PetaPixel

5 Painless Steps for Getting Rid of the Fear of Street Photography Once and for All

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“Look at me,” he said. Complying, I turned in the man’s direction. “Look me in the eyes!”… I tried to raise my eyes and look into his, but I couldn’t. Actually, I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes at that point, it felt weird and uncomfortable. That man… was my own older brother.

That’s how shy I was and how much I feared people … I couldn’t even look at my own brother in the eyes! But nowadays, I am a changed man, a documentary-street photographer that is not afraid to approach people and photograph them.

If you’re like I was, here are a few steps I suggest you take to get into street photography without fear. If someone who used to be afraid of looking his own brother in the eye can do it, so can you — plus, these tips are both effective and painless.

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Step 1: Understanding Fear

Fear is good… Crazy, right? It’s a built-in system that aims to keep you from danger. It’s fear, for example, that tells you to step on the gas when you’re driving through a shady neighborhood. Fear is simply a warning system, and it can be trained to suit your needs. But it’s like a fork in the road, the further you go down the path of fear, the further away you get from the path of fearlessness, and vice versa.

You will not wake up one day and be fearless; it’s small steps and small victories that lead to fearlessness. Take it one step at a time, but take the first step and start turning the tide towards fearlessness. The next steps are all about these small victories, continue doing them at your own pace and you will be amazed how much you will change. Trust me, I’ve been there, and only focusing on the small victories did it for me.

Step 2: Acknowledge people

Look at this picture I took in Haiti:

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Eek. Way to go to freaking us out, right!? Well, here’s the funny thing: Somebody showed him the picture, and he absolutely loves the photograph, here’s what he said:

“Look at me! I look like a tough dude! I look so cool! I like it so much!!! Can I have a copy of this picture? Please! Send me a copy”

Weird, huh? Here’s this guy who looks like the last guy on Earth you want to take a picture of, and yet he is so happy about the photograph. You see, in the streets people are anonymous, they are just one in a million. But when you point a camera at them you acknowledge them. You take notice of them, and everyone wants that. Including you, including me.

I remember I was in a subway once and a guy was drawing. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that he was in fact drawing … moi. It felt really good, let me tell you, and it’s the same as pointing a camera at someone.

Start going out on the streets without your camera and acknowledging people. How do you do that? You smile, you say “Hi,” and “Good Morning!” or “Hi! How are you?” and strike up a conversation. Do this and you will start building up your street karma.

Here’s an idea to ponder on: people react to you depending on the energy you put out. Plus, you also have a chance to brighten someone’s day. Simply saying “Hi” and smiling will start changing your state of mind in preparation for when you go out with a camera in hand. Not only will you see that there’s no reason to fear people, it will also have an impact on your photography.

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Step 3: Making photographs

Armed with a camera, you can be one of two things on the street: a Thief or an Image Maker. The first takes pictures, the second makes pictures. We fear street photography in large part because we feel that we are stealing pictures, but if we had the mindset of creating photographs, our approach would be different.

If we have the Thief mentality, we will act like creeps with cameras; but if we adopt the Image Maker mentality, our posture will change. You can spot image thieves easily, they’re the photogs who look like they’re up to no good.

Acknowledging people starts conditioning, not only you, but also your subjects that you mean no harm — you are not there to steal but to create something. I saw a video once of a guy walking out of a store with a brand new Bike … without paying for it. He wasn’t spotted because of his attitude and non-suspicious actions. He didn’t act like a thief, he just walked out of a store like anybody.

Once you are feeling comfortable acknowledging people without a camera, start going out with your camera and being conscious of your mindset. If you think you are there to steal images, change your thinking to actually making photographs.

The first is reactionary, the second is intentional. Just think about the karma principle: when it comes to people, they react depending to how you put yourself out there. You are there to create something with your camera, not steal someone’s image.

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Step 4: Engage and Disengage

Part of gaining confidence and fearlessness as a street photographer is understanding that what you are doing is ok. In order to prove to yourself that it is, ask people before you take a shot. After making the picture, show them the back of the screen or send them a .jpg by email.

Having enough positive response about what you are doing will change your mindset about others. Not only are you not stealing, your subjects themselves are flattered. Out of everything you could shoot, you took the time to take a picture of them — you made them feel special and acknowledged them.

