A few street photography tips:
First, a note: being discreet is not about being sneaky or doing the drive-by sniper method (something I mentioned in my post about travel portraits). People have different feelings about street photography, but my approach is the desire to capture the essence of a place and people in their natural environments. It has to be done with a posture of respect.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind with street photography as well as some tips for being discreet:
- Safety, of course. Are you in an area where it’s safe to have your camera out? And do you have anyone with you that can watch your back? If you don’t have anyone else with you, be extra-vigilant about your surroundings.
- Do you already stand out as an outsider? I could much more easily shoot street photography in many U.S. cities or towns than I could in a Latin American city. No matter how good my Spanish gets or how much like a local I try to dress, my skin will always give me away as an outsider. I’ll always stand out. This doesn’t necessarily stop me from shooting, but it’s an extra safety concern. If your physical appearance allows you to blend in, consider also how you’re dressed and your mannerisms.
- Use a long lens (or zoom in). “Long” refers to the lens’ focal range. General purpose lenses come in 3 lengths–wide angle (21-35 mm), normal (35-70 mm), and telephoto (70 mm and up). The “longer” lenses act like binoculars to focus in close on your subject. You might have a zoom that covers all or some of those ranges, or you could have a fixed length (“prime”) lens. One of my favorites to use is the Canon 100 mm lens.
Again, this is a balancing act. If your lens is really large, you might draw more attention to yourself than something smaller and more compact. On the other hand, you’ll also be able to stand farther away, so this can help you be more discreet.
- Use a wide lens. Capture the environment as a whole rather than focusing in on a particular scene by using a wide angle or normal lens.
- Look for someone involved in an activity or conversation. They’ll be less likely to notice you if they’re chatting with a neighbor, waiting for a bus, or hard at work. Areas that are bustling with activity (like a city street) are better for this than rural areas. Usually if someone does notice me, I acknowledge them back and give a friendly smile–I sometimes offer to show them the photos if we’re close enough to each other. If they look irritated, I simply move on.
- Don’t invade someone’s privacy. It would probably be weird in any country to use a telephoto lens to photograph someone hanging laundry in their backyard or sitting on their porch, so don’t be a creeper. Use common sense, and remember that even though everything feels exotic and foreign to you in another country, it’s someone else’s home. People always come before “getting the shot.”
- Do your homework on local culture and customs. In some cultures or religions, it could be offensive to take someone’s photograph. This is why it’s super important to learn about culture and history before traveling.
While street photography can be fascinating, engaging with someone one-on-one, knowing their name, and involving them in the process of creating a photo is a rich and beautiful experience. Creating this kind of portrait was what I had in mind when I approached Miguel Angel.
You don’t have to be a professional to do this. It’s all about building relationships, and what I love about photography is that it allows me to meet people who make places unique, to be changed by them, and to carry their stories with me across the globe.
If you’ve ever seen the Humans of New York portraits, you know the power of a simple photograph and a glimpse into someone’s life. There’s an intimacy that brings understanding across cultures and race and religion and all of our differences. We connect because we’re human and we see a bit of ourselves in others. That’s the power of establishing a relationship and creating a portrait.