Some of the world’s earliest photographs were street scenes, but in the years following photography’s invention in 1839, exposure times were so slow that if a person was to be captured for all time using this magical new invention, they had to pose perfectly still for several minutes. Consequently, early portraiture was a formal affair, with sitters keeping still, trying not to move a muscle. Even outdoors, it was impossible to capture an image of someone going about their business in a local market, striding into a shop, or crossing the street.
It wasn’t until the advent of the smaller 35mm format, first used with the Leica camera in the early 20th century, that photography finally took to the streets. Far more compact than the larger format camera systems of the day, the 35mm Leica rangefinder camera soon found a following among press and reportage photographers, who could now respond quickly to a situation developing before their eyes. Here was the ideal camera and film system for taking quick grab shots – snaps – and went on to provide the greatest photographic records of that century.
The essence of most street photography is the ‘candid’ shot – a picture that provides a momentary glimpse into another person’s life, usually without their knowledge. Busy streets and squares, markets and coastal promenades are ideal locations for candid captures, particularly during the working week when people are sticking to a schedule or routine and absorbed in the demands of their working day.
As most people are on the move, it makes sense to spend a few minutes in one spot observing the patterns of movement around you - and the main points of attraction. For example, in a busy city street on a weekday morning, look at what people are drawn to as they make their journeys: newspaper sellers and cafes provide distractions where people stop briefly, engage with someone else and momentarily change expression to reveal something of their personality. It is important to try to remain as discreet as possible and to attempt a shot until you are certain that the moment is right. After all, cameras and mobile phones are conspicuous devices, and the actions of a photographer even more so.
Wide-angle and standard focal length lenses are the preferred lens choices for most street photographers. The wider angle of view of a 35mm or 28mm lens ensures enough of the subject’s surroundings are included to provide context to the main figure in the scene.
However, Henri Cartier-Bresson of France, arguably the most influential street photographer of the 20th Century, used a 50mm lens on his Leica 35mm rangefinder camera for most of his famous shots of Parisian life. Using the slightly longer 50mm lens meant he did not have to be quite as close to the subject to frame the scene and surroundings, so he could be a few steps further back and so more discreet. But the main reason for his success was his ability to time his pictures at what he famously called ‘the decisive moment’, when the action of someone’s gesture, expression or movement was at its peak or most engaging. Typically, Cartier-Bresson would frame the scene without being noticed, press the shutter once, then step away and merge back into the passing crowd.
Optically, the 50mm lens is the most defined and perfected focal length in photography. It is closest to the field of view of the human eye and with a minimum of distortion. But while these are all valid reasons for the ideal ‘street candid’ lens, there are more photographers - past masters and present - who prefer the wider angles offered by 35mm and 28mm lenses. Barrel distortion at the edge of the frame is obvious when using these lenses, but for some this is a technical characteristic that emphasises drama and impact if used in very close proximity to the subject.
Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 and never claimed to be interested in the photographic process, but in one interview he explained the reason for his preferred camera gear as such: ‘I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets. If you have little equipment, people don’t notice you. You don’t come like a show-off. It seems like an embarrassment, someone who comes with big equipment.’
Spend time observing the location and movements of people on the street. Outdoor cafes are great places to ‘people watch’ without being too conspicuous.
Use a compact and discreet camera and lens system that also delivers a high-quality result. A mirrorless camera with a fixed 35mm or 50mm lens is ideal for street photography.
Keep your camera hidden or tucked away until you’re ready to take a picture. Then, be quick and just take a minimum of frames before moving away again and out of sight.
Overlook local by-laws and customs when taking street photographs abroad. Even if photography is allowed in public places, that doesn’t mean everyone will be agreeable to having their picture taken. Be calm and polite when asking permission.
Always shoot in the middle of the day when outdoors. Bright overhead sun results in too much contrast, deep shadows and harsh burnt-out skin tones. An overcast day however is perfect as the light is even and shadows almost non-existent.
