There are lots of misconceptions about street photography made by people starting out or itching to try this ultimately most challenging (unless you want to take boring photos), most rewarding, and most accessible of photographic genres.
I want you out there on the streets filling your SD cards with mistakes, experiments, and ultimately great photos you can be proud of. But first, we need to put some of this “fake news” to bed.
Let’s punch some myths in the face!
Myth #1. You Need a ‘Proper’ Camera
Nope, all you need is something to capture an image! Use your phone or buy a disposable camera. If you only have a few megapixels who cares? — Make it your style! Lean into the grain and the roughness of the pictures. Look at the work of Daido Moriyama, William Klein, and Robert Frank’s The Americans.
There are of course some wonderful ‘proper’ cameras out there that become a joy to use, but they are a luxury for any non-professional photographer. Most smartphones have incredible camera tech these days and “iPhoneography” is an actual 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.
As for disposable cameras — there is so much fun to be had with low-fi unpredictable poor-quality film photos. There’s something to be said for the excitement of limiting yourself to 27 frames, never being entirely sure if you wound the film on far enough, or if the last shot you got even made it onto the roll.
Myth #2. You Need to Understand the Technical Side
Nah, today’s camera tech 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 take the lens cap off.
Now, if you broke into a cold sweat at the mention of P-Mode then mop your brow as it comes highly recommended by renowned photographer Martin Parr who rarely strays into a Priority mode let alone Manual.
You can always learn about the pesky exposure triangle and what the nobs and buttons do on your camera as you go along. Perfect exposure is over-rated anyway. Focus on the creative side of photography first. The rest will follow.
Cameras are only a tool for capturing what you see. When people say, “That’s a great photo, what camera did you use?” I want to roll my eyes. Nobody ever asked Picasso what paintbrush he was using! Or at least I don’t think so…
Myth #3. You Need Permission to Take Photos of Strangers
Not usually, but make sure you check the privacy laws in the country you’re taking photos in. There are some strict laws out there, such as in France and Germany for example.
If you find yourself somewhere that has restrictive laws, you can always take on the challenge of creating anonymous photos of people… This may sound easy but it can actually be harder 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’re asked to delete a photo then do it. No picture is worth ruining someone else’s day.
Myth #4. Photographing Strangers is Scary
Yes, it can be, but with practice, it doesn’t have to be! The fear is not about taking the photo, but about being “caught” doing it. There are ways to be invisible so you don’t interrupt or startle anyone (without hiding in a bush and using a telephoto lens).
First of all, you have to be chilled out, because there’s nothing more obvious than someone in a crowd who is acting a bit shifty. Avoid eye contact as this is an invitation to engage. If you have an LCD screen that flips out you can use that instead of the viewfinder and even pretend you’re making a video, as people seem to be less bothered about being a passerby in a film than they are as the subject of a photo .
Ultimately, if you get busted, you just explain what you’re doing in a friendly way, maybe there was something specific about them that drew your eye that you can let them know about and they might even be flattered. And after a chat, you never know you could end up with a new pal.
Myth #5. Street Photography is Creepy
Only if you are!
Much of the time street photographers get a bad rap, often seen as the “problem child” of the photography world. And yes, let’s face it, some street photographers are creepy, but they are probably a bit dodgy, to begin with and are using street photography as something to hide behind. You may have seen them in the wild shuffling around with a safari lens, zooming in on people surveillance-style from a distance. This is not the way to do it! When it comes to street photography lenses — if it’s long, it’s wrong! Unless of course you are Saul Leiter and you’re using the compression a long lens provides in a creative way, rather than a reason not to get in closer.
But we’re not all bad, and most definitely not all creepy. Of course, there are some bad apples in the street photography world that give the rest of us a bad name, but most of us just want to take photos, document life everyday using our unique perspectives, or simply switch off from the big bad world — and photography of any kind is so good for that.
Myth #6. You Need Somewhere Interesting to Take Photos
Nope. It’s not where you are, it’s how creative you are. There’s 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 evidence of them.
It can often take time to tune your eyes into a place, the people, and the things unfolding around you. Sometimes you’re simply somewhere at the wrong time of day. Stroll around and try to see the world through the eyes of an alien that has just landed! See what you can find that is curious… You’ll be surprised by what you’ll start to notice.
Myth #7. There’s Not Enough Time to Do Street Photography
Nah. It’s not how much time you have it’s how focused you are. If you’ve got a bunch of ideas to draw on then you’ll be able to use your lunchtime, or the walk from the metro to your office to take pictures. It could even be the start of a project…
Plus, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind, and there’s nothing like photography to help switch off from the stresses of work.
Myth #8. It’s Too Difficult
Your mindset is both your biggest tool and your biggest obstacle. Your choice!
I believe that everything is learnable…
And with practice, practice, and a bit more practice, you’ll have ideas of things to photograph that will trigger you to take photos (we street photographers are crazy about things such as the color red, or a balloon, or some awesome light and shade), and over time you’ll start to develop intuitive compositional skills, which means that in those super fleeting moments when something is happening for a second split you’ll be able to compose it in an instant. How cool is that?
Myth #9. You Need to Dress Like a Ninja
Only if you are an actual Ninja! Street photographers have more options. The best outfit is the one that blends in the most with wherever you’re taking photos. In a tourist spot? Look touristy. At the beach? Look beachy. You get the gist…
But ultimately, it’s about how you behave. The more relaxed and open you are, the nicer an energy you give off, and you can just do your thing without anyone wondering what you’re up to. They may notice you have a camera for a split second, but then they’ll be back in their heads thinking about cheese! Or is that just me?
Are there any more myths that need busting? Let me know… My boxing gloves are on.
About the author: Polly Rusyn is a professional photographer, street photography teacher, and the founder of the Department of Street Photography. Her work has been awarded and exhibited internationally at a number of street photography festivals. She has been published in magazines such as Nat Geo Traveler UK and has also given talks about street photography at the 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.