Practical advise on how to get close to your subject in street photography

Shooting from a close distance can be nerve wrecking as heck. At least for me it doesn’t come naturally at all. It is an acquired skill. Here’s a short memo of the things I’d personally advice anyone to bear in mind. These are street photography specific, personal memos, that are aimed purely for just getting really close to people without them noticing your attempts to photograph them.

  • Don’t draw attention and don’t look like a photographer. Don’t carry a big Lowepro backpack or anything that looks like a camera bag.
  • Move and act calmly. Pay attention to your body language and behaviour.
  • Don’t carry the camera on your neck, conceal it to your hand and lift it up only when you’re about to shoot. Have a wrist strap instead of a neck strap.
  • Also, related to neck straps. Don’t be a walking Nikon billboard with that huge yellow strap, that came with the camera.
  • A small, black camera is easier to conceal than a large one. Small lens helps too.
  • A quiet camera is a must!
  • People detect you’re taking the photo when you lift the camera to your eye. Even if they see it as just a glimpse from the corner of their eye. If lifting the camera to your eye is out of the question, shoot from the hip.
  • Crowded places are easier to blend in than an empty street. If you shoot somewhere, where everyone else are shooting as well, you can be practically invisible.

Have a look at this clip showing Henri Cartier-Bresson at work. Notice his calm body language and how he conceals the camera at 0:23.

Some additional but important details about hip shots

When shooting from the hip, make sure that you’ve pre-focused and pre-metered etc. Learn zone focusing and prefer a wide angle lens. Something like a 35mm lens has a huge depth of field even with larger apertures and it’s easy to zone focus.

Know your frame lines. When you familiarize yourself with your favourite focal length, you don’t always need to compose by looking directly through the viewfinder. This is super convenient skill when you don’t want to look like you’re taking the photo. For some reason people get offended only when you have the camera lifted to your face and pointed directly to them. If you lift the camera next to your face or look slightly pass the subject, it creates amazingly effective illusion that you’re not taking a photo, but just hanging around with a camera. The instant you lift the viewfinder window to your eye and point directly to the subject, you look like you’re taking the photo, because that’s what people assume picture taking looks like.

Don’t make eye contact with the subject. Don’t even acknowledge their presence and look like you’re shooting something else. Be completely oblivious of their existence. Again, wide angle lens helps a lot. You can compose them to the edges of your frame, which is usually a more interesting composition anyways, as opposed to placing the subject in the center of the image, and you can get away from pointing the camera directly to someone. If they don’t even hear your shutter, they have no idea what you’re taking the picture of. They might not even realise your taking photos at all, if you’re just hanging around there like a normal person and minding your own business.

Sometimes obviously you don’t even need to hide your attempts. This is a brand new shot of a celebrating students. I picked up intuitively from their body language and behaviour that they wouldn’t mind being photographed so I went forth pretty openly. In return I got two big smiles and hand waves.

This is another new shot, but this is one of those situations when you don’t want to interfere in any way and be completely invisible. I was able to detect the couple from many meters away and as I was approaching, I had all the time in the world to prep the camera settings and focus, while I was walking. A loud shutter would have been a disaster. Even stopping to take the photo would have been pretty suspicious. Basically I just walked by and lifted the camera just as I was about 1,5m away.

This photo was shot in pretty similar fashion compared to the previous photo. The reason these people didn’t notice me, is because they were paying attention to something else (waiting for a cab) and I approached them without a camera hanging from my neck.

Hope you got something out of these tips! This is pretty much how I usually go about doing this.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: FIve additional methods (part 2) on approaching your subject in street photography – Attempts at 35mm

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