The DON’Ts of Street Photography

The DON’Ts of Street Photography

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Introduction

Street Photography is a genre of photography that could be argued by most that it has it’s own etiquette. I find this logical since it involves interaction with other human beings and whenever there a more than one human being involved in some sort of interaction, rules must be followed, if not rules then at least something like a customary code of behaviour.

So this customary code of behaviour or etiquette, these DOs and DON’Ts if you prefer, can help us Street Photographers enjoy our Street Hunting to the max, but at the same time without getting ourselves into too much trouble.

In this post, I will share with you some things that you ought to keep in mind while Street Shooting.

I remember, when I was younger, my dad always used to tell me what I shouldn’t do (in a situation), before he told me what I should do. Now that I am a father myself, I understand that he was trying to protect me. So, after careful consideration and following his example, I think that it would be best to share the DON’Ts of Street Photography first and then in a another post, share the DO’s.

So let’s get started.

Don’t wear colourful clothes!

If you hit the streets wearing a bright orange t-shirt with white trousers and white sneakers and probably some crazy metallic blue or red sunglasses, you will most certainly be noticed by others in your surroundings. Being in the spotlight isn’t the best way to go if you want to take photographs of strangers in the streets. You will find that you will have a hard time approaching others unnoticed.

Don’t hide when shooting!

Of course when I say not to become the centre of attention, I don’t mean to do the exact opposite. Don’t hide in the shadows, lurking like a weirdo until someone that interests you shows up! You might attract unwanted attention and someone might think you are a suspicious character and contact the authorities. Your goal should be to blend in with the other people and your surroundings. To act and to exist as if you were another person, minding his/her own business, shopping, talking, walking, etc.

Don’t make eye contact!

This is something that fresh Street Photographers should always remember. When you shoot a stranger, especially when you take a photo of a stranger close up, you mustn’t look at him/her in the eyes at any time. Not before the shot and not after the shot. You must only look at them through your viewfinder. Then, look at something behind them, below them or to either side of them, as if you are not interested in them at all, but in something else.

Don’t check your LCD screen after each shot!

This is something that “born digital” photographers tend to do. When I say “born digital”, I mean photographers that have never shot film. The reason why I am advising not to look at the LCD screen after each shot, isn’t so you can master your self control or to try to take as fewer photos as possible by composing the perfect shot, (which are valid points) but because you might check your LCD screen while the person you last captured walks past you and get noticed! Imagine photographing a big, muscular guy, half a foot taller than you and while you are enjoying your success and adrenaline rush, thinking that you got away with a great shot, you get caught, 5 seconds later while checking your screen, by that same guy! The best case scenario is that you delete the image. I will not get into the possible worst case scenario involving you and the muscular giant you just pissed off. You are a Street Photographer, you have imagination.

Don’t scare people with your actions!

Sometimes you might see a photo in your mind’s eye and react instinctively and jump into action like a bat outta hell! This type of behaviour might scare some bystanders or even dogs and cats, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for you especially. I remember one time I jumped into action and this dog, not far from me started barking in my face! I had scared it with my fast reaction and I had attracted a lot of unwanted attention to my self. Go for smooth moves.

Don’t forget the other people!

One of the most common mistakes new Street Photographers do, is to temporarily live in a reality where they think that the only people in the world, are them and their subject(s). Wrong! There are other people all around you, looking at what you are doing. Somebody might be even looking at your LCD Screen while you are framing your shot! You might even be shooting the nice lovely legs of the girlfriend of the guy sitting right next to you! So remember that even if your subject is not looking, most possibly other people are. So your actions must be controlled, calculated and precise.

Don’t be rude, harsh!

It is rude to stick your 50mm prime glass into someone’s face just to get their candid reaction. It is rude and sometimes can even be harsh, especially when the person you jump in front of gets a scare and freaks out. Somebody might shout at you. Just say sorry for scaring them, explain what you are doing and never stop smiling. If you are rude, you will get into trouble.

Don’t panic!

If the worst comes to the worst and you annoy someone and you are threatened or shouted at, don’t panic. Always, always keep your cool. Unless you have invaded into somebody’s home, or private area, you are most probably within your rights to take a photo of anyone you like, but if you lose your cool, you will become the bad guy/girl. Also, don’t lose your cool so you can retain the ability to think before you talk or act in situations like this. You must never, panic.

