Saturday, December 12, 2015

10 Great Street Photography Tips

Ethical Drugs - Hollywood, California
Street photography is very popular. Basically it is walking city blocks or neighborhoods and capturing images that show what it's like to be in those places. Typically, but not always, the images include people in the frame. A simple definition might be: photography that features the human condition within public places. The street photography genre has been around practically as long as photography has.

I don't really consider myself a street photographer, per se. Typically I photograph landscapes and abandoned buildings, but occasionally I find myself smack dab in the middle of capturing street scenes. Like a lot of photographers, I sometimes try different genres (even if it's not my main interest), and so I am a street photographer occasionally. I'd call it a growing interest, as I seem to be gravitating towards it more and more lately.

Much of what I know about street photography has been learned through experience. Trial-and-error. I've made mistakes and squandered opportunities and made boring images from interesting sights. But that's not a problem as long as I learn from them. It's a part of the process. As the renown street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." Perhaps your first 10,000 within each genre are your worst.

Below are 10 great street photography tips that I've learned the hard way through experience. Hopefully you will find one or more helpful.

Overcome Your Fear
Lucky - Tehachapi, California
The biggest obstacle to overcome in street photography is fear. You might be nervous that people will think that you're weird. You might be nervous that you'll tick someone off. You might be nervous to encounter rejection. You might worry that you'll get yelled at or even punched in the nose!

There is plenty to fear, but you cannot live in fear because that paralyzes you. You have to know that someone will think that you're weird, and you will tick someone off, and you will get turned down, and someone will yell at you and someone might even get physical. You are invading people's personal space. You are doing something that many would consider abnormal. This just comes with the territory, and the quicker you accept that the quicker you can move past it.

But, with all of that said, most people don't care. You can walk right up to strangers and ask to take their picture, and four times out of five they'll say yes. Most people won't notice that you've captured them, and, while they might be momentarily bothered, they will let it slide pretty quickly. It is extraordinarily rare to encounter someone who responds violently.

The best way to overcome your fear is to grab your camera and photograph! Start off by using reflections and to stand a distance away from your subject. Build some confidence, and soon you'll find yourself a little more bold. After awhile you'll move in closer and closer and closer.

Be Discreet (But Not A Creep)
The Five Senses - Glendale, California
There are some street photographers who like to pose their subjects--they stage their street scenes. I'm not a fan of that. It's alright sometimes, I guess. It doesn't come across as natural in my opinion.

I like to capture the scene undisturbed. I like it to feel natural, like I'm not even there--a fly on the wall. But that's difficult to do if you are walking around pointing a camera at people. They'll notice.

Be discreet. Find ways to blend in. If you are in an area known for tourism, make yourself look like a tourist. You can spot tourists from the locals pretty easily, but it's expected that tourists will have cameras and will be pointing them every which way. If you are in an area not known for tourism, make yourself look like you belong there. Blend in with the crowd. Be inconspicuous.

But don't act creepy. Don't be a spy. Don't act suspiciously or nervously. People will think that you are up to no good. They'll think that you're a pedophile or stalker or terrorist or something else really bad.

It's important to portray yourself as belonging in the mix of people. You need people to look right past you. Look normal. Blend in.

Use Inconspicuous Gear
Erick Schat's Bakkery Reflection - Bishop, California
A big part of blending in and not looking suspicious is leaving your big "professional" camera at home. You can get away with using a DSLR sometimes, but it's best to use smaller gear. Many street photographers find that the best camera to use is often their cell phone. After all, no one thinks twice about someone with a cell phone in their hands.

I find that my Sony RX100 II works great for street photos. It's small and dark and doesn't look like a DSLR. Even my wife's Canon N is a good tool, and I used it to capture Erick Schat's Bakkery Reflection above. Inconspicuous gear allows the photographer to be discreet.

Street photography isn't about having the sharpest images or the most resolution. It's about capturing the human condition. This often means photographing when no one is aware that they're being photographed. People change their behavior when they know a camera is pointed at them. It's best to use gear that allows you to photograph people unaware.

No Parking - Bakersfield, California
Sometimes you are trying to remain inconspicuous when someone notices what you're doing. You've been caught! Your heart rate goes up and you want to panic and run. But don't! Instead, give a warm smile.

Smile. Wave. Use nonverbal communication to let them know that you're not a threat or a creep or a weirdo. Show that you are a nice, kind, friendly person. It's amazing how something this simple can defuse an awkward situation.

Talk To People
Cooking Carrabba's - Las Vegas, Nevada
Don't be too timid to talk to people. Don't be scared to tell them what you are doing. Don't be afraid to ask for permission to photograph them, most will say yes.

My experience is that most people are actually nice. They're understanding and cooperative. They are kind and helpful. Sure, there are some who are not, but those are the exception and not the rule.

Besides, you don't know what kind of interesting story you might hear or connection you might make. You may be missing out on something great by not talking to people.

Always Be Ready
Morning Coffee - Tehachapi, California
You don't know when an interesting scene appears in front of you. You don't know when a great photographic opportunity will happen. Sometimes it's when you least expect it. Be ready to capture it.

Always have a camera with you. Have the battery charged, ensure there is room on the SD card, and have the settings at least near where they need to be so that you're not digging through menus on your camera. You should be able to grab your camera, turn it on and capture an image within a couple of seconds.

It's good to be intimately familiar with your gear. Practice, practice, practice. Be fast, because decisive moments vanish quickly.

Keep Your Photographs Simple
Bear Mountain Blvd Tattoo - Arvin, California
Simple photographs are often better than complex one. Photography is a form of nonverbal communication, and clear and concise articulation is better than vague and wordy communication.

Isolate what matters by removing everything that doesn't matter from the frame. In this way photography is like sculpting. A sculptor chisels away everything that's not supposed to be there until the sculpture is complete. Photographers should take a similar approach to their images.

Get Closer
Framed Glass - Salt Lake City, Utah
The best way to create simpler photographs is to get closer. Robert Capa said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." The closer you get, the more unnecessary junk you remove from the frame. It's refining your composition using your feet.

When should you stop getting closer? When are you close enough? Once you've removed everything unnecessary from the frame that prevents the image from being great, then you can stop getting closer--you've achieved close enough.

This might be the most difficult tip in this list. Many people struggle with getting close enough to their subjects in street photography to capture interesting photographs. This goes back to overcoming your fear and being bold. If you are timid you will never get close enough.

Find Interesting People or Things
The Crazy Violinist - Pasadena, California
The best street photographs include someone or something interesting in the frame. It's not the ordinary that draws people to this genre but the extraordinary--the unusual, the strange. It's not the common human condition that makes a photograph memorable, but the uncommon.

You want to keep an eye out for unique people and places. There are lots of people who march to the beat of their own drum (and who seemingly don't care what others think), you've just have to actively look for them. They are there, out in public places for all to see, if you just keep your eyes open and your camera ready.

Don't Always Shoot At Eye-Level
Denny's Diner - Tehachapi, California
Most photographers shoot at eye level. They raise their camera up to their eye, then frame, focus and expose. It makes for a predictable point-of-view. Changing your perspective, either higher or lower, makes an image stand out because it's a different angle than what you were expecting.

Back in the "old days" when view cameras were popular, you held the camera down by your waist and looked through a window in the top of the camera. If your digital camera has a tilt-screen this point-of-view is easily replicated, and since you don't have a camera up to your eye it makes you less conspicuous.

Often small changes up or down, left or right, backwards or forwards, can significantly impact an image. It can be comfortable to shoot from a particular point-of-view, but changing your perspective can give a refreshing look. That may mean doing something just a little different than what you are used to.

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