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A Guide to Street Photography

As an avid people watcher, it’s easy to understand the fascination with street photography, it is one of the most compelling formats. It’s fascinating to consider the hundreds, possibly thousands of individual stories the people we pass in the street, may have to tell; Where are they going? Where have they been? What are they doing and who will they meet?

Everybody has a story to tell, we only have to be observant and willing to listen to discover them.

Although in some cases the stories may seem obvious, the most compelling images are those which ask a question. Why are they smiling? Why are they crying? Why are they wearing odd socks? The stories behind the images we take, are the reasons we continue to take pictures.

As a travel photographer, street photography provides the viewer with a story board of the culture, a glimpse into the everyday comings and goings of a foreign city and its people. A good series of street images becomes a mosaic of life in a destination.

It’s often preferable to travel minimally, a small unobtrusive camera, which will go unnoticed when raised to grab a shot is best. While a standard telephoto lens in the 24-70mm range is convenient, zooming with your feet is often the better option. Regardless of sensor size, a combination of primes providing focal lengths of around 35mm, 50mm and 85mm will prove useful, depending on the aims of the shoot.

The simplest, most unobtrusive way to carry these is wearing a ‘vest’ with several pockets, enabling some spare batteries and memory cards to be carried, along with the lenses. This allows the photographer to blend in without carrying a backpack, which instantly identifies them as somebody taking photographs. In cities where theft is prevalent it is also a matter of safety; without an obviously expensive camera and backpack probably filled with similarly expensive lenses it is less likely you will be targeted.

When additional equipment is required, a good messenger bag, such as the Manfrotto Befree Messenger Bag will swallow all the kit you’re likely to need. It’s also lightweight, well-padded and a sturdy enough to take the knocks a street photography session may bring. It’s also top opening, providing easy access to your kit.

Attempting to anticipate the kind of scene which is likely to be encountered, and adjusting the settings on the camera accordingly, should result in the best possible captures. i.e. a crowded, bustling market scene will require different settings to a lone musician on dimly lit street corner.

It’s important to remember however, a slightly less than perfect capture is better than none. Often situations we come across are fluid, they change rapidly, so grabbing the image should be the priority, make setting changes afterwards if time allows.

Street photographers generally fall into two categories, those that ask, and those that don’t! Some consider it extremely impolite to grab a portrait without asking first, others either don’t have the social skills to confront a potential subject or merely feel it would detract from the candid nature of their creativity.

To be honest, I often find the images of the latter to be more compelling, they usually appear more natural, without any false posing, they are the candid glimpses of societal interaction which are more interesting. However, a good portrait of an interesting character, where the photographer has been able to connect with them can be equally appealing.

There is a place for both methods, dependent on the circumstances. It’s also important to note, that in some cultures, it is offensive to take photographs without asking. Aboriginal Australians, First Nation elders in Canada or some cultures in South America can become offended, and even aggressive if photographed without permission. Researching the photography etiquette of a destination prior to travelling, and adhering to it when in location is essential.

If permission has been sought and granted, don’t immediately start snapping way. The best results will be achieved if time is taken to engage with the person you hope to photograph. If language barriers allow, talk with the subject, discover their name, where they are from, if not gestures and smiles will have to suffice. This will enable them to relax, and after a while it’s some more candid images will be obtained.

Always show your ‘model’ the results on the screen of your camera, I’ve never known anybody not to appreciate this, and their reactions can often be worth another quick capture, as mature ladies devolve into giggling schoolgirls.

Shopkeepers, or street vendors are favourite subjects for street photographers, their stalls, often piled with interesting wares provide further insight into the culture. Offer to make a purchase and most merchants are more than willing to pose for the camera. As candid images are preferred however, a good tip is to wait until they become distracted by another customer and capture them doing what comes naturally; selling and bartering.

Street performers also usually make good subjects, often playing unusual instruments, pop a few coins into their collecting bowl and they’ll happily allow a few pictures. They are also quite likely to ask for a copy, so remember to carry some business cards to enable them to email their request.

In circumstances where etiquette allows, some excellent candid photography can be achieved using a long lens, it enables the photographer to be completely detached from their subject. As the image can be captured from some distance, the subject will usually be totally unaware they are being photographed, the resulting images are often the most candid on the card at the end of the day.

With digital technology, it is also easy to be extra sneaky. Most cameras now have wireless connections, enabling them to connect to mobile phones and be controlled by downloaded applications. This allows the photographer to set up the camera on a lightweight tripod, such as the Manfrotto Befree range or even on a table outside a coffee shop using a minipod like the Pix Evo.

In this manner, the scene can be setup, with focussing and all settings pre-set on something of interest, all the photographer needs to do then is wait for a suitable subject to walk into the frame, and hey presto. Using the phone app, they will even be able to watch them enter the frame and judge the right moment to press the shutter button.

If a willing subject is found make the most of their cooperation, work quickly, and take several different shots, from a variety of angles and distances, try to avoid inconveniencing them. Without sticking the camera into their face, attempt to connect with them, getting as close as your dare without risking offending them.

Finally, and most importantly, enjoy the experience. Connecting with people can be extremely rewarding and pleasant, discovering their stories and attempting to portray them in your photography should be the fun. Be creative, experiment, talk, walk, ride, explore, observe and listen, but most of all remember to smile and enjoy yourself!

Iain MalloryOther articles by author

Iain is an ex-military man, and served as a Warrant Officer in the Army Physical Training Corps. This enabled him to become highly qualified in a large number of adventurous activities. Participating in many expeditions to many parts of the World which this satisfied his wanderlust.