[Pho.Talk] Street Photography Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts, Blending In & Confidence

This article will address head-on one of the most common issues in street photography, that is how to overcome fear, how to blend in when shooting street photography, and how to navigate difficult situations.

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This video contains visual demonstrations of me shooting on streets, and I will walk through what was crossing my mind while I (failed to) shoot photographs. Enjoy!

Is Street Photography Rude?

Many photographers feel complicated about street photography. On one hand it is incredibly fun and meaningful to catch candid scenes happening on streets. But on the other, the negative feedback we get from our subjects can leave us feeling quite upset, questioning the merits and ethics of what we do. Here is my take on the issue, and how I think the line is drawn between rude and acceptable street photography.

Street photography itself is not rude, but your actions as a street photographer can be considered rude if you do not conform to social norms of the place you shoot in, or the context of the situation. Avoid being seen as rude boils down to effective communication skills, such as wearing a smile, apologising and deleting images where necessary, saying thank you etc. Also, be mindful when photographing vulnerable subjects, such as minors and homeless people, because the portrayal can be potentially degrading.

Based on my experience of shooting on streets, having used both confrontational and documentary approaches, the following are effective ways to not come across as rude in shooting candid street photography.

Wear a (genuine) Smile

Imagine this - you are in an argument with someone and suddenly, they start smiling at you.

How would you react?

Awkward, I know, but you probably can’t stay angry for long at a smiling person, however annoyed you feel.

It is quite safe to say that, at least for most cultures that we shoot in nowadays, smiling is universally regarded to signify politeness. The very act of smiling already puts you into the polite category.

And if someone still shouts at you, they are the rude ones (and let them be, it shouldn’t concern you).

The general social norm dictates that you treat a smiling person nicely. This is certainly a generalisation, but my take is that you can’t be rude by smiling.

Concede when Asked to

Throughout my years of shooting street photography, there are mainly two ways in which people express their disapproval towards me taking their photo. One way is to gesture to me that they don’t want to be in frame, such as pointing a finger at me, shaking their heads, covering their faces - just general body language of conveying the message of ‘no’. The other way is to verbally say that photos are not welcomed, or to ask to see the photos. (As I am writing this, I surprisingly couldn’t recall an instance in which I was confronted and asked to delete the image.)

Photographers have always been concerned with the ethics of street photography, of the moral correctness of photographing strangers in a candid manner.

This concerns me too, of course, and rightly so, as a photographer who wishes to shoot with integrity. But just like many things in life, the question of ‘whether something happens’ is quite a separate enquiry from its normative twin, ‘whether something should happen’.

Let’s face it - most street photographers cannot say for sure that what they are doing is entirely ethical. But street photography still goes on nonetheless. There is something, rather than moral correctness, that draws us to street photography. And that, in my humble opinion, is the indulging fun we experience.

But if your subject makes it difficult for you to shoot, they remove the fun from street photography. That is when you should consider letting go and make concessions.

Life grants us with lots of fun to be enjoyed but not everyone gets the point. Street photography is fun until someone renders it not so - and when that happens, let it be so.

Apologise if they make you, delete the photo if they demand so, and move on. There are way more fun images yet to be shot, and fun vibes and perfect dynamics between you and your subjects to be enjoyed.

Concede not just for the fear of being rude, but more so for the search of better images.

Photograph Vulnerable Subjects with a Clear Rationale

Many of the greatest photographs ever taken feature vulnerable subjects, such as minors, the handicapped, the homeless, migrants, just to name some examples. Documentary photographers dedicate their time and sweat to gain access to some of the darkest sides of humanity, bringing to light the not-so-pretty scenes that are happening yet largely unnoticed by the general public.

But what you don’t see is the amount of time and dedication spent on gaining access and consent from these vulnerable groups of people. It takes skill and patience and empathy and A LOT to convince these people and gain their trust before these photographs can be made (supposedly). When it comes to asking for permission, generally photographers have a plan in mind regarding the aim of taking the photos, they have made up their minds that they (or probably already) are going to commit to the story emotionally and follow through for an extended period of time, and that they will take the time to print their work and bring it back to the photographed groups after the matter.

Street photography is obviously different from documentary stories. But don’t let the fleeting nature of street photography lead you into thinking that you can get documentary-like type of images by simply applying a street photography approach. You could reasonably expect resistance or even condemnation if you jump right into photographing vulnerable people without permission.

