(Please check out the first post, “Welcome” for an overview.)
#1: Get over it; it’s only street photography. Stop thinking about how to approach taking pictures of people and just start doing it. There are many ways to begin, but first, free yourself from your own (psychological/ethical/moral) constraints. You’re not considering taking a picture of Jennifer Aniston sunbathing to sell to the Inquirer, it’s just your neighbor and their dog sitting on a stoop. It’s no big deal. And smile. Smiling helps.
If you’re going to spend time considering someone as a subject, you should spend an equal amount of time considering how you can show your subject some respect. If you’re going to take a picture of someone, you better not waste anyone’s time, and you better do a damn good job. So, if you’re walking around wondering what to shoot, take your lens cap off. Pre-focus your camera. Decide what kind of depth-of-field you want. Consider the light. Get everything set-up so that you’ll be able to react quickly, efficiently, and perfectly, should the right situation present itself (regardless of whether or not you ask permission).
Simply, respecting your subject doesn’t necessarily require asking their permission. Respecting one’s subject may mean taking the best possible picture you can in the least intrusive way possible. Figure out what works for you and your particular situation, then get it done. Quickly.
In February, I was in Manhattan, and was amazed at how my cousin approached people on the street, asking for permission. No one turned her down. My cousin takes great pictures, and yet, when you ask someone permission, you get a particular kind of picture. It’s a picture of someone who’s prepared to have their photo taken. Faces (and bodies) do different things when they know a photo’s about to be taken. Do you want your subject to look posed or candid? Is there a middleground? If you ask someone for permission, will you want to ask them not to smile, to “look natural”?
I’m most interested in photographing people when they’re having private moments in public. When they’re straight-up candid. Most people on the street are just like you and me and are thinking about a thousand things rather than wondering if that person walking toward them may or may not have a camera and may or may not be preparing to take their picture. (Celebrity culture is beginning to change this, as some folks on the street act like they’re starring in their own reality show, with their own iPod soundtrack, and will throw Courtney Love-style fits when cameras are close – I’ve seen it.) You may feel exposed as a photographer, but breathe easy; by and large, people have far more interesting/complicated lives to mull over, and they’re not worrying about you and whether or not you’re about to fit them into your photo-project.
So chill. That’s #2, and that’s next.