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Street Shooting Tips

For many of us, street shooting is something we only do when we're traveling. For others it's our prime form of photography. 

Those candid shots of people in an exotic local can make your images of buildings and places come alive. It helps put a place into context and brings it alive - both for the people viewing your images and indeed for you when you go back and look through those images later.

Like any other type of photography, there are skills you can learn to make your street photography better, pitfalls to avoid and as always practice will make you a better photographer.

Working in Your Own Backyard 
Don't wait until you're strolling down the streets of some strange and fanciful foreign city to try your hand at street shooting. Hone your skills in your own town or city. After all, the place where you live is new and unusual to anyone who doesn't live there!

To see what I mean pick up travel magazines like National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, and Conde Nast Traveler. Look through the "local" travel articles to see how their photographers capture everyday people going about their business and how those images capture a feeling of the place they're photographing and writing about. While every place is different you'll quickly see how these folks endeavor to capture the "mundane tasks" that are fascinating and unusual to people who don't live there.

Now go out and try your hand in your own area. Capture people going about everyday tasks in interesting ways. Your first efforts may or may not bear fruit. But with practice you'll start coming home with better and better images. Now when you step off the airplane in some strange and wonderful place you'll know exactly how to proceed!

It's Not Just People...

Street shooting is about capturing unique images that tell a story about a place. Look for unusual signs, look for color and architectural details.

Don't get fixated on the things you see at eye level. Look up at buildings, look for patterns and leading lines. Be aware of your surroundings. 

Be Comfortable and Get Better Shots 
If you're miserable you'll take miserable photos. That means wearing comfortable shoes that you can walk in all day. Good socks that wick moisture away from your skin will help prevent blisters. Loose fitting comfortable clothes will keep you comfortable. A good quality camera bag with a well padded comfortable strap will keep your shoulder from aching. You might even consider a small photo backpack. I stress the adjective small here. You don't want to stroll the streets with the kind of huge pack you'd take into the bush or up a mountain!

In hot weather carry bottled water or Gatorade and keep yourself hydrated. Powerbars go a long way toward warding off the effects of heat and exertion and I always carry one or two if I know I'll be walking or hiking all day.

It's also important to dress appropriately for the weather. But one advantage of street shooting over landscape shooting is when you're in the city there's always a place to duck in to get out of the weather. But just in case I keep one of those $2 rain ponchos they sell in the parks in my camera bag now - just in case. It takes up a lot less room than carrying a good raincoat.

But I'm Shy 
A lot of photographers start out shooting people with lenses 300mm or longer. There's little chance of "getting caught" and you get unposed images because the person is unaware of your presence. You can get some great shots this way but why limit yourself? I'll use anything from 17mm to 400mm for street shooting.

Engage people in conversation. If you're shy start with street vendors, who make good subjects anyway. Buying a morsel or a piece of fruit from a street vendor will make them willing to mug for a shot - and it will get you used to chatting people up on the street. The same is true with street musicians. A dollar or two in the hat will make musicians more open to your getting up close and taking their photo. A five will get them to do damn near anything you ask!

Starting conversations is hard for some photographers. Try asking people about their city. What are the good places and things to shoot? It's an easy ice breaker. It will open doors for you and take you to places you'd not have discovered otherwise. Bartenders and waitresses are a great source of information. Every time I sit down to a meal or grab a beer on the road I ask the bartender, waiter or waitress where there are good places to shoot and what's interesting in the area. These folks see an endless stream of people everyday and it never ceases to amaze me what they can put me on to.

Sitting at a bar you'll be amazed at what the other patrons may chime in with as well. On my first trip to New England many years ago I asked a bartender about places to shoot while we were waiting for our table. The bartender was a dud, but the couple next to us were traveling in the opposite direction and recommended we check out a road called the Kancamangus that they'd driven the day before. They thought it'd be a great place for a photographer. On that small tip we changed our destination for the next day and were rewarded with one of the greatest drives in New England.

Stories from the Street, How Three Photos Were Made
A Rock Climber? Be open to the unexpected 
Why is this shot even in an article about street shooting? I was hanging from a rope on some cliff when this shot was taken right?

Wrong. Both feet were planted firmly on the ground. Along the Kelly Drive behind Philadelphia's Art Museum big blocks of natural granite rise up beside the sidewalk some 30 feet. Two rock climbers were practicing on these rocks on a warm Saturday morning and I asked permission to shoot them. By kneeling down and framing carefully I was able to get several shots that look as though she was dangling hundreds of feet in the air. In reality she was four feet off the ground. 

Find Out About Local Events
Who could resist a girl with a giant cheeseburger on her head?

Local events can be a great place for shooting people. Folks are in a partying mood and are often wearing bright colors and costumes that make for great photos. 

Local events can include concerts too. Jimmy Buffett, the Grateful Dead, and many others have a following that turn the parking lot into an impromptu traveling circus on concert day. You don't need tickets to get into the parking lot and you never know what you'll see !

When You Find a Live One Make the Most of It !
Tired and cold after spending the day shooting Philadelphia's New Year's (Mummers) Parade. I was strolling toward the subway and using up the film I had left in my cameras when this guy asked me to take his picture. 

