Editor’s note: When I first came across the following post by Jessyel Ty Gonzalez of dailysnap, I loved it so much that I asked him if we could republish it on PetaPixel.
Hopefully some of you will find his advice useful in your street photography endeavors. Jessyel will be contributing more posts to PetaPixel in the future, so stay tuned!
Also, be sure to check out PetaPixel’s interview with Jessyel.
Lately, I’ve been interested in approaching people and asking if I can take their photo. Additionally, I like to strike up some sort of conversation (I’ve been especially interested in what people do for a living). It’s challenging at times, but rewarding when a complete stranger opens up to you (especially in these rough economic times) and allows you to take their picture.
I’ve featured some of these shots on my photoblog, and have received a few emails lately from people asking for general tips on street photography. I’m obviously no expert, but will share some of the things I’ve learned over the last few years. I won’t be writing about its legality, how it differs from photo-journalism, about the art or technical aspects of it (you don’t have to shoot in black and white – seriously!), or meant to have any definitive rights and wrongs. These are just my opinions and experiences (and the lessons I’ve learned from them).
Looking back to my first street photography experiences a few years ago, I treated these shooting sessions like I was a private detective or something – being sneaky about it all. Not sure if it was my introverted nature or fear of rejection (more on that later), but I always felt like I was doing something wrong (some sort of guilt complex). Who was I to take photos of complete strangers while they weren’t aware of it?
This all culminated into some sneaky behavior that I quickly realized would never allow me to grow as a (street) photographer, and that the shots themselves would never reach any true potential.
So what was I doing? For one, I would shoot with a telephoto lens. The mindset was that at 300mm, I could shoot from far away and never be ‘caught’. I thought I was a genius. It actually worked for a while too, but the shots just weren’t turning out all that great. I quickly found out that street photography almost demanded I be a participant, and not just an observer (if that makes any sense).
Additionally, people who saw me with a huge camera (I would apply a battery grip to my SLR as well) and a huge telephoto lens would be suspicious of my behavior. In this post-9/11 environment and paparazzi-like appearance, you can’t blame people for thinking this. In the end – even though I was far away – I managed to invade their personal space, and everyone around my radius was walking on eggshells and any spontaneity went out the window.
Don’t look like a photographer per se. I’ve learned to not take too much equipment, dress normally, and keep the camera bag small and inconspicuous. This means bringing only one camera (no added accessories) and one lens (or carry another in a small camera bag). You’ll seem less threatening than before. To me, you almost want to create the illusion that you’re a tourist – people realize you have a camera, but don’t care as to why you have that camera.
I know I said I wouldn’t talk about technical aspects, but I will say this to those that are fuming that I said no telephotos – as with all other types of photography, you use your equipment to get the best shot possible based on your situation. Using a telephoto lens because you don’t want to get ‘caught’ or get up-close during a street photo is not taking full advantage of your equipment. Apart from this, the compression from a telephoto may work great on landscape or wildlife shot, but not so much with a street one (at least in my experience). In the end, if you like your results and feel a telephoto presents you with the best possible shot, more power to you.
What seems to work best for me are wide-angles and a 50mm prime lens. Not sure why, but there’s something about a 50mm with street photography that just works (could be because the focal length is about the same as the human eye). A wide-angle works great when I want more of the environment to show in a portrait. Regardless of what you shoot with, use it because it will help get you the shot in an aesthetic manner – not because of sneakiness.
Apart from trying to be far away from people, I would try a lot of other sneaky things to not get caught. I would put the camera beneath my arm trying to conceal it (the cops peg you as a perv right away). If people noticed I was taking a picture of them, I would pretend that I was shooting something that was behind them. If I was confronted, I would tell people that I was a photo student on an assignment (sort of true at the time, but I used the line to my advantage – not the right thing to do).
You’ve noticed I’ve said I didn’t want to get ‘caught’. This was the definitive aspect in my getting better with street photography – knowing that in the end, I was doing nothing wrong. When I would stop by the side of the road with my tripod to take a picture of a landscape, nobody questioned me. When I would whip out my macro lens to take photos of flowers, nobody questioned me there as well. People generally understand the reasons of why we take photographs – whether it be art, documenting, knowing a culture, beauty, freezing a moment in time, etc. – people understand this. However, it’s a lot more difficult being in front of the camera than behind it (most photographers understand this). I had to put myself in people’s shoes and understand the hesitation and even paranoia of being in a complete stranger’s photograph. This was key.
Be Honest… and Nice
In the end, I’ve come to learn that being honest is the best element in street photography. If people question me, I tell them exactly why I’m taking their picture. I usually start off with a specific feature/reason of why I chose them over the hundreds of other people around: I dig your look; I like how your red clothing stands out; your afro is awesome; etc. Then I explain that I’m a photographer interested in capturing my city and its people (which is why I’m into street photography). Oh, and be nice. Don’t be aggressive. Smile.
