How do I shoot people?
April 20, 2005 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I see a hundred interesting people on the street every day, but I'm too introverted to photograph them. I have this weird fear that they'll attack me or something, like "Don't take my picture, dammit!" How do you take street photography while remaining unobtrusive?

My equipment: Olympus 35RC rangefinger. Nikon SP500 SLR. Olympus E-10 digicam. The E-10 is much too big and bulky to work for this kind of photography. The 35RC is much better but lacks autofocus, so I can't really shoot from the hip unless I want to practice my "speed math".

Alternative question: does it bother you when strangers take your picture? Should I even worry about this?
posted by selfnoise to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Whoops, I meant "Pentax/Asahi SP500".
posted by selfnoise at 10:53 AM on April 20, 2005

When I want candids, I normally shoot from the hip. Literally.

If I see someone interesting and I want a normal photograph I'll actually ask them if I can take their picture, and I'll often take more than one picture to try and get an unposed shot.
posted by bshort at 10:54 AM on April 20, 2005

Flattery will get you anything. Tell them what you see as unique about them and worthy of a picture. Get an email and offer to send them the image. Assure them that this is for your personal collection (I assume it is) and that it will not be used for commercial or underhanded purposes. I would not advise snapping without permission unless you are out of direct sight or have a good zoom lens.
posted by terrier319 at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2005

Best answer: There are some main techniques, already mentioned is shooting from the hip. Another is setting up the shot and waiting for people to walk into it. Third is a low profile camera and confidence that you're supposed to be there doing it.

I'd suggest reading the "Street & Documentary Forum" on Here is a recent post on this topic.
posted by sled at 11:02 AM on April 20, 2005

See if there's a photobloggers or photographers group in your local area that goes on outings. I've been on a few, and while we spend a lot of time taking pictures of architecture or scenery, I find that there being a group of us with cameras makes us bolder to shoot random strangers from time to time. Plus it makes you look like students in a class, which is somehow less threatening.
posted by matildaben at 11:07 AM on April 20, 2005

sometimes people mind and sometimes they don't, like anything else. So long as they're in public space, it's your right, but I have had people respond to me, or more commonly, just turn away or look down. Actually what I find worst is when people notice and find it flattering, and then start to sort of pose or smile for the picture, thereby ruining the shot.

Basically, you have to be fairly quick, possibly taking a few shots 'around' the one you want so as not to draw too much attention to the inclusion of the person. Even when people don't mind, they may be made self-conscious and you can miss the moment you were hoping to capture. I'd say practice is key; get better at prepping in seconds or taking risks with focus/light.

I once got yelled at by a guy in a park, I think because he was making a drug deal, a fact that honestly hadn't occured to me when I started to frame the picture - so sometimes you just have to think a little!
posted by mdn at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2005

Shooting from the hip works, and so does staying further from the subject than you would prefer, and cropping your image later. Asking people is easier at events where they're out to see and be seen. Clubs, protests, anything involving costumes and/or alcohol.

Any kind of surreptitious photography is easier with a camera that has a quiet shutter. Those mirror-flipping thunk-thud-wham SLR's will let everyone within five feet know what you're up to.

My favorite trick is to use old, strange cameras. (I've done this with a folding Zeiss rangefinder and an Agfa box.) I'll mutter to myself and push buttons. Instead of realizing that they're being photographed, they think I have no idea what I'm doing. I wind up looking like a dumbass, but I don't care if that means I got the shot I wanted.

If all of that fails, a broad smile and a "Hi, I'm an art student" will get you into or out of most situations. I've had success with strangers for that. People like being put into art.
posted by cmyk at 11:16 AM on April 20, 2005

I am the photographer in my office. Part of my job is to take photos of new construction projects that my office oversees. It never fails that when I go to take the photos I'm stopped by a construction foreman or other site personnel in order to explain just who I am and why I have a camera. Ever since 9/11 I'm often told that I can't be taking pictures because of "national security" (like a Welcome Center is a haven for national secrets). I've also been accused of working for OSHA.

My advice? Take your photos and then get gone, quick. In my experience people do not like having their picture taken if they're not expecting it. Asking for permission beforehand tends to make people paranoid. I show up for photo duty well dressed and with company ID and yet people are afraid of the camera.