Use too slow a shutter speed when handholding the camera. Anything below 1/60sec runs risk of camera shake, even when using a lightweight wide-angle lens.
The embarrassment of being noticed, or asking a stranger if they mind having their picture taken, is one of the main difficulties people express about photographing people on the street. Indeed, some are so embarrassed, almost fearful, that they resort to using a telephoto lens from the other side of the road. While this may, theoretically speaking, increase your chances of getting that close-up portrait without your subject knowing, the reality is that you are merely making yourself and your intentions even more noticeable to those immediately around you.
There are also some technical reasons for not hiding behind a telephoto lens: the longer the focal length the narrower the depth of field, so focusing on your subject’s eyes needs to be more precise. A blurred result from camera shake is also more likely due to the greater image magnification, so a faster shutter speed must be used. Of course, the faster your shutter speed, the larger your lens aperture needs to be, which means reduced depth of field, unless you choose to uprate your ISO instead.
It is easier to save your embarrassment by moving freely and naturally on the street with a less conspicuous camera and lens combination. When letting people know that you would like to take their picture, always be courteous and calm. If they say no, or seem reluctant, don’t persist. Simply, follow the principle of speaking to people in the same manner that you would like to be spoken to by them – be polite and friendly.
The British photographer Zed Nelson, who has photographed on the streets of war-torn cities as well as more peaceful neighbourhoods, offers this advice: ‘There’s a lot of very basic psychology in photography on how you approach people and how your own demeanour affects people. So, if you’re in any way agitated or nervous, or feel that you’re doing something wrong, people will pick up on it. If you lurk around with a handheld camera, rather than being discreet, sometimes you make people nervous.’
Nelson’s most recent book, A Portrait of Hackney, features locals – all strangers to him – photographed on the streets of the North London borough. Often, he resorted to a simple technique to put them at ease: ‘Sometimes doing street portraits, I’ll get a friend to come with me, a female friend with a dog, and when it’s like me, a woman and a dog on the street, it gives a completely different atmosphere than just a lone male.’
In some city streets, there are situations where a subject’s occupation is as much an identifying feature of the city as an iconic landmark: for example, the fastidious waiters serving the outdoor tables of the Left Bank cafes in Paris, or London’s raucous newspaper sellers. Of course, the location is a secondary consideration to the compositional needs of the person who is the subject of your lens. In this respect, it remains essential to focus on the eyes and make your exposure reading from the face using your camera’s spot or partial metering mode.
As with all photography, managing the available lighting conditions is critical to your exposure. Bright direct sunlight at any time of day should be avoided. Not only does it make your subject’s eyes squint, but strong sunlight casts dark, unflattering shadow on people’s faces. Diffused, shadowless lighting, the sort you get on a cloudy overcast day, is best for portraits – the reduced contrast makes it far easier to attain an accurate exposure.
Trying to take candid pictures of people on the street can sometimes lead you into conflict with the law. It is important, particularly when abroad, to know what restrictions are placed on photography, not just legally, but also in the morals and customs of the people. Increasingly, many Islamic countries take a dim view of those who attempt to photograph women in public, even if there is no actual law forbidding such acts.
It is not just non-Western countries where you have to be careful. Even in Paris, the city regarded as the spiritual home of street photography through the work of Robert Doisneau and Marc Riboud, as well as Cartier-Bresson, laws now exist to restrict photography of people in public without their prior permission. Since 2001, it has been an offence in France to publish ‘any image or photo that a court decides would hurt the dignity of the subject.’ Together with Article 9 of the French Civil Code, which states that ‘everyone has the right to a private life’, these laws and guidelines mean the French are more vigorous in protecting their image from the prying lenses of photographers than ever before.
These laws are used primarily by celebrities to prevent the publication of paparazzi images, but these days the general public is also more likely to take offence at a photographer or tourist taking a candid snap in the street. Put it this way, if you’re spotted, it can no longer be candid.
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
NEVER MISS A STORY
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!