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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Nice article :) Handling most of the street photography topics. Keep going like this!
Good stuff Jip, keep it up!
Oh and, nice pictures ;)
Nice article – If you want to get really bold, read GoingCandid by Daniel Hoffman – best street photo book I have read (and its free).
Since reading this, I want the subject to look at me, just as I shoot continuous. You get great surprised eyes from 1-2 meters and few complaints. Takes a bit of nerve at first.
The 10,000 isnt true there are heaps of us that have done it since pic #1 and many more that are still poor at 100,000. Also on the matter of practice, no, there is no practice. When a moment is gone it is gone, you do not practice on a moment. What you need to do is get the shot, be determined and be ready …this I suppose might come to some from practice but the reality of what we see online are photographers that take bad pics …and forever take bad pics and no amount of practice has done them any good so the advice needs to be something else. Instead of practice it is a matter of never making the same mistake twice. Photographing strangers, the topic is wrong …what you mean to say is ‘How to make street photographs.’ They are not strangers when you are a street photographer …they are subjects of street photographs.
Also this monster DSLR stuff is bunkum …some of us are ex-leica and can take your pic without you even knowing and we don’t shoot from the hip. Your advice doesn’t do any harm but it would be better if you gave advice in your retirement rather then when you are trying to work it out for yourself, leave that kind of wrong advice to Eric.
Jip van Kuijk
I think the 10.000 mark is very much true, if you can show me anyone who’s #1 image is as good as his 10.000+ images then please do so. Of course some people will never be good photographers, but as in most things in life practice makes perfect. So practicing a lot will get you to discover how to actually capture those moments. And yes missing a shot is part of the learning curve. Failing is part of life, and if you’re smart you learn from it.
I think you don’t clearly understand the meaning of ‘practice’. “Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” practice means repeatedly doing photography and in this way learning something new. If you photograph every day but don’t grow, or learn something new it is by definition not practice.
As a matter of fact the topic, or title of this article is applicable otherwise I would not have chosen it. I don’t mean to say ‘How to make street photographs.’ because this is much wider than what I was writing about in this article. In this very article I wrote about how to photograph strangers. These strangers might be my photographic subjects, but that doesn’t make them any less stranger to me. Again I think you don’t understand the definition of stranger. “A person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar.” Being my subjects I still don’t know them. Unless I talk to them, and get to know them.
I think it is true, because I’m speaking from experience. I have noticed that people don’t like being photographed by my Canon EOS 1Ds, or by my Leica R8 with DM-R. They feel intimidated by the camera. Sure I can put on a 200MM lens and take a flat emotion less image from 20 meters. But this isn’t how I’d like to work.
I like to advice people while I’m still practicing photography myself, rather than afterwards when I’m retired. When I’m gonna be retired the world has changed so much that my advice won’t be of use anymore to people starting photography that day. I’m a consultant by profession, so you tell me basically. Stop working and start advising companies when you’re retired. Do you hear how stupid that sounds?
Thanks for your reply, do you have any evidence to support your conclusions? I sure do. Also this article is a reflection of my opinion. That is also how I have tried to write it down. If you disagree you’re in your right to do so.
In my first term at University studying Product design, i was told something by our head of department something that stuck with me
“There is no such thing as God-given talent. You can be good at anything you turn your hand to, if you are willing to try, practice, learn from your mistakes and not give up”
There may be those amongst us that have a natural flair for one thing or another, but for most people, and most things, practice makes perfect. You can practice photography of any kind, and if you reflect on your work, you can improve. Some people take more time and more reflection that others, and some hold themselves to higher standards than others.
It’s only a fool who says “I have nothing left to learn”.
And like every comment, made anywhere, this is my opinion. Just like Jip’s article and Ant’s comment, it’s up to the person reading it to decide if it hold resonance with them, or if it rings hollow.
Hoi Jip, Waardevolle informatie en natuurlijk leuk om te lezen over andere Leica aficionados. Groet, Paul
Jip van Kuijk
Bedankt voor je berichtje, fijn dat je het leuk vind mijn artikels te lezen!
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can’t tell the difference between M240 and M9-P.
Jip van Kuijk
Thanks for commenting!
It’s very hard to see the difference between the M9/M9-P/M-E and the M240/M240P the biggest difference is seen when making big enlargements or shooting at higher ISO ratings. The M240/M240P files however are more flat and have a lot more dynamic range compared to the M9/M9-P/M-E so the post processing work flow is a little different. For me the biggest advantage for the M240 over the M9-P are handling and everything that has to do with the camera but not the end result. The M240 is just a nicer camera use in my opinion.
Great article! Short, to the point, and full of real wisdom and great advice.
I personally own five cameras, but only two different layouts. My digital M cameras operate identically and only differ in sensor (M-E and M Monochrom) and the M5 still uses the same lenses and basic operating method. For smaller cameras I like the Leica X series, and own both the X Vario for travel and the X (typ 113) for everyday carry.
With that outfit there is no learning curve when switching cameras. No strange buttons or controls to relearn. No complicated menus or settings. I’m either in my X zone or my M zone.
Less is more.