Don’t be flashy!

This is something that you should always keep in mind. You might not be wearing those awesome bright orange and white clothes we talked about in the first item of this list, but strapping a big fat NIKON or CANON strap around your neck while sporting a photojournalist’s vest is the same thing! People will think you are a Paparazzi, or a Photojournalist and will start to get out of your way. You will be noticed and you will not make any Street Photography.

Don’t carry all your gear around with you!

When shooting in the streets, it is essential to not carry all your gear with you. It will burden you, it will be a target for thieves and it could accidentally get damaged! It would be a shame to see your investment in lenses shattered to pieces on the street, wouldn’t it?

Don’t use a Telephoto lens!

shooting telephoto in bad weather

Street Photography is all about getting close and taking those intimate shots using a 28mm, 35mm or even a 50mm lens. It is not about using 300mm or 500mm lenses. Saying that, I have seen photographers that sit 100 meters away from their targets and shoot portraits of people without being noticed. I know of some, that even stay in their homes, pop their telephoto on their open window and shoot from the convenience of their own living room. This is not Street Photography. This is just you being a weirdo and snapping shots of people like an isolated sociopath. Street Photography is about intimacy, interaction, getting in there, getting close and getting closer. There is no adrenaline rush in shooting tele. There is no connection. Shooting Tele will just get you one style of images, close ups with plenty of bokeh and a very narrow angle of view.

Don’t think! Shoot!

I have missed out on some super awesome shots because of over thinking the framing. I thought that I could frame my photo and make the shot in time, only to find out, to my disappointment, that the photo I had in mind was gone, for ever. In my opinion it is better to take the shot without thinking. It might turn out a bit wonky, but at least you will have gotten the photo, not lost it completely.

Don’t include brands in your shots!

This is something I really try to remember when I shoot in the streets. I have photos on my hard disk that I will never publish, because they include big brand names in prominent places of my photos. Advertising is not free and you should not provide it for free for anyone. If you have a photo that you think is awesome but includes a known brand in it, contact the brand, show them your photo and if they like it they might buy the rights to it. If not, don’t advertise them for free. You will still have to pay for their products the next day.

Don’t get paranoid with Manual control!

I like shooting Manually! Manual shooting gives you a great feeling of accomplishment after you have managed to make a successful shot. It makes you feel like Henri Cartier Bresson! But, HCB shot in manual mode because he didn’t have a choice, not because he thought it would be cool or because it made him feel great. Nowadays all digital cameras have automatic and semiautomatic settings that can make our lives much easier. Especially new Street Photographers that just need to make a few shots to start building their portfolio of photos don’t need to obsess over manual settings. Such an obsession will lead to missing more than half of their photos to blurriness or wrong exposure. Actually saying more than half is an understatement.

Don’t shoot the helpless!

I know that some fellow Street Photographers will not photograph homeless or beggars. This is not what I am saying though. You can photograph homeless people if you have discussed it with them and they agree. Some homeless are very interesting and have very expressive faces. You can photograph beggars if they want their shot taken. Being a beggar doesn’t mean that they are destitute. I have seen beggars get “off work” and drive off in a mercedes. When I say the helpless, I mean the people that can’t control their actions, or their destiny. For example, I wouldn’t shoot a homeless old woman that can’t walk or can’t talk. I wouldn’t shoot a handicapped person that can’t evade my lens. I wouldn’t use my stronger position (an average sized, healthy male) to force her into being my photographic lab rat. That would be unethical.

Don’t shoot without purpose!

I know that most Street Photographers say that you might shoot 1000 photos on a photowalk but at the end of the day you will only keep 2 or 3. This in my book means that whoever does that is shooting without purpose, hoping for that magic shot to just jump in front of the lens. I have been shooting for many years, before digital I used film. I wasn’t a Street Hunter always, but I know what using a roll of film means and I understand the work and the cost needed to develop and scan a roll of 36 photos. Ever since I first used my first digital camera, I have forced myself to take up to 50 photos max, each time I hit the streets. If for some reason I surpass that number of photos, I must delete photos from the camera before I get back home. I must never, ever surpass 50 frames. This restriction has made me cherish every shot. It has made me think before shooting. I don’t use burst mode to take a candid portrait. That is like cheating. I am a Street Photographer, I must freeze the moment in time that I think is the best. My SONY NEX-6 can shoot 10fps. If I shot 10fps all the time then my viewers would not be witnesses to my vision, but my camera’s awesomeness. I strive to have a purpose when shooting. It makes things in my mind clearer and it saves me from a lot of unnecessary file deletions. It gives me purpose and I strongly advise you to do the same.

