There are many misconceptions about street photography made by people who are just starting out or who want to try this kind of photography that is ultimately the most difficult (unless you want to take boring photos), the most rewarding and the most accessible of photographic genres.
I want you to be out on the streets filling your SD cards with mistakes, experiences, and ultimately, great photos you can be proud of. But first, we need to put some of this “fake news” to bed.
Let’s smack some myths in the face!
Myth #1. You need a “proper” camera
No, all you need is something to capture an image! Use your phone or buy a disposable camera. If you only have a few megapixels, what does it matter? – Make it your style! Lean into the grain and roughness of the images. Watch the work of Daido Moriyama, William Klein and Robert Frank Americans.
There are of course wonderful “proper” cameras that become a pleasure to use, but they are a luxury for any non-professional photographer. Most smartphones have amazing camera technology these days and “iPhoneography” is a real thing (other camera brands are available). Although I don’t know why there has to be a distinction between digital, film and phone photos… I guess photographers are tribal! But a photo is about the content, not the “thing” that facilitated its existence.
When it comes to disposable cameras, there’s so much fun messing with unpredictable, shoddy film photos. There’s something to be said for the excitement of limiting yourself to 27 frames, never being quite sure if you rolled the film far enough, or if the last shot you got even made it onto the roll.
Myth #2. You need to understand the technical side
No, today’s camera technology does the heavy lifting for you. Digital and mirrorless cameras have evolved so much that all you need to know is how to switch it to program mode AKA P-Mode AKA “smart auto” and how to remove the lens cap.
Now, if you break into a cold sweat at the mention of P mode, mop your brow as it comes highly recommended by famed photographer Martin Parr who rarely strays into a priority mode let alone manual.
You can always learn more about the pesky exposure triangle and what your camera’s knobs and buttons do as you go. Perfect exposure is overrated anyway. Focus on the creative side of photography first. The rest will follow.
Cameras are just a tool to capture what you see. When people say, “That’s a great photo, what camera did you use?” I want to roll my eyes. No one ever asked Picasso what brush he used! Or at least I don’t think…
Myth #3. You need permission to take pictures of strangers
Not generally, but be sure to check the privacy laws of the country in which you are taking photos. There are strict laws, like in France and Germany for example.
If you find yourself in a place with restrictive laws, you can always take on the challenge of creating anonymous photos of people… It may seem easy, but it can actually be more difficult to make interesting photos and tell stories without visible human faces, but that can be the fun of the challenge.
Regardless of the law, make sure you don’t disturb or upset anyone! If you are asked to delete a photo, do so. No picture is worth ruining someone else’s day.
Myth #4. Photographing strangers is scary
Yes, it is possible, but with practice, it is not necessary! The fear is not of taking the picture, but of being “caught” doing it. There are ways to be invisible so as not to interrupt or surprise anyone (without hiding in a bush and using a telephoto lens).
First, you need to relax, because there’s nothing more obvious than someone in a crowd acting a little sleazy. Avoid eye contact as this is an invitation to engage. If you have an LCD screen that folds out, you can use it instead of the viewfinder and even pretend to make a video, because people seem less embarrassed to be a passerby in a movie than to be the subject of a movie. ‘a photo .
In the end, if you get caught, you just explain what you’re doing in a friendly way, maybe there’s something specific about them that caught your eye that you can let them know and they might even be flattered. And after a conversation, you never know you might end up with a new boyfriend.
Myth #5. Street photography is scary
Only if you are!
Most of the time, street photographers get bad press, often seen as the “problem child” of the photography world. And yes, let’s face it, some street photographers are scary, but they’re probably a bit dodgy to begin with and use street photography as something to hide behind. You may have seen them in the wild moving around with a safari lens, zooming in on people from a distance like a lookout. That’s not the way to do it! When it comes to street photography lenses – if it’s long, it’s wrong! Unless of course you’re Saul Leiter and using the compression that a long lens provides creatively, rather than a reason not to get closer.
But we’re not all bad, and certainly not all scary. Sure, there are bad apples in the world of street photography that give the rest of us a bad name, but most of us just want to take pictures, document everyday life using our perspectives unique, or just disconnect from the big bad world. – and photography of any kind is so good for it.
Myth #6. You need an interesting place to take pictures
No. It’s not where you are, it’s how creative you are. There is always something to photograph. The most mundane things can be made interesting with finely tuned observation and creative composition. And in street photography, you don’t always need to photograph people – just the proof they have.
It can often take time to tune your eyes to the place, people, and things happening around you. Sometimes you’re just somewhere at the wrong time of day. Walk around and try to see the world through the eyes of an alien who has just landed! See what you can find curious… You will be surprised by what you will start to notice.
Myth #7. There’s not enough time to do street photography
No. It’s not how much time you have, it’s how focused you are. If you have a bunch of ideas to draw on, you can enjoy your lunch or the walk from the subway to your office to take pictures. It could even be the start of a project…
Plus, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus on, and nothing like photography to help disconnect from the stresses of work.
Myth #8. It s too difficult
Your mindset is both your greatest tool and your greatest obstacle. Your choice!
I believe that everything can be learned…
And with practice, practice, and a little more practice, you’ll have ideas of things to photograph that will inspire you to take pictures (we street photographers are crazy about things like the color red, or a balloon, or funky light and shadow), and over time you’ll start to develop intuitive composition skills, which means in those super fleeting moments when something happens for a split second, you’ll be able to compose it in an instant. How cool is that?
Myth #9. You have to dress like a ninja
Only if you are a real ninja! Street photographers have more options. The best outfit is the one that blends best with where you’re taking pictures. In a tourist spot? Watch tourist. To the beach? Look at the beach. You understand the basics…
But in the end, it’s about how you behave. The more relaxed and open you are, the more pleasant the energy you give off, and you can just do whatever you want without anyone wondering what you are doing. They might notice you have a camera for a split second, but then they’ll come back to their head thinking cheese! Or is it just me?
Are there other myths that need to be busted? Let me know… My boxing gloves are on.
About the Author: Polly Rusyn is a professional photographer, professor of street photography and founder of the Department of Street Photography. His work has been awarded and exhibited internationally in numerous street photography festivals. She has been published in magazines such as Nat Geo Traveler UK and has also lectured on street photography at Nat Geo Traveler Masterclasses. Polly is a Fujifilm ambassador and one of 100 women featured in the first-ever Women Street Photographers book, curated by Gulnara Samoilova.