“I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts. As to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don’t feel I take away, but rather that the sitter and I give to each other. It becomes an act of mutual participation.” – Yousuf Karsh
Over the years, I become accustomed to photographing people on the street. To me, it’s easy and I don’t feel intrusive. Most importantly, I enjoy it.
I love the thrill of meeting new people, I love photographing strangers. I love getting to know my fellow-man.
Meeting new people is fun. Talking to them peels of a layer or two of their character exposing them, thereby making it easier to photograph who they are, to photograph their soul.
However, it was not always easy for me to photograph strangers on the street. When I first began my career, I was very timid in approaching people and even fearful. At times, I even shook from that fear.
When I was interning at the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, I had an assignment to go to Hooper, west of Ogden, to photograph a fair for the next days front page. It was slated to be the lead art to go with a story. But, when I arrived, I was overcome with fear and didn’t produce a single image.
It felt as though someone kicked me in the gut and paralyzed me. My cameras weighed a ton and I had no strength. I was seeing some wonderful images, but the fear kept me from capturing them. I could only stand there and be an observer of the stage of life.
As a result, I was in major trouble with the photo editor August Miller. After talking to him, he put me on probation and gave me a second chance. He guaranteed the next time I “froze up,” I would be fired.
It was over the next few weeks during my internship I analyzed why I was fearful of photographing strangers. And if I didn’t overcome my fears, my short career in this field of endeavor would come to an abrupt halt.
I came to this simple conclusion the fear was simply unfounded and unjustified. I projected my fears onto my subjects. Thoughts such as “They don’t want their photo taken” became “I don’t want my photo taken.”
It was a hurdle I had to overcome. But I realized, people love to have their photo taken. People like being in the spotlight, even if for only a moment, they like being the center of attention.
Most people think what they do is boring. So when someone begins documenting them as they go about their “boring” life, they feel special.
Iranian photojournalist Reza said: “There is a curtain between the photographer and the subject, and the photographer has to be able to break through it.”
This is true for not only world events, but also simple moments in life. You must not fear opening the curtain. And it is that fear that keeps us from doing what we want.
To help me overcome this irrational fear, I created assignments for myself which forced me to meet new people. I set goals to photograph one new person each day.
I started in areas where a lot of people gathered such as markets, fairs, bowling alleys, or parks. After a awhile, it became easy to photograph people who were by themselves.
As I progressed in overcoming this fear, I wanted to get closer. I wanted my photographs to be more intimate. I wanted my viewers to feel involved in the lives of my subjects.
To do this, I limited my lens choice to the wider angles. As I was shooting in film, I used only a 24mm or my 35mm lenses. These forced me to get physically close. They forced me to interact with the subject.
And eventually the fear went away. It tries to rear its ugly head on occasion, but for the most part, I just quash it and have fun shooting. And isn’t that the whole point? Enjoy what you love to do.
An odd thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a short period of time when you’ll not get anything good. It seems that for the first few moments, your subject may be a bit tentative. But as you continue to shoot, they relax and that’s when you begin capturing some very real moments. and it is in this time is when you should shoot as much as you can.
Work the moment. Vary your angle. Shoot from high, eye level and low. Work from the right to the left. Get closer, step back. And then you’ll realize how much fun you’re having.
One of the techniques I use is that I talk to them as I begin shooting. I ask them questions to show I have a genuine curiosity about them. this relaxes them and as a result, I get some good images. A genuine curiosity for your subject will go a long way.
So here are some tips to help you overcome your fear of photographing people:
- 1. Have a goal before setting out. Know where you want to go, have an idea what you want to shoot, and when you want to go. This will help you concentrate on your photography. Over time, the need to have set goals will fade.
2. Remember to relax and breathe. Your subjects will sense your unease and tension and react accordingly. When your relaxed, they’re relaxed.
3. Introduce yourself and tell them what you’re doing. Be honest. If they object, say thank you and move on. Remember for every person that says no, there’s a hundred that don’t mind.
4. Start with more crowded areas such as public markets. It’s common to see photographers in areas like these so you’ll look less out-of-place.
5. Use wider angle lenses. They will force you to get closer. I believe using telephoto lenses is more intrusive than using wide angles. With telephoto lenses, you can hide behind objects and actually makes you look suspect. I also think it’s just plain rude. Show yourself.
- 6. Keep your gear to a minimum. Use one camera and one lens. You’ll look less intimidating so people will be more relaxed around you.
7. Give your subjects business cards. This shows your professionalism and lets them know you are serious.
8. Carry a notepad and pen/pencil. Get names. This gives you a chance to talk with them, ask questions, get their e-mail address, write down funny quotes, and it also adds to that air of professionalism.
9. Practice. You’ll notice your fear dissipate the more you go out and shoot. And as the fear dissipates, your photos will get better and better.
10. And the most important tip of all: Don’t forget to have fun.
Hope this helps and I’ll see you on the street.
“Like the people you shoot and let them know it.” – Robert Capa
Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated. Feel free to ask questions.
Paul “pablo” Conrad