How to approach subjects for street photography

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by troy_lawrence, Nov 13, 2004.

  1. I've been into photography for a long time, but I've just recently
    gotten a good camera to use. My goal is studio photography but
    right now I'm looking to develop my skills at street photography
    before I invest the money into studio equipment.

    The problem I have is that I sometimes feel a little strange
    pointing my camera at a complete stranger. I have an 85-210mm lens,
    so I can't be SO far away from my subject. How do you photograph
    complete strangers? Do I need to get a better lens and take the
    pictures from a greater distance? I of course don't want to approach
    them and ask their permission first because you loose the moment and
    it becomes a composed shot.

    Any suggestions on how to get around this, or do I need to learn to
    just take the shot and not be shy?

  2. that's a pretty long lens to do street photography with...i do NOT suggest going longer
    unless you're taking shots of birds in the streets

    i'd get a wide angle, zone focus, react quickly, and don't be shy. i was shy at first, but it
    becomes a zen-like experience. if your subjects react, that's part of the "street" too.
    personally, i don't feel bad about street photographt becayse i don't do anything beyond
    my good taste (unless it's a goal of my work), meaning i don't stick my lens a foot away
    from a fighting couple or a sleeping homeless person. by the way, i find homeless people
    are a common subject for beginning street photographers...they're fascinating, apparently.
    i would stay out of this trap. treat them as people, not freaks of the streets.
  3. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    I walk up to people and take their photo. Most never notice. Most that notice don't care. The ones that care haven't been the ones with big muscles.
  4. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    By the way, I typically shoot with a 35 to 50mm (or digital equivalent) lens on the street.
  5. Start right the first time. Begin with a 21mm and you'll never be
    afraid again;p
  6. Hi Troy I consider myself very shy, but I am also very aggressive when comes down to street photography, I quickly approach my subjects and capture the moment without interupt them, I know I got part of wolf in my shyness, I felt heartbeat and body temperature increase when I'm "locked-in", the whole world pauses and I get close and take shot (the real action only take less than 1 second). If you feel too much of the self existence, then I recommend 28mm-105mm, even 24mm -105mm zoom lens, * note I don't prefer zoom lens for street photography at all, only if you insist. First find a camera body and lens combination that you can FOCUS BY FEEL (Leica M body with 50mm lens that does have an infinity lock button) or a zone focusing camera like Olympus XA-2. The following is a list of cameras I've used for street photography. Pentax ME Super, Pentax Super Program with either 28mm/f2.8 or 50mm/f1.7 (mirror bounce noise, shutter noise, I like ME-Super tho) Leica M3 with Summicron 50mm/f2 collapse lens, (first choice, near silent shutter and the very helpful infinity button for focusing by feel) Canon P with 50mm/f1.2, (very good candidate, moderate shutter noise, but slow focusing due to the long range focusing ring travel) Canonet GIII QL17, (nothing wrong with it, does the same as Leica M3 but lack of quickness) Yashica Electro 35 GSN, (beautiful lens for color street shots, but slow focusing) Minolta Hi-Matic E, (I used this one couple of times before I got the XA-2, a nice camera) Olympus XA-2, (this little toy has a zone focusing scale, simple and intuitive, choose this one for quickness and sharpness of the lens) Canon EOS 7e with 50mm/f1.8, (quiet shutter as SLR, very capable, but does draw attention when you get close to your subject) Minolta X700 with numbers of lens, (don't like the sound of the mirror bounce, but it does the job any others can) Leica R3 MOT with 50mm/f2, ( very nice lens, most logical body design, but slow focusing made itself a bench player) Zeiss Ikon Vitessa 500SE, (with zeiss lens, small body like Canonet QL17, it's a way cool zone focusing camera, film winding is slow, tho) Nikon FE-2 & EF, (sound of the mirror bounce never appeal to me, I like their bright viewfinders and smooth focusing ring on older lens) * Note: all my comments are judged as how fast and how quiet the camera can be served for a street photography, when I state "slow focusing" that means either I have to look at the focusing scale, rotate more than one turn or due to tight focusing ring on design. ** Here is why the Leica lens' infinity button is so practical? - I hang the camera on my neck and hold (rest) both hands on the camera and use both middle fingers to hold and position the infinity button, on 6 o'clock it's 12ft, push to 3 o'clock with my right middle finger I get 7 ft, goes the opposite way I got 12ft, perfect, with this setup you can shoot very fast by feel and never need to bring your camera up to focusing. conclusion: the lens I prefer for everyday street shots is 50mm, besides that I also have 28mm and 24mm, if you have problem at framing, try use 28mm or 24mm, 24mm's images fall flat due to deep DOF , some consider this as advantage and turned their camera into a point and shoot. Sean h. Zhang
  7. Thank you very much for the information. I was not expecting everyone to tell me to get in closer.
    About what Jeff said, being 6'5" 215lb I don't have to worry so much, even the ones with muscles.
    That same aspect also makes it more difficult too, with those demensions, I kind of stick out living in an asian country (Korea).
    Guess it's time to put another lens on the camera (my 18-55mm) and get out there and take 'em.

