“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliott Erwitt
What qualities does a good street photographer need?
Just as every person is different, so are the approaches to street photography. Not everybody has the guts to walk up to people and shoot in their face (maybe even using flash) like Bruce Gilden for example. Some street photographers are not of that aggressive type but prefer a more candid and subtle way to capture the flow of everyday life on the streets. There’s no right or wrong. Either way you can achieve your goal to get great images. What I think is important though is to contemplate a bit on one’s own character and then choose a suitable strategy.
In this article I’ll talk about different types of street photographers and discuss their techniques. In the end this will give hopefully give you some practical tips on how to work and develop a way of shooting street that suits your character.
Aggressive “In-Your-Face” street photographers
There’s a great video of Magnum Photographer Bruce Gilden. It shows him in action shooting on the streets of New York. His trademark is to walk up to people and shoot right in their face. He says:
Sometimes people think that I’m not photographing them, and then when I’m photographing them they look behind them.
Bruce Gilden gets as close as it gets to his subjects. That way the viewer of his images feels like he’s a participant, almost as if he was right in the middle of the action. Gilden once put his formula in words by saying: “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”
Magnum Photos’ Bruce Gilden photographs Derby – “Head On”
Gilden admits that he has no ethics. When he’s out in public, he doesn’t care about comments people might make that he’s taking pictures of. You need to have guts to take that kind of pictures. Or “balls”, like another street photographer called Michael Ernest Sweet once said.
Michael Ernest Sweet is another example for the group of straightforward “in-your-face” type of street photographers. He says about his style: “I work close to my subjects, very close, they can smell my camera. This ‘close up work’ has become my signature.”
According to Michael Ernest Sweet a certain “I-don’t-care” attitude is essential for his interpretation of street photography that he sees in line with great masters of the genre like Daido Moriyama, William Klein, Bruce Gilden, or Garry Winogrand, for example. Being aggressive in a positive self-confident way may help you to overcome your fear of shooting total strangers.
“The challenge is being perceived as a non-threat.”
If you want to pull it off that way, you shouldn’t hesitate. Aim, shoot and walk off – no regrets. Don’t give people the change to think too much about what happened and maybe even start a long discussion with you. The challenge is being perceived as a non-threat and trying to convince people that you are making harmless art.
Mellow and candid types of street photographers
On the other hand there are many street photographers out there working with a more subtle approach to capture street life. It may be true that gentler and more considerate people will find it more difficult to take pictures of the unwilling subject.
“A smile often works wonder.”
But that doesn’t mean of course that they can’t become good street photographers. Nevertheless, a certain degree of fearlessness is essential though, because in the end you are out in public taking pictures of people. It’s a form of social interaction and communication.
These days everybody is out there taking pictures, especially with their mobile phones. So it’s rather easy to blend in without being noticed. Using very small cameras can also help to sort of camouflage yourself in the crowd. Another way to avoid attention is to fumble around with your camera.
Check your display, point randomly as if you were setting up the right exposure and then take the shot you are aiming for. And if people still realized that you took their picture, a smile often works wonder. You might even show them the picture and have a laugh together.
You’ll always come across people who don’t understand what street photography is about and react quite hostile towards someone pointing a camera at them in public. In uncomfortable situations like that you should politely point out that you are doing nothing illegal always making sure you are following the laws on photography of the respective country you are in.
A great example for a more subtle approach of street photography is Shin Noguchi from Japan. He characterizes his style as an attempt to capture extraordinary moments of excitement, beauty and humanism, among the flow of everyday life. Noguchi’s images display the subtle poetry of extraordinary moments captured by a patient and discrete observer.
In your face or more discrete? There’s really no right or wrong. Even though I personally prefer a more subtle and polite approach of street photography, I can understand street photographers saying that being close to the subject is the key to great street shots. That it’s the only way you can smell the street on the photographs (Bruce Gilden). So in the end everybody has to figure out for themselves which kind of street photographer he or she wants to be.
“Follow you instincts and find out whether you are a hunter or the reluctant type of street photographer.”
On the one hand it depends on the kind of photographs you want to take, and on the other hand it’s important to keep one’s own personality in mind.
You’ll get the best results being yourself and then adjust the techniques accordingly. That way you’ll feel comfortable and can concentrate on capturing extraordinary moments of everyday life.
What’s wonderful about street photography is that it gives you all the options to experiment. You don’t need no expensive gear, even a cheap camera would do. A pair of comfortable shoes and you are all set. Follow you instincts and find out whether you are more a hunter, going aggressively for an image, or more the reluctant, patient type of street photographer who waits for the right moment to come.
What kind of street photographer are you? Please share your approach and thoughts on how to shoot street photography.