If you talk with confidence and truth, most people see this. You’ll be amazed at how much people will let you in when you have the right intentions, are nice, and are smiling (just being a generally kind person). Some would say this goes without saying, but I see many photographers who go into a shot as if the subject owes them something; acting rude or unappreciative (just because you know why you’re capturing something doesn’t mean everyone else does). Again, kindness, smiling, and being honest will yield more positive results than not.
Shoot First, Ask Later
Another thing that helped me was realizing that I didn’t always have to take shots of people that weren’t aware I was taking them in the first place. That is, it was okay to ask before I took a shot. The recent series of street portraits I’ve taken have involved me approaching people and asking them for their picture before I press the shutter. This is a great way to ease yourself into shots later. However, some photographers don’t like this approach and prefer the candids; the spontaneity of a scene happening before your eyes that isn’t tarnished by people knowing you’re taking their photograph.
Regardless of which shooting approach you take, I feel it’s perfectly fine to shoot first, then ask later. Some argue about the ethical aspects of this type of photography – privacy, the elements of voyeurism, and taking advantage of a situation. I’ll be honest with you – if I see a scene before me that warrants a photograph in my mind and eyes, I’m taking it first, then asking for permission later. Some may think that’s wrong, but this is my approach as an artist (whatever the heck that means). You will never truly recreate a candid/spontaneous scene you just saw if you ask first, then take the shot.
The photo above was taken in Los Angeles. I was driving down a one-way street and saw this man carrying some bags, struggling to walk, and he was wearing a beautiful coat and hat against a black wall. He breathed heavy with every step of his cane, and I thought it was a great scene to capture. I literally stopped the car, took my camera out of its bag (wasn’t shooting that day, but always like having my camera near) and tried to shoot. Memory card full. Dammit! I quickly deleted a shot, but by the time I looked up, he was nearing out of frame and the cars behind me were honking. I took one frame. And just like that, he was around the corner and gone. I never had a chance to meet him, to ask him for permission, or worse – never showed him the shot. I made a few turns trying to find him and never did. Some would argue I should have never taken the shot in the first place, and others would say I should never have publicly shown it since I didn’t get his permission.
Sometimes the scene before you warrants a shot. Shoot first, ask later. However, I always try to meet up with the individual(s) after a shot is taken – regardless of whether or not they knew I had even taken one – and ask them for permission. This means permission to show it in my portfolio, on my blog, etc. Sometimes they ask if I’m making any money off of them. Again, be honest. I approach street photography to simply capture scenes and people; I don’t like to sell prints of these events (just a personal choice). Regardless, I feel it’s an obligation to ask for permission to use a shot.
Whether you asked first or took the shot then asked later, you’re going to get people that just don’t get why you’re wanting to take their picture. You’re going to get rejected. A lot. In a way, the fear of getting ‘caught’ and the fear of rejection are probably the reasons why street photography is so difficult at the beginning. Nobody wants to get rejected for any reason – especially when you’re going into something with good intentions. Sometimes it just kills me when I get shot down – not so much personally, but because I really wanted to take their photograph (for whatever reason). Apart from being able to actually capture a great moment, getting rejected is the most difficult thing for me to swallow right now.
If someone doesn’t want you to take their picture, respect that. I’ve seen photographers who don’t and will continue to take photos, and only make the individual(s) more irate. To a degree, that’s giving the rest of us a bad name/reputation.
However, what happens when you take a picture first, then ask and are shot down? I’ve had instances where I take the picture, show the person, and ask if I can feature this in my portfolio/blog. They say no. As much as it kills me, it’s something I respect as well. If they ask for me to delete the shot, I’ll do so in front of them. It’s tough, but again, I try to respect people’s decisions. I’ve often wondered if it’s the right thing to do, especially since it’s perfectly legal to take a stranger’s photo and publicly showcase it (unless you’re making money off of it), but it’s my current stance and what I’ll keep practicing. Who knows if it will change in the future.
Anyway, at first, I would take this rejection personally. What was I doing wrong? Is it my face? My actions? Why don’t they get this is art to me? Whatever. Like most things in life, you’re going to get better at something if you keep at it. I wish I had better advise as to ways to get better with this, but it’s not easy and it varies person to person. You just have to grow some cajones – getting over your fears. That’s not easy. You will be rejected, and you will have people question your photo motives. This is just something you have to live and deal with. There are many different types of people in this world, and sometimes you’ll lose some. Just the way it is.
However, sometimes you’ll be stopped by cops/security saying you’re not allowed to shoot (usually because of “security purposes”). Do not allow this to happen. Yes, I said I wouldn’t talk about the legality of street photography, but know your local laws and rights regarding it. I always carry this form (PDF) around to show to any officer/guard in case I’m stopped to prove I’m not doing anything wrong. You may still be hassled, but it’s better than doing nothing.
