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Things To Consider When Shooting On a Busy Street

When shooting in big cities, crowds and people all around are things you have to accept and figure out how to deal with. Here are some of things to consider when shooting on a busy street.

Using the large trash cans in Times Square to protect my Gitzo Traveler, Advanced Active Backpack and Sony a7RII
Using the large trash cans in Times Square to protect my Gitzo Traveler, Advanced Active Backpack and Sony a7RII
Times Square, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at ¼ sec, f/11, ISO 100
Times Square, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at ¼ sec, f/11, ISO 100
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The large planters protecting the Gitzo Traveler tripod and my camera
Times Square, photographed with a Sony a7RII with 16-35/4 @23mm, ½ sec, f/20, ISO 100 on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod

Stay out of the way.

When shooting on a crowded, busy street everyone around is trying to get somewhere and they aren’t prepared or expecting to find a photographer stopped in the middle of their path. So do your best to stay out of the way. Find a solid immoveable object to tuck in behind. I like trash cans and light posts. Planters and parked cars also work well. By putting something between you and the crowds you are less likely to get jostled and perhaps more importantly your camera is less likely to get bumped right as that perfect shot comes along. This is especially important when using a tripod that someone could easy kick or trip over.

Keep your gear safe.

On busy streets, theft is always a concern. The vast majority of people walking by wouldn’t even think of stealing that shiny new camera, but it only takes one person to ruin your whole day. So keep your camera bag closed and zipped with all straps fastened, and never turn your back on your equipment. If I put my camera bag down I will often step on the strap so it can’t be easily taken while I am focused on making photos.

Keep the camera stable.

When people are all around, it’s easy to get thrown off.  Keeping  the camera stable with a good tripod or monopod helps you stay focused on making the best photograph you can. Having the camera on a tripod makes it much easier to finesse your composition and make it exactly what you want without the small movements we all have when shooting handheld.  A tripod also allows for a greater range of shutter speeds so you can blur the people if you want a sense of motion, see the next item below.  Depending on where I am shooting and the photograph I am trying to make, I use a Gitzo Traveler, a Manfrotto 055, a Manfrotto 190 and sometimes the Manfrotto Pixi.

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Longer exposure at Seventh Ave and 32rd Street, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @26mm on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at 1.3 sec, f/22, ISO 100
Shorter exposure at Seventh Ave and 32rd Street, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @26mm on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at 1/4 sec, f/10, ISO 100]
Shorter exposure at Seventh Ave and 32rd Street, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @26mm on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at 1/4 sec, f/10, ISO 100

Use movement

It can add a lot of interest and excitement to a photo if you use the movement of the crowd. The best way to do this is to put your camera on a tripod with a moderately long exposure. If the exposure is longer the crowd becomes an unrecognizable blur of color, with a moderately long exposure the people maintain their form while really conveying a sense of motion.  Depending on how many people there are and how fast they are moving, I typically start with a ½ second exposure and then adjust from there. If you are shooting with a wide angle lens start with a longer exposure and with a long lens a shorter exposure is a good place to start. As you can see from the examples above, different shutter speeds make a big difference.

Holding my a7RII up for more height
Holding my a7RII up for more height
Seventh avenue and 31st street, shot with a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm, 1/25 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400
Seventh avenue and 31st street, shot with a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm, 1/25 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400
Even better is holding the camera up with a lot more height from the Gitzo Traveler tripod
Seventh Ave and 33rd Street, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at 1/50 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400
Seventh Ave and 33rd Street, photographed using a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod at 1/50 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400

Get the camera high.

When the streets are full of people it can be hard to get the shot you want. I have spent way too much time in my photography career waiting for a shot to be clear of people. Instead of waiting until the shot is clear, find a way to change your angle. I will sometime use the tilting screen on my Sony a7RII to compose while holding the camera above my head. That gets me another foot and a half of height. However often that isn’t enough height, so then I will use my tripod, putting the legs together and lifting the camera even higher with the LCD screen pointing down so I can see what I am doing. Typically I will use a 5 second timer when shooting this way. If you have a camera that doesn’t have an articulating screen you can still shoot this way, just try using a slightly wider focal length so you can crop later.

West 31st street, shot with a Sony a7RII and Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm, 1/40 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400 on a Manfrotto Pixi Mini Tripod
West 31st street, shot with a Sony a7RII and Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @16mm, 1/40 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400 on a Manfrotto Pixi Mini Tripod

Get the Camera low.

Like going high with the camera, getting low and give a whole new perspective that benefits from the crowd around you and makes everything much more dramatic.  The Manfrotto Pixi mini tripod is especially good for this and I always have it in my bag.  A small tripod is especially useful if the street is wet or dirty to keep the camera above the mess.

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Athens, Greece subway exit, shot with Sony a7R with Sony/Zeiss 24-70/4 @24mm, 1/400 sec, f/5, ISO 200 on a Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber Tripod

Avoid the crowd.

Another option is to simply avoid the busy street, find a way to get out of the crowd. There may be an overpass, or balcony that can get you out of the crowd while still shooting the street that looks so cool.  When looking for your spot keep safety in mind, you don’t want to stand somewhere that you could be inadvertently pushed off or fall off.

Shoot through the crowd.

When the streets are crowded try timing your shot to capture the brief gaps between people. I find this works best when you use people to frame your subject.  Look for an interesting element, typically something that won’t move, then wait until you have a space between people and take your photo.

Use the crowd.

You can use the people on the streets to hide the elements of the shot you don’t like. Is that ugly trash can ruining the shot? Wait until it is hidden behind someone. Look for the thing that is the most interesting subject for your shot, then think about what distracts from that. Next find an angle that will have people walk in front of the distracting element and experiment with shutter speed and timing. Sometimes a little blur helps with eliminating distractions but too much blur doesn’t cover enough.

Shooting in the middle of the sidewalk, with the Gitzo tripod legs together to take up less space
Shooting in the middle of the sidewalk, with the Gitzo tripod legs together to take up less space
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Seventh Avenue, photographed with a Sony a7RII with Sony/Zeiss 16-35/4 @ 16mm, .6 sec, f/22, ISO 100, on a Gitzo Traveler Tripod

Get into the crowd.

Sometimes the best shot is to get right in the middle of the crowd. When you choose that option, try and stay as small as possible. I will put the legs of my tripod together to take up less space. Any part of you that sticks out will likely be bumped or pushed so try and avoid anything that presents a larger target then absolutely necessary.

Embrace the crowd.

Lastly try embracing the crowd and shooting to include people.  Sometimes this works form a higher or lower angle so it is always a good idea to try a few different options.

All photos and text ©Tony Gale

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Tony Gale is an award winning photographer based in New York City, specializing in people and portraits. He shoots for a variety of editorial, advertising and corporate clients and teaches photography workshops. In addition to being a Manfrotto Ambassador he is a Sony Artisan of Imagery, the current chair of APA National President and an avid triathlete.

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