Much has been said -- both good and bad -- about the explosive growth of mobile devices in photography. But whether you’re a staunch supporter of the mobile movement, or one of its detractors, there’s no denying that there’s one genre of photography that mobile devices seem absolutely perfect for: street photography.
Devices like smartphones are tailor-made for taking candid pics of strangers in public. They’re small, discreet and always with you. And while some may argue the lack of optical zoom in most smartphones (don’t even bother with digital zooms, please) is a con for street shots, I vehemently disagree and say it’s actually a plus. Smartphones allow you to get super close to the action, and become part of the scene -- delivering much more personal and therefore meaningful photos. Optical zooms are great for shooting safaris, concerts, sports and other things you can’t normally get close to. But street photography is about shooting people, and if you can’t get close to them to take your photograph, then you’re just not connecting with your subjects to begin with. It’s that intimate connection that really makes a difference in street shots. As Robert Capa once said: "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough."
So what exactly is street photography? Wikipedia defines it as “a type of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places.” A common misunderstanding, however -- especially in the mobile photography community -- is that street photography can mean any photo that’s taken on a street. But that’s not exactly accurate. For example, photos of just buildings, graffiti on a wall or flowers in a pot -- while technically shot on a street -- are more accurately defined as architectural, documentary or nature photography. There are numerous types of photography that can be taken on a street, but street photography generally involves people and is candid.
Street photography has been popular for over a century, and became widespread (for obvious reasons) once cameras became more portable. Well-known masters of the genre include Henri Cartier-Bresson (who popularized the term “the decisive moment”), Robert Frank (known for his groundbreaking book “The Americans”), Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt and many more, too numerous to name here. Street photography is considered a raw reflection of regular life and society around us. It’s often ironic, can sometimes evoke an emotion, or simply give us insight into the human condition. The best street photographers, in my opinion, have a clear respect for their subjects -- even if those subjects aren’t always aware that they are being photographed. The more respect you have, the better (and easier) your street photography will be -- especially when shooting with a mobile device.
This article will break down some of the basics you'll need to know before you try street photography yourself, while also discussing the philosophy and approach of shooting candids that's quite different than most other types of photography out there.
Using the right device
I’ll refer primarily to the iPhone here (and related iOS apps) as that’s what I personally use. It’s also been rated highly in numerous tests and reviews (see Connect’s own review of the iPhone 5). Sure, there may be smartphones with more megapixels (like Nokia’s 808 Pureview), but megapixels alone are not what’s most important in street photography. Besides having an incredible lens and sensor, the iPhone also features the unbeatable Apple App Store that contains thousands more (and better) camera and editing apps than any other mobile system out there -- many of which offer fine-tuned control over focus and exposure. It’s the total package -- the combination of camera, software and hardware -- that just can’t be beat for street photography.
The iPhone 4, 4S and 5 are all great cameras (though I still managed to take great pics even when I was on my first generation iPhone -- there’s something to be said for the lo-fi charm of earlier models). The latest iPod Touch’s 5MP camera is similar to the iPhone 4 and very capable as a camera too (especially with that handy-dandy loop it now comes with to help ensure you won't accidentally drop your device).
That said, a lot of the tips mentioned here can apply to any mobile device (or camera, for that matter), as the best street photography has always been about capturing the right moment, and not necessarily super-sharp, perfectly-exposed images. Just do not try taking street photos with your iPad, please -- or any other tablet on the market, no matter how good a camera it may have. Not even the new iPad Mini. It’s still too large and by no means “discreet.” The most effective street photography is when you’re as “invisible” as possible.
1). Before you take a single shot, make sure the sound on your phone is off (you can always switch to “Vibrate on Silent” in the Settings app so you don’t miss any important calls). This may seem super obvious, but I’ve been surprised to learn how many people don’t actually do this first. Trust me -- you don’t want your camera's "shutter" sound to go off when you’re trying to be sneaky and discreet.
2). If you’re planning to shoot for a while, try turning off all notifications for the duration to avoid any unnecessary distractions. (There’s nothing more annoying then when you’re in the middle of framing the perfect shot, and suddenly you get an alert saying it’s your turn to play on Words With Friends). Better yet, if you don’t expect to get any important phone calls, switch your phone to “Airplane Mode” to ensure no interruptions whatsoever. An extra bonus is that you’ll use less battery power while you’re at it!
3). Speaking of power: if you plan to be out all day shooting, make sure you don’t run out of it. Keep a power cord handy in case you need to recharge somewhere. Or consider investing in a battery case or external charger -- they are lifesavers!
