Search online and there are plenty of definitions of street photography. Some purists argue that to be correctly labelled as street photography, images need to conform to a specific set of rules. Some mock that just by taking an image and converting it to black and white, that’s street photography (although plenty of street photographers shoot in colour).
For me, street photography is all about being in amongst those that you’re photographing, whether candid or posed. It’s great to capture the moments that show peoples’ lives and experiences as they happen. Often a shot captures a single moment that will never be repeated, and I find that the same location shot at different times offers different people interacting in different ways with different moods.
When shooting street photography I’m always considerate and respectful. I don’t shoot children; there’s too much media hype about weirdos and people are therefore hyper-sensitive. It’s a shame, when you look back at some of the great work done in the past, that we’re losing the opportunity to capture kids on the streets. I see great shot possibilities but just walk on.
I generally don’t take shots of homeless people, although I have taken some. I feel these poor people have enough to contend with without me sticking a camera in their face. I know some people will pay for shots of the homeless, but I think that’s pretty poor somehow.
Muslim women are the only other group I tend not to capture, it’s all about respect in the end.
When you think about it, the above list is a very small proportion of the population. So, pretty much anyone else is fair game as far as I’m concerned. As long as someone looks interesting with a story to tell or is doing something engaging, then I’ll grab the shot if I can.
Initially, there’s an understandable fear of being too brash and of taking shots of peoples’ faces or in front of them, so when most people start out in street photography, they tend to get a lot of head shots of people walking past, and a fair number of images taken side-on to people. However, as confidence grows, and you realise that most people either don’t know you’re taking a shot of them or don’t mind, you get better images of people interacting with others (or your camera) and you can then work on developing a look and style that you like.
Getting a good shot means I’ve needed to refine my skill of getting in close for candid shots and melting into the background whilst being in plain sight. At first that’s tricky to pull off. But I think I’m good at doing that now.
I adopt a slow deliberate pace and hold my camera in both hands against my chest; raising it is then a smaller, less distracting movement. If I am spotted taking s shot, I lower my camera a tad, give a disapproving look as if the person I’ve just captured had ruined my shot and then take a photo of whatever is behind or next to them. For all they know I could be a lamppost geek. In all cases I keep moving; on occasion I can tell someone isn’t pleased but normally they don’t bother to come after me as I wander off in search of my next shot.
In a crowded area I can get surprisingly close to people without them realising I’m getting a shot; it just takes a bit of confidence to do so. In markets, this can be as close as a couple of feet away. Most of the time people are so busy in what they are doing or looking at, they don’t even know I’m there. Other times, it just takes a bit of nerve to stand or kneel in front of someone, frame the shot and take it. Quite often if I’ve got one in the bag, I’ll stay there and concentrate on getting the shot perfect, it takes a few more seconds to do but is always worth trying. And, as I mentioned, most people don’t mind.
I’ve taken well over 10,000 street shots and only once have I had someone chase after me. He was quite annoyed and upset that I’d taken his photo without asking. I’ve had a couple that have asked me to delete the shot, which I always do. But these examples are rare.
In the UK there are no restrictions on taking photos of others in public. On private land, it’s different and you then need to respect that. Some spots in London are private land, that you would not expect, for example, Paternoster Square, the London Eye, Pancras Square and Bishop’s Square. In public space though, photographers enjoy the right to take images of anyone. I’ve had two people tell me that I need to ask permission first – That’s not the case. Image taking a photo of a friend in Trafalgar Square, if you need to ask permission before taking someone’s photo, you’d have to ask everyone in the background; that’s just a nonsense.
Once taken, a shot belongs to the person who took it, regardless of whether you’re a tourist or a professional. The person in the image has no rights to the image, even though it may focus on them. They cannot demand you delete it, and have no right of protest; that said, there a laws against invasion of privacy, indecency and harassment. But, that’s taking things to the extreme. If people object or ask me to delete a shot, I will; it’s not worth an argument to spoil a day’s shooting.
Some people catch my eye as I approach and sense I’m going to take a picture. Some ignore me and carry on, others stop and pose, others make it clear they object. For the latter, I’ll accept their wishes and move on. Some of my favourite shots though are when I get eye contact just as the shutter clicks, before my subject has a chance to change their expression - always the best photos.
Other times when someone sees me and poses, the feel of the shot can change dramatically, in these cases though, as the subject has consented to a shot, I can take my time, maybe even directing them a little to craft a good street portrait.
What makes a good street shot is difficult to define. It could be an interesting feature of a person, an interaction with someone else, or simply someone undertaking a task. Someone standing looking straight into my camera doesn’t always make for an interesting shot, those tend to feel more like a tourist shot than a street photograph. That said, such shots sometime work, it depends on the person and composition really.
With street photography, it’s not the camera that’s important, it’s what I see and how I frame a shot that counts. You don’t need a special camera or expensive equipment to shoot street photography, anything from a mobile phone, compact camera, bridge camera or a DSLR, is fine. However, I like to shoot with my DSLR, I feel it gives me some legitimacy to what I’m doing, but that’s just a personal preference.
Mostly I shoot candid, I prefer the honesty portrayed in these types of shots of a person in an environment doing whatever it is that they are doing. I tend to shoot as many shots as I see. It’s better to take a shot that turns out to be a dud, than to miss an opportunity for something special.
So, All of the above comes together when I’m out and about taking street shots and I love it.