Ways of Working #1 (Get over it)

(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.

1. Get Over It
2. Relax
3. Know Your Gear
4. Repeatability
5. Honesty
6. Masking
7. Study
8. Develop
9. Persist
10. Share

12 thoughts on “Ways of Working #1 (Get over it)”

  1. 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.

    okay perhaps this explains what happened to me this weekend in the u district here in seatlte when i snapped a shot, and the subject and i ended up exchanging words (more she than i) and knocked my drink out of my hand. all this with my wife & kid around (although wifey said if she would have seen the cup knocking there would have been issues:)

    i think its celebrity culture plus the addition of the negative publicity that “street shooters” have garnered. it’s unfortunate, because in the above instance, in my mind i’m clearly not the enemy; it’s the person with the telephoto that has maybe snapped about 20 shots of her prior to her incident with myself and my holga.

    incidents like that make it tough to “get over”, but point #9 (at least the title of it–i read the article and it’s not so much about persisting in the face of offense) is a good one to remember.

  2. One thing I’ve been discovering is that a big, wide, honest smile is worth its weight in silver. (Shoulda been gold, coulda been gold.) And straight-up honesty, as in, “I love how your shirt matches this wall” or whatever. Honesty, rather than gulped-back guiltiness has been helping me, lately.

    Then again, fudging the facts works, too.

    Then again, some people have such inflated senses of themselves, that they wake-up wondering if today will be the day where they can smack a camera just like it-person-of-the-hollywood-moment and stomp away.

    Then again, cameras ARE annoying!

  3. Tena koe ehoa
    Straight to the point, very good.
    Yes drop your labels and inhibitions and just get on with it? Well perhaps.

    Learning to relax in a street environment (public arena) is half the battle. For some people there is the quintessential and habitual fear of people (public interaction) in any public arena. So if you’re considering being a photographer and a street photographer at that you’re pushing, “you know what up hill with a shovel”, from the get go.

    Common courtesy or “smiling” as you suggests goes along way to bringing down the walls of inhibitions from both sides of the camera as does conversation. I have often found that people are capable and willing to have their photograph taken candidly or otherwise if you are willing to converse with them if only for a moment.

    Perhaps something else to consider also is the aspect of cultural idiosyncrasy where some cultures have a definite dislike to “having their soul captured” as in the case of some cultures of the south pacific. That is not to say the entire cultural population is of that “antiquated or spiritual” mindset but, it pays to bear in mind that some members of a particular culture may have such a cultural idiosyncrasy and you could be on the end of a severe “I’ll take that camera and shove it up your”…. if you’re not careful, learned and observant.
    Yes I would say drop your labels and inhibitions and just get on with it but understand the cultural idiosyncrasies and diversity that exists in all street environments and learn to decipher them as a means of courtesy to those you capture and your self.
    After all, what we want is to maintain is a sense of photographic integrity to the subjects as well, yes?

    I think you’ll find that then creates “an even stronger indelible connection to the moment” as a result and for my humble thoughts “street photography is about moments” and how we see, relate/interact and document those moments.

  4. What a great resource for me as I am about to embark on a street photography course taught at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. I’ve always suffered with my own internal struggles when approaching strangers so I will imprint rule #1 into my brain.

  5. Great tips to be had here. However, I think walking around with a hand-held lightmeter a bit excessive…lol. Candid is supposed to be spontaneous, so I like to use all that the camera offers to get the shot and move on quickly. Some times I set the distance to 10 feet using manual focus and shoot at the lens’s optimum of f4 through f8. That way the camer becomes a point and shoot. But each to his own of course. Just enjoy taking images that’s my motto.

  6. A comment about asking permission. Do it after you’ve captured that moment, that look, that interaction when your brain stopped you and said, “Oh.. take a picture of that!” because as soon as that moment is gone you can’t get it back. People will let you know if they are offended either by words or gestures, and if they are stop immediatly, apologize, and move on. When someone notices that you’ve taken their picture and doesn’t mind it’s best to approach them and explain what you’re doing, even if you don’t have a reason, and at least say thank you. If you’re lucky you’ll make a friend and if not it’ll be ackward and you’ll move one step toward being more comfortable taking pictures of strangers. By doing this you can get the back story of what or why a person was doing whatever you photographed and possibly get access to a small part of their time/life that may give you an intimate image – the kind of picture that goes beyond candid photography, when people let you in you can see it in the images you come away with.
    Anyway, I’ve digressed from my point…. short story; a long time ago I went hiking in california with some friends, my friends continued and I reclined on a rock to read. A girl came along and asked to take my picture. I stopped reading, sat up a bit, and smilled. She took the picture, we talked briefly and she went on. In retrospect I wish she would’ve taken a picture first, because the image she walked away with is much less than what she saw in her mind that made her stop and ask permission. So if you come across someone and feel that it’s worth taking a picture, just do it. If they don’t notice, take several. Chances are they’ll be flattered you even bothered to.

  7. Points well made, especially paragraph #4. Diane Arbus was not a street photographer, she was a portraitist. Once the photographer has influenced the event,it is no longer street photography other than the fact that it may have been recorded “on the street” or other public place. That does not mean that the subjects cannot be aware of the camera as in Cartier-Bresson’s image from Spain

  8. hi
    your article is really helping me out a lot. I try to read over and over again. Is it okay to post these “Ways of Working” to my blog?


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