The Fears of Street Photography and how to get over them

The Fears of Street Photography and how to get over them

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The Fears of Street Photography and how to get over them

Note: The following views are mine personally and do not necessarily represent the views of the StreetHunters team.

Introduction

Many of us Street Photographers find Street Photography intimidating for various reasons. Some of us fear that our gear will be stolen or broken, others fear that we might get beaten up by a big bad stranger or a gang of thugs and others fear more things! It depends on each person’s imagination really. No matter what the fear(s) each one of us faces, there is a way to manage to control or suppress that fear. I say control or suppress because in my opinion fear never goes away, we just learn how to better control it and how to use it to our advantage. In this post we will take a look at the most common fears we Street Photographers face and we will also take a look at some nice tips that will help us overcome those fears so we can focus better on what we love most, which is shooting photos of the events of life.

Fears

The fears I have listed below are things that I fear or I have been told other fellow Street Photographers fear. I could have made the list longer, but I thought it would be better to stick with the most common ones. Please keep in mind that I don’t think that one fear is more important that an other, so the order of presenting them is completely random.

  1. Fear of getting beaten up.
    Everyone has felt this at one time or another. I usually feel it if I push my self to take photos of guys in groups at parks or in the street which give me side glances and make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t put myself in this situation often because I try to use my common sense as much as possible, but sometimes the urge to hunt for images will lead me into a possible mess. Even though I feel confident under normal circumstances, since I am a healthy athletic male, weighing at 82Kg and 6.1” tall, when I visit bad neighbourhoods in Athens alone, I usually never take a single shot in fear of getting beaten up.
    Is this fear valid: YES.
  2. Fear of getting killed.
    I must admit that I don’t have this fear. The only reason I am mentioning it is because a girl died very recently after taking the photo of some street Panhandlers in the streets of L.A. for no reason. Her name was Christina Calderon and she was 23 years old. R.I.P. I think that this poor photographer was very unlucky. The percentage of Street Photographers being killed as opposed to those not being killed is tremendously small. Besides poor Christina, I think that in all my years I have heard of only one more cold blooded killing of a Street Photographer. Keep in mind that I am not referring to war Photojournalists that risk their lives every day to bring us the images of reality from all corners of the world. I know that some Photojournalists were executed in the middle east but this is not the genre of Photography we are examining here.
    Is this fear valid: NO.
  3. Fear of getting raped.
    This is something that our fellow lady Street Hunters fear the most. It is always dangerous to walk in the streets of bad neighbourhoods, especially if you are a lady and you happen to stumble upon a gang or a weirdo. I can’t really say much about this, since it is something I have never felt, but I am sure this is one great fear to conquer.
    Is this fear valid: YES.
  4. Fear of getting mugged.
    Many of us use expensive gear to do our Street Photography, others again don’t. I know that expensive gear doesn’t make someone a better photographer, but the more you get into Street Photography the more you want to invest in better toys. At least that is how I see it. So, for example when I started shooting in the streets I did so with my iPhone, but as time went by, I moved up from that to a Panasonic LX7 and then swiftly to the SONY NEX-6. So, now, when I walk around the streets with my NEX-6 and the 35mm lens, I am walking around with €1200 – €1300 worth of camera gear on me. That for me is a respectable amount of money. Imagine now, walking around with a Leica. I won’t get into the cost of a Leica and an average M-mount lens. So, when you are hitting the streets and you are in dodgy neighbourhoods, this fear creeps up. What if I get mugged?
    Is this fear valid: YES.
  5. Fear of getting arrested.
    This is something that you shouldn’t be afraid of at all. At least in most parts of the world that is. You should probably check with your country’s laws about shooting photographs in public, but in most countries the rule is that if someone is in public view, you are allowed to photograph them, whether they like it or not. So, don’t be afraid that you will be arrested. If anyone threatens you with calling the cops, dare them to do so. Now, if you are amongst the unlucky ones that live in the few countries that have more strict rules about photographing in public, then just learn those rules by heart and learn how to bend them, but not break them, otherwise you might get into trouble.
    Is this fear valid: NO.
  6. Fear of getting yelled at.
    Nobody likes being the epicentre of everyones gazes. Especially when everyone is looking at you because you are being shouted at by some person you photographed that is over reacting. The best thing to do is to just smile, keep smiling and ask them if they want to see the photo. While showing them the photo, asked them if they would like you to email it to them. If you have some business cards on you all the better, you can give them one and ask them to contact you for the photo. They usually don’t contact you but this procedure usually calms them down, unless they have other issues, so well then just delete the photo to get them to stop shouting or threaten them to call the police if you wish to keep the photo and sue them for verbally abusing you. Again, the later depends on the laws of the country you are shooting in, so make sure what you say, before you make any threats of calling the police.
    Is this fear valid: YES.
  7. Fear of getting your gear smashed.
    This is closely related to the Fear of getting mugged. Again, it is your gear that you are afraid of losing, this time to brute force. Someone might try to snatch your camera out of your hands, or just bash it with their fist. If you are not quick to react, you might find your Leica flying in the air towards a wall or towards a street with heavy traffic. If the guy or guys doing that to your camera decide that you are next, then pops in the Fear of being beaten up. So, use your common sense and try and stay out of complicated or dangerous situations. The other option is to study Martial Arts and become a Karate Grand Master!
    Is this fear valid: YES.
  8. Fear of taking a photo of a stranger.
    This is the most common fear that all Street Photographers have to face, mostly at the beginning of their Street Hunting experiences. The fear of photographing a stranger exists because we feel that by doing so, we invade into their private space. This is something I have felt many, many times and I have noticed that even though this Fear doesn’t go away, it does become easier to control the more I shoot in the streets and the more I talk to strangers. Personally I have noticed that most people I have asked to photograph accept without hesitation. I have only had a couple rejections I think and the reason is that I didn’t approach them as I should have. Also, I have noticed that if I shoot someone without their permission, 99% of the time they will not say anything. They will look at me, but I will not, so if I pretend like nothing has happened, they just let it go.
    Is this fear valid: YES.