And on a related note, watch where you carry your camera when you're not using it. One time I was out taking photos and, with the camera off, I accidentally stumbled into the local secret sorority sunbathing yard while walking down the street to the next construction site. Bikini-clad and semi-topless girls are not happy when a guy with a camera walks by, I can tell you that.
posted by Servo5678 at 11:17 AM on April 20, 2005

In Times Sq, some years ago, I saw a street vendor--a fellow of African heritage--react with rage against a hapless tourist--a White woman--who snapped his photo. (I mention these differences, because the situation seemed to have racial overtones to me at the time.) She meant no harm, I'm sure, but he took great offense and gave her an intense verbal lashing. Looked like she wished she could have melted into the sidewalk.
posted by found missing at 11:18 AM on April 20, 2005

So long as they're in public space, it's your right

this is in the UN declaration of human rights, or something you just made up? in which case is it also my right to punch you on the nose if i find you doing it. because i, at least, object to this. it's intrusive and aggressive. if i find you taking a picture of me i'll frown at you. if you don't point that camera elsewhere i will come across and make an issue of it.

so, in my opinion, the original poster is right. it's embarassing and difficult because you shouldn't be doing it.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:24 AM on April 20, 2005

I'll repeat: If you are in a public space you are perfectly allowed by law to do this.

I had a photography teacher who suggested offering money to people.

Also, he said he knew a photographer that got away with a lot of candid shooting by treating it like a game. Gotcha!
posted by xammerboy at 11:33 AM on April 20, 2005

Also, The Photographer's Right is a useful bit of information. Learn it, print it out, keep a copy in the gear bag.
posted by cmyk at 11:40 AM on April 20, 2005

allowed by law to do this

ok, that's a different position from it being a right, which has moral implications. a lot of things are legal, but people still refrain from doing them out of respect for others.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:42 AM on April 20, 2005

Boors aside, it's your right to take photos of anything you have a mind to that's visible from public.

That said, there are indeed people out there who believe they have rights to confrontation or even physical violence in reaction to your rights to free speech, so one thing I like to do is pretend to be taking a closeup photo of something that is actually extremely out of focus and foregrounding whatever is going on, in focus, in the background. It is not always feasible to set up shots like this, but it's one more option to go with the ones listed above.
posted by Tuwa at 11:44 AM on April 20, 2005

Years ago, a photographer for a newspaper took my picture, longing in a peaceful spring-time park. I walked up to him, told him I wouldn't sign any release, and to please stop photographing me.

Soon afterward, the paper went out of business, but I don't think that was because they didn't have a picture of me.

Some of us really don't want to be photographed by strangers. Please respect that.
posted by orthogonality at 11:50 AM on April 20, 2005

A. Cooke, a photographer most certainly has the right to photograph you if you're in a public space. There's nothing illegal about it. (Here's a statement of photographers' rights.) You do, as you say, have the right to go punch the photographer in the nose; however, your action is against the law.
posted by jdroth at 11:51 AM on April 20, 2005

This is awesome, I'm just starting trying to do this. Taking pictures of things is fun, taking pictures of people is awesome.

I have to say, I'm scared of the same thing, that someone will get mad and smash my camera or demand the film/that I erase (when using my digital). One trick I've found on the train is to fiddle with the camera a LOT. It makes you looking like you're just adjusting it, and you can slip in a picture when people have lost interest in what you're doing. Also, sometimes you can catch the reflections of people if they're near a shop window or a train window or mirror, etc.
posted by agregoli at 11:55 AM on April 20, 2005

What you need is a digital camera with one of the swing-out LCD screens, like a camcorder. That way you don't have to hold it up to your face to take a picture. In fact it can look like you're not even taking pictures at all, when in fact you are.

Unfortunately the quality of pictures you get from a camera like this, even the good ones, tends to have a large depth of field and a lot of noise (grain). Using an SLR (film or digital) will get you much better pictures, but it will definitely signal when you're taking a picture.
posted by kindall at 11:56 AM on April 20, 2005

Oooh, and the 9/11 comment is right on - places are a lot touchier now. I was inside a lobby of a building that included some businesses, and they had a cool art exhibit up. Before I took out my camera, I approached a security guard and asked if I could take photos of the art. He was SO happy to have been asked, and told me it was perfectly fine, but he asked if I would only shoot away from the direction of the bank in the far corner. I complied, no problem. I know that we both would have been irritated and perhaps a little frightened if we had to meet after I'd started shooting without permission.

