Henri Cartier-Bresson, the “father of street photography,” believed that the mission of the photographer was to patiently and deliberately wait with camera in hand for that unique instant that will never again be repeated. He identified this time as the photographer’s Decisive Moment.
Whenever a photographer travels, taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Saint Peter’s is obviously a must. However, the true joy is to capture a Parisian or Roman doing something that depicts a little slice of our universal humanity.
The problem is how does one achieve this feat without causing a disturbance while still enjoying your day. It is fun going out with your photo friends for a day of shooting. However, once you arrive at your selected location, split up! Street photography is not a team sport.
It is difficult enough to remain invisible when one is alone. This is impossible to achieve walking down a street with a friend with two giant DSLRs. Whenever I go shooting with a friend, once we arrive at our location, we agree on a time and place to rendezvous, and we then diverge.
While roaming the streets with a camera in hand, one must always be on the lookout for something interesting. When a possible scene is discovered, do not stare! Look away. Pretend to take a picture of something at a different angle. While doing so, adjust your aperture to the required f-stop, and also set your focusing dot to where you will need it for the desired shot. All that is needed now is a quiet turn to the subject and take several images on “quiet mode.”
At times during your travels, you simply have to trust your intuition. You may come across a promising character or group of people, but nothing of true interest is happening at that moment. Do not hesitate to just hang around at a modest distance and see what develops. Many times your instinct will prove worthwhile, and you will be rewarded with something unique.
When children are concerned, the photographer must obviously exercise more caution. In a festive atmosphere, such as a fair, parents are usually much more relaxed.
If you can spot the parent of an interesting child, simply approach the parent with a smile and explain that you are a serious photographer trying to document the occasion. Be honest and tell them you would love to photograph the child. I usually also volunteer to send them a photo if it turns out successful. Usually this is all that is needed.
In the average situation on the street, more caution is needed. If the street is crowded, and you are at a moderate distance from the subject, begin to take photos in a circular motion, and when the angle is right, capture the image you want. Afterwards, continue with your circular shooting. If someone says anything, smile and explain you are a serious photographer documenting life in the city.
Shooting parents with children is considerably much easier. Just approach with a smile and show them the camera — you will typically get a nod. If questioned, simply have a story prepared. You are a serious photographer from the local camera club, and you are documenting life in the city. Afterwards again approach the parent, thank them, and offer to send them a photo.
During your walks, look for the unusual, the different, and the strange. Some of the most enjoyable images of the street are slightly funny, peculiar, or ironic.
Love is always an interesting subject. From a photographer’s point of view, this makes taking a candid image so much easier. The couples are usually so involved with each other, that they simply do not notice you or your camera.
Sometimes it is just the color or combinations of colors that make a photo. I generally choose to process in monochrome, but occasionally it is all about color.
Reflections are a challenge. Focusing is a little tricky, but sometimes it is worth it.
While you are involved in your search, do not only look at the street. Gaze into passing buildings, opened doors, and restaurants. Sometimes the best is not outside!
And sometimes you are rewarded with the truly bizarre.
There are many ways for photographers to enjoy their cameras. Many enjoy the landscape, while others seek wildlife, and still others seek the intimacy of a portrait. For me, the challenge is to modestly try to follow in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson and strive to somehow capture some aspect of people simply being people. Henri used film, and we today use ones and zeros, but the goal is the same — to create a portfolio for future generations to learn about their past.
Finally, the untold enemy of a street photographer is being hesitant or too cautious. Try not to be tentative. You are not a wildlife photographer in fear of being eaten by a wild lion, nor are you a sports photographer about to be run over by a 230-pound halfback.
In the words of Alfred Eisenstaedt: “When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.”
About the author: Charles Levie is a photographer and math educator based in West Friendship, Maryland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Levie’s work on his website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published here.