I personally avoid making such photos all together in a street photography context, unless there is a very strong reason to. If you do see compelling reasons to do so, be ready to explain yourself to your target subject or their guardians about what you are doing, where the images are going to be published. You need to know very clearly what you are doing and be able to get your message across in a professional, convincing manner.

How to Blend In as a Street Photographer?

Blending in is a very paradoxical mental state for a photographer. On one hand, you are an outsider in relation to the mini scene happening through your viewfinder. On the other, you are (can be) an insider in relation to the wider street area, which consists of many of those mini scenes.

So when you say you want to blend in, what exactly are you trying to blend into? Once you figured this out, your street photography hauls become role-play rehearsals - it feels awkward to read from a script in the beginning, but as you repeat the lines, they feel like things you would naturally say and before you know it, you have impersonated the character you play.

Everyone has a different way of relating to their surroundings as a street photographer, but the logic behind staying invisible is the same - you align your behaviour with that of the people you are trying to blend in with, which would mostly be the disinterested public. So your overall goal is to appear disinterested. I can’t tell you how to act in a particular instance, but here are things that apply generally across a range of social contexts, based on my years of experimenting and observing myself. Please take note of the below and add in your own judgment regarding a specific situation. I have arranged these tips in chronological order of a hypothetical navigation scene.

To act normal, the most important thing is to keep walking, moving withe crowds, even after spotting an interesting subject. You also need to perform mental composition and calculate the settings before you raise your camera. Pretend to be interested in something else and face sideways where necessary. After taking the shot, hold up your camera until your subject has walked past where applicable. Lastly, always be ready to strike up a conversation if you got ‘caught’ - most often people are curious about you!

Alright, let me elaborate on each of these points below.

Keep Moving

This depends on where you live, but for the locations I have been based in, which is London and Hong Kong, it is rather unusual for people to stop in the middle of the road, unless there is a performance going on. People tend to be preoccupied with their own thoughts or their phone and don’t really notice what other people are doing - except when someone stops walking.

But when you are on a street photography haul excursion and something interesting catches your eye, your immediate reaction is naturally to freeze and stare while you think of what to do with that moment. And this is usually when you realise that you too have caught the attention of your subject, as well as the people around you. I would say that it is harder to notice a weird person than a still person in the crowd.

Now you must put yourself into the shoes of the disinterested mass, because this is the role you have to play. What does a disinterested person do after they have seen the potential subject? They continue walking.

Based on my experience, it doesn’t quite matter where you look or what you do as much as you keep walking. What I typically do is that I keep watching my target while I walk further down, and then make a turn back to the subject so that I keep moving while buying time for myself to prepare for the shot. In fact, if you feel that you need slightly more time, you can take a longer detour.

To play the role even better, train yourself to walk at a normal speed - your legs can do sketchy things at critical moments like these as a novice actor.

This is arguably the most significant (yet the most challenging) change in my candid street photography approach, which makes much sense because this period of time right before you hold up your camera is probably the deciding factor of whether or not you manage to get the shot in time.

Mentally Compose and Calculate Settings

What happens to the disinterested person who takes detours on streets? They show a blank face and look into the void because they are buried deep in their own thoughts.

So you strive do the same here - just that it can be quite a challenge to not look at the scene too hard, because composing essentially requires you to look. But the more you practice, the quicker you become at deciding on compositions. Again, if you don’t feel ready yet for the shot, then just observing from a distance while you walk; when you are practice, you must acknowledge that there are shots that you are going to miss. The only way to get around this is practice, and failure is inherently something you would encounter in your practise.

As to camera settings for street photography, you should have plenty of opportunity to try it out in the very start of your excursion, if you shoot digital. Assuming that you are not shooting during sunrise or sunset, or any time periods in which the lighting conditions are changing dramatically, the changes you need to make are minor.

For me, this process typically happens when I am taking my detour as I make my way back to the subject. The time frame is somewhere around 20 seconds in which I decide from where I am going to take the shot, and if I need to change my camera settings.

It is also important that you keep your hands away from your camera while you do your heavy mental weight-lifting!

Hold your Camera Up After the Shot

When you take your shot, it is quite likely that the subject will start noticing you after a few shots, on average, so this point has more to do with how to react to being seen.

It boils down to what you are feeling in that moment - sometimes I do this if I don’t feel like talking to the subject, usually because I have no interest in making a staged portrait of them. This is the most direct way to avoid interaction. This is not rude; there is always an introvert in photographers who sometimes don’t enjoy conversations with strangers.

While you continue holding your camera up, you are telling people that you are not done photographing, which should be enough a disincentive for them approaching you. It can also lead your subjects to think that you were not photographing them but just preparing for the ‘real’ shot after they walked away - similarly, it diminishes the chances of any interaction, positive or negative.