athens oblivious

How to get over them

There are ways to overcome most of the above fears. Below I have created a list of things that you can do in order to feel less Fear. It is important to enjoy Street Photography and not to be afraid that each photo walk will end in a disaster. So, even though most of the aforementioned Fears are valid, there are still ways to help us Street Photographers deal with them and enjoy our Street Hunting the way we should. Some of these tips have been repeated by either me or my fellow Street Hunters for other reasons in previous posts, but they work for conquering your fears also.

  1. The more you shoot the less you notice the fear.
    This is the best antidote to Street Photography fear. Shoot a lot of photos, as often as you can and you will notice that your fears will start becoming much easier to control. I think that this happens because being on the streets for a long time and talking to strangers helps us become street smart and that makes us feel more confident. By feeling confident about ourselves, our social skills and our surroundings, we learn to look at our Street Photography fears in a different way and learn to control them better.
  2. Let others to invade your private space.
    This is a cool trick that you can do which will really surprise you! Why is that? Well, try sitting still to take a photo and wait for someone to walk into your viewfinder. As soon as they are close, click the shutter. If they don’t hear it, nothing will happen. If they do hear it they will probably say they are sorry for stepping into your picture. So you can just go along with it and tell them it is ok and take another shot of what you were pretending to photograph without them in the frame, smile and walk away. When you are still and your targets walk into your private space, the feelings are reversed. The subjects feel that they are messing your photo and some, most of them feel guilty about it and say they are sorry. Of course there are some that will wait until you take your shot and then walk past you, which is tough luck, but never mind.
  3. Use small cameras.
    Rob, Andrew and my self have mentioned the importance of this in the past. If you haven’t read our posts  “10 Reasons Why A Smartphone Is Good For Street Photography”, “10 Reasons Why A Compact Camera Is Good For Street Photography” and “10+1 reasons why a Mirrorless camera (MILC) is good for street photography” I advise you to do so. One of the most important things that all these types of cameras have in common are small sizes! Especially Smartphones and Compacts, they are just so small they are hardly noticed. I have a MILC that is hardly noticed unless I am using a bigger lens, but that is something I will talk about in the following point. So, use small cameras. People tend to stare automatically at big DSLRs with huge Tele lenses attached to them. So, to attract less attention it is best to go for something small, something that you can easily handle to get some really cool close up shots without being afraid of getting noticed.
  4. Use small lenses.
    I will not explain why a huge Tele lens is not the best thing to have attached to your camera when you are doing Street Photography. The reason is obvious. You stand out like a fly in a bowl of milk. Even if you are using a little MILC, if you are wearing a Big Zoom lens you will be seen, people will stare and your Fears will start to creep up in the back of your mind. So, my advice to you is to use wide angle prime lenses. With wide angle primes, you can shoot from close up, without the fear of missing anything, because wide angle lenses are like black holes! They will suck in everything. So you will not miss anything. This means that you don’t have to bring your camera to your eye to shoot. You can do so from the hip. Another thing you can do is to sit and wait for others to invade your private space, pretending you are fiddling with your camera, whereas in reality you are taking wide angle shots of everything passing by.
  5. Use your tilting screen (if available).
    If your camera has a tilting screen, your life as a Street Photographer will become much easier. The reason is simple. You can shoot photos without bringing the camera to your face. People tend to recognise a photographer when they see a camera stuck to his eyeball, but when that same photographer is shooting sitting down, cross legged with his camera in his lap and his tilting screen turned towards him, nobody seems to notice. So, if you have a tilting screen, use it.
  6. Shoot from the hip.
    This is much easier if you have a tilting screen because you can use it to shoot without shooting blindly, but if you don’t have a tilting screen, you can still shoot from your hip if you practice zone focusing. Taking photos in this way, helps you feel less intrusive since people usually don’t notice you. So, this is a good way to conquer your fear of shooting strangers. Just hold your camera low and shoot without bringing it up to your eye.
  7. Don’t look at the people you shoot. No eye contact.
