Street photography

If the idea of pointing your lens in the direction of people you don’t know has you palpitating and sweating then it’s fair to say you’ve probably never tried street photography, writes Andrew James.

When it comes to getting our cameras out in public and capturing images of random strangers we all tend to take on that slightly uncomfortable look. It’s definitely not a genre for the faint-hearted. But if you’re stuck for a subject or simply bored with your usual style, then testing your mettle at the nearest town centre is definitely something you should try. But is the idea of street photography actually worse than the reality itself, like a dog’s bark being worse than its bite? And what actually is street photography? I’m not an out and out street photographer but I think I’m pretty good at wandering around a place and looking for opportunities.

If you are wondering where the picture with the man with the wheelbarrow was taken (below), it was in Krakow, Poland. I simply liked the wall and thought I’d hang around on the street corner to see who came walking past. First it was this guy with the wheelbarrow and then it was the nun (second below). If you are wondering why the nun is shot at a jaunty angle well there is the official line and then the truth. The official line first – it was a compositional decision aimed at giving the photo a sense imbalance to hold the viewer’s attention. The truth – I’d seen a nun walk down before and as the street was called Dominikans I thought it would be great to get one in a shot. The first nun hadn’t taken the right line so I waited for ages for another one. No nuns. There’s never a nun when you need one. I got bored. I started chimping! When I looked up this nun was right in the firing line so I had to grab the shot and I got it half wrong, although I quite like the fact she’s looking at the time on her wrist. So don’t chimp like I did or you’ll be a chump and potentially miss a good shot.

What is street photography?
The truth is, street photography is largely what you want it to be. For some photographers it’s about shooting candidly while others ask strangers to pose. There are no absolute rules here; it’s an artform you can interpret in a way that suits you. At its most basic, street photography is carried out in a public place – whether this is a street, café, railway station, or concert. It should have people as its underlying theme but doesn’t have to feature them directly in the frame. Remember, street photography isn’t a modern invention. It’s as old as photography itself. Images from the 19th and 20th century are now used as historical reference points on the changing face of fashion, transport, and the world in general. Perhaps the most famous 20th century exponent of the art of street photography is Henri Cartier-Bresson who pioneered the concept of the camera as a third eye observing human behaviour and capturing a scene at the decisive moment.

Modern day exponents have diverse approaches that further blur the definition of what street photography is. New York-based Bruce Gilden gets ultra-close to his subjects; literally pouncing on unsuspecting passers-by with his camera and flashgun. He shoots and moves on. It’s a deliberately intrusive style that he’s developed and made his name on. How the hell he has avoided getting his face punched is beyond me. Maybe he has! British street photographer Nils Jorgensen has a less confrontational style and frequently captures images with a strong element of comedy. He regards street photography as being more of an attitude than specifics about subject or place. Nils is more my style of street photographer, an observer who tries to capture little vignettes of modern life with his pictures. I’ve interviewed him in the past and found him a gentle and engaging talker who came across as the least likely person to tackle this subject. Take a look at the images on his website I really think you will love them and maybe it will inspire you to get out there and try some of it for yourself. Taking the Bruce Gilden ‘wide, close, and flashed’ approach requires nerves of steel as it’s a method that inevitably gets you noticed by the subject. In most cases they’re more surprised than aggressive and in the crowded, fast-paced urban environment (especially New York), it’s possible to get a shot and vanish into the throng before the subject has time to react further. At least Gilden’s still here to tell the tale but it’s not an approach for me or I suspect, you. If you don’t want to take the ultra-intrusive approach pioneered by Gilden, you can still shoot wide for that ‘in-your-face’ intimacy without always arousing the curiosity of the people being photographed. If your subject is off-centre then you won’t be pointing the lens directly at them anyway, leaving them to assume you are photographing something or someone else!

If you prefer to stand further back still, then a medium telephoto in the 70-200mm range is certainly more suitable. Sitting at an outdoor café table or on a bench, you can pick out potential subjects from a distance without being spotted at all and that’s exactly what I did for the shot above. The man lost in his own thoughts was never aware of me at all and yet I was able to take my time and carefully compose with the other man out of focus in the background. Of course, you also have the added bonus that a longer lens and a wide aperture of f/4 or f/2.8 can help to de-clutter distracting backgrounds by knocking them out of focus.

A cafe candid in France shot on a 70-200mm lens.

