Howto: Cope the fear in street photography


Street photography is all about capturing candid moments of life in public and urban space. Including people into your photos can undoubtedly be done from a distance. However, sooner or later you will want to make that candid street portrait of interesting faces out there. Taking photos of strangers on the street can be really tough, especially if you are as shy and introverted as I am. I really have to be in the right mood to feel confident enough. Most people have fear and doubts when it comes to getting close to strangers in order to take their photograph.

On 5th of January, 2016, Thomas Leuthard and Sebastian Rieger made an episode (Ep. #025) addressing exactly this issue on their podcast called StreetCast.FM. I found their tips and hints really helpful, so I decided to summarize them and share them with you. Here they are:

1.) Start with a longer lens

If you are really afraid, then start with a longer lens initially. However, you will have to force yourself to reduce the focal length step by step in 5 or 10mm increments, for instance. It’s my personal opinion, but you simply cannot transport the feeling of being part of the scene with a tele photo lens. You can stop at 50mm or 35mm and see how that feels to you.

2.) Know the law

You should know about the law and ethics in the country or culture you’re shooting in. If you know exactly what you are allowed to do – and of course, what you shouldn’t do – you will be more confident in what you do.

3.) Have some excuses ready

If you get into a discussion, it’s always a good thing to have an excuse, so people will be satisfied and go away. There are several things you can say. I really have to practice it, because I simply can’t lie and most of the things aren’t really true. But you also can stick to the truth and try to explain what you’re doing to the people. Some of the tips come from Eric Kim and his article on excuses.

  • I’m doing a photo workshop/I’m part of this photo walk
  • I’m documenting people and life on the streets
  • I’m working on a photo book
  • I’m trying to learn street photography (this would be the honest approach)
  • I’m trying to reproduce this well known photo of … (make it plausible to the people)

4.) Take some prints with you

It’s always a good thing to have some shots of yours with you all the time, so you can explain what you’re doing. Additionally, you can take business cards, so people can find you and your photos. Some people may like that you took their photo and may like to get a print or see the result.

5.) Think positive

You should always think positive and try to be confident in what you’re doing. If you are uncertain and look like you don’t know what you’re doing, people will notice that and you will get into discussions, which will make things even worse for you. For me, my mind is my biggest enemy. I tend to think too much about possible consequences. This is not good at all. However, there are things, we can do against that.

First of all, if I’m not in the right mood to get close to people (yet), I simply start with something else that will work for sure, in order to get the feeling of success, like a “blurry background/foreground” photo, for instance. Then you can go further step by step and try an “outside/inside” photo through the window next. If you’re still not in the right mood, then it’s just not “that” day for you, and you’ll come back tomorrow.

In order to keep your thoughts in check, you can focus on the camera and the composition in order to distract yourself from the negative thoughts. Try to concentrate on the exposure and that the settings are correct. Ensure that your composition is right and that there’s nothing disturbing in the background. This keeps your mind from thinking about possible consequences that might happen after you took the shot. If you’re using the viewfinder, keep your camera on eye level after you took the shot. Avoid eye contact before and after the shot. Do not hesitate! You could even pretend that the person you would like to take a picture of has asked you to do so!

6.) Practice proximity first

If getting close to people and getting the shot right at the same time overburdens you, try to focus on the proximity first. You can practice the closeness as an isolated task, without actually taking a photo. Here’s how:

  • Take your camera, look through the viewfinder, on the display or even turn the camera off and then approach people
  • Avoid eye contact before AND afterwards, look somewhere else or on the camera
  • Observe people’s reaction
  • Observe how you feel about the proximity/closeness
  • Say “thank you” or simply give people a smile and move on
  • If you’ve done that a couple of times, then try to take a shot. Try to find the difference between the electronic and the mechanical shutter (if available)

7.) The “10 no” challenge

This one goes back to Eric Kim. The challenge is to ask random strangers for permission to take their photos and get 10 denials as fast as possible. I think it works best in a group of shooters and the first one gets an award or something like that. It really forces you to approach people and get in touch with them and see their reactions. I haven’t tried it, yet, but I will definitely try it on my next photo walk in February!

8.) Actually interact with the people

Recently my wife told me that people react pretty strange these days, whenever she smiles at them. This is what this tip is about. Approach people with a smile or make them a compliment. Most of them will feel honored. It’s so sad how we are addicted to our smartphones today, including myself. When I’m in the train and listen to a podcast, looking up, I realize that nobody’s even talking. Everybody is busy with their iPhone. We can break this by giving a smile a day.

9.) Stealthiness

Try to be as unremarkable as possible when shooting in the streets. If you draw attention and your subject sees you coming, you might get eye contact and the situation is done. There are two things to consider here:

  • Clothes: Try to wear understated clothes, or even better: try to look like a tourist, so that nobody thinks you’re a photographer
  • Camera: Try to use small cameras. People will think that you’re from the press or something, when you use a large DSLR and they will question what’s going on

10.) The “Mystical Marakech” Method

I guess this method is well known but Zack Arias gave it its name in his awesome YouTube video. Basically, this is how it works:

  • Approach your subject and wait a little to get part of the scene (if possible)
  • Pretend to shoot something above your subject by either looking through the viewfinder or on the back display
  • Lower the camera and pretend to chimp
  • Reframe to get the right composition
  • Take the actual shot
  • Repeat (if necessary)

11.) Wait

As listed in the Mystical Marakech Method, you can simply wait a little, in order to get part of the scene. Getting part of the scene means that people won’t realize you as a “foreign object” anymore. When you’re entering a group of people, then you’re new and everybody is paying attention because of that. If you simply wait a couple of moments, being calm, attention will fade away and you will get part of the “inventory”. If you’re smoking a cigarette, for example (I don’t smoke), then after some time, you’re just the guy smoking a cigarette. If you feel that attention is fading away, you can try to shoot.

12.) Pretend to shoot other things

As shown in the Mystical Marakech Method, you can pretend to shoot things above or below your actual subject. A nice situation is when you’re waiting at a traffic light, standing next to someone. Simply raise the camera, pretend to shoot something above the person standing next to you, lower the camera, pretend to chimp and then take the shot. You can also keep your eye to the camera afterwards, to pretend you haven’t taken a shot at all. You can also pretend that the person was in your way.

13.) Shoot from the Hip

I think everybody know this method by now. Pre-focus using a closed aperture (zone focusing) and then shoot from the hip looking at your camera to avoid eye contact.

14.) Shoot remotely

Use a remote control or your smartphone, connected with your camera via WiFi. This is especially useful in Cafes.

15.) Get routine

Whenever I apply one of the things above to overcome my fear, things get better first. However, if I can’t go out for a couple of weeks afterwards, things get worse again. It is good to practice things repeatedly and refresh what you can do. This effect really frustrates me the most. One day, I’m able to go close and it really strengthens my confidence, then, if I can’t shoot for a while, or I’m not motivated enough, old habits come back and I’m afraid again. This is why it’s important to go out and shoot more regularly. Because I’m more motivated when shooting in a group, I started to organize a photo walk on a monthly basis. However, currently I realize that this is too much time in between for me personally.

16.) Go out in a group

I always feel more motivated if go out with other people. You can participate photo walks or go out with friends or like minded people around you. Trust me, they will be happy if you ask! A thing that even improves motivation is to set challenges in a group. The “10 no” challenge (see above), for instance is an excellent ice-breaker.

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