Shibuya Station

Shibuya Station

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An Introverts Guide to Street Photography

After my last post, I had a couple of people ask me about how I approach people in my street photography.  I am an introvert so it makes the question all the more interesting because I largely do not interact with the people that I am shooting.
What is an introvert?  My five cent definition is that socially I am not a very outgoing person and that I often find comfort in solitude or among small groups of friends rather than with large groups or strangers.   Check out the following to see the traits of an introvert and how they may apply to you.   Signs you are an introvert.

I think a lot of street photographers believe that you have to pretty outgoing and interact with people to be successful at street photography.  Before I go any further let me define what I mean by successful in the context in this article.  I have been shooting street photography for less than year and been building up a body of work that I am very proud of.  No I have not been published or exhibited [yet] and no I have not garnered awards for my work [yet].   I do however think that have started to build a serious body of work that will rival many others that call themselves a street photographer.  So in those terms, I feel that I am and have been successful.

So... While I think it certainly helps to have an outgoing personality, I'll challenge that notion and say that I don't think its entirely true that you have to be outgoing to succeed in street photography. Have I missed some images because of my reluctance to approach and engage someone?  Absolutely.  As such, I work very hard to observe my surroundings and look for the details that we may ordinarily miss when walking about.

Here are some things that have worked for me when out shooting.  Different methods will work for different people.

Be an Acute Observer

Moving from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, I had to really train myself to observe what was going on around me and early on, I felt over stimulated by all the activity around me.  In LA, everything is very spread out and you spend much of your time in a car going from point A to point B.  Once I moved here I was either on the train or on foot. With Hong Kong being as dense as it is, I learned that there were new points of view.  I now had to look up at buildings, down alleys and watch people... A lot of people. 

The other thing that has helped me is shooting film and limiting the lenses I use.  Because I do not have that instant feedback, I tend to slow down and really try to visualize the image before I take it.  I also use either a 50mm or 35mm lens on my camera.  I shoot with those lenses so much that I've gotten pretty adept at visualizing an image with that field of view before I decide to create an image to the camera.

Shoot Often

The best way for me to evolve as a street shooter was to commit to going out on an almost daily basis and to always have a camera with me.  Even when I am out running errands, I have a camera with me and I find that I am always looking for an image to be captured rather than going about my business with my head down.  I think it frustrates my wife sometimes because we'll be walking down the street and I'll randomly stop to grab an image of something or someone.

Pre-Focusing is My Friend  

Being a Leica shooter, my lenses are all manual focus.  What tends to happen is that I may see a person or scene that looks interesting to me. Rather approach that person, I pre-focus on them when they are not looking and wait for them to turn and look at me.  I'll steal a few frames while they are also not looking as those may been interesting as well. 

Part of being a good observer is looking ahead and anticipating.  There are occasions where I'll see someone approaching and I'll pre-focus on a spot on the ground and wait for that person to walk into the frame.  This is sometimes a good tactic because if you have your camera pointed elsewhere instead directly at the subject, the person doesn't even think you are shooting them.  They walk into your frame and click, you now have the image :)

In the following example, I had seen this guy sitting on the truck and thought it might make an interesting image.  In the first image, you will see that there was part of a fire truck stopped in front of him.  I moved to a location directly in front of him and pre-focused on his arm.  Once the light turned green and the fire truck moved, I captured the image when the guy looked at me.  A nod and and a smile and I quickly moved on!

Being Inconspicuous

Having a large DSLR with big lenses will likely draw attention to you before you even raise the camera to take the shot.  I am of the opinion you should travel light and with minimal equipment. My camera combination of choice is the Leica M240.  Its compact, very quiet and so much fun to shoot with.  I rarely change lenses when I am out so I'll usually have a 50mm or a 35mm lens mounted and stick with it throughout the day. There are many other excellent compact mirrorless cameras on the market such as the Fuji X100, Sony A7 Series or the Fuji X-T1 (just to name a few).

The set up you'll most often times see me with.  The Leica M240 and 50mm Summilux 1.4

Tune Everything Out Around You

Now this is definitely one of those things that may not work for many of you. When I am shooting alone, I tend to have my earphones in and tune everything out.  Music becomes my background noise and I feel like I focus more on visual queues when I am not distracted by other sounds around me.

Not Everyone Wants Their Picture Taken

There is a saying that goes, "Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness".  The reality is that most people don't want their photo taken by a stranger.  If you are the outgoing type and can engage someone, then asking for permission to take a photo may very well be an effective way to get a great shot.  You just have to develop your own style and go with what works for you.  For me, I shy away from that engagement. In either case, you will have people that will tell you not to take their picture and some will be more emphatic than others. I just give them nod of the head, say sorry and move on.  I have yet to have someone ask to delete a photo. 

Finding your style

So what turned out as a question about how I approach people on the street has really turned into a self reflection about my shooting style and what works for me. Take what you will from this but the best advice I can give you is to keep shooting.  Consistently putting myself out there to shoot even when I sometimes didn't feel like it has been the single biggest contributor to my growth over the last 9 months.

Image by Gary Tate
Happy Shooting!


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