What about gear?
In the world of street photography, less is undoubtedly more and you need to travel as light as possible because you’ll be carrying your camera bag at all times.  After all, you can’t take the risk of putting it down unattended while you take a shot in the middle of a busy urban environment. A small to medium shoulder bag will give you instant, on-the-hoof access to contents; while allowing you to carry your camera and a couple of lens options, such as a wide zoom and medium telephoto. While a Digital SLR is fine, the new army of Compact System Cameras such as the X-Series from Fujifilm, make great tools for street photography. The Fuji X-Pro 1 is frequently spotted nestling in the bags of street and documentary photographers. Above all else, avoid too much clutter – so leave the tripod at home as it will only get in the way!

Live View or viewfinder?
Using either the camera’s viewfinder or its Liveview options have their pros and cons for street photography. With the eye to the viewfinder in the traditional way, you can shut out the world around to concentrate on framing a busy scene. However, there are times when you need to be aware of what’s happening outside of the immediate frame. You can keep one eye to the viewfinder and open the other, giving you an instantly wider field of vision, so if you are waiting for the right person to move into your frame you can be aware of their moment and position as they approach.

Alternatively, if your camera has Liveview, you can switch to this so that the scene is framed via the LCD panel. Composing your scene this way allows you to watch all the events happening outside of the framed area, so you can spot interesting characters, adjust your framing accordingly or simply be ready to fire the shutter as they step into the scene. If your camera’s LCD screen flip-outs then you have the added bonus of being able to position the camera for discreet (sneaky) waist-high shooting while still having a good view of what you are framing. A camera up to the eye is quite visible to your subject, but held lower down it’s far less obvious. This is exactly what I did for the shot of the smallholder at a sunday market in London. He and the guy coming into the frame on the right are oblivious to my sneaky picture taking.

The most accurate way to focus here is to select a single AF focus point (central is the most reliable but not always the best for composition) and move it to the point in the frame you want the sharpest. Naturally, the further down you drop the camera, the harder it is to see what’s going on through a 3 inch LCD screen but with a little practice it’s straightforward. You’ll need to look down to move the focus point and check your composition but it soon becomes second nature so you can do it in a fashion that doesn’t get a second glance from passers-by. The key, whether you are viewing the street scene through the viewfinder or Liveview, is to work fast. People come and go in seconds so you have to able to grab your shot quickly and accurately.

If you do opt for a sneaky waist-high shooting position with a flipped out viewfinder, don’t forget to switch the sound of the shutter to its silent or quiet mode if your model has one. Nothing gives the game away like the ‘gunshot’ sound of your shutter firing. The bleep of your autofocus locking on is also a give away, so if you want to remain incognito, disable this as well. Here’s another waist high shot – you can write your own caption as to what the guy has just realised he’s forgotten to do!

Shooting from the hip!

Where can I find street opportunities?
It might be a cliché, but the fact is when it comes to street photography the opportunities really are just outside your door. Ultimately, wherever there are people you’ll find a photo. If you want to ease yourself in gently to the idea of taking pictures in public, then discipline yourself to walk around your local neighbourhood or the area around the building you work in, at least a couple of times a week with your camera at the ready. Looking for images in a very familiar environment isn’t always easy because you’ve taken for granted what’s there and don’t see the interesting angle on it any more. This is why when we travel to new places it’s so much easier to spot photographic potential.

If you are struggling to look at the familiar with fresh eyes, then take yourself to a different town or city. Go to the nearest market where you’ll find lots of people and interaction, or take a walk along the side streets away from the busier shopping areas and keep out of shopping centres where you’ll run into jobsworth security guards wanting to pour cold water on your creativity. Railways stations, bus stops, cafés, zebra crossings and urban parks are all people-magnets, giving you a chance to observe the comings and goings. Once you start looking and tuning into the environment, you’ll be surprised at how your thinking will snowball and your memory card fills up.

In the bigger cities – especially around the tourist areas – you may feel much more comfortable because almost every other person has a camera and you won’t draw extra attention to yourself. You’re seen as just another DSLR-toting tourist! But in a typical town you might draw a few curious glances or notice that people look behind them because they are wondering what you’re shooting because they don’t think for one seconds it’s going to be them! Big sporting or music events are also excellent opportunities to try out your street skills; whether that’s snapping the throng of people queuing to get into a venue or turning the lens behind you and onto the crowd watching all the action in front of them. Music festivals can be a particularly rich seam of interesting behaviour – just think of all the images of mud-covered Glastonbury revellers you’ve seen over the years.

Taken in my nearest town. It's amazing what you can get by lurking in alleyways!

