Practical street photography techniques to take your work to the next level:

1. “Don’t smile!”

I learned this tip from Martin Parr: when you ask for permission from a stranger to take their portrait, ask them:

May I get one photo of you not smiling?

Often I will tell people,

One photo! Serious! [I imitate myself pretending to be angry, and closing my mouth]

Why no smile?

Smiling is often too cheesy and feels fake. Photos are more interesting when people are not smiling. Most of us are generally walking around in public, not smiling. Therefore not smiling feels more “authentic”.

Martin Parr will ask his subjects not to smile because he wants a “dignified portrait”.

I will tell people that I want a “serious” portrait, and I explain that they look cooler by not smiling.

2. Click, take a step closer, click, take a step closer

Often when I see a good street photography scene, I take one photo, take a step closer and keep getting closer, and keep clicking, until I establish my composition, and capture a good moment.

Too far. First shot.

This is also good because when people notice my presence, I get eye contact, and reactions. This often makes for more interesting street photos.

A little closer. A bit better.

But what if people get angry at you? This can often yield an interesting hand gesture and image.

He noticed me and said, “You need to for permission before taking my photo!” I then asked him for permission, and he said no. I got the shot anyways.

I think 99% of street photos fail because they’re shot from too far away.

When in doubt,

GET CLOSER.

Thanks for the tip Robert Capa.

3. Shoot street photography with a FLASH

Mumbai, 2011

I first learned this from my buddy Charlie Kirk: attach your flash to a chord, and then shoot with a flash externally.

You can use a flash and hold it under someone’s face to make them look “spooky” (remember putting a flash light under your face when you told scary stories at night, over a camp fire?)

Mumbai, 2011

A lot of great street photographers who used off-camera flash include Lisette Model, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Bruce Gilden.

More contemporary street photographers include Charlie Kirk, Dirty Harrry, and Tomasz Lazar.

Anyways, you can attach a flash by using a cable, or a wireless trigger.

For the flash, use manual settings.

For myself when I shoot street photography and off camera flash, I prefer the wireless flash. Less cable and chord to get in your way.

a. Off-camera flash

I shot with a digital Leica and Film Leica MP, with and Leica SF 20 flash.

For a digital Leica, just use 1/125 shutter speed, ISO 400, aperture at f16 and just adjust the power of the flash depending on your distance. I’d usually use 1/8 flash power when close to my subjects, and increase it to 1/4 or 1/2 power when the subjects were a bit further away. For a film Leica, the same applies, except you are limited to 1/50th shutter speed.

b. On-camera flash

For other digital cameras, just shoot with the integrated flash (if your camera has it) or with the pop-up flash (if your camera has it). Otherwise, buy the smallest possible flash, and use TTL (through the lens, automatic flash setting) if possible.

For myself, I will use the digital Ricoh GR with the integrated flash, in P mode, and ISO 1600. I let camera and flash do the thinking for me. I just focus on shooting.

c. Why shoot with a flash in street photography?

The common misconception is that shooting with a flash causes reactions. This is false. Any “reaction” you get in a street photo (of people looking shocked or scared) is because of their reaction of you about to shoot their photo. Therefore, your subject sees you lifting your camera, and about to shoot a photo. If you’re really fast in street photography, your subject would not react to you.

For me, I like a flash in street photography because it causes the subject to pop from the background. It creates a stronger “figure to ground” composition. Not only that, but it freezes the subject. And if you want the background to look blurry, shoot with a slower shutter speed (like 1/15th second).

4. Shoot head-on

Don’t shoot the back of people’s heads in street photogrpahy. They are boring. Faces are more interesting.

To study head-on street photos shot with a wide angle lens, like a 28mm lens, study Garry Winogrand. The man had huevos of steel.

To shoot head-on, try the “cut-off” Technique (also learned from my buddy Charlie Kirk). The concept is if you see someone interesting on the streets, you first walk to their side, and when they are about to cross you, you cross them diagonally. Therefore you shoot “head on”, almost bumping into them. But then you cross them, and you keep walking.

Now, this is a very aggressive technique in street photography. I generally don’t recommend it to beginners, or folks with social anxiety. It is also very hard with a 28mm or a 35mm lens. You gotta get very close to get intense, exciting, and dramatic photos.

But generally speaking, avoid shooting people from behind. The back of people’s heads are not interesting. As humans, we are always drawn to human faces. Human faces show emotion, expression, anxiety, fear, disgust, happinesss, joy, elatement, and excitement.

5. 360-Degree Technique

Sapa, 2017. I shot him first from the side, and kept working around him, until I got this shot head on.

If you see someone at a stop light at a crossing, and you are standing behind them, and you want to get a photo shot head-on, this technique is for you.

The concept: do a 360 circle around them, pretending like you’re capturing a 360 degree, virtual reality, panoramic of them.

And while you’re shooting, pretend like you’re shooting something behind them.

6. Shoot from a super-low angle

Sapa, 2017

I recommend shooting street photogrpahy with a point and shoot, compact camera, phone, or just with your LCD screen. Shoot from a super low angle, and shoot head-on. This will create more DYNAMIC street photos.

AMERICA - ERIC KIM16 eric kim woman popsicle
Downtown LA, 2011. Shot from below the curb, looking up. Making her look more powerful. Shot with a Canon 5D and 24mm lens.

For example, get directly in front of your subject, from a very low angle. It will make them look bigger, more menacing, and more powerful.

eric kim hollywood pink red bull
Hollywood, 2011. Canon 5D, flash, 24mm lens. Crouching down very low. Note the two Red Bull cans.

Also the benefit of shooting from a very low angle (you can crouch down very low if you’re using your viewfinder) is that you get a clean background of your subject against the sky.

Also this will be great for your hip mobility. Practice doing “ass to ground” squats, very deep.

7. Focus on what is furthest away

Ricoh GR II, in P MODE. Focus in background, to add more depth. I like the woman’s face out of focus.

To capture more DEPTH and LAYERS in your street photogrpahy, focus on what is furthest away from you. If you’re using manual focus, pre-focus to 5 meters, and shoot at f8.

Conclusion

Hanoi, 2017

These are all just tips. Shoot street photography on your own terms and conditions.

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ERIC


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