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

15 thoughts on “Ways of Working #6 (Masking)”

  1. Its ok,.. I won´t offend just for a comment,… Actually those are not sneak attacks, its calls Candid Photography,… and its objective its to capture a moment… those are not offending or ridiculing pictures nor either intrusive pictures…

    That is just street photography.

    Ur comment is welcome 😀


  2. Not to squash conversation, but I’ve been discussing here how street photography with a telephoto lens is, well, lazy. It’s not the kind of photography I’m interested in, but yes, technically, it’s taking pictures of people on the street – but does that equal street photography?

  3. There´s not such difference as using a Tele as not using it (it a photography tool provided by technology),… its almost like saying “Don´t take photos, just draw it. Its to easy with a camera”.

    IMHO I like to take pics of moments,… female “models” are my favourite subjects,… but not the only one. Its street photography as long as you make a moment stay without preparing the momment… (weird phrase).

    BTW Markus I really like ur work.


  4. SinRastro your photography in my opinion is not street photography because all you’ve done here is shown a bunch of women cropped as close as possible. Street photography is as much about the environment as it is the subjects.

  5. SinRastro — unfortunately i don’t see many “moments”. it appears to be young women shot unawares only. they happen to be on the street.

    okay we’re probably beaten this horse in only 5 posts (and it was a year ago, but i think it’s still worth discussing in this forum), but i think the SinRastro site is a good example of what “street photography” is not. I’d classify this more as “voyeur photography”.

    i think there’s a bit of voyeurism involved in street photography in general, but pretty girls or not, it tends to be quite a bit more situational.

    your photos are “generic”, i.e. they’re pictures of females looking up or down or at something. the only one i saw that came close to a moment was the one of someone taking a picture…of what we won’t know, or what was “special” about the moment…

    street photography tends to convey a situation, and has a bit more “story” behind it. a street portrait can even have a story behind it..even the kinds of shots you have could possibly have a story behind it, but there’s a detachment that just Feels Creepy.

  6. I think this is a great series of articles, but i would like to make one suggestion regarding this section:

    “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.”

    Now, unfortunately we are living in a world that has gone slightly insane.

    These days I would avoid giving anyone the idea to strap a camera to their chest and try to conceal it under their clothing for the purpose of shooting in a public space. Especially with a cable release running down their sleeve as a trigger.

    You can probably already see where I am heading with this.

    If some tried this in 2007 on a subway or in a public space, there is a very good chance that someone will notice the bulge on the chest, the cable release coming down the sleeve and resting in that persons hand and the suspicious behavior that is reminiscent of someone looking for something, lingering or simply acting a little odd.

    It is not far fetched to imagine someone putting all of these things together and panicking, because they mistake this individual for a suicide bomber.

    On a cramped subway or bus this could be a very bad thing, as people panic and attempt to escape.

    This person could be attacked and even killed by fellow passengers. It’s happened on several airline flights since 9/11.

    If tagged as a bomber this person is almost guaranteed to be terminated by security personnel.

    On the day of the bus bombings in London, a gentleman was shot in a tube station, because apparently security thought that his backpack or he looked suspicious.

    Officers are instructed to terminate bombers, with multiple shots to the head to produce instant death, in order to prevent them from detonating explosives.

    There is little or no negotiating, because apparently unofficially the decision has been made that it is better to have one mistaken death, than perhaps dozens of dead and wounded if the suspicion turns out to be true and the individual is not neutralized in time.

    Unfortunately the incident in London was a case of mistaken identity, but that is of little consolation to that individual, because he is dead.

    Now, all of the above may sound paranoid and I would agree with you, if this was prior to 9/11.

    I travel a lot and have noticed that both passengers and security personnel are more alert and on edge than in the past. Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend anyone testing if my theory is wrong.

    Feli di Giorgio

  7. Interesting thread. When I started, I used another subject and incorporated street photography into the shots — I went down to Pike Place Market (read: tourist trap) — where folks expect to see cameras, and found my courage there. I like to relax against a wall or a lightpost and let folks walk into the frame I’ve scoped out — but most of all love to look for the moment in a more random way because somehow to me, lately, that added motion just feels more real to me.

  8. You guys are funny, “talking shop.” What a bunch of bench racers you are. No one asks what kinds of brushes or paint Picasso used. Lens choice is really no one’s business except the photographer in question and if you prefer a telephoto on the street, so be it. The quality and integrity of a piece of art is not measured by the difficulty in which the artist underwent while creating it. This idea of “lazy photography” is gay and for gearhead dorks.

  9. The reason why I don’t recomend using a telephotolens for street photography is, first of all a tele lens tends to flaten the image whereas a 50 or lower lens tends to be more intimate and for me has more life to it. Just look at some of Mr. Hartels photos — they have life, pizzaz, they give a sense of movement, yet they are still photos, images recording a moment in time. Some of his photos are breathtaking. This is not meant to disparage anyones photos or even tele lenses, they are certainly great for those hard to get to places. The general feeling I get from viewing Mr SinRastros images is that of someone sitting in a car working for the FBI and spying on someone. Someone mentioned above that those tele shots did not relate sufficiently the subject to her surroundings. I agree, unfortunately when it comes to women men attempt to take them out of relation to their surroundings in and out of photography. But that’s a whole other field.

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