Alfred Eisenstaedt once said, “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter“. Upon reading this quote, it made me start thinking differently how I approach my street photography. When I started off, I would avoid eye contact at all costs, often shooting from the hip or being a little more sneaky. However nowadays, I actually prefer making eye contact with my subjects the majority of the time and even interacting with them after taking the shot. Often times when things are a bit too hectic on the streets, I don’t talk much with people but whenever I have the opportunity I try. Keep reading to learn how to interact with your subjects more when shooting on the streets.
To start off, it is not absolutely necessary that you interact with your subjects when shooting on the streets. However I have often found it very rewarding to interact with my subjects when shooting them. Also do not get confused with interacting with your subjects and asking for permission. With the exception of a few cases, I almost never ask for permission when shooting on the streets. Why not? Because it gives the person the opportunity to say no. I think it is better to shoot first then have people ask questions later. Not only that, but having people pose loses that candid factor which makes street photography so wonderful.
Can Street Photography Make You a Better Person?
I have found that my street photography has helped me become a more courageous and better person in general. Before I started getting serious with my street photography, I had a very difficult time interacting and talking with strangers. I felt comfortable with close friends and acquaintances, but total strangers were a no-no with me. However the more I started shooting street photography, I started getting more comfortable with those around me. Now that I am comfortable shooting people without their permission, I am even more comfortable striking up random conversations with people on the street. This has truly helped my interaction skills and my social life in general– I am sure it will happen the same with you as well.
The video featured above shows around 10 minutes of footage of myself shooting in the Downtown LA fashion district for the YOU ARE HERE event with the ThinkTank Gallery and Leica Camera. The idea is that 32 street photographers from LA shoot for 10 days in one square block and they will be featuring their work October 13th at the Downtown LA art walk. RSVP here via Facebook.
In the video, I walk around the area shooting with my GoPro HD camera on top of my Leica M9 and 35mm. All of the shots are without permission, with 3 different approaches:
1. Not asking for permission, not being noticed
Some of the shots I did during the video involved me sticking around and taking multiple shots of a scene. I am nice and close (closer than the video suggests due to the wide-angle video lens) and not disturbing the scene very much. Sometimes you can stick around and not even be noticed by the people you are shooting.
2. Shoot first, talk after
Sometimes I shoot people and then interact with them afterwards. This allows me to get a candid image of a person, and then get to know them a bit more on a personal level. Sometimes I stick around and talk with them several minutes, and other times it is very brief. Regardless, I feel that interacting with your subjects after shooting them changes their perspective of what you are doing. If you act sneaky and they notice you shooting them, they may get a weird feeling and feel uncomfortable for the rest of the day.
If you interact with the people and tell them why you are shooting them, they love the attention and feel special. I once shot a photo of a guy in Downtown LA and he was honored and said, “In the 30 years I have lived in LA–nobody has taken a photo of me!” Shoot openly and tell people why you are shooting them as well. This often removes people’s suspicion of you.
3. Shoot while talking
At times I also like to talk to people while shooting them. This allows me to make my subjects feel a lot more comfortable while still getting that candid look or approach. Sometimes people even put on a show for you because they get so excited. Regardless, it makes them relax a lot more and become aware of you taking photos of them.
What if People Give You Problems?
In my experience 95% of people never give you a problem when shooting street photography. However below is the way that the other 5% seem to react:
1. Confusion and ask your motives
Sometimes when you shoot on the streets people will give you a confused look and ask you what you are doing. Instead of pretending that you don’t hear them and move on, I like to take a step closer to the person and explain that you are a street photographer and you found something beautiful/special about them. You can reassure them that you won’t do anything sinister with their image and even offer to email them the photo if they would like. Most of the time people will then say, “Oh okay” and keep walking. This or they will ask you to do the below:
2. Ask you to delete the photo
If people are not comfortable with you deleting their photo, they will ask you to delete the photo. If you are in the US and in a public space (or even most countries in the world) you have no legal reason to do so. However I typically try to avoid confrontation and delete the images if people ask me kindly to. Whether you decide to do so or not is your own personal decision. If you delete the photo people will typically move on. If you refuse, you should stand your ground and assert that you have the legal right to take their photo because they are in a public space. Most people don’t know the law and say it is illegal. I then suggest you to ask them to call the police and wait. Most people won’t go through the hassle and may say a few words to you and keep going on. If not, the police can show up and will tell the other person you have the right to do so.
Either way, it is your decision how you decide to react.
3. Get aggressive
I shot in the area in the video for around 2-3 days and never had an issue until the other day. I shot one gentlemen with a fancy diamond cross on his neck, as well as a fancy watch. I crouched down with my flash, and snapped two photos. He then slowly lunged at me and yelled at me asking what I was doing. I candidly told him I was just taking his photo because I liked what he was wearing. He then grabbed me by my camera strap, and I quickly took a step back and hid my camera from his harm. He started yelling at me that I didn’t have the legal right. I then apologized and told him that I didn’t mean to offend him. He then let go of my camera strap and then continued yelling.
I then stood around for a few more minutes (while other people looking at us) and continued to apologize and explain myself. After a few minutes he calmed down a bit and asked me to leave. I then apologized one last time and moved on.
Don’t let this story scare you. This type of aggressive behavior from people happens probably .05% of the time you are shooting on the streets. Even when shooting with my flash people have acted aggressively toward me around 2 times over the period of a few months. However if this situation happens to you, be prepared. I think it is of upmost importance to stand your ground, calmly explain yourself, and not act sneaky. If people are really upset, even offer to delete the photo (interestingly enough the fellow I shot didn’t ask me to delete his photo). Also my last bit of advice is be careful who you shoot. If you see people walking on the streets with mean or aggressive expressions in their face or the way they walk, try avoid shooting them. Shoot how you are comfortable.
Shooting on the streets doesn’t require you to interact with your subjects, but in my personal experience I have found it very rewarding. I am less interested in my final image and more interested in the people I meet along the way and the interactions I have with them. Try shooting openly and freely, and bring your viewfinder to your eye when shooting. Shooting from the hip is a wonderful way to get your feet wet in street photography, but I suggest using your viewfinder more (if you have one) as it allows you to be more open when you shoot while also getting better compositions. After all, your eye can compose better than your hand!
The last bit is to constantly experiment. Try to find the shooting style you are comfortable with. Experiment talking with your subjects before, after, or even during the time you are shooting them. Although the heart of street photography is to be shot without permission– try asking for permission if you wish. Although everyone has a different definition of street photography, there are no hard rules. Just capture the beauty of everyday life and the people living inside it.
Any thoughts, suggestions, or comments regarding shooting on the streets or the video above? Let us know your ideas by leaving a comment below!