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Ways of Working #6 (Masking)

You’re chicken. You’re frightened by the thought of having to ask strangers on the street for permission to take their photograph. Or asking just doesn’t fit your style. Perhaps your prefer candids, free of the recognition that the subject’s been caught by a camera lens.

There are plenty of techniques for masking your intentions while photographing on the street. The most obvious would be to use a telephoto lens, but I’ve already discussed how this is less than ideal.

The good news is that you’re addressing a problem that’s been challenging photographers for decades. People act differently when they see a camera. It’s the documentarian’s curse. What appears to be natural human truth is pure lens-driven subjectivity.

Walker Evans, Martin Parr, Helen Levitt, and that acronymic French guy have all used various methods/techniques for making their camera a little less visible, and for integrating themselves into their environment in such a way that their photographing may pass unnoticed.

In my own experience, I’ve been interested by the candid aspect of street photography - how people have private moments in public, and how these moments look when committed to film (or jpg). It didn’t take long to realize that these kind of pictures are difficult to take with three things that would theoretically make it easier; a zoom lens, a motor-drive, and a big, powerful camera.

In street photography, smaller can be better. When I’m standing at No Flash Corner waiting for the right moment to present itself, I tend to stand with my hands resting on my neck-strapped camera. A 50mm prime lens can be easily concealed. I’m not talking about stashing the thing inside your shirt (this isn’t about taking spy pics) but it helps to be able to rest your hands on something and look like a normal tourist, rather than someone with a huge lens coming out of their torso. If there’s anything you can do that will make your camera an afterthought to the people you intend to photograph, do it. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to wrap his shiny chrome Leicas in black tape. I’ve taped-out all the white logos on my black camera. Who knows if this kind of thing helps, but if it buys an extra third of a second with a subject who doesn’t recognize that you’re carrying a camera, it’s worth it.

If there’s a tremendous spot of light and I’m waiting for people to cross into it, I’ll often stand looking the other way, and I’ll know the timing of the crosswalk signals such that I’ll turn and have my camera prefocused and ready for the shot at the exact instant that they hit the spot, and no sooner.

It’s a bit like baseball, when you’re pitching with a man on first. If you don’t want the runner to steal, don’t tip your hand. Keep your cards close. (Don’t mix metaphors.) When I’m photographing, I want everything to happen as if I weren’t there, so I try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I often wear headphones. Sometimes sunglasses.

I’ll look off into the distance as if I’m shooting something “over there” rather than what’s right in front of me. I’ll stand in the shadow of a lamppost, or at the exact corner of a building to capture people as they turn the corner (into great light) before they have a chance to react.

Currently, I’m most interested by light (and its effects on people) rather than people who are amazing to look at but poorly lit. Which means I have to be comfortable with letting potentially great photographs walk away. Bruce Gilden gets around this by using a hand-held flash, even (especially) in daylight. Because my tastes are more site-specific, the subjects of my photographs select themselves. They’re in the right place at the right time or they’re not. I don’t force it. I don’t follow people down the street and I don’t take multiple shots. I either get it right or I fail. The flubs outweigh the successes. I’ll talk about this a bit later in Ways of Working #9, Persist.

A few examples: Helen Levitt famously used a right-angle viewfinder on her Leica for street shots. There are viewfinder adaptors for the latest greatest digital cameras, too, but they’re pretty expensive (link, to come). They may give you an extra second of candidness before someone recognizes that the contraption you’re bending over is a camera and that you’ve just taken their picture. Twin-lens, medium-format cameras (Diane Arbus used a Mamiya) or cameras with waist-level viewfinders (Hassleblads) are great too (except for their weight and loud shutters) because their perspective is unique. It’s rare to see someone taking pictures from their chest (while looking down), and the results can be startling.

Walker Evans famously rigged a camera inside of his coat, threaded a cable release down his sleeve and took portraits on the New York City subway. Magnum photographer Luc Delahaye followed-up on Evans in the 90s with a series on the Metro in Paris. Martin Parr’s done a series of sleeping commuters in Tokyo, shot from above.

If hiding your camera’s not your thing, look for architectural spaces where you can be protected and where the light’s good. Loading doors are often recessed into buildings, providing great nooks to photograph from.

Shopping Is Fun

Your actions immediately after taking a picture can be just as important as what you’re doing beforehand. Because I loathe burst mode on a digital SLR, I’ll take my one frame and immediately look up into the sky, as if I’m looking for something “up there” rather than what I’ve just photographed. It distracts the subject away from paying attention to you. I do this habitually now - even at weddings, when it’s completely unnecessary.

If I’m shooting digital, I never immediately check the histogram. If I just had my picture taken by some guy on the street who immediatly was looking at the results on his camera, I’d definitely start asking questions. As the photographer, I like to keep the questions to a minimum. That said, when they come, be honest.

I recently heard Bill Owens give a lecture. Owens isn’t a street photographer per se; his approach is to get to know his subjects, to be trusted, to spend time with them. He talked about how he’d be scared of photographing in the city, and carrying around expensive gear, and that photographing tourists is like “shooting fish in a barrel”. In many ways, he’s right; it’s too easy. But if you’re looking to get started, and you live in a city where there’s a heavy-tourist area, it can be a great place to cut your teeth. I go to Fisherman’s Wharf every once in awhile for kicks. Tourists are comfortable with cameras, and they tend to give you more leeway. They’re visitors, and as such, have built-in timidness about confrontation.

I don’t know if it’s an after-effect of 9/11, celebrity culture, reality television, or the ubiquity of digital cameras, but generally, people are quite aware of their surroundings when they’re on the street. Shooting candid photographs of people can be difficult, especially if you choose not to ask permission. Masking can help, but it’s not the be-all-end-all, it’s just a way of working it out. An approach.

If you like street photography and want to try some masking, know that the greatest strides you can make are with your approach toward your own physical space, and not in the amount of money you spend on gear. Think about how to integrate yourself among your subjects, how to disappear into their midst, and you’ll be heading in the right direction.

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

Tag: Ways of Working