After getting comfortable with asking people for their photos, start not to. It’s like taking the training wheels off your bike when you first learn to ride. After a while, you won’t need the feedback, you will know that most people are ok, if not flattered about getting their picture taken

Take note, however, that it’s also important to know who not to shoot. You have to read their energy, I’m not telling you to fear everyone, but I wouldn’t point my camera at a guy who looks like the Mafia, would you?

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Step 5: The “You are not close enough” Lie

It’s a shame Capa is still being misunderstood and misquoted 100 years after he was born. There are far too many who take the quote “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” too literally and reduce street photography to a game of getting close.

The be all end all of street photography is not how close you get to your subject, that’s pointless. Do you really think that one of the greatest photographers of all time would say something so obvious? Look at it the other way, you can’t make a nice photograph if you are not close.

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What Capa meant was to get closer to your work, to what you are doing. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough. How does that help in regards to fear and street photography? It tells you that you do not have to get physically close to your subject as the sole goal.

Some try to push the buttons of closeness and invade people’s personal space — that’s not the point. Street photography is not about getting as close as you can to people, it’s about expressing what you feel when you are in the streets.

Take Capa’s quote to heart: when you are out on the street, don’t think “how close can I comfortably get to that person without loosing consciousness” and start asking “how can I photograph what I feel inside of me?” It takes the weight off those who fear street photography because it’s not about getting physically close, it’s about expressing yourself. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough, just like Capa said.

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Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve never heard the advice I’ve laid out here quite this way before. Most of the advice I’ve heard others give (in my opinion) deals with symptoms. What I’ve described is aimed at the root causes of fear in street photography. Take your time, do it in small steps. If you suddenly hit reverse on a car running at 60mph, you’ll break it … so go slow with yourself.

Not being afraid as a street photographer is a state of mind and composure, which will affect how people react to you. If you follow the steps I’ve outlined, and you do just a little bit everyday, I know you can do it. And this coming from the guy who couldn’t look his own brother in the eye.


About the author: Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese documentary and street photographer. He is the editor, designer and co-founder of Inspired Eye Magazine and Presets. He also owns a male Unicorn. Join his newsletter for a free issue and more articles, or keep in touch through Google Plus, Facebook or Twitter.


 
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  • Teun

    I’m usually not a fan of street photography, but I rellay appreciate the pics in this article. Well Done!

  • Carl Meyer

    Be polite, it’s not that hard, if someone doesn’t want his picture taken understand that a no means no.

  • Not in my house

    The article about street “photography” in GTA V pretty much showed how big of a joke the whole genre of street photography is. Just let people who are minding their own business be.

  • Karl

    I find it really difficult to shoot in my own city’s streets (Liège, Belgium). Even if I’m not aiming anything, just having my camera dangling on my side is enough to earn me bad looks and even if I know deep into myself that I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t know… I just loose the will. As McCurry said (well, I think it was him), “if you want to be a photographer, leave home”. And for me, it works perfectly but I don’t know why. Mentality of the surrounding people can’t be the only thing.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • ZENZ

    all photography or all art is a joke if you do it for the trivial sake of doing exercises… you must be moved by something bigger and then all generes will melt and become Art

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Thanks man! Means a bunch :)

  • cherilyu175

    мʏ вɛѕт ғʀιɛɴɖ’ѕ ѕтɛք-ѕιѕтɛʀ мαĸɛѕ $76/нօυʀ օɴ тнɛ ƈօмքυтɛʀ. ѕнɛ нαѕ вɛɛɴ υɴɛмքʟօʏɛɖ ғօʀ 6 мօɴтнѕ вυт ʟαѕт мօɴтн нɛʀ ƈнɛƈĸ աαѕ $17992 ʝυѕт աօʀĸιɴɢ օɴ тнɛ ƈօмքυтɛʀ ғօʀ α ғɛա нօυʀѕ. ʋιѕιт тнιѕ ѕιтɛ Zap22&#46­com

  • JH

    I agree. I would never think to get my camera out and walk the streets of the city I live in, but I’ve been wandering around China for the last three years taking street photos with no problem. The fresh and exotic scenery is my muse.

  • SaveTheWorldGetTheGirl

    How on earth does an article about taking screenshots in a video game show anything in regard to actual photographs taken in reality? Your comment makes zero sense.

