Street photography techniques for getting closer without being observed / by Shane Taylor

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As my first post here, I feel it's important to say that it's not my intention to tell you how to photograph. I'm not going to list a bunch of rules, or things to avoid. There's plenty of that to be found elsewhere. Whatever, and however you photograph is a personal choice. If I have any advice towards that, it's simply; photograph whatever the hell interests you.

"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


With that said, the reason I'm writing this is because I've had a lot of comments on Instagram from people who would like to try street photography but are worried about being confronted by their subjects. I've only been confronted about 10 times in 2 years of taking street photos. Thousands and thousands of interactions and only 10 of those were negative. The best way to avoid confrontation is to not be seen. So with that in mind, here are some techniques that help me get the photos that interest me; up close and personal shots that detail some level of emotion.

1. Preparation

The longer you spend taking the photo, the more likely you'll be noticed. To be quick, you need to prepare your camera for the shot before you take the photo. I won't go into technical detail here but look up 'exposure lock', and 'zone focus'. Using both of these techniques will make you a very quick photographer, because you only have to think about framing when you take the shot.

2. Lens Choices & Proxemics

Proxemics is the study of human's use of space. If you get within 4ft of someone- then you're inside their 'personal space' and they will become aware of you very quickly.

It can help if you pick a lens that allows you to remain outside their personal space but still fill the frame. Personally, I think 50mm and 85mm lenses do this very well, but lenses are also an aesthetic choice to keep in mind.

3. Don't make eye contact

When you make eye contact with the subject, you 100% 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

This is a giveaway that you've just taken a photo. If you hold the camera up just a little bit longer and let the person walk by, they're going to assume you're interested in something else.

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 point the camera at something else but place the subject on the edge of the frame. This is a classic technique used by photographers like Bruce Gilden.

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, which 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. 

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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 can remove that fear and allow you to get closer to people and not care whether you're observed or not.

If you have a camera with an articulated screen (like the fuji xt2 pictured below), then you can try this technique by flipping the screen 90 degrees and holding the camera at waist level as you approach people.

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"I HAve no fear when i'm behind ground glass”

-Diane Arbus