Downtown LA, 2011 / Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

How to Have Courage to Shoot Street Photography

Downtown LA, 2011 / Photo by Rinzi Ruiz
Downtown LA, 2011 / Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

Dear friend,

I want to write you this article on how to practically have more courage to shoot street photography:

Street photography favors the brave

Downtown LA, 2011 by eric kim street photography
Downtown LA, 2011

First of all, realize that street photography is probably the most frightening form of photography.

If you take a photo of a flower, it won’t possibly yell at you, or punch you in the face.

Being a street photographer means that you are brave. It means that you have more guts than the (average) person. It means that you are a risk-taker for your photos.

So to start off, pat yourself on the back for having the courage to even pursue street photography.

1. Baby steps: The fishing technique

eric kim street photography umbrella seoul woman
I saw this interesting architectural background, and waited for the lady with the umbrella to enter. Seoul, 2009

When I started in street photography, I came from a landscape/architectural background. Therefore, I was afraid of getting close to subjects.

I had my first baby steps in street photography by shooting from a distance.

eric kim santa monica leading line fishing
One day after work, I found this interesting sculpture, and leading line. I waited for a bicyclist to enter the photo, and photographed it once he was in-line with the arrow. Santa Monica, 2011

They call this the ‘fishing’ technique— you find a nice background, wait for your subject to enter the frame, and you take the photo. You pretend to be photographing the background, not the actual subject.

2. How to get closer: The video camera technique

The next step is to slowly get closer. I recommend using the ‘video camera’ technique — holding up your viewfinder to your eye (or using the LCD on your camera), and pretending like you’re shooting a video.

Go to a busy downtown area, and walk around (slowly) and pretend like you’re shooting some home-video. Then while you’re pretending to shoot a video, get closer to your subjects, and click away.

The most important part of the video camera technique is this: don’t drop your camera from your eye, or check your LCD screen (chimp) after you take a photo. This will give away the fact that you’re taking photos of strangers.

3. How to interact with subjects: Ask for permission

I believe that ‘street portraits’ is another sub-genre of street photography. A ‘street portrait’ means you approach a stranger, and ask permission to photograph them.

A simple assignment: approach a bunch of strangers for an entire day, and try to get 5 people to say ‘yes’ to you photographing them, and try to get 5 people to say ‘no’ to being photographed.

The secret is to not be afraid of being rejected. In-fact, if you have an aversion to being rejected, try the ’10 no’ assignment. Approach a bunch of strangers to shoot their portrait, and try to get 10 people to reject you. You will find it is harder to get rejected (than you think it is).

Not only that, when you do find people who say ‘yes’ to having their portrait photographed, learn how to interact with them. Make small talk. Talk about the weather, their life story, or how they are doing.

The better you build social skills, the more confidence and courage you will build in your street photography.

4. The next level: Get close and shoot candidly

One of the scariest things is to get close to subjects, and shoot without permission.

For me, my suggestion is to not hesitate. Don’t think too much when you’re shooting. The more you think before you shoot street photography, the more you will hesitate, and the less likely you are to take a photo.

I also make a practice to shoot street photography with a smile on my face. Therefore when I take photos of strangers without permission, people don’t feel as afraid or offended.

5. Don’t take one photo and run: Work the scene

robert frank elevator girl contact
Robert Frank Elevator Girl Contact Sheet
Henri Cartier-Bresson Contact Sheet

The next step in building your confidence is this: learn how to ‘work the scene’ (taking multiple photos of a scene).

The biggest mistake we make in street photography is we run away too quickly. Meaning, don’t take 1-2 street photos, and run away. Rather, learn how to take 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, or even 50+ photos.

eric kim photography hoi an-0004806
Hoi An, 2017

The biggest misconception in street photography is that there is only 1 ‘decisive moment.’ Rather, there are many potential ‘decisive moments’ in a street photography situation.

When you are ‘working the scene’ — you can either make eye contact (and talk to your subject while you’re shooting), or pretend like you’re shooting something behind them. Experiment with both techniques:

6. The ultimate: Use a flash

eric kim selfie

The scariest thing that takes the most courage in street photography to use a flash. But in reality, when you shoot with a flash in street photography, you look more like a tourist. And the flash isn’t as bright as you think it is.

I suggest: don’t shoot with a flash at night (when you’re starting off). Rather, learn how to use a flash in the middle of the day, in order to fill in the shadows of your subject’s faces.

I recommend using a small flash that is built on your camera, or a small external flash. Get close to your subject, and after photographing them with a flash, learn how to smile, and just say ‘Thank you.’ When you learn how to master shooting street photography with a flash, you will not fear anything else.

More street photography techniques

Lansing, 2013

Learn how to shoot on the streets:

Conquer your fears a little bit everyday

My last suggestion: make it a daily practice to build your confidence. Everyday, just try to be a little less fearful. Then one day, you will totally eliminate all fears in your street photography.

eric kim street photography

Conquer your fears in street photography

Hanoi, 2016 eric kim street photography hanoi
Hanoi, 2016

If you want assignments to conquer your fear of shooting street photography, read the free ebook: “31 Days to Overcome Your Fear in Street Photography” and check out my upcoming street photography workshops.

Here are more articles how to conquer your fears in street photography:

Videos to conquer your fear of shooting street photography

Learn more about street photography

Learn more: Street Photography 101 >