    This is a tip that I have mentioned in the past in my “The DON’Ts of Street Photography” post. It is important not to look your subject in the eye, because once you establish eye contact, the person you are looking at knows that you have him/her in your sights. So, take a shot, but don’t make eye contact. Pretend that you haven’t noticed them. That way, they will not know you shot them and will not talk to you.
  8. Shoot backs and sides to start off.
    This is a nice and easy way to start shooting strangers without feeling so intrusive and without feeling so scared of being noticed. Some Street Photographers say backs and sides are so easy that photos of them are not interesting enough. I don’t agree with that because in my opinion it is the combination of the composition, the light and the angle that makes a shot interesting. If you shoot backs and sides of people, you can still produce amazing results! Try this out for a week. You will see that you will find it much easier than capturing people from the front.
  9. Shoot feet only to start off.
    Again, just like in the previous tip, focus on feet only for a period of time. That can be a couple of days, or a week, or as long as you like. Focus on feet. Find some cool Zebra crossings or cool streets and wait for people with interesting feet to walk into your viewfinder. Snapping them is easy, you are not being intrusive and even if someone reacts, they can’t forbid you from shooting a photo of their shoes, so tough luck to them!
  10. Play the “Tourist”.
    This is something I have done in Athens and I have noticed that it does work. But there is a catch. Don’t play the tourist in shabby neighbourhoods, or abandoned alleys, because that will probably lead to a messy situation. You will look like a target for possible petty criminals. If you want to play the “tourist” card, do so in crowded, well known places that are full of other tourists as well. That way you don’t have to worry about putting yourself into danger and you can shoot strangers without them caring at all. So grab a city map, look confused and start shooting everything and everyone!
  11. Be Social. Talk to people with a smile on your face.
    This is very, very important! Whenever you take a shot of someone and you get a reaction from them, you must always approach that person with a smile on your face to talk to them and explain to them what you are doing. You can offer to send them their photo via email, or ask them to contact you for it. On the other hand if you want to shoot someone and you want their consent, again, wear a lovely smile, turn on your Social Skills to the max and go and ask for permission. If you don’t smile you are not likeable. People accept likeable people into their private space easier. Keep this in mind. You will notice that after you have talked to many strangers, your fear of approaching them will become smaller and smaller.
  12. Go shooting with a friend.
    This is something that you should do if you have decided to visit some areas of your town that you know will have suspicious characters, gangs and such. Having a friend with you, especially a street wise friend, helps you feel much more comfortable and safe. If your friend is part of the life you are out trying to shoot, if he/she is part of a gang or a group of people that lead more underground lives, even better because he/she can help you get accepted by the people you are interested in and that way you can get some really amazing photos without being afraid of getting into trouble.
  13. Be prepared to answer to others.
    Again, this falls under “Social Skills” but it is much better if you have a background story ready to tell others if they ask you why you are shooting them. I just tell them I am from www.streethunters.net and that we are a group of Photographers that document life in various cities around the world. 99% of the time, the people that hear this accept me and they even pose for me. The reason is that I have proved to them I am photographing them for a purpose. I am not some weirdo, or some guy who feels like invading their life. I have found that my Street Hunters story (which is true by the way) works fine for me, you should try and come up with a similar one.
  14. Pretend like nothing is happening and walk.
    This is an extension to the Don’t look at the people you shoot. No eye contact point mentioned earlier. Always pretend like nothing is happening, unless of course you get a pat on the shoulder or someone directly talks to you. Until then, pretend that you are in your own little bubble and that you are unaware of anyone looking at you suspiciously.
  15. Always keep some spare change on you to give to people you shoot if they ask for it.
    This is something that I always do. I always have spare change in my pockets to give to Street Performers of generally street people that require change in exchange for a photo. I feel that it is within each person’s right to ask for compensation for a photo and I always pay someone a €1 if they ask for it. Since I read poor Christina’s story mentioned earlier, I make sure I have change in my pocket even more. What is a €1 in exchange for peace of mind?

