Street Photography: The two schools of thought

street photography
Street photography: Because the best subjects don't walk into a studio - by rynde

Street photography is one of the most difficult and demanding exercises in all of photography.  Why do it? Because the people who make the best character studies, who are the most unique looking people, will frequently be the ones least likely to walk into a portrait studio.

For the most interesting people, you sometimes have to head out on the street and find them.  Street photography is a hobby for some, a business for a few, and right of passage for any serious photographer.

Know Your Rights

Before heading out, it’s always a good idea to review your rights as a photographer.  There is a lot of confusion about what is legal and not legal among the general public, and sometimes law enforcement and security guards will try to make up the rules on the spot or count on people not understanding their rights.  Knowing your rights before you set out can diffuse a lot of situations.

Probably the most basic guideline covering photographers is that there is no expectation of privacy in a public place.  Anyone outside in an urban setting is being watched by thousands of security cameras every day and no one gives it much thought because the cameras are discretely out of sight.  Perhaps the fact they can see you is what triggers an irrational response in some people.

Before you head out you might also want to think through whether it’s worth pushing a difficult situation.  Sometimes it is, sometimes better just to move along and shoot somewhere else.  Personally, I’m not inclined to argue with the police.  If they tell me to move or move along, generally I’ll do that on the scene and file a complaint later if I think the request was out of line.  Surprisingly, that approach has been very productive.  More than once I’ve had a local sheriff call and apologize for a deputy running me off a scene and then had no further trouble covering that area.

If it’s assignment coverage, there are generally many other photographers and news people around and I observe whatever rules and barriers the police set for them.  I’ve seen photographers climbing on street lights, cars, vans, steps, and fire escapes trying to get an angle.  I’ve seen them walk across people’s lawns and step in bushes.  Don’t do that.  Behaviors like that give the rest of us a bad name.

Two Schools

When it comes to street photography, there are basically two schools of thought:  One I call the “paparazzi” model and the other is the “ask permission” model.  Each model is different in how it approaches the subject, gets very different results, and leaves a very different impression with the subjects of your photographs.

The Paparazzi Model

The paparazzi model, typified by photographers like Eric Kim, basically involves walking up to a complete stranger and taking their picture.  It may seem bold, some people are put out, but it does save a lot of conversation.

I employ this style of photography if I’m on assignment and the individual in question is a public figure.  If I’m covering the Casey Anthony trial, I’m not going to try to fight through the crowd of other reporters and photographers to ask for a picture.

I don’t normally shoot like this.  It can startle people to have a camera suddenly shoved in their face and many people resent having an unwanted photo taken, even though it happens hundreds of times a day when they walk past security and surveillance cameras or use an ATM machine.  They can see you, and having their picture taken without permission can gnaw at people, though it does depend on the situation.

But Eric Kim is in L.A., a place where paparazzi are part of the landscape and culture.  So in the shadow of Hollywood, this may raise less hackles than other places.

The Permission Model

The permission model is typified by Clay Enos and is my preferred style of street photography.  It’s more difficult, takes longer, and you deal with more rejection, but to me this is the right way to shoot street portraits.

If you were the subject, how would you rather be approached?  He has such a great attitude and positive energy, I doubt very many people walk away feeling somehow invaded after an encounter like that.

Okay, maybe you don’t have that much charm and you’re not a smooth talker.  It just takes practice.  Do it for a whole day and you’ll be a pro asking complete strangers if you can take their picture.

Even on assignment I’ll ask, if there are other subjects available.  It’s usually as simple as, “Guys, can I get a picture for XYZ magazine?”  And always thank them.  No, I don’t have to do that, but if it makes people feel a little bit better, if it gives someone having a bad hair day the option of saying “no thanks”, isn’t everyone feeling a little better when they walk away?

Some assignment locations and venues will insist you ask permission of individually identifiable subjects because they don’t want their customers complaining or not coming back because someone was waiving a camera at them.  You’ll always have to ask if one of the subjects is a minor and I prefer signed parental releases for any subject under 18.  It’s not always necessary in the context of news gathering, but not many big shops will touch kid shots without a release.

So, in some situations, you’ll have to ask, even if you’re on assignment.  Might as well get used to it.