How to photograph strangers on the street

photographing a vampire on the street

There comes a time in most photographers life when they have to decide whether to continue taking photographs of their pet, dismal spawn and sofa or start to work out how to photograph strangers on the street.

I rather suspect that no more than 10% of people who own cameras graduate to photographing random people on the street.

Most find this, at least initially, extremely daunting. But if they persevere they usually find it profoundly liberating, opening up a whole new world of photographic possibilities.

Fear is of course the overriding concern. Will they punch me ? Or call the police ? Or stalk me forever ?

The only way to get over this is do it again and again and again, gradually getting bolder each time.

There are, broadly, two ways to photographing strangers on the street – you either ask them or you don’t.

I tend never to ask as I much rather catch people in their natural environment and without a false smile (people find it incredibly difficult to smile convincingly in photographs). Although you should always ask a Vampire’s permission. Always.

People’s behavior on the street

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found that people’s behavior on the street has changed dramatically. Most people now walk and stare like zombies at their mobile phones while chatting with headphones in their ears. You can now sit in restaurants and trains where everyone is transfixed by their gadgets.

Levels of situational awareness have plummeted which makes these people even less likely to be aware that you’re photographing them. However the pictures are rarely interesting.

On the other hand in London and New York there is an all pervasive fear of terrorism which can lead to jobsworths interfering with your day. I’ve been forced down at gunpoint before by heavily armed but extremely courteous Miami customs officers. You tend to agree with them that you’ve been a very silly photographer when you have multiple guns pointed at you.

How to start photographing people on the street

When learning how to photograph strangers on the street, start with long lenses (70-200mm). Over days, weeks and months gradually get closer and closer to your prey (yes – you are the hunter) until you’re using something like a 28mm wide angle lens and are filling the frame with the subject. Prey.

Using a very wide angle lens has the added benefit that you don’t have to point the lens at the subject:

Photographing people from behind…

The first step of training yourself is to take a picture from behind the subject. Although It’s difficult to take a memorable photograph without showing a person’s face, it will help build your confidence.

black dreadlocks on the street
Beautiful Black Dreadlocks on the Street

…and then photographing people in front

Next you need to graduate to photographing people from the front. There are generally two stages to this – firstly without eye contact and then…the big one…with eye contact.

A common failing even with experienced photographers is failing to make eye contact with the subject – achieving this will immeasurably improve your pictures.

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Being as anonymous as possible also helps. Wear a nondescript black t-shirt and hang out in a touristy area with a high through flow of people. You’ll never feel conspicuous photographing at a parade or a festival, so blend in. Markets are usually busy and humans when surrounded by food tend to revert to their primal urge to feed and ignore photographers. Funerals tend to be a little more tricky.

On this point, it’s amazing how some people lack common sense when photographing on the street. If someone is in pain, or emotional and upset. Just. Don’t.

Dogs are fair game, though, as are the flamboyant and exhibitionists who, of course, exist to be photographed.

I also refuse to photograph the homeless but that’s a personal decision. You’ll also discover that those living on the street are especially attuned to people taking their photographs – probably a survival mechanism.

The type of camera is also important and  smaller is better. I’ve worked out that one of the reasons large camera and lenses draw so much attention is because the front lens looks a little like an eye. As we’ll see later, the eye is one of the most visually appealing triggers for the human mind and a person will instinctively looks at eye like objects.

Human heads facing another person, even with a camera in front of them also draw attention, so the orientation of your head is also important.

You’re a lot less conspicuous if your looking down at a flip up screen when you take the picture. although using a Rolleiflex is even better, cooler and will always start a conversation. 9 times out of 10, even if the person realizes that you’re taking their picture they will blank you. It’s as though they subconsciously know what you’ve done yet try and ignore it.

More tips for photographing strangers

Some other simple steps:

  • Turn off any camera noises – you need to be as silent as possible.
  • Compose take the picture quickly.
  • Once you’ve taken the picture, swing the lens a few degrees to the left or right (or up) and take another picture. This makes the subject doubt you’ve been taking their picture and that they’ve been caught in your photographic “crossfire”.
  • Alternatively don’t take your eye away from the camera after you’ve taken  the shot and keep pressing the shutter release as the subject exits the frame. They will think that you were photographing the background and they got in the way. Sometimes they will apologise.
  • Another lesson is to never make eye contact with your subjects. Look behind them before, during and after shooting. Practice your stony 100 yard gaze behind the subject. Works a treat.
  • As soon as you’ve taken the image carry on walking (unless you’re going to work the scene).
  • Don’t photograph children – in this day and age it’s too problematic.

The absolutely worst way to take photographs is by trying to sneak a picture from your hip. Or from under your coat. It arouses suspicion and makes you look deliciously seedy. It really is not how to photograph strangers on the street.

Pre-framing people on the street

Find a compelling backdrop, focus and frame. And then wait. A joy of street photography is when something quite unexpected happens. A person wanders into the frame . Or a dog. Or both.

 

Using decoys when photographing strangers

This is a technique going back to the earliest era of street photography. Walker Evans would have a woman friend stand on a crowded street and pretend to take her pictures while in fact he was snapping people around her.

Tips for the photographer

You can snap away and then look at your camera, bemused, as if completely ignorant as to what all those pesky dials, buttons and numbers mean. A frown helps as well. But don’t overact. A ham is a ham.

strangers on teh street being photographed

The importance of your state of mind when photographing strangers

One of the highly enjoyable aspects of street photography is the psychological element, not only of your subject. If you’re shifty, agitated or nervous, or feel that you’re doing something wrong, people will sense it in an instant. Long lenses and big cameras enhance shiftiness.

 

Being unpleasant to strangers on the street

There is a school of street photographers that take delight in pushing wide angle lenses within inches of a stranger’s face (sometimes with the added bonus of a flash) taking the picture and then running off.

This is nearer to an assault than street photography and would easily ruin a person’s day. Quite why people would do this is beyond me.

You might get away with this behavior in Tokyo, but in the East End of London you’d probably go home with a wrecked nose.

Confrontation from strangers

Over the years I’ve developed something of a sixth sense for detecting those who are unstable and likely to become aggressive. It’s not a special gift – too many of us walk a predetermined route everyday enveloped in a safe bubble. It’s certainly a useful skill to cultivate.

Occasionally – very occasionally – a person will confront you. After having taken tens of thousands of photographs this has happened to me maybe half a dozen times:

  • Some people are just suspicious and ask if you’ve taken their picture. I usually tell them I chronicle life of the street and show them the picture I’ve just taken. You can give them a business card and offer to email them a copy. You could also tell them you’re on a photographic course completing an assignment.
  • If they’re still upset I’ll usually offer to delete the picture there and then – there’s no point in ever causing upset. Always remember, though, that photographing strangers is perfectly legal in the UK providing you’re both in a public, street environment.

Final thoughts on how to photograph strangers on the street

So…how to photograph strangers on the street? Don’t overthink it – just get the picture.

And do take the picture – you’ll always remember the photographs you saw, but were afraid to take.

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