Don’t shoot people’s children without permission!

kid taking of jacket in the nightThis is very important. People don’t like being photographed most of the time without their consent. Sometimes things get loud, or even ugly. Other people, don’t say anything, they let it go. Others, don’t even care. There are many possible outcomes to a street snap of a stranger. But, one thing’s for sure. If you take a photo a someone’s child without permission, you can possibly get into loads of trouble. Taking the photograph of a child, especially if you are a stranger to it, is very provocative indeed, especially if you are a typical male in your late 20s to late 40s. The parent that might notice you taking the photo, will most probably ask you to delete it. If the parent feels threatened by your actions, he or she will become aggressive. I mean “getting you into trouble” aggressive. You could be accused of anything, from being a weirdo to being a pedofile. So, I urge you, whatever you do, no matter how pure your intentions are, don’t capture the photo of a child without asking for permission and if you don’t get permission, don’t take the shot. Remember, if you want to upload the photo of the child, you must ask for permission for this also.

Conclusion

Following this code of conduct is a good thing because it keeps us Street Photographers out of trouble and makes the Street Photography experience even better. So blend in, be aware of your surroundings, and take care when in the Streets! Have fun and snap away!

Dear reader, please, share your thoughts in the comments if you feel like doing so! We would love to hear your opinion and learn more from you.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Fair points, each and every one. I won’t deliberately shoot children and I don’t shoot the disabled. I’ll also not publish anything that is outright unflattering to the subject – stranger or not, they’re entitled to their dignity as well. Good article πŸ™‚

  2. I like your points although I have begun to create a list…of course kids and disabled I think need permission, but shouldn’t be avoided…My list for excitement or avoiding the easy shot is all the B’s….Backs, Beggars,Buskers, and Bike. I understand there is room for a hands off approach to Street photography but would you also agree a more aggressive style produces more ‘vivid’results?

    • Hello Casper and thank you very much for commenting on my post.

      Yes, I agree that more aggressive Street Photography A.K.A. Invasive Street Photography produces more "vivid" results. I am a big fan of Bruce Gilden but it is something that I find I can only do when I am in the proper mood. I really have to get into the "Zone" to shoot people in their faces.

      I agree it is more exciting and more addictive than shooting from a safer position, but even when I do Invasive Street Photography, I do it selectively and if I have to interact with my subject after the shot, I am polite and always wear a smile on my face. I will never shoot kids or helpless, but I will snap the photo of a random man or woman that is being curious or that interests me.

      Again, thanks for you comment! Feel free to reply.

      Keep on shooting and making interesting pictures!

  3. I don’t make eye contact before the shot but I do after, and I smile rising my hand as a thank you. If I notice a bad look, I talk to them explaining what I’m doing and asking if they want the picture to be deleted, I think that’s honest. I take with me a good selection of pictures so they can see what I’m doing. I thinks it’s the best I can do for street photography and myself. Maybe I’m more interested in people than photography.

    • Hello DQ and thank you for reading my post. Your approach is correct. You are right when you say that "It’s the best I can do for Street Photography and Myself". I will only debate saying that sometimes it is hard to show your subjects the photos you shot due to circumstances and candid situations.

      Again, thanks a lot for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  4. Spyros, this was very helpful, Fantastical. I knew many of the points, but the whole article was well-written, lucid, commendable.