I had the impression that he'd indulged in a little "holiday cheer" but he was friendly and really into having his picture taken. His energy turned me from cold and tired into a motivated photographer who was having fun again. I shot half a roll of him mugging for the camera in different positions with a variety of expressions. When these opportunities present themselves just keep shooting. You never know what you'll get.

 

Should I Pay People to Take Their Picture? 
As I said, I'll usually pay street musicians and street vendors. After all, their whole purpose for being out there is to make a little money. In some third world countries it's also customary to pay people for their photograph. This is something you'll be able to find out from guidebooks when you're researching your trip. Usually this amounts to no more than a small token for Westerners. But be careful about flashing U.S. dollars on the street. In places where the local currency is unstable or devalued dollars are in high demand. Flashing a wad of stable dollars or euros can get you into trouble in a hurry.

Recently I've been hearing complaints from folks returning from parts of Jamaica that they've been approached on the street by men and youths asking to have their picture taken. When they oblige, these people demand a "fee". Refuse to pay this "fee" and things can get ugly. None of us likes to feel we're being hustled but sometimes the path of least resistance is your best strategy. Proffer the requested tip and move on to a better area.

Looking like you have a lot of money makes it more likely that you'll be the target of these kinds of approaches. When I'm out street shooting I'll generally dress in clothes that don't scream money. I save my formal attire for dinners and evenings out.

Theft and Danger 
"How do you stay out of trouble when you travel" is a common question. 

To be honest being a big guy helps. But having a ready smile and a sense of humor helps a lot more. Being able to joke and make people laugh has gotten me out of more than one situation that could have gone the other way. And never underestimate the fact that people like to have their picture taken! It's been my experience that the vast majority of people are good decent people regardless of where your travels take you. But you should never ignore those gut feelings or the hairs on the back of your neck. If for some reason you suddenly feel uncomfortable MOVE! Your instincts are sending you a message you shouldn't ignore.

Keep in mind that in many of the places we photographers visit, the contents of our camera bag are equal to what the locals make in a year. That's a lot of temptation for honest people and it's enough to make you a target for thieves.

When you're not carrying your camera in a camera bag, keep the strap around your neck or diagonally across your neck and shoulder when you're walking to prevent someone from grabbing it and running. Choose a camera bag that is black or some other neutral color. A bright orange camera bag with "Canon" in bold letters makes it pretty obvious that you're carrying expensive gear.

Finally take steps to always secure your gear. A common technique thieves use in restaurants and sidewalk cafes is to have someone bump into you. While they're apologizing someone else grabs you camera bag off the table. 

In restaurants and public places I'll place my camera bag under my chair with the leg of the chair through the shoulder strap. No one's getting the bag short of picking me up and moving me.

What About Shutter Speeds and F-Stops? 
Is it better to shoot wide open and focus on the subjects face, or to pull back, close down and capture the person in their surroundings? Why not do both? There're no rules for this kind of shooting. When you're learning go with your gut and see what looks good at the end of the day. Remember practice. After a while you'll develop a feel for the kinds of shots you like and your own style of street shooting will emerge.

Fill flash can be a great tool as long as you don't overdo it or overuse it. No one likes a flash going off in their face. My preference for street shooting is actually to use a camera with a built-in pop-up flash. It's never in the way and its lower power is never a problem for intimate shots. My everyday camera may be an F100, but I always travel with my beat up old N70. It's light weight and built in flash make it ideal for street shooting. Cameras like the N80 and Digital Rebel come to mind as ideal street stalkers.

No Means No
I don't mean to sound preachy when I say this but we should all use a little good judgment and common sense when we're out there shooting. 

What do I mean? A camera isn't a ticket to behave badly. Don't walk into restricted places just to get a better angle on a shot. Often asking will get you in, and sometimes get you shown into places you might not have seen otherwise.

Photos are restricted or forbidden in many holy places. Common courtesy says we should respect those places held holy by others.  

Finally if you ask permission to take someone's photo and are refused, it doesn't mean you go across the street and shoot them with a zoom lens. No means no, and ignoring that no can get you into some real trouble. Personally I won't shoot people in compromising or embarrassing situations either. 

I only mention these things because I've seen photographers and tourists do every one of them - more than once. 

Conclusion 
Assuming that you're already a decent photographer, your people skills, your eye for detail, and the ability to "see" your surroundings are far more important than focusing on any single piece of hardware or technique. Photographers are sometimes put off by the lack of rules and the human interaction that street shooting involves. 

But if you give it a shot I think you'll find those are the very things you'll love about it.

What About Model Releases?

Whether you need a model release depends on how you intend to use the photo. If you're shooting for your own enjoyment, for editorial use, or for images you may someday enter into a camera club competition, then getting model releases will needlessly complicate your shooting and make your days pretty miserable. Part of street shooting is getting to know people and gaining their trust. Stick a legal form under their nose and that goes out the window.

However if you are explicitly shooting to build a portfolio for stock photography sales than a model release is a MUST. Stock agencies require a model release for every photo that contains a person - which is why most commercial photographers hire models for their "spontaneous" street shooting. Those models may come through an agency or they may be locals spotted on the street and paid for their time.

The one item I didn't mention is gallery prints and fine art photography. This is a limited use and you can decide for yourself the likelihood that the subject might decide to come back at a later date and ask for payment. I've heard the model release subject argued both ways for this kind of use. In the end it's your choice.

 

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