How Do You Photograph Strangers on the Street?

The man in the cap, waiting on the street asked that question in an article on their site just recently, and it got me to thinking… how do I photograph strangers on the street?

The PopPhoto article includes two videos taken of street photographers who both share a “run and gun” style – they don’t engage in conversation and certainly don’t ask permission, in fact they barely make eye contact with their subjects.  The first video shows Eric Kim, who attached a video camera to his Leica, so you get a real lens-eye view as he walks and shoots on the streets of LA, complete with narrative.  The second video features Bruce Gilden, a seasoned NYC street shooter, who is even faster and more blunt than Kim.  His narrative is pretty entertaining.  I recommend you watch both videos.

In opposition to the style these two photogs subscribe to, there’s the other school of thought – which is to engage your potential subjects in conversation, put them at ease, and ask if it’s ok to take their picture.  That’s the opposite end of the spectrum, and of course there are many shades of gray in between.

South Station candid with a man sitting in a chair

My first reaction to the videos of the two photogs and their approach to street photography was horror – how can you shove a camera in someone’s face, fire away and then bolt?  How rude, how invasive!  And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my style was closer to  Kim’s and Golden’s than the softer, more polite approach advocated by some.  But I’m still somewhere in that gray, in-between zone.

Streets of Boston early in the morning, a man walking by a store

Frankly, I find it easier to shoot without permission and keep on moving.  I can’t be quite as “in your face” as the videos demonstrate but I’m more comfortable with a less bold approach, and having less conspicuous camera gear certainly helps.  I recently picked up an 18-55mm lens for my Nikon D90 to minimize the size and weight, partially for street photography, partially to lighten the load. But the ultimate stealth camera for street photography is an iPhone, with which I’ve made some interesting street images.

Street Photography, iPhone collage

So where do you stand on this?  Do you photograph strangers on the street?  If so, how… what’s your approach?  If not, why?

And what do you think about Mr. Kim’s and Mr. Gilden’s method?  Do you? Could you?? Would you???

Please share your thoughts and send us your street photography; we’d love to see your work and share it with our readers.

Thanks for visiting 2 Guys Photo.                Posted by Ed

About Ed Spadoni "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
This entry was posted in Images, iPhone/cell phone, Learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How Do You Photograph Strangers on the Street?

  1. I prefer to ask permission, but a lot of the time I do that after I’ve taken the photo. Apart from that I take photos surreptitiously (from the hip).

    It is only on rare occasion that I take pictures of people using aggressive techniques. There is a genuine safety issue here in Guyana. It is not unlikely that someone might react violently and it has been close once or twice (violence threatened) and I’ve been robbed at gunpoint once.

    I think I would love to try it the way Eric or Gilden do it (maybe a little less intensely) on the streets of New York or Paris (or even Toronto, which, to me has as many photogenic areas as New York) but that will never happen here if I want to see my children grow up 🙂

    As an aside, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain my temper when someone reacts aggressively to my taking photographs (particularly when I haven’t even pointed a camera in their direction) and it is the most extraordinary challenge to maintain my cool and treat with them in a civil manner. Keeping cool has given me some great results once in a while though, particularly when I’ve been able to charm them.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      > Nikhil, thanks for the comment. By all means, safety first, plus, it’s largely a matter of what you are comfortable with.

      I too “shoot from the hip” frequently, and have a follow up post planned on that, with some recent examples.

      Feel free to send us some examples of your work of you’d like to be published on 2GuysPhoto, and thanks for your support.


  2. I have not yet had the courage to enter the Street Photography arena, although I would really love to. My approach would definitely be on a much more personal level than either of these ‘big city’ shooters, partly because I live in a much more rural area.
    The main reason I avoid it is because I am confused about the ‘legalities’ of street shooting. From the research I’ve done, none of these shots could be published in print or online without releases, unless they are are considered ‘editorial’ content and that is a very grey area & is acceptable usually around newsworthy events only.
    It’s a very different world for people photographers than it was even 10 years ago and I really don’t understand how the style of shooting portrayed in the videos isn’t going to create mega-problems for both these photographers at some point in the near future. Maybe I just need some clarification on this whole, fascinating ‘street photography’ idea!
    Thanks for this post…. excellent & thought provoking, & I hope you will expand on it soon…!

    • John says:

      From the research I’ve done, none of these shots could be published in print or online without releases

      It’s absolutely ok in the US, unless you use someone’s image for commercial purposes. No release is needed. Where do you live?

  3. johnjroberts says:

    I just realized that I am comfortable shooting strangers in candid situations when in Asian countries but am much less so in Western countries. I’ll have to think about what’s up with that. The lack of temerity has cost me some good opportunities for which I still kick myself.

    I’m joining a Seattle Photography Group Meetup this month to “do” street photography on Capitol Hill. I’ll report back afterwards and let you know the personal outcome.


  4. Billie King says:

    I’m fairly conservative when it comes to street shots. If it’s children I’ll usually ask the parent, or show them the picture right away and ask if they want me to send it to them. I must admit that sometimes I take pictures and try to make it look like I’m shooting over their shoulder kind of a thing.

    With adults, I usually take groups shots or people in the distance, or I will often take the backs of people. I have tried asking and it doesn’t always work; for instance an elderly gentleman was sitting at a table in Starbucks doing a great charcoal drawing and I was standing in line behind him ready to take the picture over his shoulder. I would have gotten the back of him, a small part of his face, the charcoal, the tables in front of him and the front door opening…BUT, my husband said, “Hon you should ask.” So I asked and the guy was terrified, he gestured with his hand back and forth, back and forth, I stepped away quickly. I still have that picture in my head. It’s a good picture but a bad feeling.

    I have never asked if I could take pictures of people when I’m at museums or public events. And I would never take close ups of people by just blasting a camera in their face…I mean for Pete’s’s THEIR face. I didn’t like the way either one of these guys shot, there was a rudeness about their work that I just didn’t like.

  5. 2guysphoto says:

    These are pretty interesting/intense videos. And very instructive. I wish Kim had shown some of his work so we could understand the fruits of his labor. Gilden’s images are sometimes good, sometimes eh. As for his style? He says it all when he states: “I have no ethics.” I’ll be posting about street photography (my new, new thing) a bit later tonight, so this was timely and interesting read. Thanks, Ed.

    Posted by Rey

  6. johnjroberts says:

    Hey, Ed. Inspired by your post on this subject I’ve dipped my toe into street photography. You can see my first experience on my blog at:
    Thanks for the prod.

  7. Pingback: One Man’s Street Photography « John Roberts Photography

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