If you hold your camera at the same spot for long enough, you can possibly get people to think that you are just interested in the background. If you happen to have identified a frame that is worth a photo but screwed the first shot, this would be a great way to make slight changes, and get the shot when another subject walks into the same frame.

Face Sideways/ Downwards

It so happens that sometimes, the timing isn’t so perfect. There might be a slight wait before your subject walks into the right part of the frame to complete your intended composition, but that time is yet too short for you to move before firing the shot.

A handy trick is to pretend to be targeting something on the side, that is, a totally different direction. I see that some people suggest pretending to be shooting something behind them, but I find that this seldom works because people assume the worse whenever they see a camera. In order for them to be convinced that you are not trying to take a picture of them, you need to get them to think that there is absolutely zero chance of them being in your photo.

While you turn sideways, your eyes can actually still see, despite in a blur, where they are at. Hold your pretence, and right before the critical moment, turn your body into position and fire the shot. The same is true when you look downwards, pretending to be reviewing photos in your camera - your field of vision still allows you to briefly keep track of your subject’s movements.

When I started doing this, somehow people were able to see right through me, and they would stare at me until they are positive that they are out of my sight. But as I practiced more by putting myself out there, this started working much better over time.

Dress (look, better even) like the Average Private Citizen

This sounds like a no-brainer but in some situations clothing is something you actually need to plan before going out. It depends on how native you are in relation to the community you are shooting in.

As a female photographer, I used to shoot a lot wearing shorts in the summer when I was still in Hong Kong because I can’t stand the heat. But females wearing shorts naturally draw a lot of eyeballs (for whatever reason) from people on streets. It sounds ridiculous but I can’t even count how many shots I have missed because of my shorts - it drew attention so readily that I almost get noticed the moment I approach a scene, regardless of my efforts to stay discreet.

And having moved to London, I started attracting attention because I look Asian - it works both ways, some people have a special affinity to Asian faces and get really hyped up when I ask them for a photo - but it can also work to my disadvantage because my facial features stand out quite well in the crowd.

These subtle things do make a difference and is more real than we would like to acknowledge. Some things are more adjustable than the others, but to play your role to the best of your abilities, steer clear of anything that would attract attention unnecessarily. This will require you to have a fairly good understanding of the norms of the community you are in.

Build Rapport with your Subject (when spotted)

It may seem counter-intuitive to be reading this point under the context of blending in - how are you supposed to be invisible while having made yourself visible?

While this is not as straightforward as the above tips, this is by far one of the most practical ways to capture interesting subjects on streets. Realistically, your ability to stay invisible has limits - if you keep inching closer, there is going to be a point at which you get noticed by your subjects. Getting better means being able to get better shots before being noticed, but there is no way to remove such a limitation totally.

So what do you do when you get caught by your subject at a photo-worthy scene? Do you abandon the scene all together?

What a waste! There is a better way to make the most out of the situation, which is to start talking to the subject if they are up for a chat. Many people, although not photographers themselves, are happy to learn about what you are doing with your pictures.

This brings us to the most critical part of this practice - if you could convince them to let you stick around for a bit to take photos of them while they go about their business, you have gained access that the random street photographer does not enjoy. You got your subject to let you photograph them from a much shorter distance, which gives you angles that you otherwise cannot get.

Technically you can argue that this is no longer candid street photography because the subject cannot be candid once he knows he is being observed. I think that while this will certainly happen, it does to a varying extent depending on how well the street photographer has put his message across. The fact that the subject is being photographed knowingly does not have to drastically alter the course of his development.

The best ways, based on my experience, of framing your explanation is to make sure that the subject is aware that you are interested in documenting everyday scenes, such as people in their natural habitats. Another thing that would help is to stick around for longer, long enough for their awareness of the cameraman to wane. A typical example is protesters and performers, both being groups of people who generally welcome being photographed. They have no issues in understanding a photographer’s need to take photos because it is usually in line with their need for publicity. And if you stay there long enough, they have other things to take care of apart from trying to pose for your photos. This is the point at which the pretence and unnaturalness fall away.

How to Approach Taking Candid Photos of Strangers?

All of the little things suggested above require practice and patience, but to help you embody them more effectively, giving your mindset some checks proves to be of great value. No one can get in the way, after all, of you getting better shots out of your street photography hauls. The only real obstacle is yourself - your fear and doubts. Everything mentioned above are piecemeal actions that seem easier to implement, but the ultimate reason why they work (at least for me) because they are mere manifestations of a mindset I carry as a street photographer, which gives me confidence and conviction in what I do.

