Street photography: Overcoming your fear

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I receive a lot of questions about overcoming fear in street photography and since I wanted to start blogging anyway, this seemed like a good starting point.

I don't feel like pretending to be some kind of teacher, I just write about my own experiences. These experiences are by no means the way to go for everybody, but maybe some parts can take someone a bit further on their way towards a comfortable way of shooting the streets. My blogging is not something to agree or disagree about, it's just the way I've experienced my street photography.

When I started shooting the streets about 4 years ago, my greatest fear was getting clobbered by someone or worse, by a group of people. After all, people would definately not accept some stranger taking their photograph. At least, that's what I thought... Reality turned out to be very different, so keep reading.

At first I started out with a Canon 60D with a big 70-200 f2.8 zoomlens. At least that way people wouldn't notice me since I photographed them from a far away distance. The photograph above is my very first shot on the streets and took it from a very far distance with a tripod ;-) In my next blog I will share some thoughts about my switch from a zoom lens towards a 23mm prime lens and the effect it can have on your work.

Photograph the way you are
To me this is an important one. I'm an extrovert guy and by that I can easily engage with strangers and interact with them. This makes me a lucky guy while shooting the streets because make no mistake: you will get involved in interactions! The question is, do you want to photograph in the open or from a far distance with a big zoom lens which can make people interpret you a bit as a sneaky freak? Although you're probably not, it's all about the perception of the photographed person who noticed you. So if you're an introvert person, street photography is not for you? Off course it is something for you! You just need to have your story straight and push yourself not to be afraid to engage with strangers.

If you really want to overcome your fear of shooting the streets, there's one great way to do that: go out and start shooting at a street event like a festival or any other event that's taking place on the streets!

My personal tips

  1. You're having fun in what you're doing, so smile. If I'm shooting the streets, almost automatically my face has a smile all the time. One time a complete stranger walked towards me and asked me why I was smiling all the time. My answer was: "I'm doing what I love to do" :-)
  2. Always be polite. If someone sees you, just smile and say thank you. Most of the time this will do the trick.
  3. Always keep in mind that you're photographing strangers and without these people you don't get to do what you love. I once said to my wife that I was leaving to my friends in the city. That's how I see and feel it when I'm shooting the streets.
  4. Create a card with your name, web adress and email. When someone asks me what I'm doing, I tell them I document life on the streets and offer them my card. If they contact me, I'll be happy to send them the photograph.
  5. If someone reacts negatively, walk towards them and explain what you're doing and most importantly, why you do what you do. If they insist to delete the shot, delete it. If they didn't ask you to delete it, keep it.

I can assure you that you will have a negative reaction sometimes, but that doesn't mean that there will be aggression. I've photographed all kinds of people. Also big guys, bad boys and so on. When they ask me why and have a bit of an annoyed voice and facial expression, I walk towards them and explain. Do you really think that someone will bust your face in just for taking their photograph? The chances of that happening are not very big. When you take their photograph and don't react to their reaction and simply move on, the chances of an escalation are much bigger than when you simply engage them and politely explain to them what you do and why you are doing what you do. This way I've had many great conversations on the streets with complete strangers which I think is an extra bonus. But this is a part of my personality I think. Most photographers I've spoken to rather don't have contact with their subjects because they feel that's hindering them from getting  into somekind of flow or they're afraid of missing out on a great shot. If that works for them, fine by me. As I've said, these are just my experiences...

Above all: have fun and respect is everything!

Willem