Auto ISO
When shooting fast and furiously, always on the move and changing locations, one handy trick is to work with your camera switched to Auto ISO. In Auto ISO – usually denoted as an A in your menu – the camera will adjust the sensitivity of the sensor according to the available light and help you get a correct exposure. With the camera in Auto ISO and Aperture-priority, you can set the f/stop according to how much depth-of-field you want, knowing the camera is setting both shutter speed and ISO as accurately as it can. All you need to worry about is ensuring the shutter speed doesn’t drop too low for handholding without getting camera shake. If your camera’s higher ISO settings are too noisy for your tastes, then simply limit the range it can choose from by setting a maximum and minimum. Don’t limit this too much, however, or you won’t really get the benefit of Auto ISO and remember, a slightly noisy image is better than one that is unintentionally out of focus.

Street photography techniques
There are few bespoke camera tricks that come into play with street photography because it is a relatively simple and honest subject. What there are, however, are ways to get the most from any session on the street and push creativity to its highest point. One popular technique is to create a sense of movement and energy in the shot by blurring people. This has the added bonus of hiding their identity. You have several options available if you want to do this. Firstly you can set a camera on a tripod, put an ND filter on the front of your lens to limit the amount of available light and slow the shutter speed right down. With a shutter speed of 1/15th second (or slower), people walking briskly past will be blurred while those standing still will remain reasonably sharp. In the right circumstances you can get a very interesting shot but it does mean having to carry a tripod; finding a spot to set-up that doesn’t obstruct the flow of people; and firing the shutter with a cable release or self-timer.

Blurring the subject while handholding is also possible and probably a better option when you are travelling light. A slow shutter speed and a panning action – moving the camera with the subject – is a useful technique. It rarely looks good with people walking because the pace is often too slow but a bicycle, car, bus, or handy urban jogger can add an interesting twist to your street photography portfolio.

Using a slow shutter speed means the cyclist blurs.

Opting for black & white
The decision to choose colour or black & white for your street photography is as uncertain as the definition of the genre itself. Just like any creative choice, the direction you go depends on personal preference. As a general rule of thumb – black & white is probably most associated with street photography. If black & white is the direction you want to take then, without doubt, your best option is to shoot Raw so you capture in colour but convert and develop the image later in your chosen software. By doing this, you retain the maximum amount of data and tonal range within the raw file. And of course, you can still opt for colour over black & white if you want to change creative direction.

How to develop your Raw original into an eye-catching black & white photograph is a subject that needs a whole article in itself and everyone has their own way of working. However, many serious black & white enthusiasts (and me too) rave about the Photoshop plug-in Silver Efex Pro II for its ability to produce strong monochrome images quickly and effectively. Not only can you control different areas of the image for total creative control, but you can also apply any of a whole series of pre-sets if it’s a quick one-step effect you are after. And of course you can create your own pre-set to your taste once you’ve established a style that you like.

Silver Efex Pro really does offer a lot of useful and effective options, including selecting an appearance based on old popular black & white films such as Fuji Neopan Pro 1600, Kodak TMax Pro 400, and Ilford Delta 400, adding special borders, or various vignettes. There is no doubt that black & white suits street photography very well. It strips the image to its bare bones and gives it a more gritty, edgy appearance. But it shouldn’t be used exclusively and there will be times when keeping colour is definitely the right option. Only you can judge from shot to shot which direction you should take.

Black & White from the streets of Havana.

Legal stuff
When it comes to taking images on the street there is always concern about what is or isn’t legal. It’s important that we know our rights and stand up for them but it’s also vital we exercise commonsense to avoid confrontation. We live in a slightly paranoid world where people sometimes assume that those doing something they wouldn’t do (such as taking pictures on the street) are potential terrorists or paedophiles. If you are confronted or challenged, remain calm and in control. Don’t get angry but instead explain what you are doing and why. Having a business-style card that shows you are photographer will certainly help – especially if it has a website where people can go to view your images.

The more defensive you become, the more suspicious the person challenging you will get. It’s always best to be open, remain friendly and when absolutely necessary point out that photographing on a street is legal and that there are no restrictions on taking images in public places – except in a few exceptional circumstances. However, if you were to constantly follow the same person and take pictures of them when they have already asked you not to, this could be regarded as harassment. The law surrounding invasion of privacy is also subject to some interpretation. According to version 2 of the UK Photographers’ Rights Guide by Linda Macpherson: “A court has held that the right of privacy of a child might be infringed by the taking and publishing of a photograph of him with his parents in a public street.” You should also be aware that if you are shooting on private property then the owner of that property can choose to restrict photography on it. Private property can include places like shopping centres, museums, and car parks and it’s not unusual for security guards in these places to ask you to stop taking images and leave.

It’s worth going to and downloading the PDF version of Linda McPherson’s guide. It goes into greater details about most aspects of how the law in the UK applies to photographers but is written in an easy to understand style and is a useful reference to keep tucked away somewhere in your camera bag.

Published in Camera Skills

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