So sometimes it is a good idea to ask, depending where you are.
posted by agregoli at 11:59 AM on April 20, 2005

Response by poster: Kindall-

The E-10 actually does have a swing-out that swings up. The lens does decently on depth-of-field as well. The camera is also enormous, though, so it's annoying to lug everywhere. And I have a lot of trouble getting good pictures from the E-10 so lately I've just stopped bringing it.


Know what you mean. I sometimes shoot cityscapes on top of parking garages, and I occasionally worry about finding a SWAT team waiting for me on the stairs back down.

(great thread so far btw, thanks for all the input everyone)
posted by selfnoise at 12:03 PM on April 20, 2005

As others have mentioned, and if appropriate under the circumstances, get a little comfortable with your target. Just drum up some casual conversation, then mention what you're doing and what some of your goals are. Assuming things have gone well you can just tell them to carry on for a few minutes and politely ignore you as you shuffle about for the right shot and then move on. This question reminded me of my favorite "photo-blogger." I'd assume he follows similar patterns, as each image is usually paired with a quote or other bit of text explaining the situation.
posted by prostyle at 12:06 PM on April 20, 2005

I have various reactions but so far no one has given me a verbal lashing. Most of the people I've photographed haven't minded or have been curious as to what I was doing - a few have even asked to have the pictures taken once they knew I was doing some project or other. I've found the ones who don't want their picture taken typically will face away from the camera or move elsewhere. But I am also a female living in Canada so YMMV.

Try using hyperfocal distancing with the rangefinder, it'll allow you to focus more on framing the subject rather than having to figure out whether the subject will be in focus or not, only caveat is with this technique you'll have a large depth of field and you might not want that.

I really don't like having my picture taken either but I'm in public and there is nothing preventing someone else from taking a picture so I move out of the way or turn my back to the camera.
posted by squeak at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2005

I dislike having my picture taken even by people I know, so I definitely don't like strangers doing it. But I don't have any objection to being asked about it, and possibly I might say yes. Somebody who shoots me without permission, however, is being rude, regardless of laws or rights.

That said, though, I do think there's a difference in somebody taking a picture of a crowd that I just happen to be in, or a building that I just happen to be in front of, and somebody taking a picture specifically of me. It's only the latter that bothers me.
posted by JanetLand at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2005


Just take the pictures you want, and if they begin to have a reaction like they're cross -- which is rare, by the way -- just wave your hand at them with an irritated get-out-of-the-way motion and pretend you were shooting something behind them. They *always* apologise and move.

Or if you see someone approaching, take a picture of where they're going to be, then take another picture with them in shot, then another after they've gone. They'll think you were taking the tree or something, and their expression will be entirely normal as they pass through. If they stop, just wave 'em on.

Oh, and set your focus to about eight feet, f/8, 1/125 and stop worrying about the settings. Just bosh the release when appropriate.
posted by bonaldi at 12:12 PM on April 20, 2005

Oh, and as for rudeness etc, you're not out there to be a nice member of humanity and keep everybody happy. Hell, you're not ever likely to see these people again.

You're there to make great photography, and you won't get what you want with self-aware subjects that you've chatted to beforehand.
posted by bonaldi at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2005

John Brownlow has a good article about overcoming shyness/nervousness in doing street photography, including photos of people. Excerpt: "Be open about what you are doing. Don’t be sneaky. Being sneaky is what gets people in trouble. For what it’s worth, no one has objected to me taking their picture for over a year. About 500 rolls of film., 18,000 shots. Not bad odds." And this is a guy who works at a distance of 6 - 8 feet from the people he's photographing.

I'm not nearly as gutsy as him, but I keep trying to push the boundaries of my comfort zone.
posted by Kat Allison at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2005

I've never once had a problem with street photography. The secret? Smile. Practice the honest, good-natured, slightly-bumbling smile. Think of it as a security investment in your equipment for violent sociopaths like Andrew who somehow equate "taking a picture" with "physical violence."

That said, if you see someone clearly doesn't want their picture taken, it's definately in your best interest to refrain. Learn to frame, expose, and get the heck out of Dodge before anyone's the wiser.

Also, a big-honking zoom lens is a good investment. Not only can you zero-in on your subject from a safe distance, but the shallow depth of field you'll get from a BHZL is generally more flattering to the subject.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:14 PM on April 20, 2005

Oh, one more thing: use your spare (cheap) camera, not the fancy (expensive) one. Just in case.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:15 PM on April 20, 2005

just wave your hand at them with an irritated get-out-of-the-way motion and pretend you were shooting something behind them.