4). Street photography needs to be captured quickly, which means you need to fire up your preferred camera app as fast as possible whenever you see those amazing moments unfolding. On the iPhone, the built-in camera app has the quickest access of any other app, as it’s just an upwards flick of the camera icon from the lockscreen. However, the native camera app is still very limited. It may be the fastest, but it doesn’t offer pro controls such separate focus and exposure. Try using some more advanced shooting apps such as ProCamera, Camera+, 645 Pro, PureShot, etc. (or Camera ZOOM FX on Android) -- but make sure they are easily accessible and at least on your first home screen (and not in a folder). Better yet, place your favorite shooting app in your dock so it’s always there no matter what home screen you’re on. And for even faster access, pre-load the app and have it open and ready, and then put your phone back in your pocket so when you take it out later and unlock it to shoot, the app’s already on.
Holding your phone
How you hold your smartphone will make a huge difference in how effective you are taking candid street shots. One of the most important tips? Learn to shoot one-handed.
I know what you're thinking: "But I get more steady shots when I'm holding the camera with both hands!" This may seem like the case, but it's not always true. First of all, you're going to look twice as obvious that you're taking a photograph when using two hands -- and you don't want that. Remember, the idea is to be "invisible." When you hold the phone with one hand, while tapping at a shutter button on the screen with a finger of your other hand, it's a clear signal to everyone around you that you're trying to take a pic. Second, the fact that you might "jab" at that button may mean you're slightly moving the phone, which could result in blurrier images. Practice using one hand only to hold and trigger a shot (with your thumb).
An important thing to also consider, is that in most shooting apps (ProCamera being an exception), a photo is actually taken when your finger is released from the shutter button, not when you first push down on it. This will help greatly in taking quicker, more stable shots.
Also try holding the phone at angles that aren't directly in front of you. You may want to practice taking photos while the phone is closer to your waist, for example. But try to look somewhere other than down at your screen, so as to not arouse suspicion. I know it may be hard to imagine shooting "blind," but it's possible -- though it takes a lot of trial and error. Try taking shots of friends or inanimate objects (that would be at the same height/distance of people on the street), and see how well you do with your framing. If you're off a bit, adjust your angles accordingly until you get it right. This is a "safer" approach to take at first, but the more comfortable you get at taking candids later on, the more bold you'll find yourself getting -- and you'll start to care more about achieving the perfect composition before any concern of whether or not anyone "spots" you.
Finally, try shooting in landscape mode whenever possible. Not only will this produce more eye-pleasing street compositions, but simply holding the phone this way will be slightly less conspicuous. Think about it: most people taking a picture with their phone hold it in portrait mode, as it's the most "natural" way of holding the device. So when others see you holding it that way, it seems more likely you might take a photo. In contrast, usually the only reason to hold it sideways is if you're playing a game, looking at a map, texting someone to use the bigger touchscreen keyboard or some other activity not usually associated with picture-taking. Take advantage of this belief!
Zone focusing and exposure
In most instances, your phone’s native camera app might be the quickest to fire up, but you'll have to wait for the combined focus/exposure to read adjust each time for every shot, and the automatic settings won’t always reflect what you want. Unfortunately, you won't be able to split focus and exposure separately -- resulting in some not-so-perfect shots each time.
A better way to shoot is by using one of the more pro shooting apps mentioned above, and then pre-adjust the focus ahead of time. If you plan to shoot only subjects that are 5-6 feet in front of you for example, then use a wall (or the back of a person that's standing still) that's at that same distance to pre-focus on first, and then lock that focus into place (different apps have different ways to lock focus, so consult the app’s instructions). Now, when you walk around and photograph people, you'll know that anyone who enters an area of space about 5-6 feet in front of you will be in focus. You can also stand still at a crowded spot and wait for people to come to you and only shoot people while they're at that same distance.
The same pre-adjusting can be done with exposure too, but it's a bit more tricky. Depending at what angle the sunlight is shining down, and what angle you're facing at any given time, you may need to re-adjust the exposure accordingly. If an area is extremely well lit, and you plan to only photograph people while in sunlight, aim the camera toward the sky and lock the exposure there. When you bring it back down to street level, you'll notice only the people directly in sunlight will be beautifully illuminated (but not overblown), while everything else will be in dark shadows -- creating a very dramatic look.
