In the century and a half or so that we've had the ability to capture images on film and print them, photography has branched into as many different types as there are people taking pictures. And with the advent of digital cameras and cameras built into smartphones, there are a lot of people out there snapping pictures.
Some people prefer landscapes, like the majestic black-and-white images of Ansel Adams. Others admire the commercial portraiture of photographers like Annie Leibovitz. But urban photography, also called street photography, has been part of the art since the earliest days of the camera. Pioneers of the form like Henri Cartier-Bresson captured people talking, arguing, kissing, sipping coffee at outdoor cafés and generally going about their daily lives. He called the perfect street shot the "decisive moment," a phrase that has inspired and vexed urban photographers for decades.
Urban photography is one of the easiest areas to explore, as it requires very little special equipment beyond a camera (and curiosity). Here are a few tips to get you started and maybe even improve your street photography skills.
Always Carry Your Camera
The best urban photographers always have a camera with them. The strap is usually around their neck or wrapped around their right wrist -- in either case, it the camera always at the ready. The point is, it isn't in a bag or tucked into a pocket. "To hit the decisive moment," says Jake Shivery, proprietor of Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, Ore., "you have to be able to lift the camera to your eye."
To that end, make sure the lens cap is off before you head out with the camera. Also, it can be helpful to use a wide-angle lens if you've got an SLR or DSLR with interchangeable lenses. That doesn't mean you need to buy a lot of gear -- in fact, just the opposite. Get really good with your camera and one or two lenses and you'll get the street shots that you're looking for.
If you've always got your camera at hand, the next tip will come naturally.
Always Take Pictures
Shivery says people often ask him why they're not getting the same results in their own photography as their favorite urban photographers. "I'm using the same equipment," they say, "so why can't I get the shot?"
The answer is easy to say and hard to do: Always take pictures. There's a learning curve in urban photography, despite the fact that cameras have long promised point-and-shoot convenience. "It should not be hard to shoot 40 pictures a day," Shivery says, "even if you don't see any people." Take pictures of interesting architecture, still-life or streetscapes as a way to hone your urban photography skills. With this kind of constant practice, when there are interesting people to take pictures of, you'll be ready.
If you've always got a camera, and you're always taking pictures, you're probably going to be noticed. Keep reading to find out how to take pictures of people in the street while not getting punched out for it.
Carry a Smile Along with Your Camera
In a strictly legal sense, in the United States you don't have to ask permission to take a picture of a person in a public place. Some photographers prefer to ask permission anyway, which is the most polite way to go about taking pictures, but it will change the behavior of the subject in the photo. It's up to the photographer which he or she prefers.
In any case, it's best to not be the creepy guy with a long lens hiding behind a potted plant taking pictures of people as they window shop. Also, if you follow the above tips and stick with one camera attached to your wrist and one spare lens in your pocket, there's no reason to sport a fishing vest full of equipment, which is going to make people wary of your intentions.
Instead, be the guy or girl with a smile and a camera and most people won't think twice about you or your hobby -- which is how you'll get those fantastic photos of people living their lives in public spaces.
There's just one more tip on being unobtrusive on the next page.
The Hip Shot
This technique is a bit sneakier, but it does get some great shots. Carry the pre-focused camera in your hand at hip level with the strap wrapped around your wrist and take pictures without looking in the view finder.
If you're thoroughly familiar with your gear and the camera has become an extension of your body, an ability to not use the viewfinder allows you to take pictures you might otherwise not get. You can sit on a bench with the camera perched on your knee and look in another direction as you press the button to take a picture of a guy playing his guitar on the street. If you lifted that camera to your eye, the ever-eager street musician would likely stop, pose and maybe even ask for a tip. That's a completely different picture than the one you likely wanted to take.
Keep in mind that some photographers, Shivery included, consider this "street mugging." These photographers feel it isn't fair to capture someone's image without their knowing that you're even taking a picture. Again, this is up to each individual photographer to figure out what he or she is comfortable with.
And finally, one last twenty-first century tip on the next page.
Turn Off the Bells and Whistles
Cameras have always been loud -- the clack and whirr of the shutter, the mirror, the film as it rewinds. At least we don't have to use those giant flash bulbs with the reflective dish anymore, like the reporters in the old black-and-white gangster movies did.
Cameras are still loud, though, even if you haven't loaded an actual roll of film since the 1990s. Digital cameras and camera phones beep and ding and make loud, unnecessary shutter sounds. Auto-focus beams shoot out at the subject's face, strobes reduce red-eye and flashes can occasionally go off when you (and your subject) least expect it. If you're going to practice urban photography, you'll need to turn all of this extra stuff off.
Digital cameras have also made it easy to immediately check the image on the screen, but try to avoid doing this in the street as you're taking pictures. If the subject notices you checking the image, he or she is probably going to wonder what you're doing and why you need a picture. This, like the surprise of a flash, is going to change the picture you get -- and probably not for the better.
For more urban photography tips and information about other related subjects, follow the links on the next page.
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- Hartel, Markus. "Street Photography FAQ." Urban Views. July 15, 2005. (Dec. 8, 2010)http://www.markushartel.com/street-photography-faq.html
- Murphy, Michael David. "Ways of Working." 2Point8.com. Sept. 14, 2005. (Dec. 8, 2010)http://2point8.whileseated.org/wow-footer/
- Shivery, Jake. Proprietor of Blue Moon Camera and Machine. Personal interview. Conducted on Dec. 13, 2010.