    i just wanted to ask one thing here : I use a Canon 6D + 40mm f2.8 Pancake + 270 EX-II Flash (has a range of 28-50mm). I don’t like the strap, so i removed it 1 week back. This is my kit of 3 items which i love, just that i wish the 40 was faster by a stop or if i had another f/2 or f1.8 lens for lowlight inspite of the flash that i keep attached on the body, 24 hours. The F/1.4 lenses are very heavy so i don’t prefer. The new Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens will be available from tomorrow. But then, i am afraid, if i have more than 1 lens, it will make me confused of using “this or that” lens. Prior to using 6D (since August 2013), i had the nikon D7000 for 1 year, along with 7 lenses. I enjoyed that privilege of having all the options at my hand ; but then it made me a confused man too. So, now for the last 1.75 years, i have had to restrain myself with one lens, and i have been successful in doing so despite the several intermittent attacks of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) that most photogs suffer from time to time. During this time, i had one more lens for a 6 month period before i sold off that lens (the canon 28-135mm), after which i am back with my 40mm. After shooting with the Pancake for around 1.25 years, i feel this urge of buying new gear, a wide-zoom … or … wide-prime ! … & a Tele-zoom or a Tele-prime !

    The 50 is slightly narrow for my comfort but it is good for composition, whereas 35 & 40 appear more suitable for streets, but it feels as if they are focal lengths which are a Compositional No-Man’s Land, such that it is difficult to compose. Again, 28 is for landscapes, but good for composition. So, a pair of 2 lenses – a 28 & another 50 seems good for a 2-lens set-up. Otherwise the only in-between lens is the 40mm which i already have, and should avoid both 28 & 50.

    A wide-zoom (15-30/2.8 VC or 11-24/4 L) is a great option, but a wide prime (20/1.8 or 28/1.8) is lighter, smaller, so, there is a big problem of choice. Same with Tele prime (100/2 or 135/2) Versus Tele Zoom (70-200/2.8). I know the Tele lenses aren’t meant for street, but needed it for indoor or outdoor portraits.

    If you can suggest, guide, … in the matter

    thanks & regards,
    Chirag Parikh
    Street Hunter

    • Hello Chirag and thank you very much for your kind comment.

      As for your lens question, I strongly believe that you should shoot with the focal length that you feel comfortable with. I own a 40mm equivalent lens and a 27mm equivalent lens. I have tried to use the 40mm quite a few times, but I am just not feeling that focal lenght. It doesn’t do anything for me. On the other hand the 27mm is on my camera always and I feel right at home when using it. Lately I have stopped trying to force myself to use anything but my wide angle. I am at peace, happy and enjoy my shooting.

      My advice is to stick with 1 camera 1 lens. If you are “at home” with the 40mm panckace don’t get a new one. You have been making your photos with it for more than a year, so you know it well. If you feel like you need a change, try another lens (rent it) for a couple of weeks, but don’t use any other option during that time. Only the new lens. That will help you get a clear understanding if you like it or not. You might end up back to the 40mm but if you don’t and decide to change, stick to the new one after that.

      Thank you

  5. thanks a great deal for the accurate reply that i was looking for ; it will help me a long way.
    i would try to follow your advice. Before buying anything i will try it.

    regards

  6. thanks for the link, i haven’t read it earlier. i am going through it now.

    by the way, last night i brought the new 50mm STM lens from the local store but returned it this morning. Nothing much wrong with the lens, infact a great bang for the buck, and good for candid street shots as we get some distance away from the subject as this is not a normal lens but mid-telephoto, also, it gives great bokeh etc. ; but i still think i would some day in near future, go for the 28mm f/1.8 USM lens inspite it being 7 years old. Yes it suffers from chromatic aberration. Other option would be 35mm f/2 IS USM. Or, if i forget these 2 lenses, i would go with either a Fuji X100T or a Ricoh GR.

    But these thoughts will further add to my confusion. So, for now, i am good to go with my 40mm.

    i will let you know in when i get a new one.

    thanks

    & yes, i will Stay SHARP… πŸ™‚ not in the Circle of Confusion…

    • Awesome Chirag, I am sure you will enjoy that post.
      I am noticing from your writings that you have G.A.S.. Please read this http://www.streethunters.net/blog/2014/09/24/new-gear-lust/ by Andrew. It might help. Saying that I think we all suffer from G.A.S., some more, others less. I get the feeling that you are always looking for new things to fill in a gap in your photography. May I offer some advice? Take your kit, your favourite combo and go and shoot something outside of your comfort zone. Try getting into situations you would normally not get into and photograph them. That will make you feel a rush like no other and you will forget about the gear and focus on photography. That is what I recommend. As for the Fuji X100T or the Ricoh GR, I would go for the much cheaper Ricoh GR, just saying πŸ™‚

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