What you don’t want is for any area of your photo to be blown out with white highlights. It’s almost better to slightly under-expose an image, because at least all of the digital information will still be there (and can then be brought back to life in photo editing apps like Snapseed (now on Android as well as iOS), Filterstorm, Camera+, Perfectly Clear and many others). Otherwise, when an area is blown out, that digital info is lost forever -- and no amount of editing can bring it back.
Be aware of backgrounds and surroundings
Street photography has to be fast and spontaneous most times, and so it’s not always easy to get the “perfect” background with every shot. But it’s important to be mindful of backgrounds whenever possible and adjust your position/composition accordingly.
When focusing on a single subject, you want the background to be as “clean” with as few distractions as possible. If you’re photographing an interesting character who’s walking down the street towards you, try to not get a shot that’s just straight down the sidewalk, as there’s a strong chance there will be other people behind that person, which will draw the viewer’s attention away. Instead, try to step toward the curb, and angle your frame toward a building so that the building (instead of the long length of the sidewalk) becomes the background. Hopefully it will be more appropriate and cleaner, and therefore spotlight your subject even more. Don’t wait too long, however, as the closer the subject is to you, the harder it will be to get a non-blurry shot.
Be careful of any elements that are sticking out from behind your subjects, especially around their heads. If there’s a pole or something else that looks like it’s coming out of their ear, it can ruin what may have been a great shot.
Also be very mindful of light and where it falls within the frame of where you’re shooting. If your subject happens to be in the shade, but there is sunlight on background elements, your subject will end up too dark, while the background will become overblown. Try adjusting your angle so that the entirety of the frame is within the shade to allow for a more even exposure throughout. If it seems too dark, you can always brighten it back up when editing.
Find your story
Now with all the technical considerations out of the way, let's talk about some of the most important elements of street photography, like finding a “story” to tell, and your overall attitude and approach.
While street photography is technically any candid photo of one or more people in a public place, a photo of an average person just walking or on the phone isn’t all that exciting. Knowing the basic elements of good photography (great lighting, excellent composition, etc.) is helpful, of course -- and there is a ton of information on the Internet to help you get started with those basics. But really, the key to amazing street photography is simply finding a good story.
So what is it that you hope to say with your photographs? If you were to describe your pics to someone else, without actually showing them, would they sound interesting? A common mistake people make when starting out is simply to shoot anything they see on the street, without much rhyme or reason. They shoot, shoot, shoot at anything that moves, and hope that something interesting ends up in their photo roll. Often there may be a couple of shots that end up having nice lighting, or an interesting aesthetic, and so those are the images that end up being shared on social media. But those photos don’t actually show anything that interesting happening, or don’t have compelling characters. They don’t have a story. So while some may be pretty or interesting, they’re ultimately forgettable.
A good way to “train” your eye to find good stories happening around you is to go to public places and observe, and to not take out your camera to shoot. Instead, watch what’s happening around you and look for interesting characters or “decisive moments” that catch your eye. Yes, it will be painful to only observe these moments and not capture them with your camera, but trust me, this will help you in the long run. Keep a journal in a Notes app of the best “photos” you witnessed but didn’t take. Read them back to someone else later. If this other person agrees these would have made good photos, then you’re on to something. If not, keep trying.
The point of this exercise isn’t to suppress your instinct to shoot. If you feel inclined to press the shutter button, there’s usually some reason for it. But by training yourself to look for those moments that really matter, or those subjects that really stand out and that tell some sort of story, then you will strengthen your focus -- and you’ll find yourself with much more meaningful shots in your camera roll that make more of an impact upon your viewers.
In this day and age of mobile photography, there is an over-saturation of people sharing images on social media channels. You really want your photos to stand out and SAY something, and for people to stop and take notice.
Attitude and approach
Taking candid shots of total strangers can seem quite intimidating. Many first-timers (and even people who have been doing it for years) often fear that they'll be "caught" taking photographs of others, either by the actual subjects themselves or by other people nearby. It's important to ask yourself why you're taking candid photos in the first place. Are you planning to use these photos for nefarious purposes? Are you stalking someone? We would really hope that’s not the case.
Most likely, your purpose is the same as most other street photographers -- an attempt to capture the magic of life around you, document your city, create beautiful art, etc. -- and therefore you should have nothing to worry about. The right frame of mind makes all the difference, and it’s also important to treat your subjects with the utmost respect. When you take someone else’s picture, ask yourself that if it was you, would you be OK with it being “out there” for the public to see? Always try and get honest portrayals of people whenever you can.
With noble intentions on your side, you’ll become more confident and secure when you're shooting candids. You'll notice that the better you feel about what you're doing (and provided you've mastered all the technical aspects above), the easier it will be to achieve street photography without your subjects being aware of you (or if they are, not caring that much).
