Liverpool Chinatown Photographic Society

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Tips on Street Photography
by Dave Galbraith

So, what is "Street Photography"? Well, as simple as it sounds, it's just photography taken on the streets and of complete strangers simply being human beings. In the middle of the 20th century it was often derided by "serious" photographers as merely being snapshots but in the 1950s and 1960s it was recognised as an artform in itself. 

It sounds really simple - all you have to do is go and shoot the people you see on the streets. But it's a LOT harder than that if you want to get an interesting shot. The essence of great street photography has been described as capturing the "decisive moment". Imagine you've been searching for a taxi with half a dozen shopping bags to carry and it's been raining hard for the last 20 minutes. Now picture the look of relief on your face as you spot one in the distance and hail it - relief and anxiety probably because you don't want anyone else to hail it before it gets to you. As your arm goes up to wave at the driver and your face has all those expressions, well THAT's the second that a great street photographer will get his shot. At that decisive moment. 

It could be a busker thanking someone for throwing a coin in their hat;  two ladies sitting on a bench exchanging juicy gossip; bored teenagers as their mum and dad drag them into yet another boring shop... The possibilities are as infinite as the expressions on your subject's faces. The hard part is capturing them.

So... you're candidly shooting complete strangers. This presents certain obvious difficulties. Some may spot you and be uncooperative; some may spot you and question what you're doing. Most, in my experience, will simply get on with their lives and ignore you but a few will hear your shutter and then look quizzically at you. So here's the most important tip about street photography - always, always, always wear a smile and have your sunniest attitude. Smile and say thank you. Always, if you are spotted, smile and say thank you. And then immediately put the camera to your eye and focus on someone else like it's the most natural thing in the world and something you do all the time. People will either think "loony" or "photographer" - it really doesn't matter either way as they're complete strangers and, most importantly, you already have your shot. Twenty-five to thirty years ago, after smiling and thanking I used to add "photography student" with a pair of raised eyebrows and a slight shrug as if that explained everything. Not sure I'll get away with that little white lie at age 53 but I'll probably try.

Another form of street photography is more accurately called "street portraiture". This is finding people with really interesting, or grizzled, or stunningly beautiful faces and asking in advance if you can shoot them right here and then or obtaining the shots candidly.

I'm friends with a West Indian photographer of street portraits who lives in the Carribean and sometimes he asks before he shoots and other times he'll just see a face, capture the image, and chat with them afterwards - but he always chats to them. Taking people's portraits in the street can be seen as a quite anti-social thing to do so be as pleasant and as sunny as you can possibly be. It works wonders.

Dealing with the interaction you have with your models is one thing (and I'll mention model release forms later) but how you actually get your shots is another problem particularly regarding the gear that you use.

I always did my street photography in black and white and it has to be said that most other street photographers do too. Trying to get a "film noir" look, I suppose, and I always use the least obvious camera I had. In my case, years ago,  that was a russian copy of a Leica rangefinder called the Zorki 4. The Leica rangefinders were and still are the street photographer's ultimate weapon of choice I simply couldn't afford one back then - and still can't today, sadly. They are far less intrusive than a whacking great SLR with a chunky lens on it and as a photographer you want to be a) not so obvious and b) not creating a barrier or any anxieties between you and your model and a thumping great SLR will always make subjects more nervous. So this may be the time to pull out your little point and shoot or, and they are becoming much better quality now, the camera in your phone. The latest generation of young street photographers are using the iPhone, shutter sound switched to silent, and the camera held in front of them as if they're checking out a livemap image and getting their bearings. They're really effective for taking completely candid shots. Everyone has a mobile phone these days so they don't stand out as obviously as a camera and with practice some have perfected the technique of walking past their subjects with the phone held to their ear, taking shots as they go.

If anyone is thinking of taking candid shots from a distance using a lens best employed for shooting wildlife I would advise against it for two reasons. Firstly, you've not got the intimacy of the shot from a purely artistic perspective - with the best street photography you're part of the action, not simply observing and recording it from a distance; and secondly, and this is important, if you're spotted then your actions will be considered far more, FAR more, suspicious and malevolent than being up close, snapping, smiling, thanking and moving on. It's entirely up to you, obviously, but it's not a method that I'd consider personally.

One more tip. Blend in. If I'd decided to go shooting people in dinner jackets and evening dresses arriving at a swanky hotel then I would put on a suit and tie and I'd break my rule by taking an enormous SLR or two with me - those arriving at the hotel would probably think I was a part of the event and, if I was lucky, I might even be able to talk my way (or simply slip) in there and take shots in the function itself. If I was photographing homeless people I'd dress down and might not shave that day. Become less obvious, blend in, and people are naturally more accepting.

Finally, model release forms. These serve two purposes. a) If you are planning on selling your pics then you MUST get a model release or face potential legal problems in the future; and, b) they also serve a smoothing function even if you have no intention of selling your photos. Let's say for argument's sake you've taken a photo of someone and they take exception to it. Pull out a model release form and explain to them (in your smiling and sunny demeanour)  that you're an amateur photographer and "just in case" these ever get picked up by the Getty Images Library, for example,  you'd like to have a model release form signed, in duplicate, so that you can forward a 25% cut of any monies you earn. That's usually all you'll  need to turn someone who's unhappy about being photographed into someone who will thank you as you leave.

These websites and will throw up a wealth of information.