How to photograph strangers
Success to people shots on the streets and some tips and tricks for street photography.
24 Photos • 18 March 2014
Street Photography has always been a Big Thing. Living in a city or densely populated area, there’s always something to see and photograph; it’s an ideal opportunity. For me, a small, quiet camera is ideal in this situation. It gives the opportunity to stay low profile, and doesn’t draw the attention of a medium format setup or a big modern DLSR. We’re very lucky these days, in that we are literally spoilt for choice when it comes to small cameras, whether digital or film. A very popular example is the Fuji X100, a digital with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens that’s very good for quick, candid shots. The Leica X1 and X2 cameras are very similar. There are so many great choice out there, it’s hard to name them all, but my camera of choice is the Leica M. I use it for pretty much everything I do.
Leica M rangefinder cameras are known for their discreet, compact form factor and quiet operation; these aren’t the big black intimidating paparazzi boxes of most modern DSLR cameras.
The cloth shutter of the analog Leicas are very quiet for a focal plane shutter, of course a leaf shutter is the quietest. The shutters of the M8 and M9 are pretty noisy for a Leica, but are still pretty quiet compared to a SLR. Especially when used in the ‘discreet’ mode. The new Leica M (Typ 240) is almost as quiet as most film Leicas.
With all this talk of quietness, why is it important in the first place? Using a camera without noisy autofocus and a quiet shutter allows a photographer to maintain his discreet nature, and frees his subject from audible distractions. This can make the difference between taking 2 or 3 candid shots of a person while they are in their “flow” and them noticing you and stopping what they’re doing. This is certainly good when you’re around kids, but is even more important when you are shooting around strangers.
Some street photographers choose to “shoot from the hip” with their lens pre-set using zone focusing. I personally find this pretty hit and miss, but it works for some people. By setting the aperture to a small number (f5.6 – f11, for example), the depth of field for what is in focus can be large enough to negate the need for exact focusing. However, this comes at a price, you’ll need to up the ISO by as many stops as you drop down, whether you’re using digital or film. With it’s higher ISO capabilities, this is now easier on the M Typ 240 than it was on the M9 and M8 before it.
A technique I like to use, is a little misdirection. You can pretend to take a picture of something else nearby preferably behind the subject, then swiftly pan around to your intended target. This is certainly easier with wider angle lenses, as you can make use of cropping in the post process as well if you like.
From the front or from behind
Some street photographers turn their nose up at street shots from behind, often because it’s seen as the “easier” option, but as with all art forms, sometimes this results in a better picture than one taken from the front. It can show the subject in their surroundings, or reduce the individual to an element of a larger scene. It’s very tempting for many to make the person the sole subject of an image, but one of many focus points can make for a better image sometimes. It also solves the problem of the subject spotting you taking the shot.
It takes practice, lots of it
This is what it really comes down to; Street photography is not easy. It takes time and practice, not only with regards developing the technique, but also building up the bravery to take photos of strangers in the first place, let along good ones. I find that knowing your camera really well, is key. If you switch cameras and lens regularly, you will never truly get the hang of it, nor will you get to the point where you feel “one” with your chosen tool. The need to react very fast and shoot instantly, while taking all these parameters and conditions into account, is tough. You might be thinking “Well, surely a fully autofocus camera would be best?”. I don’t believe this is the case. Automation puts the control in the hands of the camera – I want control over everything, so that I am the one making the decisions, not the camera.
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.Henri Cartier-Bresson
While many have repeated this, it doesn’t deminish it’s importance; keep it in the back of your mind. Remember tho, he said this in the days of film, so perhaps it should be modernised to 75,000 photographs now. Persistence is important, don’t give up, keep going, and you’ll find yourself with satisfying results in the end. Always carry the camera with you and you’ll get there all the sooner!
Sometimes it’s simply impossible to take a photo unnoticed. So why not just ask people if you can take photos of them? It’s a great way to get talking to a lot of people, and usually when I’m carrying my Leica, I’ve noticed people don’t tend to mind. It’s an interesting, unusual camera, many people have never seen one like it, and are okay with me taking a photo or two of them with it. They will often ask if it’s a film camera, and sometimes they’re right if I have my M3 or M6. But even when I use my digital, the reaction is the same. Usually I will end up taking with them after taking the photo, often sharing contact details so I can send them a copy of the photo. I’ve actually made friends this way, so why not go for it and ask?
So what should you take away from this article? Don’t change cameras too often, try getting to know the kit you have through and through. Try using a small camera and keeping things low profile. Check out the hyper focal focusing technique with a higher ISO setting and an aperture of at least f/8. Don’t give up! Keep going! Remember what Henri said. Don’t be afraid to ask for photos. Most importantly? Have fun shooting!
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