Photographing people in the midst of events is a tempting challenge for just about everyone who takes photography seriously. Many enthusiastic photographers would love to become masters of the art of capturing “the decisive moment” for both their own pleasure and that of their audience viewing their pictures later on.
For “live” photos like these, what’s important isn’t how advanced and expensive your equipment is. Equipment certainly matters, but the truly important thing is to be a careful observer capable of capturing a moment that most people wouldn’t even notice. You also need to throw away your shame and fears of bad reactions by your subjects and passersby.
Start at Home
Right from the start I have to admit that there’s not just one right way to overcome the barriers to going out into crowds of people, pointing the camera at them, and taking a picture. But I’ll cover at least one of the ways. Before going on, I’ll go over some basics of documentary photography.
Getting Started with Journalistic Photos
Reportage is really just a sort of visual diary of life around us. It lets us look into the full variety of our world. Daily life is a perfectly fine focus for great photography. For example the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master of this; he knew how to capture the beauty of ordinary moments.
Sensation and scandal do also have their firm places before the lens, though. They even form their own whole separate genre: tabloid photography. As for photojournalism, it should work to give a precise pictorial witness on events that suitably supplements text content by a reporter. No matter what your motivations and intentions, no matter whether you’re telling the news, making up the news, documenting a wedding, or using life’s little moments for art, there’s one common measure to keep in mind. That’s your ability to capture reality, and especially its most interesting and dynamic moments.
The most natural and least demanding place to start is right around you. Take your camera with you to family events, celebrations, and trips with your friends. Discover your equipment, as well as its limits. Don’t limit yourself to just the kind of pictures you laugh over with family and friends and post to Facebook. Think about situations and about people’s faces. Play with composition, and try to give your pictures depth.
Tip: Master your equipment and become a master of composition. That way when you’re among strangers, not just any old thing will surprise or unsettle you.
Learn to work with your camera so well that you can put your eye to the viewfinder and press the trigger the very moment that you see a great moment. If a big moment comes and you haven’t yet thought about what aperture and ISO to use, or worse yet aren’t even carrying the right lens yet, then it’s very likely the moment will disappear before you can capture it.
Tip: Learn to be quick, and quick on the draw. You’ll get great pictures, and you might not even be noticed.
Be in Focus
Before you head out into the field, we should probably tell you what kind of equipment to use! It may seem easiest to just put on a telephoto lens and capture every event around you, including the decisive moments, from a nice, safe, faraway spot. But I can’t recommend this approach!
Naturally sports and other events where you simply can’t get close to the photographed person or situation are an exception to this. But for everything else, don’t be afraid to use lenses like a 35mm (or even wider) and go deeper into the action.
Just try taking street photos with a telephoto lens—just try it! You’ll hate it! You’ll quickly agree that your distance is visible in every picture. You’ll also notice sharpness problems, especially if you’re shooting in bad light conditions or without a tripod.
When you shoot close to the action, you’ll get much stronger pictures. It will be clear from each picture that you were a part of the action. Your pictures will feel more dynamic, more direct. In the words of the great Robert Capa, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
When you’re not just watching events from a distance, when you’re experiencing them and can hear and smell and feel them, it pays. If you’re attentive and perceptive, you’ll have a better eye for what others can’t see. Last but not least, with a wide-angle lens, you can often look like you’re pointing the camera at something else than you really are. This is one of the things that can help you overcome your shyness.
Avoid automatic focus or exposure settings, or if you must use them, do it with care. It would be a shame if your autofocus pointed somewhere outside of the action, leaving the most important part of the scene blurry. You should especially pay attention to this if you do after all decide that you want (or need) to use a telephoto lens. When you have enough time to direct the focus where you want, this doesn’t have to be a problem. But don’t forget that unique and decisive moments won’t wait for you.
A short focus makes it easier to drown out minor focus mistakes in a photo. The difference in distance between the place you’re focusing on and its surroundings is not as large for a short focus as it is for a long one. Of course this is only true if you are keeping the shutter wide enough open to get a large depth of field.
Go Ye Forth
Sooner or later of course any ambitious photographer is going to get tired of just photographing their friends. Let’s say you, too, are done with taking pictures of your friends, you know where you can go with your equipment and what can you expect from it, you believe in yourself now, and you’re all charged up to go out into the field. So where should you start?
Probably not with photographing mothers and children on the playground, documenting demonstrations, or other dangerous or ethically disputable situations. You’d stand a good chance of seeing your confidence and elan dissipate like clouds in the wind.
You’ll find a better start at some entertainment or culture event where other photographers will already be there. For example, don’t miss the summer festival season! And don’t think you have to stick to the big-ticket festivals with big-ticket prices. Your local Beer Fest, Old West Days, Arts and Crafts Show, or Strawberry Festival will serve just as well.
Tourist traps where camera-carrying tourists supplement the ranks of photographers are also a great choice. They’re great for getting “lost in the crowd” in a good way. Nobody will be surprised by your camera (or other equipment) and it’s likely no-one will mind if you photograph them. Meanwhile these spots have no shortage of lens appeal, and so they’ll give your confidence a boost.
But if you’re not one for the crowds, and you’d rather wander the streets and capture images of our everyday world, that’s no problem. That’s anything but a problem! Get to it!
Overcoming the Barriers
No matter where you go snapshot-hunting, don’t just go pressing the trigger wildly. Always feel free to leave your camera alone and perceive the atmosphere around you. Keep your eyes open and try to learn to at least partially predict various situations. Don’t forget to also watch the light and adjust the camera settings to match. It would be a shame to have the perfect snapshot drowned in darkness. Working with light correctly can make a picture more interesting and dynamic.
A few basic tips in closing:
Don’t forget decency and respect, but at the same time, don’t shake in fear. Forget about that feeling that you’re doing something wrong… because you’re not. You know best of anyone why you’re there in that spot and why you brought your camera. Feel free to even start up conversations with the people you’re photographing. Sometimes all you need is a smile and eye contact. Don’t be ashamed to introduce yourself and say what you’re about and why you’re taking the picture.
Don’t be ashamed of your work. After all, there’s no shame in not being a reporter for a famous news weekly. You’re not getting in anyone’s way with your street photography. One more tip, though it seem like a small thing. Match your appearance to the location where you’re shooting. Dress differently when photographing people down on their luck than at a New York fashion runway!
Learn from the Experienced
A weekend or even just a one-day workshop can really pay off. Usually at these workshops several people with the same goals meet up and head out to shoot together with a teacher. Each of them follows their own taste, but enjoys the knowledge that their teammates have their backs. It’s easier to be confident like this. Another great thing about these courses is the joint reviews of your results. Seeing and comparing how each you approached a topic is educational.
Don’t take the advice and guides above as sacred. There’s always a chance to think up something new that’s the best fit for you. I wish every one of your who takes their camera to the streets happy snapshot hunting!