Woman with popsicle. Downtown la

How to Conquer Hesitation in Street Photography

Woman with popsicle. Downtown la
Downtown LA, 2011

Dear friend,

Have you ever seen a scene that you wanted to shoot, but hesitated and didn’t take the photo, and later regretted not shooting the scene?

What if you had the confidence, courage, and brazenness to just shoot– without hesitating? How many more great ‘decisive moments’ could you capture in your photography?

DOWNLOAD PDF: How to conquer hesitation in street photography

The Ethics of Street Photography

Woman suit not smiling. Eric kim street photography

First and foremost, let us ask ourselves:

“What holds us back from taking photos, especially of strangers, without their permission?”

I think for most of us, we feel some sort of guilt for taking someone’s photograph without their permission. We think that it is somehow “evil” or “wrong” to shoot someone without their permission, because we have it programmed in our mind that “Each individual has the right to their own self-image.”

Portra 400 flash without permission. Hong Kong, woman with hand on face. Exchange currency. Street photography eric kim.

But in truth, this is a false concept. Nobody has the “right” to their own photograph or self-image. This is just a socially-constructed concept or the “ownership of one’s self-image.” Because if you think about the physics of it– nobody has the right to the photons bouncing off their body (essentially as a photographer, all we are doing is capturing the light that bounces off someone). By taking someone’s photograph, you aren’t physically harming them (or even making physical contact). All you are doing as a photographer is picking up a black box, holding it at around eye-level, and pressing a button. You aren’t infringing anyone’s rights by taking a photograph.

Eric kim Wells Fargo flash street photography nyc

The biggest reason why people are upset of you taking their photograph without permission is this concept of “privacy” — people believe they have the right to be in a public space without anyone knowing that they’re there. However, in reality (at least in terms of the law), nobody has right to privacy in a public space.

Tokyo man red hat flash street photography without permission, flash, Ricoh gr ii

Thus it is my belief that it is foolish for people to expect privacy when they are in a public space. Even more silly that people get upset for being photographed in a public space (especially when there are tons of CCTV cameras and video cameras constantly recording them in public). If individuals want privacy, they should only expect it when they are in a private space (like their own home).

Street photography isn’t evil

Laughing woman nyc

Therefore the first barrier we must jump over in street photography is the feeling of ethical guilt, or “wrongness” by shooting street photographs of strangers without their permission.

To clarify, you are not doing anything wrong by shooting street photography. If the people you photograph decide to get upset, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or doing anything wrong. No, as a street photographer you are an artist, that happens to be making photos in the streets/public spaces.

NYC mad men, suit, cigarette, Pentax 645z

So the first step to overcoming hesitation in shooting street photography is to remove any form of ethical guilt of photographing strangers without their permission.

Overcoming fear in street photography

Black and white dark skies over Tokyo eric kim street photography

Then there is the next hurdle: overcoming the fear associated with shooting street photography. Which means, you might feel ethically okay with shooting photographs of strangers without their permission, but you might be afraid of negative retribution from your subject. You might be afraid that they will yell at you, physically attack you, or threaten to call the cops.

Woman broken glasses eric kim street photography flash, black and white, Leica m9

The practical ways to overcome these fears are the following:

  1. Allow yourself to get yelled at a few times, and then you will build a thicker skin, and thus be less afraid of being yelled at in the future. The fear of getting yelled at is often worse than the yelling itself.
  2. Stand your ground: If someone physically attacks you, you can technically sue them (which is good, you can make a bunch of money). Honestly the worst encounters in street photography I’ve experience is people shoving me, grabbing my camera; never will anyone straight up punch you in the face for taking their photograph without permission. Also a lot of us are afraid of physical pain, but getting punched isn’t actually that painful. Maybe a solution is to take a boxing class, and learn how to take a punch.
  3. Let the cops come: I’ve had the cops called me on a few times, and just waited for them to come. Then the cops come, they are nice, and tell you to just apologize and move on. And thus, you gain increased faith in yourself, that even having the cops called on you isn’t so bad.

Simple settings in street photography

Tokyo race track suit, black and white, newspaper, candid street photography eric kim, Leica m9

To overcome hesitation in street photography, setup your camera for the simplest settings in street photography. This means, just shoot in program (P) mode, center point autofocus, ISO 1600. If you have a manual camera, just zone-focus and shoot at f8.

Also, just have your camera ready at all times. For me, I have the least hesitation when my camera is around my neck like a necklace.

If you just “set it and forget it” settings in your street photography, you will hesitate less before you make a photograph.

Anything you can do to minimize friction before you shoot, the better.

Shoot what scares you

Often we don’t know what a good photo is gonna be, but we know what scenes or people scare us.

Photograph what you’re afraid of; this will increase your likelihood of making an interesting photograph.

Woman with cross neck tattoo. Berlin, 2017
Woman with cross neck tattoo. Berlin, 2017

This is because what we are afraid of is what we want to photograph.

By looking at a person or a scene that scares you, essentially you want to photograph that person or scene, but the fear of negative retribution is what causes you to be afraid.

Street portrait with -1 2/3 exposure compensation. To make his face more dramatic and pop from the background. By using minus exposure compensation, the background turns totally black.

Thus, don’t see your fear as a bad thing. Rather, see your fear as a guide, that will tell you what to photograph, or at least what might be interesting.

Better make a bad photo than no photo

Face tattoo man, Downtown LA

Ultimately, it is better to take a risk making a bad photograph, than not shooting any photographs.

Thus, in photography (and life), avoid regret. Shoot everything that interests you in order to prevent feeling regret later on.