What you don’t want to be while shooting is nervous, self-conscious or feeling guilty about what you're doing. As soon as any of these emotions enter the picture, it starts to become reflected in your body language and affects your photo-taking -- and it will throw off your game completely.
If you’re using the above techniques and methods, while having the right attitude, you’ll be surprised by how “invisible” you become. But in the rare case someone does spot you, the worst that can happen is they might ask you if you took their picture. And the worst way to react to this question is by lying and looking suspicious. This will just make the situation worse.
So don’t ever let it get to that point! Instead, approach the situation with a completely different attitude. Be upbeat, and very positive, and tell them you took their photo because you liked their look. Show them the pic, and ask them if they’d like a copy sent to them. Being super friendly and direct with them will usually catch the person off guard, and make them less likely to be mad at you. Be sure to have a folder on your phone already set up with any other candids that you’ve taken so you can show examples and explain to the person that you’re trying to practice your street photography skills. By this point, they probably won’t ask you to delete the photo -- but if they still do, by all means delete it! You can always get other great photos.
Permissions and the law
Many people wonder if permission is needed before taking someone’s picture, and whether it is even ethical to take someone’s photo without them knowing. You can certainly try asking someone if they wouldn’t mind that you took their photo -- however, be aware that by doing this the type of photography that you do will change from “street photography” to “street portraiture.” It’s an important distinction to make. Both approaches can yield amazing results, but they are different. Once someone is aware that you are taking their photo, they often put up a “shield” and their attitude can completely change as they put on a “camera face,” which isn’t usually what attracted you to the person in the first place. It’s then an entirely different skill to get people comfortable enough to be photographed in their “true” state again.
It's also important to understand the laws of shooting candids of people on the street where you live. In the United States, it's perfectly OK to take photos of anyone as long as it's in a public place. Download the Photographer’s Rights app for iOS (or seek out a similar one if you use a different platform) for information specific to any country. It ultimately comes down to whether or not you feel it’s necessary to ask permission or not. As for ethics, that’s debatable. Just remember that all of us are being recorded in public almost all the time, especially in big cities -- there are security cameras virtually everywhere we go. It’s very hard not to be captured on camera these days, and no one is ever “asking” us for permission in those instances.
Usually when someone is bothered by the thought of their picture being taken, it’s because they’re uncomfortable with the notion of where the picture will ultimately end up. That’s why it’s important to know where you can ultimately share your photos, and what you’re ultimately allowed to do with them (the following applies at least to the U.S.):
- Taking people’s photos in a public place without their permission.
- Sharing such photos in any kind of social media.
- Using photos for any journalistic purpose, as in a magazine, newspaper or blog.
- Printing photos in a book that serves a specific artistic purpose to represent the photographer’s style.
- Displaying photos in a gallery, and even selling one-time prints.
What’s NOT allowed:
- Using images of people in any form of advertising that implies an endorsement for a product or service.
- Using someone’s image in a way that misrepresents them in a way that’s damaging to their reputation, or displays them in a negative light (another reason to always treat your subjects with the utmost respect).
- Using someone’s image for continual commercial profit, such as in printing postcards, T-shirts, and other products.
You can, however, get around the “not allowed” restrictions above by getting someone to agree to fill out a standard “model release.” You can do this if you’ve asked their permission first, or even try to do it after you’ve taken a candid shot of them. No need to carry these releases with you -- just search “model release” in your app store and you’ll find plenty of free (and paid) apps suitable for your needs that you can always have with you. Be aware that most of these apps will ask for a ton of personal information from your subject, which most people won’t be willing to do for a total stranger. However, if you can manage to get people to sign a release, it will free you to do a lot more with those photos. (But again, this then becomes "street portraiture" which is much different than "street photography.")
Practice, practice, practice
I can’t stress how much continued practice makes perfect. I used to be terrified of taking photographs of strangers, but now it’s just second nature. Again, as mentioned above, attitude and your intent is very important. Once you have the right approach, the rest is easy.
Anton Kawasaki (@anton_in_nyc), has become known for his intimate and candid street portraits, which capture the people of New York in "moments" that express love, despair, humor, and the multitude of emotions that make up daily life. His images have been featured in several magazines and in exhibitions in various cities around the world. He co-teaches a series of online workshops on mobile photography, and is a visual storyteller/mobile photographer for hire. He currently resides in Brooklyn with his husband Sion Fullana -- a pioneer in the mobile photography movement.
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