was a great conversation starter. “What kind of camera is that?” and “is that film?” was the beginning of many of the conversations I had with my subjects as I took their photo. Here is my first photo challenge from a few years ago. I took 12 portraits in one afternoon using the same method as above. Shooting street portraits is a great way to gain confidence for the real challenge, taking the shot without permission.
Step 3: Shoot Without Permission
OK, now you’re ready to head out and take some street photos. Use a 50mm lens or wider. (Telephoto lenses are for sports, not the street.) Remember, you’re not getting in the way, you are there to be a part of the scene and visually document it. Head out to another park, or any outdoor public area. Downtown Chicago on LaSalle as the Suits leave work is my favorite place. Get your camera ready and shoot. Walk around and be a part of the scene. If you act like you’re not supposed to be there then people will look at you that way. Be confident. Go take a close up of that couple on a park bench. Head over to the bus stop and capture that moment of a guy on his cell phone. Be respectful of course. If they put their hand over their face, or look at you funny, then smile and move on. People may be suspicious, but keep smiling and nodding. This is your job today. Make no apologies and keep shooting. You will be a little nervous. That’s good! It will be thrilling to push your photographic boundaries and you will be rewarded with great shots!
There are a few tools on the market that try to avoid actual confrontation. This Spy Lens lets you take photos out the side of the lens instead of the front. Avoid these cheats! Tools like this won’t help engage your inner street photographer. They only enforce the stereotype of the “sneaky spy photographer,” and they won’t help overcome the shyness that photographers have. Learn the correct way, and you will reap the benefits of being comfortable while you are shooting. Overcome this fear and you’re on your way to becoming a great street photographer.