Conclusion

The best way to overcome your fears is by using common sense! What do I mean? Well, shoot often, shoot in places that are safe, don’t provoke, smile and be Social. If you feel scared or fearful of your gear, your life or anything, remove yourself from the area you are in. If you see that you are heading into a mess, don’t continue what you are doing. Avoid getting trapped and always look around you. Be observant and when you feel that you have stepped out of your comfort zone, just go home.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Great post. Lot’s of truly useful techniques and I tips that I had never heard before. I’ll probably come back to this post for months, if not years.

    One note: the story in the LA Times left out a few details about the photographer stabbed near Hollywood and Highland (tens blocks west of my home). LAist has some more details from people that were at the scene of the crime. Apparently, she told the people to "F* off!" after they asked her for a dollar for the photo. Clearly, that doesn’t excuse any of their actions but it was probably the reason that the situation escalated to violence. If she followed your tips above who knows what would have happened? I walk that area multiple times a week alone without my camera gear and it is packed with tourists and has an enormous police presence including 24×7 video monitoring of the intersection she was at. It’s a tragedy but I also feel like it was avoidable, which perhaps makes it even worse.

    More info (including a photo of the people and their sign):
    http://laist.com/2013/06/19/hollywoodandhighland_stabbing.php

    • Hello Josiah,

      Thank you very much for providing this extra bit of information. I am happy you found this post helpful and even if one tip proves useful to you that is the biggest reward that I could ask for as a blog author.

      If you try out any of the tips, please let me know how it went.

      Thank you for reading my post.

      I wish you a great day!

      Stay sharp and keep shooting!

    • Thank you very much for reading the post Luis! I am very happy you enjoyed it. Please let me know if you try them out. I would love to know if they worked for you as well as they work for me.

      Stay sharp and keep shooting!

  2. “The percentage of Street Photographers being killed as opposed to those not being killed is tremendously small.”
    …nice

    Christine Calderon was NOT a street photographer by the way. You mention another …who was it? I only know of Wil Lewis in Chicago and he wasn’t taking photographs at the time, who was the other one?

    • Hello oneANT thanks for your comment. As far as Christine Calderon goes and if she was a Street Photographer or not according to yours or my standards is not the point really. The “Fear of being Killed” is there for some people and that is what is important and why I mention this incident. I happen to think that the term Street Photographer is very generic and it can be applied to many styles. You might think that it is something else to what I think. If you practice Street yourself, you know by now that the topic of “What is Street Photography” always leads to never ending debates. As for the other photographer I remember the incident vaguely now. I will have to check my research notes and get back to you on that. Will Lewis, rest his soul, is a more recent incident if I am not mistaken. I am grateful for your feedback. Keep the conversation going 🙂
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

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