    Thanks again.
  8. Last year at this event I started by trying to catch people on the fly.

    It didn't work, so I just started stopping them and asking.

    Much better and more respectful of their rights as well.
  9. Use a TLR, like a YashicaNat and use it sideways. That is, stand facing away 90 degrees from the subject, but have the camera pointing sideways at them. Noone EVER catches on that you're actually taking their picture.
  10. mike dixon

    mike dixon Moderator

    I also just walk up and photograph 'em. You're far less important to most of them than you think you are. ; )
    I'm also living in Korea, and it's not that hard to get candid shots. I'm six feet tall with pale skin and red hair, so I'm far from inconspicuous.
    Myeongdong, Seoul
  11. maybe you should listen to your inner self. there is definitely something creepy about taking pictures of people on the street just for the kick of it.
  12. I think one also needs to take the local culture into account.
    For example- I am an Indian and in India, at least the part I stay in I have had no problems taking street photos with an 28-100 Nikkor.

    I had similar experience while in the U.S.

    However, in France I had a different experience- where actually someone objected to my pointing the camera.

    I do not think this is something peculiar to France but I am sure I would not have offended had I asked before.

    Besides, I have a 5'4" frame and am hardly muscular so I guess a little bit of tuning in to the local culture wont harm me.

    That's my two cents.

  13. define creepy, please
  14. ditch your long lens, grit your teeth and jump in.. most will not notice nor object. but some will, and be prepared to face it when they do.

    or maybe it will help if you consider yourself the biggest creep in the world according to Claudia.. :D
  15. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    maybe you should listen to your inner self. there is definitely something creepy about taking pictures of people on the street just for the kick of it.
    Maybe you can show us some of your un-creepy shots of people. I'd be interested in seeing the difference.
  16. jeepers creepers, where'd ya get those peepers?
  17. LOL...some guys are so sensitive about little itty bitty adjectives. i take it all back. there is absolutely nothing creepy about taking pics of peeps on the street. gentleman, start your cameras!
  18. I noted an interesting experience with street photography in China. It seems to be a North American (I've never been to Europe) "shyness" when it comes to getting pictures taken. I'm not certain if it stems from a feeling of inadequacey of our body image (it's all the media's fault!) or if we're fearful of what the images may be used for, but regardless, people shy away from cameras. I notice that children shy away less than adults, so I assume it's a learned response.

    On the other hand, when I was in China, people seemed to love having their pictures taken, the adults more so than the children. People would literally jump into photo opportunites.

    Just being polite, and presenting yourself well to the subjects in question will generate success all on its own. There will always be people who don't want to have their photos taken. But we've all missed enough potential photos in our lives to live with another one, haven't we? The only problem with asking permission, is that you lose the spontaneity of the moment. I wonder if Henri Cartier Bresson ever asked anybody before taking a photo?
  19. I find it useful to use a prime lens that you know well (i.e. 50 mm) and a camera that you can operate without looking through the viewfinder. That way you can predict the framing, pre-focus and pre-set the exposure without raising the camera just as you are walking around your subject. When you have selected the best perspective, raise the camera to your eye, fine-tune the focus, take the picture and put the camera down, taking care to do it smoothly. After a couple of tries it won't take you more than 2-3 seconds. More important than your technique is your attitude. Going out into the street and shooting strangers just for the heck of it won't give you much confidence and motivation to do it. Invent a specific, well-defined project (i.e. shooting people with walking sticks limping in the park, or couples communicating face to face at the crosswalks etc.) and just do the job that needs be done to come up with a dozen meaningful photos. M.
  20. My experience is that most people are really fascinated of being photographed, what sometimes even spoil the expontaneous factor of the picture. I prefer the "catched" pictures over the posed ones. Much more natural.