  • Sam

    Wow, this was everything I’ve needed. I’ve been wanting to start a street photography project, but have lacked the confidence. Thank you.

  • http://about.me/kodiakxyza kodiak xyza

    with a personal voice into styles/approach missing from much of internet photographic articles, the title is unfortunate for this article.

    it reads as a nice adventure/journey by the author into what is a realm of photography that its very definition is so subjective. from reading such a story people can draw out lessons or ideas, but to label them into “5 Painless Steps…”— well, it detracts from the narrative and the angle that is interesting.

    for example, bringing up « If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough » is a fantastic way to wrap a narrative of the author’s journey. instead, it is buried as a “step” as if it was that trivial.

    maybe next time! ;)

  • 3432423423

    i don´t get street photography.. sorry but i am that dumb.
    you can´t make money with it because you don´t get a model release from someone that passes you in a second.. right?
    i mean, i don´t get images accepted on shutterstock or istock that show 10×10 pixel heads in a city… because i don´t have a model release.
    so how do you make money from your images?
    i find looking at images from people walking the streets boring.
    if i want to do that i sit down in a cafe and watch people.
    i guess im just a landscape/macro guy. :)
    and i find stages shoots with a great light setup more interesting.
    it´s my personal taste…. so excuse me.
    but if i had to ask one question to a street photographer it would be.. how do you make money from your images?

  • 3432423423

    sorry but i have to agree a bit.
    i know many people will see this different.
    but looking at people walking the streets is most of the time as boring for me as watching paint dry.
    i don´t get it.. sorry… but i never have.
    they are just pedestrians in a city for me.
    i care as much for them on a picture as when i walk by them every day.
    from 1000 street photographs i see there are maybe one or two i like.
    landscapes…. a whole different story for me.
    from 100 landscape images i may like 50.
    so maybe someone who likes street photography can explain WHY he is facinated with it.

  • Tooki

    This may have never occurred to you, but the vast majority of people who take pictures don’t earn a living from doing so and don’t necessarily expect to make any money at all from it.

  • Hugo Fonseca

    Oliver, those are absolutely beautiful images. Every one of them say more than a thousand words you could have written.

  • http://www.recasper.com/ RE Casper

    As Tooki stated, most individuals take pictures for the thrill, the joy and for the art itself. Personally, my primary focus with a camera is urban life photography (or street photography, if you will) and I do not in any way do this for the money.

    I do showcases/galleries, publish my own books and sometimes sell the odd artistic print or two. But, I have a normal 9-6er job to pay the bills.

    On the financial side (however moderate), I may do a real estate project or carry out landscapes/architecture for quantity printing or commission, but none of that gives me a thrill. It’s monotonous and static. The street is ever evolving and organic and no two shots will ever be the same.

    In the end, when I pick up a camera, I’m an artist first and a business man last and its the love of the art that matters. Money will never be the definer in my work and only lends itself to muddy the waters of my beloved activity.

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Street Photography is first and foremost an umbrella term and means different things to different people. For some it’s candids, others portraiture, others it’s fashion and others streetscapes….

    For me it’s about life and finding your way there. I used to dig landscapes but now I find them mostly boring. But that’s the beauty of Photography, it’s big enough for anyone to do what they want to do with it :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Glad I could help :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Jeez man you make me sound smarter than I actually am :)
    I’m working on my writing skills (not me strongest point!) glad it’s noticed :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Aw shucks man, now my wife won’t hear the end of it :)
    Thanks so much :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Indeed. And I think a lot of people need to hear that going pro is not the end all of all photography. The end of the pursuit of photography is what we decide it is since the beginning (the photographic intent).

  • Matt Rickman

    Great article. Thanks for the advice! (Brilliant photo’s too. I’m a fan now)

  • Gman

    sell it as art. you don’t need a model release then.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    There are so many iconic photographs that we’d never have enjoyed if society agreed with this.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    The bad looks are ok. Bad looks don’t hurt anybody. Make a point of taking some breaks, meet people. I have nice mini business cards that I hand out, and I explain that I love this city so much I just want to take her portrait every day and share her with the world. Connect with the people around you. With a little time, you’ll be an eccentric local legend, and people will come to love and accept you instead of fearing & loathing you.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    I spend one or two hours a day, about five days per week (sometimes also on weekends), just doing street photography.

