Eric Kim
Photo by Charlie Kirk
Photo by Charlie Kirk

I believe that getting a good street photograph is 80% balls and 20% skill. If you look at the work of such street photographers as Bruce Gilden and Charlie Kirk, you will see that they have incredibly memorable images. Why is that? It is because they get close to their subjects—uncomfortably close by most people’s standards.

One of the most popular questions I am asked by the community is how to build courage when it comes to street photography. I have learned a ton over the last several years about building the guts to get extremely close to people and take their photograph without their permission. In this blog post I will go in-depth about how you can become a fearless street photographer.

1.Have staring contests with strangers

street portraits of strangers

This may sound silly, but one of the best ways to become a fearless street photographer is to get into staring contests with people you don’t know. By our socialization, we feel uncomfortable looking at people we don’t know. This is because our society teaches us that we should respect other people by not looking at them directly in the eyes.

I am sure that we all know the feeling how awkward it is to be in a crowded bus or subway, and try hard not to make eye-contact with one another. However if you wish to build your courage, try this little experiment of having staring contests with strangers.

How do you do it? Well the next time you are out in public and you are looking at people, continue to stare at them until they either look away first or walk away. As long as you aren’t in a super-shady part of town, most people won’t give you crap. However if people do confront you and ask why you are staring at them, here are some responses you can give them (which work quite well):

  • “Oh sorry, I was lost in thought and didn’t mean to stare at you.”
  • “I wasn’t staring at you, I was simply staring at [name something] behind you.”
  • “I was staring at you because you are very beautiful.”
  • “I am fascinated by the color of your eyes.”

If you become accustomed to staring at strangers in public, you will have no problem taking photos of them.

2.Realize that you won’t die

Bruce Gilden. JAPAN. Asakasa. 1998.

Although you may encounter some belligerent people when shooting in the streets, realize that what you are doing isn’t inherently as dangerous as other types of photography out there such as war photography—where you can actually die. Street photography is actually quite tame in the big picture.

When it comes to street photography, the absolute worst thing that can happen to you is that you can either get jailed or get beat up. I will conjecture that this has probably only happened to only .001% of street photographers out there.

The most belligerent subject I have ever had when shooting in the streets was in skid row in Downtown Los Angeles (arguably one of the most dangerous places in the US). I was walking with a friend and shooting with some point and shoot cameras, when a crazed homeless man rushed up to me and started  yelling and screaming at me for taking photos of his grocery cart (which I wasn’t actually doing). He was huffing and puffing, with a crazed look in his eye, and was obviously belligerent. When I tried to show him that I wasn’t shooting photos of his stuff, he smacked the camera out of my hand where it broke and hit the ground. We then quickly left before things got uglier (with the guy still following us out). Fortunately I got the camera for free, so I didn’t really lose anything.

The purpose of the story I just told you is not to scare you, but to see that even in the most dangerous situations when it comes to street photography the consequences aren’t too bad (I only got a camera busted). We often let the worry of the fear of the unknown prevent us from taking street photographs, rather than realizing what we are actually afraid of.

I would say in 99% of cases when you are shooting street photography, the worst that people will respond to you is by either asking you not to take their photo, by flipping you off, or by yelling at you. If that happened to you, would it really bother you that much? Just brush it off your shoulder and keep walking. Conquer your mental fears, and the rest will come easy.

3.Get really close with a wide-angle prime lens

Photo by Eric Kim
Photo by Eric Kim

When you are shooting street photography, you should be using a relatively wide-angle prime lens, such as a 24-28mm, 35mm, or 50mm (on a full-frame). For crop-sensors that is roughly 17mm, 24mm, and 35mm respectively.

Why is that? By using a wide-angle prime lens, it will force you to get intimate with your subjects. One thing that will absolutely cripple you as a street photography is to use a zoom or telephoto lens that distances you from your subject. If anything, I feel more uncomfortable “sniping” my subjects from a far-away distance than getting extremely close to their face and taking their photo.

What are some lenses that I recommend? Assuming you have a DSLR, here are some great wide-angle primes that won’t break the bank.

Canon:

Nikon:

4.Drink some alcohol

Photo by Eric Kim
Photo by Eric Kim

This may sound reckless, but surprisingly enough drinking alcohol before shooting street photography definitely makes shooting in public a lot easier. Recently I met up with some Los Angeles street photographers such as Alex JD Smith, Jared Iorio, and Ludmilla Morais and after a few drinks at a bar—we hit the streets of Santa Monica and went shooting. Having a nice buzz, it was easy to take photos of strangers in public and not awkward as well. Interesting enough, we were able to also spark many interesting and friendly conversations with most of the people we took photos of.

Although I do not encourage you to always drink alcohol before shooting, it is sure a good way to get your feet wet. Think about all those awkward parties you have been to, where people don’t really start talking or getting to know each other after having a few drinks in.

5.Always Be Shooting

Photo by Eric Kim
Photo by Eric Kim

If you have ever watched the Alec Baldwin scene in Glengarry Glen Ross where he said “Always be closing!” – you should “Always be shooting” as street photographer Michael Martin mentioned. This is the only way you will truly be able to build up your courage and become a fearless street photographer.

Although articles like this one can help inspire you to go out and shoot, it doesn’t mean anything until you actually go out and shoot. Think about swimming. You can read hundreds of books on how to swim, but you won’t truly understand it unless you actually go out and do it.

So go out and shoot and get uncomfortably close to your subjects. I will guarantee your images will become much more memorable and captivating.

So how do you build up your courage from shooting in the streets? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think!

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