Plus, if you think of it in your right mind, you will be able to come up with your own way of going about capturing candid moments in street photography - there are a million ways to get over this fear; there is no exhaustive list. And this is why I am including in here a discussion that is more philosophical than practical, which takes more effort to process. But very truly it speaks to the root of the issue of experiencing fear in street photography.

The Purpose of your Street Photography

Hate and rejection happens across many disciplines in life, certainly not just when we are shooting on streets. And to be honest, being refused for a photo doesn’t even make that much of a difference to your life - you have nothing to do with the person who just called out on you. But ironically, that tiny gesture of irritation bothers you way more than other things (eg. running out of toilet paper), which probably deserves more of your attention in life.

We feel this dreadful feeling when people react negatively to our street photography because it points to issues within us that have yet to be resolved - our relationship with our street photography. The subject’s response per se is not what is causing this fear; it is just a trigger to the confusion inside of us which is the de facto reason why we feel troubled. When someone disapproves of something we do, it doesn’t bother us that much if we believe that we know better. It only feels disturbing when we are brought to recognise our lack of proper reasoning that we have been reluctant to recognise.

In the case of street photography, you couldn’t care less what the other person thinks if you truly believe that you are doing something great. The feeling of fear is the direct result of a tug of war, between the person’s negativity and your belief in your purpose, where the former outweighed the latter. This resulting fear, therefore, has to be dealt with by discovering in yourself a purpose, a reason for which you are shooting on streets, and coming to terms with yourself as to its truth. The stronger your belief, the more negativity it takes to topple it.

While ‘purpose’ is a rather high-sounding word, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as complicated as you would think. Of course, what constitutes a legitimate ‘purpose’ is a controversial matter, and everyone has the right to draw the line differently, so here is my take: anything more than ‘having fun’ would suffice to give you the guts to shoot with assertiveness. And your precise purpose can be flexible - it can differ from one day to the other. Maybe it is to document a certain social occurrence, for news reportage, to celebrate an ideology - it is all up to you, but you need to have a solid one.

It takes a lot of introspection and self-awareness before you could arrive at that thing for which you shoot. But once you get there, this fear will start to fall apart because you will soon see that people’s negative reactions can only have so little impact on the overall purpose for your photography; street photography has very good reasons to exist, and nothing can deny that.

Think like the Greatest

When you run into an issue, it makes sense to find out if it is just you, or if other people are having the same issue. But for some reason, we tend to attribute our experience of rejection in street photography to our lack of competence. While this is partly true (of course, you can never be too good at street photography), it only makes sense if we also study this issue in the grand scheme of things: how would other photographers react, when faced with this same situation?

Let’s take a moment and imagine that you are one of the greatest photographers in history. Ask yourself, how would they have behaved? We certainly can’t say for sure, but looking through their work gives us some insight as to how they might have reacted.

First comes Robert Capa - let’s take a look at this shot of his in the middle.

Screen capture of Robert Capa’s profile on Magnum Photos’ official website.

Screen capture of Robert Capa’s profile on Magnum Photos’ official website.

He took a shot of a soldier who held up a gun. Imagine the amount of conviction that oneself must have in himself to muster up the courage to take the shot - that same gun could very possibly be pointed towards the camera the next moment.

So back to now - how would a Robert, having shot under the risk of being shot, react to a disapproving passerby?

Using photo in the middle, here is another example from Alex Webb.

Screen capture of Alex Webb’s profile on Magnum Photos’ official website.

Screen capture of Alex Webb’s profile on Magnum Photos’ official website.

For whatever reason, the person on the left covered his face with a magazine - he was expressing his refusal to be on camera.

And what did Alex do? He went on to take the shot nonetheless, and it was indeed a great moment captured. This is probably closer to what we would experience today on streets, because people seldom bother confronting the photographer. They simply hide their face from appearing in the photo.

What these examples tell us is that in face of rejection, the greatest photographers probably wouldn’t give a damn - they have better things to care about, completing the mission they believe in through their photography.

When we feel defeated because of negative reactions from people, I find it really helpful to borrow the (imaginary) minds of the greatest photographers of all time. You will instantly feel better, knowing that all photographers alike encounter similar situations, and that it is no big deal.

Summary

In this article, we talked about:

  • Whether street photography is rude;

  • Street photography etiquette;

  • How to blend in as a street photographer, and

  • How to approach taking candid street photography.

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