    In this case, I would recommend what I read here before: Be nice, Smile, and even ask after the picture if there is any problem with it.

    I should add, though, that some communities oppose themselves to photography. Some fishermen in my city have the idea of their soul being captured when they are photographed (no joke).
  21. Creepy, crawly<br>
    Creepy, crawly<br>
    Creepy creepy crawly crawly<br>
    Creepy creepy crawly crawly<br>
  22. "Some fishermen in my city have the idea of their soul being captured when they are
    photographed (no joke)."

    I'm not surprised, but would be interested to hear where that is.

    I found the same attitude among some in the vicinity of Izmir Turkey years ago. I
    immediately stopped shooting, showing respect as best I could. Actually, it makes a
    certain amount of sense, as we photographers do capture something of that subject
    person. If considered a zero-sum matter, what we take away is something they've lost. We
    can use the image later to remind ourselves of the time, place, and person. There's just
    something magical about it! ;-)
  23. be there, be part of the scenery and use a short lens (35mm-50mm),<br>
    this gives your shots a very intimate 'look and feel'... a long lens is definitely<br>
    a no-no in SP
  24. do not ask your subject before but I tell them after I took the picture, I even bring the print to them months later, remember I took a picture of the gentleman and asked the whole neighborhood where he lives, he was certainly happy when he saw the 8x10 print, that's what I call respect, and that's the only way to capture the "real" moment, not posed still portraiture.
  25. Troy, The answer is there is no definate answer. Sometimes you engage in spontaneous dialogue and posing; sometimes it is fast and silent. Either way, you need a reason to take someone's photograph. When there is no reason nothing works. It is like hunting. There is ultimately an agreement between the hunter and the hunted. The day we became human is the day we felt compassion for the creatures we hunted down and put their images on the walls of caves to commemorate them. That is where street photography originates. Here are a couple of shots where I happened to engage in dialogue and mutual agreement. The first is a young woman in a train station, probably around 20 years old. The other is a fellow photographers on the street of Kobe, probably in her 70s.
  26. Prefer # 1 in color.
  27. These days I find myself falling into a MO where I shoot one or two candids then I'll go talk to my subject and get a couple more. This way I get more to choose from. This recently worked out great with a street preacher on Hollywood Blvd. I took a couple quick shots (Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with 110mm lens) and then I approached him to talk about his work. I then got a close up shot of him holding up his handouts. With his "Believe Jesus" basball cap and sweat shirt it was a better shot then the candids. Too bad I did a poor job of developing the roll. This is where it becomes important to really be a people person. Not only is it wrong to fake such interest in somebody, but most people I think can pick up on it quickly. So be genuinely interested in the people you photograph in the street. This will come through in your prints and will result in a much more meaningful photo. The more you approach people, the easier it gets btw.
  28. I felt the nervous when I started out in SP as well, it's something you have to learn to get over. Sure you may feel a little bit strange when photographing a complete stranger, but just think about it for a minute, if you were that person, do you think you'd mind having your picture taken? For most people, it shouldn't be a problem, a lot of people don't care. Sure you may get a few funny looks, but very rarely have I ever had someone come right up to me and demand to know what I was doing. As for the telephoto lens, I wouldn't say it's the best choice for street (they don't focus very close either). A 50, 35, or something wider should be perfectly fine for you. Zooms are another possibility although they tend to be slower than primes. Good luck, --Dominic
  29. "I'm not surprised, but would be interested to hear where that is."

    I live in Florianópolis, Southern part of Brazil. A capital city with some areas that still live in it's past :) Lovely city. People should come visit.

