Many questions in relation to street photography remain unanswered, which I will try to address in this article so that you could gain clarity on what the purpose is in shooting streets, be more confident in what you are doing, and also prepare with the most suitable gear for a street shoot.
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What is the Purpose of Street Photography?
Street photographers often struggle with the point of shooting streets, specifically, candid street photography, and you are probably one of them as you read this. We will see below a few reasons why (candid) street photography is important, both to the viewers (the world) and the photographer himself. But I would like you to note one thing - humans do a lot of pointless stuff every day, and there doesn’t have to be a point to everything we do.
The most common purposes of street photography are three-fold. Firstly, candid street shots are needed for news reporting for everyday consumption. This is the type of photos that are printed on publications of various scales, with the primary goal of informing the population what is happening in various parts of the world. Secondly, candid street photography has a high documentary value, as it is the proof of history. People understand (and are reminded of) what the past was about through documentary photos, of which candid street photography is a type. For the photographer, shooting candid street photography is a great way to sharpen camera skills and challenge his creativity.
Every day, we read about news events across the world through print and digital media outlets, which not only provide updates in written form, but most importantly, visual forms. For apparent reasons, meanings cannot be sufficiently conveyed just using words. We need to see photos (or even videos) to get a decent idea of a situation that we can’t experience ourselves first-hand.
This is how candid street photography brings immense value to readers. It portrays the situation in the most raw, unfiltered manner possible, free from the photographer or the subject’s interpretation of the events. It is the news industry’s manifesto to present events in a neutral manner. Whether they are in fact loyal to such a standard is one thing, but at least in theory, the more in-the-moment the photos look, the better it does the job for news reporting purposes.
The below are some examples of my shots published in media outlets of various scales. This would give you a flavour of what is suitable for news stories. The left was part of a story about COVID-19 situation, and the right was featured in an article about an eclipse that was visible in Hong Kong.
You can see that the images were taken without much manipulation of the scene. That is what publishers are looking for (or at least supposed to look for).
What is news today becomes history tomorrow. We are very used to getting used to things - that shop that closed down, that style that emerged, that storm that happened - these events live in our memories for a while, but never too long; we are mostly happy with the reality we live in now.
Or are we?
Indeed, we are, I would conclude. Change happens in such tiny increments that we are seldom, if at all, alerted by them. It has to add up to a certain point before which we realise how much as changed over a certain period of time.
And so this is how images gain vintage value. It might not be apparent today, only time will tell. What seems like merely ordinary might become iconic in an undetermined point in the future. After all, icons are the product of time.
Most photographers, when they made these images that we regard as iconic today, never really contemplated about their shots having documentary value at the time of making them. They just came to be as time passed. In my earlier article ‘How to Compose Interesting Instagram Portraits - Implied Lines’, I gave my account on how certain famous images were constructed. And of course, they are not famous just for the composition; they are famous first because they had historic value - it is the story behind that made these images iconic.
We find these images interesting because they are of their times - the people dressed differently, streets were built differently - which are forever gone. And that ability, of photos to bring back the appearance of the past, is priceless.
Creative Experimental/ Practice Purposes
This has to do more with the photographer’s own artistic development. Please don’t forget yourself when doing photography - it is not just about putting something out there, it is also about having fun and growing yourself!
Candid street photography is arguably the best opportunity to push your creative boundaries. Because you are subject to constraints of time and space that are predetermined by the environment you are in. This forces you to stretch your ability to compose your shots within the limitations, and challenges your ability to deliver technically sound images.
Add the social pressure to the mix - which we shall discuss below - the feeling of self-consciousness, that you are being obtrusive against the photographed’s personal space, subjects your camera skills to an ultimate test. The more you attempt such a test, the better your skills will become.
As you will see in this video, it doesn’t take a lot to hone your ability to shoot in an uncontrolled yet constrained situation. Just putting yourself out on the street, with your mind set to capturing raw moments and expressions is all that it takes.
And of course, you could tell that I had fun snapping around. Observe people’s reactions - they are not necessary good ones. But I found it enjoyable nevertheless - and that itself is a perfectly legit reason to be shooting candid street photography!
How to be Less Obtrusive when Shooting Candid Street Photos?
Photographers are innately sensitive creatures, and that is why we don’t feel comfortable trying to invade other people’s privacy. We feel especially bad when our subjects feel bad because of our photo-taking. So we naturally seek ways to reduce the negative impact we have on our subjects, and here are some ideas on how.
Consider shooting from the waist. This is a great way to avoid drawing attention with the action of raising your camera. In conjunction with this method, adopt a minimalistic approach to your camera settings, so that you minimise the time required to get your camera ready before each shot. This highly increases the chance of you getting a decent shot before being noticed by the intended subject. It is also good practice to simplify your gear as far as possible. The smaller your camera, the less offensive it is to the average person. Lastly, just accept that there are shots that you should not take if the person made it clear that they don’t want their picture taken.
The below is a further breakdown of my thoughts and reflections, based on my years of shooting street photography, sometimes candid.
Read the Above Section Again
This doesn’t seem to answer the question directly, does it?
The point here is that you need to understand that obtrusiveness is partly in your head. You perceive yourself to be obtrusive based on how the subject reacted, so it is technically your own construct. You are as obtrusive as you perceive yourself to be.
So how obtrusive are you really? In my earlier article ‘Is Street Photography Creepy?’, I performed an objective analysis of what common types of street photography would entail, and their respective creepiness. Give this a read to gauge how obtrusive you really are - chances are that you are way less than you think you are.
Plus, by now you should be well aware of the value you have as a candid street photographer - you play the role of an informer and historian. Once you understand that it is in the world’s interest (not at all exaggerated) that you keep on photographing candid frames, how people react to your actions immediately seem less important.
