Jim Austin MA, Apogee Magazine’s Photo Coach, offers 10 key tips for street photography success….and his #1 tip? Take along the new “Polaroid!”
As I travel and photograph people on the street, I first offer a Fuji instant print to each person I want to photograph. Never having seen an Instax camera at work, often people are a bit startled.
In their surprise, folks tell me that Polaroid is no more. “Right” I say, ” …and this here is the new Polaroid. Just like the original, where the magic happens because you can watch the picture come out before your eyes.”
When someone holds a print you just took of them in their hand, trust-building begins, regardless of culture. In the digital world, having an instant print objectifies photography once again. People love getting instant prints, so I carry a Fuji Instax camera and film to make prints before I photograph digital portraits abroad.
Now, to fully disclose here, by “instant,” I mean about five minutes, or the time it takes a Fuji Instax print to develop after it’s ejected from the Instax camera.
Ten Tips for Ethical, Practical Street Photography Success:
1. TIME AND PRACTICE. While Traveling, we often photograph places, and take pictures of just the people who accompany us. However, those folks whom we meet spontaneously also make memorable subjects.
Why? The people we encounter briefly in our travels make our moments memorable because of the emotion we experience if we invest in getting to know them. In particular, street photography is a challenging and fascinating pursuit.
It is challenging to find subjects, and street photography is also fascinating for its infinite variety. Street photography is slow photography. It takes time. It takes practice to get in the flow.
2. INTERACT AND MAKE YOUR OWN DECISIVE MOMENTS.
Create your own decisive moment by watching, waiting for, and talking with your subject. Notice their eyes. Observe their gestures and their emotions. Most, but not all, successful portraits include the eyes and hands.To make a portrait come alive, try to get a catch light in the eyes. I also like to take close ups of people hand when I travel.
3. THE WHAT & WHY OF TRUST BUILDING.
What: Have a purpose and explain it briefly to your subjects. Inspire confidence, character and integrity. Let your subject build trust in you by talking with them and honestly answering their concerns about what you are doing.
Why: Tell the truth about your intent, your project, and why you are asking someone for their portrait. Be specific.
Do not photograph children or minors unless you have parental trust and permission. You should know the culture well, when you photographing kids who grew up in it.
Let your subject know you respect them by listening and leaning in to them when they speak. I like to let people know that they are the most important part of our encounter, even more so than the final picture.
Do not offer money for portraits unless they ask, or giving a donation for a portrait is a consistent part of your project.
If you are photographing the homeless, do not judge the person by how they look, smell or speak…if they ask you for money for their picture, be prepared with local currency to give them a small donation without judgement. At times I’ve purchased food for homeless people, instead of giving money.
Be clear about why you want to make portrait of the person. Do not invent one-liners, “bar lines” and untruths that some street photographers, such as Eric Kim, have employed. Be honest. If the picture will go online, tell people. If you do not know, say so.
7. WAIT AND CHAT.
Be patient. Wait until your subject is ready and do not rush in, shot-gunning, without permission. I always engage in dialogue to relax my subject and try to make exposures slowly, over time.
When traveling abroad, seek out fairs, markets, festivals and cultural events. Ideal locations are those where folks are enjoying themselves too much to be concerned with your photography of them.
In my experience, most people worldwide will let you make a portrait of them. Your mileage will vary. Some locations, like Amsterdam’s red light district, do not allow portraits. Other places, like downtown Dublin, Ireland or Halifax, Nova Scotia, are more open to photographers making portraits of people on the street.
9. KEEP IT SIMPLE.
My street photography gear is A) a lightweight digital camera, B) a Fuji Instax 300 Wide camera available on Amazon and C) Fuji Instax film packs. I dress casually, but follow more formal customs in some countries.
I wear no jewelry other than a ring. I smile often, make eye contact but don’t stare, speak slowly and move with confidence, making sure I do not interrupt or surprise my subjects. If the person refuses, and I still want their portrait, I come back to ask them again, at another time.
If the status quo of street photography around you is photographer-centered, corrupt, materialistic and power-hungry, reject it. Rise above the ethics of the tabloids who pay photographers to violate the privacy of celebrities. Take the high road, ethically, and treat other people with humanism, respect and compassion.