As mentioned, being honest and not being sneaky are going to yield you better shooting opportunities. However, there are a few other things I’ve found that can be helpful. For one, shooting with digital is a great way to get the subject involved. Although I prefer to shoot with film, the immediacy of digital (and being able to show shots off of the LCD screen) is beneficial, especially to those who are harassing you or don’t speak the same language. Whether they let you take/use their shot or are giving you a hard time, allowing people to see themselves on the LCD screen is a huge boost (especially if it’s a decent shot).
I also hand out business cards to those that I photograph. I tell them to email or give me a call and I’ll send them a digital file or print. If someone doesn’t have email (or phone), I make arrangements to get them prints of their shot. I don’t do this all the time, but it’s something I try to keep up with. I’ve found a combination of the above has resulted in people rarely saying no to a photograph nowadays.
Mo Money, Mo Problems
I constantly get emails on my street photography regarding paying people and photographing the homeless. I’ll keep this short – I have no problem paying people for my shots if it warrants it (Thomas Hawk has a great $2 portrait project) and believe it’s okay to photograph homeless people (applying the same rules from above). Some people think it’s morally/ethically wrong to do either, but this article isn’t really about that. Do what you think is right. I’ll leave it at that.
Like real life, a little common sense will go a long way in photography. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes also helps. Let’s say you’re at the park and you see a cool shot with a child in the scene. If you’re a parent and you see some stranger taking photos of your kid, it’s going to come off creepy. You may mean no harm, but it comes off as questionable behavior.
Being observant of your surroundings is also big. Having expensive equipment in an unsafe area while you’re shooting can lead to trouble. I’ve gotten myself into a few fights and chases (where I was the one being chased) over my gear. Know your limitations and trust your intuition. In those situations, I knew I was going too far to get a shot, and it resulted in me almost getting shot. If you’re into documenting some more ‘dangerous’ situations, that’s a whole other article in and of itself, but again – common sense, and try to feel out the people you’re photographing before you hit the shutter.
Some tricks I’ve learned over time have included using gaffers tape to cover up any logos on my equipment. This also includes the ‘red ring’ around Canon L lenses, unstitching logos away from my camera backpacks, and bringing other people/shooters with me when going to questionable areas. Simple things.
Rules of the Game
I seem to have a lot of issues with my compositions in street photography. These meets with strangers are usually really quick interactions. If I didn’t make an especially good personal connection to start, I really only have a few seconds to take a shot, tops. Shoot for any longer and the subject starts to get a little restless, especially if they’re busy and need to head elsewhere (and just the general nervousness they must feel). You’ll see this in the photographs.
The shot below is a prime example of what not to do. The shot was originally just of the man (I liked his beard) but he wanted his dog in the shot and called it over. I ended up cutting off most of their bodies out of the frame, had a crooked background, and there’s some light on his shirt that bothers me. For whatever reason, sometimes I don’t seem to do well in these situations in regards to composition. Bad photographer? Maybe, but I just need to be aware of this and keep practicing (and not let time get to me so much). Be aware of backgrounds (having a street pole growing out of someone’s head ruins a shot very quickly), be aware of lighting and surroundings, and don’t cut off body parts. Easier said than done, but just realize time is of the essence here with most shots, unless you’ve captured their attention and time and can snap off more than a frame or two.
Which leads me to this point – when you ask if you can take someone’s picture, don’t ask your subject(s) to pose in a specific way. Sometimes it will be okay depending on their nature or surrounding, but I generally don’t believe in doing so. Half the time, people just pose themselves and do their thing. The other half ask me, “What should I do?” Sometimes I’ll direct them to some better lighting, but usually tell them – do whatever you want to do. I can push them a bit by trying to see the type of person they are (well, you’re a biker – what does a biker look like in his photos?) or just ask them, How are you? How are you feeling right now? Depending on what they reply, I ask them to try and show that emotion in the photograph. Doesn’t always work, but it’s better than asking for a specific pose (the shots come off looking… odd).
Reading some of this back, I realize I’m just babbling now; time to close this puppy out. Overall, I would say street photography experiences will differ from person to person. Some will love the thrill, others will hate it and never try it again. Practice will make perfect (well, not perfect, but you get what I’m saying). I’ve been able to carve out some ‘rules’ for myself that seem to work well. However, there’s much to learn. I’ve realized the rules don’t apply everywhere or with everyone. Doing street photography in Denver was much different than doing it in San Francisco. Or its Chinatown. Or in a crowded city versus a rural area. Or where people don’t speak the same language or have vastly different economic circumstances. This is part of the challenge I enjoy, and the point of why I do street photography – to capture different people in this world of ours in a natural setting. I apply the above lessons to get myself a better chance at getting my shot, but always try to push myself and not stay in a ‘safety bubble’ because every person is different, and you want to capture that in your photographs. Now go out and shoot!