As ridiculous as it sounds, you are less obtrusive if you think yourself so.
Shoot from the Waist
This method requires some getting used to. It will require you to compose and shoot without access to the viewfinder or the screen.
You must know your lens really well - your lens impacts your composition and framing in a major way, so you must understand your lens and move yourself to a suitable position relative to your subject. You will need a rough estimation of how far away you need to be and at what angle does your lens need to be. This takes some trial and error, and in general experience of shooting with your camera.
The other part is acting - which is the hardest part in my opinion. It is of no use to hide your camera if your face gives it all away - it takes some serious bodily coordination to, on one hand, set up your camera properly around your waist, and on the other, not appear too bothered and awkward. People do notice people around them (sometimes) and if you look confused, guess what they will see next? Your camera on your waist, which can probably feel more offensive than just shooting at eye level.
But once you get the hang of it, not only does it yield more powerful images because of the lower vantage point, but also be ready for (pleasant) surprises! You might end up with compositions that you never even contemplated of getting, and catching moments that you otherwise would have missed.
F8 and Be There
Actually, this applies well to any type of photography really. The settings should take up little to none of your mental space while on a shoot, so as to concentrate on things like composition and framing.
The phrase ‘f8 and be there’ was from Arthur Weegee. When read literally, it means that you should just set your f-stop to f8 and forget about the settings as you shoot. Interpreted more liberally, the message is that you can feel free to put your camera on whatever setting that you are confident will get you the shots, and immerse yourself into the environment to just start shooting.
By minimising the time you spend on changing your settings, the less likely that you will be caught using a camera. If you think about it, snapping a photo takes less than a second. It is the adjusting and looking at your camera and reviewing your shots that really is when people notice you.
So just cut that all out - it is much less important than you think anyway.
Reduce the Size of your Gear
Pointing a camera at someone is almost as provocative as pointing a gun at them in today’s society. This is not exaggeration - this is how much insecurity the camera can bring to the average person.
But imagine, for a second, what would happen if you point your phone towards that same person? Even if he noticed you, he would probably have just thought you were a nobody and act like nothing has happened.
So what is the difference here?
The thought that goes through people’s heads is this: ‘if he shot a photo of me, how can he use it?’. If it is iphone quality, probably not much can be done; if it is DSLR quality, then quite a bit can be done.
That is not to say that you should start shooting streets using a phone. But along the same logic, consider using mirrorless, or crop-sensor cameras, or even point-and-shoot cameras. These scaled-down models of cameras do produce surprisingly impressive results - it is up to you as the photographer to employ them as you see fit.
When you see someone pointing a toy camera at you, you probably won’t be very bothered. So try it out - it helps you be less conspicuous among the crowd!
Respect that ‘No’ means ‘No’
What’s the worst thing that can happen? The person says ‘no’, or gestures to you that they don’t want their photo taken.
If that is the case, just be at peace with the fact that there are shots that you can’t take. Having understood this, you will be able to just move on without taking it personal.
Gesture back to that person that you understand, that you are cool with it, and the tensions will cease.
What is the Best Gear combination for Candid Street Photography?
As we see from the above, some gear combinations serves you better as a street photographer, especially for candid shots than others.
The general rule is to reduce the bulk and complexity of your camera-lens combination. In terms of the body, go for a mirrorless; for lenses, go for a small prime lens, such as the ‘nifty fifty’; if you shoot film, TLR cameras are quite a suitable option too.
Body - Mirrorless Camera
Mirrorless cameras are typically smaller in size, especially the newer models. But apart from size, there are many other features that put mirrorless cameras at an advantage over traditional DSLR cameras when it comes to street photography.
Firstly, it produces less noise when the shutter is clicked. For a more thorough analysis on camera shutter noises, refer to my earlier article ‘Shutter Sound Explained: DSLR vs Mirrorless, Silent Shooting Modes’, in which I go into length into what is actually causing the noise when you fire the shutter, and how to avoid or mitigate it. In short, mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror, and the mirror is accountable to the majority of the noise created. Being able to shoot more silently helps you stay invisible better.
Secondly, most mirrorless cameras come with a flip screen, or at least a screen that can be lifted to some degree. You can use this to your advantage in street photography, by positioning your camera at your waist level, while still being able to see what is in frame. In most situations, shooting from a lower vantage point attracts attention less readily and thus helps you get closer to your subject.
Lens - Prime Lenses
Prime lenses are typically smaller than zoom lenses, because of a simpler glass mechanism therein. It is made up of less layers, and thus are less bulkier than their zoom counterparts.
For this reason, pairing your camera with a prime lens can make you appear less threatening to an average person.
For example, a common favourite choice of prime lens among street photographers is the ‘nifty fifty’, aka the 50mm f/1.8. It is such a popular lens that most manufacturers have their own version of it. Here is a video that speaks about this lens specifically.
If you shoot film, consider getting a TLR camera - a middle-format camera which looks like this.
The way the TLR camera works is that, you hold the camera around your waist level, probably with a neck strap hanging it to your neck, and look vertically downwards into the viewfinder, which displays the image that faces vertically upwards.
So in other words, you are looking down towards your waist area, not directly at the subject, and not raising the camera either.
As we discussed above, raising the camera is a large cause of provocation. If you simply look down from your waist, in addition to the fact that the TLR camera looks vintage and ‘dumb’, people are generally less alerted, in fact more curious, about what you are shooting on the streets.
In this article, we talked about:
What the purposes of candid street photography are;
How to be less obtrusive in doing street photography, and
The guide to choosing gear for street photography.
More sharing coming soon!
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