    Alex. I prefer the color one :)
  30. you can street photograph with any lens you have. There are no hard adn set rules. whatever works for you. some like to take pics from half a block away, some like to get right into the mix. I have a 28-135 that I use sometimes. and at other times I have my 100-400. Heck, sometimes, I set a tripod up and just point and shoot. It depends on what you are looking to accomplish. Think about what you would not like someone to do to you and don't do that to others. Be respectful and smile. d The attached was taken with a 200-400 and a tripod.
  31. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    I think the last shot shows exactly the problem with long lenses. It's disconnected, it doesn't give a good reason to look at it unless we know the person. Contrast that with the street shots on this recent thread to see the difference.
  32. Disconnected? Sure, disconnected from me perhaps, but then, I shoot candid photography. are the paparazzi street photographers? Is thier photography taken with 500 and 800mm lenses disconnected? I guess we have two different philosophies of street photography. I like to capture people doing what they do without them knowing they were photographed - my challenge is can I shoot them without them knowing I took the photo. The bottom line is what are you trying to accomplish with your photography - are you looking to get a picture of a person who is aware of you taking the photo or capture someone doing what they are doing without them knowing you are documenting their activities. Also, I prefer to not have to deal with the musclebound and on the few occasions that someone has not liked having thier picture taken and complained, I show them the pic, if they still don't like it, I delete it on the spot - i shoot for fun not to get into an altercation with someone I don't know. Here is another one taken with a canon 100-400 on a tripod. Disconnected?
  33. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    I'd say it looks like a kid at the beach, disconnected or no, but it would have a hard time meeting anyone's definition of street photography.
  34. mike dixon

    mike dixon Moderator

    Yes, disconnected. Photos have a different feels that correspond to the different looks you get by photographing from close up or from far away. Photographing from close to your subject creates a sense of participating in or belonging to the scene. Photographing from a distance give a sense of checking out distant happenings through a set of binoculars.

    There are millions of examples of images made from closer distances in which the subjects are not actively conscious of or posing for the camera. Getting close doesn't necessarily cause the image to be contrived.

    Of course, you're entitled to shoot your photos however you see fit. But I think disconnected is an apt description of images that look like they were shot from far away.
  35. mike dixon

    mike dixon Moderator

    are the paparazzi street photographers? Is thier photography taken with 500 and 800mm lenses disconnected?
    No. Yes.
  36. I agree about the connectedness... and yet I think it's also possible to have overly
    enthusiastic cooperation from the subjects. I'm thinking of some recent shots of Japenese
    youngsters, I think Alex's, where they lined up and held up hands with V symbols. That
    could get rather old after the umpteenth time. I guess one could just keep shooting until
    they tire of cooperating and go back to whatever they were doing.
  37. just fro clarification, I have no idea who any of those people in the photos I posted are, and neither of them knew I took the picture, though with the second, the girl was roughly 15 feet away on the pier.

    I guess there are a few dissenting opinions on what is street photography. I did a quick search trying to define it:

    What is street photography exactly? Well, the concept is continually being defined. But essentially, the consensus is that street photography is spontaneous and in the moment with no time for preparation. The photographer sees an opportunity in a public area and reacts. Voila. Street photography.

    The street as it is defined here might be a crowded boulevard or a country lane, a park in the city or a boardwalk at the beach, a lively cafe or a deserted hallway in a tenement, or even a subway car or the lobby of a theater. It is any public place where a photographer could take pictures of subjects who were unknown to him...."

    Street Techniques....
    From Philip Greenspun:
    "The classic technique for street photography consists of fitting a wide (20mm) or moderately wide-angle (35mm) lens to a camera, loading high-speed film (ISO 400), and pre-focusing the lens....

    "A modern alternative is to use a camera with a very high-performance autofocus system and a zoom lens....

    You of course are entitled to your own opinions, and I am sure you could quickly come up with just as many or more examples of people who say you have to use a 50mm or that if you must risk bodily harm to get the photo you are not a true street photographer.

    just my opinion, but I believe zoom lenses are fine for street photography. YMMV
  38. good one grant. you too like woody allen,right?
  39. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator Staff Member

    None of what you say changes the fact that these photos are disconnected from the viewer. This is a basic difference between a shot that pulls the viewer in and one that places a space in there. It's emotional and physical, and it deadens the photos unless they have a strong design component, which these don't. Check out the link I gave before and it will be obvious.
  40. None of what you say changes the fact that these photos are disconnected from the viewer
    You seem to imply that disconnected images are inherently bad. Being disconnected is just a different state of mind, there's no reason why we should all view the street, or life, in the same way.
    I think the equipment you have should be fine for starting out.
  41. A couple of comments on responses above. First, I'd like to strongly agree with the Olympus XA2 comment- its a wonderful stealth camera no larger than a pack of cigarettes, you can load it with fast film, and even grab the add-on flash. Though it, like other tiny cameras, is real suceptible to camera shake. I've taken a host of great images with this camera.

