Street Photography for the Shy

Street Photography for the Shy

Street photography is an incredibly fun type of photography, one of my favorites because of its open and interpretive nature. Capturing everyday people and scenes can seem easy at first but doing it in a thoughtful and decisive way can be challenging, especially if you’re not comfortable confronting other people.

Photographing strangers candidly can be extremely intimidating for anyone but it’s especially scary for the shy. As someone who has never been comfortable facing the glass-end of the camera – and isn’t a fan of confrontation – here are a few tips I suggest you keep in mind as you capture the world.

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Go Small

A big DSLR with a zoom lens is an elephant gun and will attract as much attention as one. I’ve literally had moms snatch their kids out of my way when I hoisted my 5D Mark III with the 70-200mm attached and I was just photographing architecture for a client! While your big camera can produce great photos in the right situation, ditch the big gear for something small and subtle on the street. Once you switch out the big flapping mirror and loud shutter, you’ll feel less conspicuous – and more relaxed – about lifting something quiet and compact to your face. And you’ll have a higher chance of capturing natural scenes, too.

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Don’t Bounce

In the best case scenario, the subjects you photograph behave candidly, as if you aren’t even there. Short of actually being invisible, the best thing you can do is to hang out wherever you are until people get used to your presence. Once they no longer notice the photographer hanging out on the corner, you’ll begin to capture the most natural images possible.

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Try Film

Using an analog camera may not necessarily improve the technical quality of your images but it sure can improve your mindset and relationship with subjects. While some people have a strongly negative reaction to being photographed with digital cameras, others are fascinated with film cameras, either because they’ve never seen one being used or because they (or their parent) used to have one just like it. Nostalgia is a great conversation starter! I’ve lost count of how many wonderful new people I’ve met when using my Rolleiflex TLR camera on the streets and this helped me get more confident around strangers.

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Plus, in my experience people are also more comfortable with having their photo taken on film. Perhaps because they can’t preview the image, or because they realize that due to the physical nature of film, your choosing to make a portrait of them is worth more than pixels. It’s an honor. Whatever the reason, give this a try and see how it works for you, especially as the startup cost for 35mm film photography is a fraction of the price of your digital kit.

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Compose First, Then Wait

Have you found the perfect location with perfect light and now you’ve spotted the perfect subject walking into the frame? Don’t wait for them to hit the right spot to start snapping – start capturing frames as if you’re focused on something else in the scene behind them. By the time they hit the perfect spot they’ve already forgotten that you exist and have begun ignoring you again. Plus, you may end up preferring one of the other images over the one you originally had in mind.

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Go Wide

Sure, a zoom lens can create wonderfully isolated portraiture from afar but is this really what you want when you’re on the pavement capturing the energy of the street? You’ll arguably come back with more authentic images that give your viewers a sense of place with a wide angle lens, plus the smaller physical size of the lens is easier to carry and less noticeable to passers-by.

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Use the Opportunity to Grow

If you’re reading this, you’re not a fan of confrontation or conversation with strangers. Would you like to get better at it? Get out there on the streets, take risks, and see that not every person you capture considers photography a negative experience. For the most part, people don’t even notice or care that you’ve got a camera in front of your face and, if they do, would usually just think you’re capturing the general street scene. Which, by the way, you are. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, keep building up that bank of positive experiences. It’ll carry you through each street session to the next.

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Expand Your Story with Portraits

If you’re feeling good, try breaking out of lurk mode and ask a stranger to pose for you. This can add a visually interesting twist to your storytelling and can be as simple as you approaching a stranger and saying, “Hello, I love your style and you’re sitting in perfect lighting. Would you mind repeating what you just did so I can capture it in a photo?” Don’t forget that environmental and candid portraiture all count for this – the key is interacting with your subject so that they’re aware of your presence, even if the final image doesn’t look posed.

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Schmoo is a freelance documentary photographer based in Berlin who loves travel, rangefinders, medium format film photography, and everything in-between. Her past clients include 500px and Airbnb.

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2 Comments

  1. I love this post. This is something I’ve struggled with because it just feels awkward taking pictures of strangers without freaking anyone out.

    Reply
  2. I’m a long-range street type. . .
    I use the advantage of 85 mm and 200 mm prime lenses to get images of their own that I can also crop as desired to bring the image closer for a more personal emotion.

    I would certainly “show you my work” as invited above, except there isn’t any “add image” button here on the page.

    What’s up with that, BL…?

    I did like the concepts of the article although encouraging “small” and “wide angle”. . .

    Until that time. . .

    Reply

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