Bonaldi, you're a genius.
posted by cmyk at 12:16 PM on April 20, 2005

I think I'd have a hard time feeling OK with myself if I was taking photos of people in public using a "shoot from the hip" method or "hide with a big zoom" technique. My suggestion is to stand in the middle of a crowd with your camera firmly planted up against your face. The people who don't want to be photographed will get out of your way, the others will stay. I don't think there's any harm in taking picutres of people in public when they're unaware of it, but trying to hide your intentions too much seems sketchy to me.
posted by soplerfo at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2005

ok, that's a different position from it being a right, which has moral implications.

No, a right is that which is secured by the government as something you may do. It is also your right to express racist opinions, for instance. Whether something is a right is not dependent on whether you personally consider it ethical or polite. Taking public pictures is a right. To my mind, it is also perfectly ethical. I can see a case being made for its not being polite, but I don't think it is harmful to other people, and I believe the positive results of it (candid photography of human beings) outweight the negative sides (people feeling momentarily indignant that their personal space was not respected enough).

You do not have the right to punch me in the nose for it. That is assault, and assaulting others in not protected action (quite the reverse).

Again, I would focus on being casual, taking multiple pictures and not making it obvious that any particular individual is being focused on. This is artistically significant, too, unless you are specifically going for shots of people reacting to cameras.
posted by mdn at 12:52 PM on April 20, 2005

A few months back, there was a good thread about this on Flickr.
posted by Remy at 1:03 PM on April 20, 2005

I find that the only people who really get pissed about you taking their picture are homeless people. They are really sensitive to this, I think because many of them are hiding from the police or their family and are worried that their photo will be in the paper or something. I did a photo essay a while ago for school on the services that were available in SLC for the homeless. These guys would always say to me "You're invading my privacy" and I would say "No, I'm sorry, but, you're in a public place, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy". But, if someone asks me to not take their picture; I'll always comply.

Anyway, for the most part, no one will ever call you on this. If they do, just say you're a photographer and this is what you do. Or say that you weren't taking their picture, you were taking a picture of the building behind them. I think every photographer goes through a period where they are self-concious about what they are doing.
posted by trbrts at 1:22 PM on April 20, 2005

You have the right (in general) to take photographs of people in public places. However, commercial use of those photographs is not allowed. If it's a recognizable likeness of a private individual (i.e. you can see their face) you can't use the picture to make money, even if the picture was taken in a public place.
Leonard Duboff, in his book The Photographer's Business and Legal Handbook, tells us that violations can be categorized in four ways: 1) when we intrude upon another’s seclusion to make our photograph, 2) when our photograph makes private facts public, 3) when our photograph would cause the average, reasonable person to believe something
about the subject that isn’t true, and finally, 4) when we use our photograph of a person for commercial gain.
Quoted from here. I'll admit I've not verified the information rigorously, but it matches what I've seen elsewhere.
posted by buxtonbluecat at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2005

I can see a case being made for its not being polite, but I don't think it is harmful to other people, and I believe the positive results of it (candid photography of human beings) outweight the negative sides (people feeling momentarily indignant that their personal space was not respected enough).

What if a stranger snaps pictures of your pre-adolescent in the playground or on the ballfield? Damn right I wanna know who that person is and what they are up to. And yes, I might get indignant enough to risk a physical confrontation in such a situation. Among other things, the mass distribution of the Internet and the easy ability to manipulate images, makes a good case for re-examining this "right."

I have also always been curious about the faces of restaurant patrons often being intentionally blurred when the shots end up in publication. While it may not be illegal to show the faces, it seems that editors use careful judgment to ensure they are not mass distributing images of individuals that may not want to be seen sitting together.
posted by terrier319 at 1:48 PM on April 20, 2005

Boors aside, it's your right to take photos of anything you have a mind to that's visible from public.

Tell that to the officer when you start snapping pictures of bridges and tunnels in NYC and many other jumpy places. If you persist, you will get a chance to sort out your legal rights after a night in Rikers.

That Olympus 35RC should be a great camera for shooting from the hip. It certainly is quiet. It has a 42mm lens? That is perhaps a bit long for this but should work fine. A little shorter focal length provides a better depth of field and helps get the subject in the frame when you can't really aim. You need to crop more, but with decent film you can do some pretty serious cropping before the image degrades unacceptably.
posted by caddis at 2:01 PM on April 20, 2005

publishing images of others is a different thing from taking the pictures to begin with. Using pictures in advertising or intentional/non-artistic uses requires permission. You cannot use my image to advertise dog food without my permission - what if I am personally opposed to the company or product?

