Why You Don’t Have to Fear Street Photography

Why You Don’t Have to Fear Street Photography

If you have a camera and access to a street, you can play with street photography. Like landscape photography, it’s one of the most accessible forms of the craft. If you’re anything like me, however, it scares the hell out of you. But it doesn't have to.

I’ve gone out into the street with a nifty 50 and a DSLR to try to emulate Martin Parr's pop-art, spontaneous-but-almost-staged looking shots; Fan Ho's wonderfully geometric black and white images, or Vivian Myer's incredibly soulful scenes of silver and shadow. What can I say? I'm ambitious! (Or, delusional, depending on how you look at it.) However, when I put the camera to my face I felt a sudden wave of anxiety and fear. I’m not good at this, I thought to myself, and not for the first time, either. But this felt different. I felt that everyone was looking at me. I was worried about offending anyone or even making someone feel a little bit uncomfortable. Not for me. So I headed back to the countryside; to the sheep. They were a little less judgemental and more forgiving.

Sheep on a hill in the west of Ireland. Sunset near Dingle, County Kerry.

"Welcome baaaaack" (sorry)

Epiphany

I forgot about street for a while again, until my recent trip to the US. In late May, I headed off to New York State with my folks. This time I felt a little more sure of myself, both as a person and as a photographer. But low and behold, I was still terrified. It wasn't being in the street with a camera, per-say, it was actually trying to take photos like a seasoned street shooter. I couldn't do it because I can’t stand that moment of possible confrontation; that instant of seemingly deep connection between the photographer and their subject that makes street photography so engaging to the viewer. I love the results but I just couldn't bring myself to stick my camera in someone’s face a-la Bruce Gilden (maybe that's not such a bad thing!). But not to worry, I had a workaround. Just take photos of the scenes and of the buildings, Mike. It may seem obvious to everyone else, but this was a revelation to me, and I ended up having a great time with my camera. I felt reinvigorated because It’s such a different way of looking at scenes than what I'm used to. I’m a country boy; I take photos of the mountains and the sea, I hate high contrast scenes (mostly); but in the city, I found that the high contrast scenes produced some of my favorite images of the trip. 

Sunset in New York City. Photograph of the Flatiron building in New York. Street Photography. Travel Photography.

The setting sun illuminates one side of New York's famous Flatiron building

Easy Pickings

Other than taking photos, my time in NYC was well spent. I met up with a friend of mine who lives there and he showed me all there was to see. I did run into a little trouble, though. One night, on my way back to the hotel from my friend's place in Brooklyn, I was mugged. Oh, they saw me coming, alright. Wide-eyed and hopeful of a relaxing subway ride back to Manhattan, they spotted me. Fresh meat. Easy. I didn’t get hurt (apart from my pride), but the knuckleheads stole my camera. Thankfully, each evening I had been transferring all of my images to an external hard drive so I didn’t lose too many photos from my trip (there’s a lesson there, people). I had a ton of work waiting for me when I arrived home, however, so I needed to get a new camera. Luckily, B&H was only two blocks from where I was staying. I bought a Canon EOS Rebel T6i ( which is on SALE right now, up until midnight.) and another Canon 50mm f1.8 II (nifty fifty). I’d recommend to any Canon shooter who is looking to upgrade from the kit lens, to consider Canon’s 50mm f 1.8. It’s light, versatile, and great value for money at around $125.00.

To Conclude

I would encourage people who find it difficult to shoot street, to just look up. Experiment with the way the light plays off of the buildings. Hell, you can shoot cityscapes or create a time-lapse, just try something different. People will ignore you most of the time. Maybe, with a little more hours clocked on the street, you can try a few people shots, or even ask someone if you can take their portrait. Most people are nice, they’ll either say yes or no, it’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to get hurt. Just remember not to stop in front of a car with a running engine, while your head is buried in a phone and you're sporting a stupid grin on your face at 1:30 AM. 

Stree photography in Madisson Park, NYC. Black and white photography.

People ignore me in Madison Park.

Switching gears and taking on new challenges can feel extremely liberating, so don’t be afraid to try street photography.

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15 Comments

Life just isn't fair. I'm American and been to most of our big cities, including New York, and have never been mugged! :-( Maybe they heard your accent and were hoping to steal your pot of gold!? ;-)
Nice article!

Mike O'Leary's picture

Tell me about it! Less than 5 minutes before it happened I was asking my friend (who has been living there for 8 years) why was NYC so safe. Lol. I’m the only person he knows who has been mugged in the city...

Anonymous's picture

Outside of a few neighborhoods, it's definitely not a common occurrence. I've lived in NYC all my life and the only time I ever got mugged was in 7th grade.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Quite amazing for such a large city, really.

I am new at photography. If I take people pics, as long they are agree, can I publish their pics without fearing a court suit?

Pascal Halmingh's picture

Welcome to the wonderful world of photography! It depends on where you live. In most countries it's okay, as long as the photo was taken in a public space. In other countries, like the Netherlands, you have the 'right of portraiture' which means that anyone recognisable in your photo can request you to take it down, as they own the right to their own 'portrait'. Mind you, this does not supersede copyright. So do your homework on your local laws (or anywhere else you shoot), just to be sure.

