Opportunities to capture the spontaneous side of life abound. These are not posed portraits, but rather an unflinching study of the human condition. Exploring these emotions through your lens can reveal truth about the subject, and also yourself. Of course all worthwhile endeavors are not without challenges, and street photography is no different. Many people are uninformed about the laws, and sometimes balk at having their photo taken. After years of walking the streets with my camera at home and abroad, I’ve collected a series of tips and techniques to stay safe and capture the shot.
Shooting From the Hip
The instant you bring the camera up to your eye, everyone becomes self-aware and changes their behavior. To counter this, you can shoot from the hip, also known as the “spray and pray” technique. If you’ve never heard of it, let me explain how it works. I start by setting the camera to the high speed burst mode and choosing the single center autofocus point. I then set my exposure manually and use the lens at its widest focal length. A wide angle lens is an important consideration here, as it sees more, offering a better chance of capturing the subject.
Walking past my subject briskly, I hold the shutter button down to start the capture process. Technically I’m shooting blind as the camera is by my hip and I don’t know what it’s seeing. Since the center AF point is active, I try to aim the center of the camera towards the subject. During this high speed burst, I’ll capture anywhere from three to six photos. If aimed correctly, the autofocus will lock onto the subject in the center of the frame and achieve sharp focus.
Street scenes vanish almost as quickly as they appear. There is rarely time to fish the camera from the bag, remove the lens cap and fuss with your settings. Considering how unpredictable life can be, it’s best to prepare for anything. I start by dialing in all of my camera setting based on the existing light. The precise settings will vary depending on the existing light, but here are the main technical considerations.
1) Shoot with a fairly small aperture so you have enough depth of field to keep your subject(s) in sharp focus. As the old war photojournalists would say, “f8 and be there”, meaning put yourself in the right place at the right time, set the camera to f8, and you have a good chance to succeed.
2) Select a shutter speed of at least 1/200 which is fast enough to freeze a person walking and also prevent any camera shake. If your subjects are moving very fast, you may even opt for 1/320 or 1/500.
3) Since you’ll be using a small aperture and fast shutter speed, a high ISO will likely be required. Just how high should it be? Try 800 first and go to 1600 if the photo is still too dark. The ISO will make your camera more sensitive to the existing light, absorbing it faster and brightening up the scene. One of my workshop participants had a clever way to think of ISO with the acronym “I’m Still Off”. If your exposure is still not correct after setting your desired fstop and shutter speed, go to your last resort, the ISO.
Is it legal?
People have rights, and as a photographer, it’s important to understand exactly what they are. I’ll cut through all the misinformation and get right down to the bottom line. In America, it is absolutely legal to photograph people in public spaces without their consent. This includes streets, public parks, and sidewalks. Model releases only become necessary for commercial use and instances where the image implies that the subject endorses a certain product or statement. For editorial and artistic use, releases are not required. Now that you know your rights, consider downloading a copy should someone approach and ask what you are doing. http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf
In countries across Europe, there can be variations to these laws, so it’s advisable to familiarize yourself with their specific customs.