24 Jan 2008

Photographing people in the street - part 1

The most easily accessible location for photography is right outside your own front door – in the street if you happen to live in town. Out there people are coming and going about there daily lives, and the houses, buildings and surroundings themselves can make really worthwhile subjects. Yet so many photographers get into a sweat at the very thought of taking pictures in the street. Quite understandably, they feel self-conscious and a bit nervous about pointing their cameras at perfect strangers. This is normal, and if you feel that way, you are not alone. You probably also feel as if you are being intrusive. Well, in a way, you are and because this type of photography brings you into contact with total strangers it does not suit everyone. However, you don’t always have to tackle your subjects head-on - there are many more subtle ways of capturing pictures of people than simply sticking a camera in their face

The first and most important thing to remember is that you have a perfect right to take photographs in a public street. It is a right you should use.

It can help if you start by taking photographs of public street events or parades, where everyone participating and watching will expect lots of photographs to be taken and will readily accept the presence of photographers. A good training ground can be a busy tourist town – again, people will be expecting photographers to take pictures. You could try back views of people to begin with so that they may not even know they have been photographed and will not question you. All this will help you gain confidence.

Eventually someone will turn round and see you taking their photograph. Rule Number One – press the button again, smile broadly and say something pleasant. Tell them what a great picture they have helped to create, how good they looked and how you could not resist taking it. Laugh – be happy! Go forward and show them the picture on the preview screen if they are interested. Let’s face it, you would not have taken the person’s picture in the first place if you felt the subject looked at all threatening, so who knows, you may gain a friend, or a least a ‘tame’ subject who you may be able to ask to ‘do it again’. This approach can lead to countless happy encounters with strangers and many great pictures. Just don’t expect to be an expert overnight, it takes time to build technique and confidence – especially confidence.

Man on ladder
Gain confidence by photographing people without them knowing – call these candid shots if you wish. If subjects have their backs to you, then you can shoot away to your heart’s content. This chap had no idea he was being photographed – nor could he see those jackdaws above his head on the roof. They really helped make the picture

Top photograph
You can progress from shots of people’s backs to full frontals quite easily. Use a medium telephoto lens – the equivalent of a 180mm is fine. Once again compose your picture carefully without people in it. Get everything set then simply wait until a likely subject strolls along and press the button. Minimum 1/250sec to stop the subject and reduce camera shake. You can assess your potential subjects well in advance and if you don’t like the look them just wait for another one

Bottom photograph
You need a clear view of a busy gateway or entrance for this exercise; somewhere people will have no choice but to walk through the gap. Find a good out-of-the-way spot overlooking the spot and get comfortable; a bench where you can sit down is ideal, or stand in the shadow of an alleyway where you are unlikely to be noticed. Don’t rush. Take your time framing and composing your shot. Set the exposure. Now everything is ready and your trap is set. All you have to do is wait for the right person to walk into shot and press the button at the right moment – you have taken your first candid shot and the person you photographed knew nothing about it

Tomorrow I’ll give you a list of TIPS and answer some FAQs about street photography

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