Street photography: nothing to be scared of

Great street photography is all about capturing candid moments of people going about their everyday lives, seemingly unaware of the photographer. Revealing something about the human spirit and the times in which we live, they can have an appeal that far outlasts any other genre of photography.

Street photography is able to reveal things about us like no other form of photography can. But while this genre is predominantly about people, technically a ‘street photo’ doesn’t need to have people in it at all. An image that conveys something about humanity’s influence on the world around us can just as easily be classed as a street photograph. With such a broad description, it’s no surprise that street photography comes in many shapes and sizes.

Candid camera

The aim of street photography is to capture a candid moment, but the dilemma comes in trying to shoot it without being noticed. Once you ask someone for permission to shoot, that unguarded moment has already passed. The trick is to get the shot without your subject knowing you were ever there.

Street photography is a relatively new form of photography, popularised by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the godfather of the genre, who defined it with his candid shots from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He used an early Leica, masking its chrome body with black tape to be as inconspicuous as possible, and seeking out poetic scenes that included shapes or geometric patterns, sometimes waiting hours for all the elements of his scene to come together. Take a look at more of his work here.

In these modern times, everyone has a smartphone at hand, able to snap street images at will, so in a sense anyone can become a street photographer. While this has made the genre more accessible than ever, with surveillance cameras recording our every move and heightened public awareness of terrorism, privacy has become a more sensitive issue. Cartier-Bresson’s natural images of children at play would be impossible now.

In 2008, Home Office minister Tony McNulty clarified the law with his assertion that: ‘There is no legal restriction on photography in public places, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.’ However, it is rarely as simple as that, and when and who you shoot will always be a judgement call.

Cartier-Bresson owed much of his success to his ability to make himself invisible. His 35mm Leica camera, one of the earliest compacts, was always fitted with a fast 50mm lens, making it far more discreet than the large format cameras that preceded it. He also dressed himself in dark clothes and stayed in the shadows, out of the way, while patiently waiting for his scene to unfold.

Depending on what you’re shooting, you can evade detection in other ways too. Who hasn’t pretended to wait for someone to move out of shot while snapping the real photo with them in it?

With candid shots, generally the last thing you want is to make eye contact with your subject, but even if you do, that doesn’t necessarily mean the shot is ruined. This photo by Emil Umerov (Instagram @emileas_fogg) only works because of the eye contact between the viewer and the man in the distance.

If you do get spotted or you manage to get a really great shot, consider showing it to your subject and letting them have a copy if they ask for one. For more on the legalities and etiquette around photographing people unawares, take a look here.

Up close and personal

If the idea of clandestine photography doesn’t appeal, how about portraits of interesting people? Here, instead of shooting unnoticed, you take the opposite approach. When you spot someone who stands out, go up to them and ask if they’ll let you take their photo, as in this shot by Shamim Ashraf (Instagram @shamimashraf).  

Sounds scary? Walking up to a complete stranger and asking if you can take their photo might sound unappealing, but there’s a special thrill that comes from interacting with people you don’t know. Unlike candid shots of a fleeting moment, with street portraits you get to interact with your subject and learn a bit about them and their lives.

Most times people will not only consent, they will be pleased you asked. Their brief moment in front of your lens will be the highlight of their day, a story they’ll tell their friends.

Remember the background

Whatever type of street photography you go for, always keep one eye on the background. Street portraits in particular will nearly always work better if you can shoot your subject in their surroundings. The background adds context, reveals more about a person and helps your photo tell a story.

Sometimes the background becomes so important that it’s the star of the show. In this shot by Instagram street photographer, @vanessa_is_my_cat, it’s the background that makes the shot. While the person seems almost incidental, without him there would be no sense of scale.

Clean and simple geometric patterns work well as backgrounds. When you find one you think will make a great shot, work out the best angle to shoot it from then, wait for someone to enter the scene and complete your shot.

Predicting the shot

While many street photos might look like the photographer caught a lucky shot, that’s rarely the case. By the time you’ve seen a great shot, you’re already too late to photograph it. However, if you learn to predict how people will behave, then you’ll be ready for the shot when it happens. A study published in the journal Science found that human mobility is 93 per cent predictable, and that while our actions might seem random, there are surprisingly regular patterns to our behaviour. Start people-watching and you’ll see what we mean.

In fact, we already know what people will do in many situations. When a waiter comes towards someone in a restaurant, you know that person will look up from the menu as the waiter approaches. When a woman looks at a baby, it’s instinctive for her to break into a smile. If you can learn to predict what people will do, then you’ll know when to pick up your camera.

This shot was taken in Barcelona in a downtrodden area where the walls were covered in graffiti. Towards the end of the street, there was an interesting mural on the wall showing someone peeking through curtains. I lined myself up with the mural, my camera pointed at the wall, and waited. As people turned the corner they saw a man with a camera. Their instinct was always to turn and look at what the photographer was shooting – each time they turned, the picture was made.

Get the gear

For street photography, nothing beats a mirrorless camera. Being small and light, they are easy to carry around and far less noticeable. The lenses tend to be smaller too, so you don’t look like a pro. While the sound of the shutter clicking on a DSLR or compact camera can give you away, with a mirrorless camera you have a silent mode so you can take your shot without anyone noticing. Then there’s the viewfinder on the rear of the screen. If yours tilts or swivels, then you can hold the camera at waist level and rotate the rear screen, and no one would ever know you were taking a photo. With touchscreen focus points, you can even compose and focus your shot like this.

Your choice of lens will have a big impact on your shot. Some people prefer to attach a zoom lens to their camera and get their street shots from a safe distance. Although this might sound like an easier way to get those secret shots, it’s not as simple as that. A zoom lens has the effect of flattening your image so you lose any sense of depth. It also means you’re so far away from your scene that your shot lacks intimacy.

While a zoom lens flattens your shot, a wide angle does the opposite, emphasising the distance between foreground and background objects. Prime lenses also work well for street photography. They are often faster than a zoom lens so you can get more depth of field (those blurry backgrounds). They’re also usually smaller than a zoom, so they look more discreet when you’re trying to pass by unnoticed. Both the 50mm and 35mm prime lenses are firm favourites for street shots.

Ultimately though, the focal length you opt for will be determined by the type of shot you’re trying to get.

Lasting appeal

Just like fine wine, street photos age well. As time passes, they paint a picture of a bygone age, evoking emotions like no other genre of photography. Look back at your street photos in ten, twenty years’ time and they will take on a new significance. As well as bringing the memories flooding back, they’ll also become a record of a moment in time, a period that no longer exists.

Robert Blomfield is the perfect example of this. He used his camera to record life in Edinburgh and London from the 1950s to the 1970s and the shot that opens this article is one of his. His work lived in shoeboxes, unappreciated, for many, many years – but now his nostalgic images have surfaced, attracting widespread attention and culminating in an exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre.

Read more about Robert Blomfield and check out his shots on Instagram (@robertblomfield).

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