    I give my photographs away, effectively, using a Creative Commons license.

    Photography is not my career. I make a good living in the software industry. Photography is my gift back to my community. I love the energy of the city that I live in, I love its strangeness and its humanity. I want to preserve it, to highlight it, to share it back with the city.

    I don’t need a model release to sell my photographs. They can be (and have been) published for editorial or educational purposes without a release. I don’t need a model release to make art prints and sell them in a gallery.

    The pursuit is its own reward.

  • greenarcher02

    I’m pretty sure trees, mountains, sand, the sun, dirt, rocks, etc are as boring as paint, too. And they almost never change. 50 out of 100 landscapes? Did those include sunset shots? We have that 365 times a year in most parts of the world. I’m not demeaning landscapes. I like them a lot as well. And a lot of landscape photos are just stunning/beautiful.
    Street photography is like wildlife photography for humans… Because animals, and humans as well, are dynamic. Humans more so. We have a range of emotions. No two people are the same. So it can really get interesting when those emotions show candidly, in a place where we’re familiar with. Think of it as something similar to…. nature candidly pushing the waves on rocks. Or nature suddenly surprises with a gust of wind in the desert to create a weird effect with the sand. You don’t simply walk by them when doing street photography. You’re supposed to be an observer.
    Maybe that’s just me. I find people interesting. Especially the ones who are smiling. Candid smiles are my favorite, whether on the street, or in my home. :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/sevilladennis Dennis Sevilla

    like everything else, it’s subjective. you will never find everyone agreeing to like a particular technique/art form. i personally never really dig most of modern/contemporary art. to me it’s lazy and derivative. i’m sure hundreds will disagree with me on this, which again proves the point that taste is subjective.

  • nikonian

    “can I have a copy?” – One of the most dreaded questions I get….

  • upzmtn

    Maybe you’d appreciate it more if, when you looked at the people in the images, you asked “who” and “why”, instead of “what”. I also don;t care that some guy is sitting on a corner playing a makeshift set of 5-gallon drums. But I could never stop myself from wondering why he was there. You simply might not have that curiosity, and that’s perfectly fine. I also think there are definitely people who do it as voyerism, secretly taking photos of homeless people or other more nefarious captures with unideal motivations and that diminishes the potential. It is also certainly a genre embraced by many new shooters, so a lot of it is simply not that interesting. But I think to fully appreciate it, you have to be aware that in each of us, there is more than meets the eye (or the lens). I like the metaphor of “human wildlife photography”. As Michael Franti says, “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” We all are such varied beings and for every single human there is a unique alchemy of life events that led to that specific moment – that mood, that expression, their personal condition. Great street photography allows you to stop, take that moment, and ponder not only what you see, but what you don’t.

  • Ilkka

    Good article and good pictures. But I disagree with the Capa interpretation. Capa made a very valid point and his comment was not even about street photography. How do you know that he actually meant something else? Why would you or anyone make that assumption? If you don’t like the quote, or don’t think it is valid to street photography, then don’t use it. But please dont try to say that he actually meant something else. He was a war photographer and he made a simple statement that your pictures generally improve if you are closer to the action. Nothing wrong with that. I think it is very valid to street photography. Better use a 35 or 50 and get closer than a 200 from across the street. But it does not mean you should take out a macro lens either.

  • madmax

    You are right. Everybody in photography webs like this talking about how much they need the very best equipment, how desperately they need to spend some thousands bucks in a full frame or medium format camera and pro lenses… and now everybody is telling you they are not pro photographers, they just do it for the joy of photography…

    By the way, Olivier, do you sell your street photography pictures? Are you a pro?

  • senate

    that’s usually when problems happen. ok i’m irrating some by taking their pic but who are they to tell me what i should ou shouldn’t be taking?
    i’m well within my right to take pics in the streets, and their “no” has no value.
    i’m not in their face so “no” means nothing.

  • http://stevewakeman.tumblr.com/ Steve Wakeman

    Great article! Ta for sharing your insight into shooting street.
    Great set of photos to go with it too!

  • Lars J

    well i would punsh you in the face with that attitude if you take my photo on the street.

    and i hope some day someone will teach you a lesson!
    its excatly your m*r*n attitude that gives photographer a bad name.

    beside that…. you are wrong depending on the country you live in.