    Second, I live in the PA Dutch (Amish) area. As you might have seen on "Amish in the city," (I don't know- I've never seen it...) these people have a STRONG resistance to being photographed, and DO feel that it 'affects their soul.' I was recently photographing a covered bridge outside of Lancaster, when I heard horses hooves clopping nearby, and knew a wagon was on its way. I did the deed- shooting just as the buggy entered the bridge, with the children hanging out of the back. I couldn't resist- but I'll never use or display the photo. It still feels wrong to have done it, and doubt I ever will bother again.

    My concern has been this: what do you do about model releases? With the digital format and the internet- one of these strangers is sure to eventually find their portrait online. Isn't the risk of lawsuit greater now? (Or is the fact that they are in public make them "fair game?") I imagine I'd approach them after the fact, hand them my card, and tell them I'll make them a print for free in exchange for the ability to use their image...but what do you do in this case?

    I really enjoy doing this kind of photography, and have succeeded, in my opinon, on making quite a few interesting shots. I like the excitement of seeing an interesting composition or juxdaposition with a subject and its background, then the thrill of shooting it unseen- before the subject reacts and the shot's ruined. Without this permission, though, I'm having a ethical problem using them as samples , for display, or in a show.
  42. I must agree with Jeff and Mike about the disconnection. Not that it is necessarily bad, as someone pointed.

    About the challege of taking the picture without the people realizing they are being photographed, I guess the real challenge is to do this with a wide-angle lens; being part of the scene.

    David, I don't think that looking for these answer with statements will really define what street photography is. I guess the statements you pointed out really don't define it.

    If I were to state what street photography is, I would say it is what Cartier-Bresson as many other used to do. And in their photographys the wide-angle, being close and in the middle of the scene are aspects that are very present.

    But, of course, it can be done with tele lenses.

    What I point out about the use of the wide-angle is a sort of estereotype of the street photography; the same way that the estereotype of the classical portrait is done with a telephoto lens.

  43. Remember, never look like a photographer, take the minimum and quitest equipment, forget telephoto, only very near you discover the reality, for my taste, between 21 and 50, maybe 75/90 at a maximum.
    Preview the situation, bracket your focus, work with depth of field aids, be very fast, you have only a fraction of a second...,and be never affraid, smile always if the people see you, talk with them.
    Take a lot of pictures and good luck!
  44. Well if you're really shy, this is how I sometimes do it. If the subject is walking then I aim the camera ahead of the person and pretend to be taking a photo of that, I wait until the person gets into the frame and I take the shot. But instead of putting the camera down and stay in the same position for a few more seconds.

    If subject is still, I just look into the background for a few seconds, as though I was thinking of taking a shot of that. And then I raise my camera, take a few shots of the subject, look at the background again and leave.

    Yea, I guess its kinda sly, but well it works.
  45. Troy, I totally understand where you are coming from. Once you start shooting some of the shyness should fade, but here are some "cowardly" techniques I use:

    1/ Focus on a point beside the subject - then gracefully move the camera and shoot.
    2/ Shoot with the self timer while the camera is hanging around the neck.
    3/ Look more like a dumb tourist than a local.
    4/ When a homeless person asks for money - cut a deal for a picture.
    5/ Set up the shot and let the subject enter the frame - then shoot.
    6/ Use a remote shutter release cable in the pocket.
    7/ Look around the subject as if they are only a small part of the picture.
    8/ Use the self timer and act like you are setting up the shot. You can take your eye away from the viewfinder while the perfectly framed shot is actually being taken.

    Unfortunately asking upfront may result in posed pictures. From what I have read that David Alan Harvey (my idol) will sometimes shoot and then ask for permission later. He will then engage in conversation with the subjects and this will sometimes lead to more shots at different locations. (Hey, maybe you'll get invited to a party)

    I do agree with the others on using a wider or standard lenses. For some strange reason it seems less noticable when you are close than when you are the guy with the honken zoom accross the street. Pre-metering and manual focusing works best for me. Good luck. Alex

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