The past year I’ve been lucky enough to get the chance to travel a lot. This has led us to a whole host of amazing places, including around three months spent living in the capital city of Greece: Athens.
Athens is a place I’ve had a fascination for ever since we would go out to visit family when I was a wee boy. It’s definitely not the first place that most people think of when their mind turns to Greece, and in fact, it often gets dismissed as being dirty, noisy, or whatever else. For me though, that’s part of the appeal. It might not be the crystal blue seas and pure white buildings you see in the postcards (although some of it is), but it has an incredible amount of culture. There’s something deeply intriguing about the place, with all of the ancient history, and the deep rooted political convictions of the Greeks just two factors that come into play.
About halfway through our time there I began to get pretty frustrated. Despite seeing lots of things, and taking plenty of pictures, it didn’t feel like I was doing the city justice. At least, not capturing the depth of life and vibrancy that I always experienced whilst we were there. The only way to get some of this was to take a foray into the more traditionally understood idea of street photography, which is something I’ve never really dabbled too much in the past.
The first time I went out I ended up feeling really deflated. I was a nervous wreck, and far too on edge. I took a few pictures, but in general it felt like a complete failure, and the usual self-deprecation then came. All my photos suck. I’ll never get any better at this. Blah blah.
Anyway, I didn’t get stuck for too long. Grace pushed me on it a bit, and I was determined not to waste the time we had left in the city, so I made sure to carry my camera every time we went out for the next while – specifically taking trips into the centre just to see what was going on, with the aim of taking pictures. Things got better, and in a few weeks it felt like I had gotten the hang of things, learning a lot along the way.
Below are some of the things that I picked up. I should be clear that I’m in no way an expert in this kind of picture taking, and they won’t necessarily work for or apply to everybody. Not only will they depend on you and your personality type, but also where you’re shooting. People in Athens would react quite differently to people in Glasgow I’m sure, and I personally feel like it’s a million times harder to take photos in my home city than it is abroad.
This will focus mostly on the actual practical approach of street photography, rather than the technical aspects (such as what camera to use, or zone focussing, or any of that other stuff).
Street photography needs balls
I was going to write that you need ‘confidence’ for street photography, but that would be underplaying it a tad; ‘balls’ seems more appropriate. The single biggest hurdle for me was finding the nerve to actually raise the camera and take pictures of people on the street. For some people, this isn’t an issue at all, and it would drive me nuts to see friends and other photographers online who seemed completely unfazed by what the reactions of the subjects might be. To be frank, I was pretty terrified of getting caught.
Being nervous is natural, but if you let it take over your feelings then you’re never going to get the kind of pictures you want. The first time I went out I was shaking, with my eyes darting all over the place – trying to discreetly snap quickly from the hip and the lower the camera. The result was: I looked dodgy as fuck; like I was up to something. If you act suspiciously, other people will pick up on it. You need to work out how to deal with the fear, and roll with it. That leads on to the next part…
Shoot like a tourist
This is advice I’ve seen given by a couple of people online, and it was one of the most helpful things I found when trying to get to grips with street photography.
Essentially, you need to have a mental shift in the way you think about yourself, and how you are perceived by the people you’re taking photographs of. Exude a natural, friendly confidence, and other people won’t wonder what you’re up to. Let’s face it, there’s no real way to avoid being seen using a camera in public, so don’t try and conceal the fact that that’s what you’re doing. Instead, embrace it. Imagine you’re a tourist, interested in everything around you; nobody pays attention to them anyway.
Instead of trying to snap pictures discreetly from your chest, be bold. Have a brass neck about it. Don’t just sharply raise the camera up to get a picture and then lower it immediately afterwards, but take your time about it. Relax. Look ahead for potential pictures, then smoothly and deliberately bring the viewfinder to your eye a second or two before the subject comes into the frame where you want them. Snap off a few shots, and keep the camera there for longer than you need. If you’re shooting somebody that’s walking towards you, keep shooting as and after they walk past. They’ll assume you’re taking the time to get pictures of something interesting behind them. Ironically, sometimes people will even apologise and duck out of the way, thinking that they’ve ruined your shot. This is probably the main thing that helped me get over my fear of taking pictures on the street.
Avoid eye contact
This goes hand in hand with the above. When you spot someone interesting, the natural tendency is to look at their eyes. Don’t do it. Instead, raise the camera up to your face, and frame them that way. If you catch somebody’s eye before going to take a picture, it feels far more intrusive than if they turn to see you in the middle of snapping. The same applies for after you lower the camera. Fix your eyes on a point further down the street, rather than making some glance to the person to check if they’ve noticed. If you catch somebody’s eye, then you’ve already opened up a connection which makes it easier for them to question what you’re doing. If not, they need to be the first one to initiate that contact, which is far less likely.
Avoiding eye contact can take a bit of practice, but it makes a huge difference. Not trying to conceal the fact you’re taking a picture is different to being discreet about the way in which you actually execute it.
Occasionally people will catch you taking their picture, or look at you inquisitively to work out what you’re doing. Don’t act like you’ve done anything wrong, or give them any reason to be concerned. If you’re relaxed, then other people are more likely to be relaxed as well. Smile warmly back, and keep walking on. Maybe even take a picture of something else interesting nearby. It’s important to communicate that you’re not a threat, and people will largely ignore you.
If you stop for a moment and consider why you’re doing street photography in the first place, it’s likely to be out of a fascination and admiration for people, and the authenticity of human interaction. Rather than fearing people engaging you in conversation about what you’re doing, treat it as an opportunity to get pulled into their world for a short time. I’ve read elsewhere about keeping business cards on you to help with these kind of interactions, and to offer to send them the picture, but in reality I’ve never actually had anybody ask what I’m doing anyway.
One of the things I have found to be incredibly helpful when shooting events in general has been to reassure people immediately after taking their picture, and before they have the chance to process what’s happened. Rather than leaving an uncomfortable silence when somebody notices you taking their picture, say something positive. Compliment them on the colour of their hair, or the clothes that they are wearing, or whatever else you find interesting. Not only does it put people at ease, but also explains briefly why you wanted to take their picture in the first place. Enthusiastically saying: “I like your glasses!” with a warm smile can change the whole tone of the interaction, and also diverts the conversation away from the photograph.
Disarm people with your charm and personableness rather than leaving them to fill in the blanks with their own fears of what nefarious things you might be up to, or thinking. Of course, you should be genuine about this. It can’t be some sort of ploy or tactic, but articulating thoughts that you genuinely have out loud.
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
– Alfred Eisenstaedt
Okay, so this is a lame tip, but it’s still important. Remember that you’re doing something that you’re meant to enjoy, and if it becomes more of a chore than a pleasure then you need to re-think how you’re approaching it.
Pictures taken with a mix of a Leica M8 and Jupiter 12, 35mm f2.8 lens, or a Sony RX100.