5 Tips For Budding Street Photographers

by Callan

At CaKe!, we are first and foremost, commercial and portrait photographers. However, all three of us have very different personal photography backgrounds; Kevin is very much a fashion/editorial guy, while Jingwen is a still life/nature person. My personal style is shaped on the streets, in a genre most people know as street photography. In turn, that is probably the most ill-defined genre of photography there is, which suits us street photographers just fine.

Recently, as we have gone through several critique and photo sharing sessions with fellow photographers, I have gotten some questions on street photography. Most don’t know where or how to start, especially photographers who have recently gotten into photography, so here are five tips that I freely dispense to those who want to start photographing the streets.

Melaka, Malaysia, 2009. Canon EOS 50D and Canon EF 35mm f/2.

1. Always have a camera with you 

You can’t photograph without a camera. In addition to minimising the risk of missing a photo opportunity, bringing your camera with you all the time has several advantages. First, you will get used to having the camera in your hands, improving your handling and speed. That familiarity will help you capture moments you might otherwise miss when you’re fumbling with camera settings. Second, it places you in a photographic state of mind. Most of the time, it is your state of mind matters determines your success in photographing the streets.

What camera you have doesn’t matter; it could be the latest state-of-the-art Canon EOS 1Dx, or Canon EOS 5D Mark III, or an IXUS point-and-shoot, or even the camera on your mobile phone. What matters is that you have a camera on you and prepared to use it at any time.

Marina Barrage, Singapore, 2009. Canon EOS 50D and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L.

2. Get closer to your subjects

Robert Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. This is especially true in street photographs. When I say get closer, I don’t just mean physical distance — you have to feel the connection with your subject, so emotional closeness is important as well. Given the advance of digital camera technology these days, anyone can make a decent, technically acceptable photograph, but technical perfection is not that important in a good photograph. If you have no feelings or respect towards your subject, your photographs will show that disconnect.

You don’t have to be intrusive either; pushing your lens into a person’s personal space can be intrusive and may draw a negative reaction. But if you don’t get close, you will never interact with your subjects, and that distance will leave your photos a cold, distant feeling. Street photography is all about the emotions and interactions between subjects and photographer, so remember that when you are shooting.

Little India, Singapore, 2010. Canon EOS 30 and Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II.

3. Be discreet, but don’t be sneaky

There is a significant difference. Humans, like all animals, can detect and smell fear. A lot of us do not have that ability to stay invisible, which is a great quality to have in crowded streets. I’m a great example; I’m 1.8m tall and at 95kg, I’m not a small person, and no matter how discreet and small my camera is, people will notice me. But as long as I’m respectful, and behave like I belong there, no one will feel offended by my presence, or my camera’s. The worst thing to do is to behave in a sneaky fashion; that’s when people will pounce as they perceive ill intentions.

What some folks advise is to shoot with a long lens, but I advise against that. It makes you look like a voyeur. The last time I tried to shoot in the streets with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L lens, people actively avoided me. Carrying that around just makes my presence more obvious and my intentions feel more sinister. You will not get great photographs if people think you’re a sniper.

Haji Lane, Singapore, 2011. Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L.

4. Stick to one camera and one lens

While street photography is not as physically demanding as a real sport, it takes physical effort. Using just one camera and one lens helps you shoot for longer stretches of time. Beyond that, using one combination helps your familiarity with the equipment. Most of us use one camera and one fixed-focal length (aka prime) lens, and after a while we become really intimate and familiar with the framing and composition elements of that combination. It helps your eyes “see” what the camera sees, even before bringing the camera to your eye, effectively becoming an extension of your eye.

Plus, Canon makes a lot of affordable and great prime lenses for their cameras, so it helps your wallet too! If you are looking for prime lenses, I recommend not going beyond 50mm; most of my work is done with either a 35mm or 50mm lens.

Little India, Singapore, 2010. Canon EOS 30 and Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II.

5. Grow a thick skin

Singapore is one of the friendliest cities around for street photography, but given the nature of street photography, it’s only a matter of time before you run into a confrontation. It could be someone who asks nicely for you to delete the photos that you take, or an aggressive person who will threaten to kick you. Most of the time, the fear of the latter prevents us from taking street photographs, or photographs of strangers. And most of the time, that fear is over-played.

There are several ways of overcoming that. You can start by asking permission to take a photograph, which is the recommended course of action if you are photographing children. You could also go to a typical tourist attraction, where most people have their cameras out anyway, and practice until you feel comfortable.

But nothing beats developing a thick skin. Yes, sometimes, you will get yelled at. Maybe even threatened. But stand your ground and keep shooting. After a while, you’ll get used to it, and that will translate into a confidence that will help your work.

Hualien, Taiwan, 2008. Canon EOS 450D and Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS.

That’s all from me for now. Get your camera out, keep shooting, and good hunting.

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