Spy Black's picture

Walking around with a DSLR is a bit more challenging for street work. I carry a 1-inch sensor-sized camera with me at all times, which is a lot better I think for this kind of work, and is compact enough to always be with me. It's also less intimidating when shooting people, although you can always come up against people who object to being photographed. Still, I think 1-inch compacts are the new street photography kings.

Mike O'Leary's picture

I was thinking of buying something that's a bit easier to carry around. Maybe a Fuji mirrorless or the like. At this stage all my money is going back into my business so I'll have to wait. Never even considered a 1" sensor until you mentioned it. The Lumix range is looking tempting! Thanks for the suggestion.

Spy Black's picture

Fuji mirrorless is still pretty big, unless you just have to have APS-C. 1-inch is really where it's at for street, I think anyway. Yeah, the DR and noise aren't as good, but they're small enough to always be with you, and they can get surprisingly good IQ for what they are. I have several 1-inch and one tiny M4/3 Panasonic GM5, a jewel in the M4/3 stable. Worst 1-inch is Sony RX100 series. Stay away. Nikon and Panasonic are probably the best in 1-inch, even though CX is essentially dead. I also have a Canon G9X Mk II which is pretty good, although it seems to suffer from Canon compact-itis, which means after a while it's start doing funky stuff now and then, and makes you wonder if it's done or not.
1-inch cameras are decent cameras that can always be with you and be ready to capture the strange things you run across in life, in decent IQ...

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

It teaches us manners - it's not polite to photograph people without their permission and that's a dilemma, because then they start to pose - of course there are ways around that, and that's the point at which you start improving creativity.
Speaking of which - by its very nature, street photography takes us to places where zillions of photos have already been taken by countless millions over a century or more - so to actually do anything "new" or "original", we have to learn to be more creative and to improve our ability to "see". This is a real part of the fascination of street photography.
And like Sam Fargo, I've been all over - never been mugged - I did lose to a pickpocket once, though, while I was in Europe. Next time I'm wearing a money belt. :)
BTW - don't take any notice of their comments about your accent, Michael - America's own accent is around 50% Irish anyway. ROTFLMAO

Mike O'Leary's picture

You're right, Pete. Before I became interested in photography, I would have become very paranoid and felt as if my privacy was being violated. Coming from the position of a photographer, though, I can see that there is no inherent meanness or bold violation. I just want to tell a story; it's nothing personal. This is where Myer, Parr, Bresson etc., were coming from. But again, yes, I feel that I must be mindful of how other people are affected by my intrusion, however innocent it may be. Bruce Gilden is a different kettle of fish. The guy just doesn't give a s**t. Some people love him. I, personally, think what he does is extremely intrusive. I wouldn't be surprised if he has caused one or two heart attacks or panic attacks. PS If by money belt, you mean "bum-bag", please don't. You might as well draw a target on your head :)

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

No - it's a belt like any other - but stitched on the inside is a pocket, running almost the full length of the belt - and it's large enough to hold 10 grand in 100 dollar bills. The downside is you need to use a toilet or something, to pull some banknotes out - so you keep a small amount of cash handy instead, and play it out as if you're a poor person.
BTW - I learned that bit about intrusion decades back - in Hong Kong, in a small restaurant. There was an old chinese lady - probably in her 90s - quietly eating her meal. She could no long use chopsticks, so she ate with a spoon. She had an absolutely extraordinary dignity in her old age, despite her obvious handicap. The lighting was perfect. But of course the occasion was not - to invade that lady's space, by taking a photo like that, would have destroyed the value of the photo, in my mind. The chance of a shot of a lifetime - and I felt I had to pass it up. OK for me - I keep the image of that lady in the SSD wedged between my ears - but I don't have a suitable cable to download it from there into my computer, so unlike a photo print, I cannot share it with anyone else.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Ha ha. I think I've seen the type of belt you're talking about.

That's a great example of being respectful, and thinking before acting. You could always try to recreate the image using a relative.... Add you own embellishments from your cranial SSD drive as a tribute to the memory of the lady. Or maybe not. Maybe save it for yourself.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Why I use a small Canon PowerShot with a 1.5" sensor and a 24-120 equivalent zoom is because it's inobtrusive, it's pocketable (just!). And to be honest, it does take fairly high quality shots, most of the time.
I can scarcely take my full frame Nikon & Otus lenses, to shoot street stuff. But the little fellow travels with me practically every time I step out my front door, onto the sidewalk.
It's amazing how much you can see, if you always have a camera handy - and how much this improves your photography, for ALL purposes - not just street photography.

Emilykate Nappi's picture

I feel this so much, especially because my camera is silly loud. Sometimes I still go out and in close vicinity with other people I get nervous even when i'm not photographing them. Eventually I buck up and can do it, but people on the tht are a fair distance makes me nervous.