My image as "my image", ie, a photograph representing me just as a person with an expression, which can be interpreted just as widely as it could have been if you had seen me directly yourself, does not seem to cross lines in my view, although if the photographer is making money by selling prints one could make a case for my having rights there.

Obviously using my image to misrepresent me (photoshopping the image, or using it in a context which implies certain beliefs or tendencies on my part, ie, that I endorse this dog food-) is unfair to me. But the straight photograph, as an image of a human being, does not seem to be invasive or problematic. I understand that people disagree with this, but remember that anything you do in public is witnessed by other people. That's what public space means. Even if they don't take photos of you, other people might think about you or your kids or whatever after having seen you - and you just can't get stuck on that. Somewhere out there, some perv is daydreaming about you or someone you love! But, you know, it really won't negatively impact your life in the end.
posted by mdn at 2:13 PM on April 20, 2005

Among other things, the mass distribution of the Internet and the easy ability to manipulate images, makes a good case for re-examining this "right."

I think we did that back during the printing press days, when high-speed film became available, when video tape and cameras became consumer iteams, and also again during the photostat days. And I'm pretty sure each time we ended up with the same idea: If you don't want pictures of your kids being taken, take them to a McDonald's PlayPlace instead of an outdoor playground. If you don't like that option, save up and build the jungle gym in the basement.

I figure another examination of laws like that would be a bit boring at this point, and would end up with the same results as all the other times have.
posted by shepd at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2005

I was once on a subway train in chicago. There was a bum, with most of his uneaten lunch on his stomach and chest, he was laying down on the seats. I took some pictures of him and didn't think much of it. Later in the ride, he woke up and someone told that I had taken his picture. He came over to me and threatened my life. I tried to explain to him that upon exhibiting the picture, that it may, raise awareness about homelessness. He was not impressed!
posted by lee at 3:02 PM on April 20, 2005

Lots of people are skeptical about the long-zoom technique of candid photography. The masters of the craft, you'll note, rarely take their photographs from a great distance.
posted by kindall at 4:49 PM on April 20, 2005

There was a great site linked on MeFi a few months back, where a guy asked people on the street what they were thinking the instant before he stopped them (anybody ID this?). Their answers were interesting, and the photos were excellent. So, invent a survey, and while the subjects are thinking of a response, ask if you can take their picture. The old head fake.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:03 PM on April 20, 2005

I've never done much street photography, but I always thought it might be amusing to pick a spot in the view of one of those "security" surveillance cameras, of which there are many in most cities I've been to, and take pictures of people walking past. Anyone complains, just point out that they're already on video tape as well.
posted by sfenders at 5:27 PM on April 20, 2005

A photograher friend of mine uses the following technique. He asks permission, takes a few 'posed' snaps, waits till their attention wanders off and then snaps a few candids.
posted by dhruva at 6:40 PM on April 20, 2005

Best answer: Also, a big-honking zoom lens is a good investment. Not only can you zero-in on your subject from a safe distance, but the shallow depth of field you'll get from a BHZL is generally more flattering to the subject.

No, no, no, no. Well, a big honking zoom could be a good investment, but only if you're into taking pictures of birds or sports. But they're bad for street photography.

Someone else's essay on how Telephoto is for Cowards

If anything, street photography is better with a very wide lens (self-link) as in here or here. I personally prefer this sort of perspective, and there's the additional advantage that you don't have to aim your camera directly at your subject.

That being said, I still find my best street photography NOT to be where I was shooting from the hip or pretending to take pictures of something else, but actually going up to that person (assuming this person isn't walking briskly away from you down the sidewalk), chatting with that person while your camera is clearly visible, asking to take a couple of posed shots (which I'll later discard), and when they're finally oblivious to my presence, snapping away. Street photography is not running up, snapping a pic or two, and getting the hell out of Dodge. It's about getting to know those people and interacting.
posted by alidarbac at 7:37 PM on April 20, 2005

alidarbac - Bingo!
posted by terrier319 at 8:16 PM on April 20, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the suggestions, everyone.

I'm starting to think that street photography is just not for me... I'm not good at chatting people up and it does seem a bit icky to shoot random unsuspecting people.

It was fascinating reading, anyway. *tiptoes back to taking pictures of buildings and trees*
posted by selfnoise at 8:02 AM on April 21, 2005

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