Have you ever tried taking a photo of a stranger in public?
What happened? Were you afraid of being yelled at? Did you make eye contact and then lose your nerve? Did you get so worked up you left the shutter cap on and then the 'curb your enthusiasm' trumpet music played as you died from shame?
Why do we feel that way? Why do we feel so bad about it? Well, honestly, the desire to take photos of strangers in public is a bit odd. It's a little bit invasive and rude. We expect a negative reaction from it. We feel like we're doing a bad thing by invading people's privacy. We feel guilty.
How do we ease that guilt? We can explain our motives to the subject and set their mind at ease before taking the photo- but that destroys the moment. What else? We can just not give a fuck and pounce on them with a flash like Bruce Gilden. Ok sure but that's definitely not for everyone. What else?
We can go unnoticed.
That's my preferred approach. I'm not sure if it works or if I'm fooling myself into thinking it works, but it's allowed me to go through two years of taking street photos without a single aggressive or violent confrontation. Thousands of photos, thousands of people and maybe ten or so of them have challenged me and at worst they've politely asked me to delete their photo.
So I'm not claiming to be an expert but I've been asked on instagram to share some techniques for going unnoticed, or avoiding confrontation so here they are:
"The best pictures, for me, are those which go straight into the heart and the blood, and take some time to reach the brain.”
-from "On Being a Photographer" by Bill Jay, David Hurn
The longer you spend taking the photo, the more likely you'll be noticed. So be quick. Set your camera up so that you only have to think about framing and focus when you're taking the shot. You can use automatic modes but it depends on how smart your camera is. You really don't want to waste precious milliseconds waiting for your camera to figure out aperture, shutter speed and focus and even if it does, it mightn't be to your taste.
- I set a min shutter speed of 1/500 for daytime.
- I set ISO to auto.
- I fix my aperture at f1.2 because I like the separation it gives in a busy city.
- I lock exposure on my hand if the light is unpredictable.
With that configuration, I only have to adjust focus and framing when I lift my camera. If you use a wide angle lens, there's a technique called 'zone focusing' which can make you even faster.
2. Lens Choices & Proxemics
Proxemics is the study of human's use of space. If you get within 4ft of someone- then you are inside their 'personal space' and they will become aware of you very quickly.
How does that help us? Well, if we use a lens that allows us to stay outside that space then we are less likely to be noticed. Personally, I think 50mm and 85mm lenses do this very well, but lenses are also an aesthetic choice- so keep that in mind.
PS: Yes, I'm aware of Robert Capa's dictum 'If Your Pictures Aren't Good Enough, You're Not Close Enough' but I believe he didn't mean physically close- that's too simplistic.
3. Don't make eye contact
When you make eye contact with a person, you one hundred percent give away the fact that you've photographed them or are interested in photographing them. Try to develop your peripheral vision. If you see someone you want to photograph; keep a rough eye on them in your periphery until you've moved into the right position. Then quickly take their photo and use the following trick to fool them into thinking you've photographed something else.
4. Maintain eye contact on the background
When you remove the camera from your eye, maintain eye contact on the background or a person behind them. This might not completely fool the subject but it'll put enough doubt in their minds to prevent them from confronting you.
5. Don't remove the camera from your eye immediately after taking the photo
Lowering the camera is saying 'i've just taken a photo'. Try holding up it a little bit longer and let the person walk by. They'll assume you're interested in the thing behind them.
6. Use a wide lens and place them on the edge of the frame
If you use a wide lens like an 28mm or wider, you can place the subject at the edge of your frame but it appears to them that you're pointing the camera at someone else. This is a fairly classic technique but again, limits you to a wide angle aesthetic.
7. The Winogrand Fidget
Gary Winogrand used a wide angle lens and often needed to get very close to his subjects. One of his techniques for avoiding attention was to fake fidgeting with his camera. It looks rediculous but I imagine it worked and it gave the impression that he was testing his camera or didn't know what he was doing. Take a look at this video above to see him in action.
8. Look down into your camera's FINDER like Diane Arbus AND vivian maier
Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier rarely looked their subjects in the eye. Why? Because they used cameras with top-down viewfinders (pictured). These cameras are held at waist level, breaking the direct eye contact between subject and photographer.
This disconnect can be enough to remove the intimidation factor, allow you to get closer to people and not even care if you're noticed.