  • Jana

    oh yeah what we need is more photos of homeless people in black and white.. it´s soooo creative. ;)

  • Gustav

    most of the society does not care about your iconic photos.

  • 2to3

    twins are the same.. stop repeating palitudes….

  • Kurt

    yeah well but he does. so why not answering his question dumbo?

  • Kurt

    so you make no money with your images?
    is it so hard to answer his question instead of questioning them?

  • jsjsjsj

    that´s wrong and a plain stupid reply

  • Kurt

    +1
    i wonder why you need all that pro stuff to print a few A4 pages a year.
    oh wait.. nobody prints out photograpyh these days.. all goes straight as 900pixel images to flickr.

  • greenarcher02

    What’s with the attitude? You can’t handle thinking for once? And I think you mean platitudes. Get your terms right. And I don’t think an opinion of someone as stupid and shallow as you who think twins are the same matters. You probably haven’t seen twins if you think that.
    He asked why, I answered, no need to be a douchebag about it.

  • Tzctplus -

    somebody whined about not being able to commercialize street photography because the impossibility of obtaining release forms.

    Can someone with experience on this comnent? I know this will change according to locality, but it would be interesting to know. ..

  • MikeB

    Great article. I do many of the same things but think of it as by making myself vulnerable (here I am out in the open, taking photos like I’m enjoying myself and nothing else) I remove most people’s aniexty and if not it’s pretty clear from their body language that they don’t want to be bothered. If I have a problem its that people stop me to ask what I taking picture of or who the famous person is? When I tell them ‘just people’ they usually smile or shrug and move on. At least in New York most people, besides the unstable, just want to know what your doing and then they can ignore you.

  • MikeB

    Well maybe it depends on how you’re looking at them. I in my case I’m taking ‘street’ shots in part to document the city for my kids so they have a real view of the neighborhood and city they grew up in as it is now. In that case a shot of a person checking they iphone in the middle of a very crowded sidewalk, obvious of the people flowing around them, is interesting in that it captures something we all recognize as a sign of our times that probably won’t be true 20 years from now or you could see it as a boring picture of something you see everyday… but missing is the point.

  • Tooki

    How is that wrong? How is it stupid? Do you think the news media gets permission to photograph and/or record everyone that appears in the news or on the paper?

  • Karl

    That’s an interesting approach, I’ll give it a thought :).

  • Tooki

    Let me put it to you this way: I could ask a painter how the make money from their paintings, or a musician how they make money from their music, and the answer might very well be that they don’t necessarily intend to make money doing those things. The very implication that the only reason one would take up photography is to earn money is ludicrous; and if there are any “dumbos” here, they are the people asking questions with such implications. Even if you are taking photos to earn money, selling them online on some giant image warehouse site is certainly not the only (or the best) way of doing so.

    In his original post, 3432423423

    says that he “doesn’t get” why anyone would take street photos because he thinks they’re boring and unsellable. But by that same token you could argue that it’s stupid to take family photos. Or vacation photos. Or photos of a blade of grass. Or whatever it is that you enjoy photographing.

    Let me give you something to think about: I don’t get why people take landscape photographs. Virtually every landscape in the world has had photographs taken of it. Landscapes are unmovable, unchanging. They’re already frozen in time, and given a spot of interesting weather and a tripod, can be photographed by nearly anyone. Furthermore, the chances of you being at exactly the perfect place and perfect time with the best equipment to photograph any given location better than some other, luckier guy is next to nil. You might as well just not bother.

    Of course, that’s not my actual opinion. Landscape and vacation photography is one of the reasons I bought my first camera. But you could make that argument if you really wanted to. You could find a reason NOT TO do anything if you ignore all the reasons TO do it.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    Street photography is often used as documentary photography, published for editorial purposes. Release forms are generally not needed for editorial style photography. In June of 1985, Steve McCurry’s photo “Afghan Girl” was published by National Geographic. He had no release, didn’t even know her name (after a search, her name is now known as Sharbat Gula). This photo is often called the Mona Lisa of documentary photography, and has made a lot of money for the photographer. Of course, this is a fringe case, and most of us are probably lucky to gain any measure of wealth or name recognition for our efforts. Google “Magnum Photographers” for a sort of fraternity of the best of the best in this field, at least in terms of who the rock stars are that are well-known and consistently earning in this field.