Getting Close and Personal: 11 Tips for Close-up Candid Street Photography

Street photography is not easy. It tests your nerves, your hand eye coordination and your instincts, but the satisfaction of capturing that split second where everything comes together can make it all worth it.

This article is going to focus specifically on tips to help you get your camera as close to people as possible without them noticing. It is certainly not the only way to do street photography, but it is a very effective way. It helps you catch the world around you in an uninterrupted fashion. And if you happen to get caught then so be it, just smile and own up to what you are doing. You’ll be surprised at how understanding most people are about street photography once you are honest with them.

1. How you Hold the Camera
Speed is key and how you hold the camera can make all the difference in the world. Wrap the camera strap around your wrist instead of around your neck. It is much quicker and easier to maneuver the camera this way and it also allows you to easily ‘shoot from the hip’ if you need to. When you're walking down a street, hold the camera in front of you at a 45-degree angle, halfway between vertical and horizontal, with your finger on the trigger. This way, you can easily get your camera into the right position if something spontaneous should happen, without tipping off the subject that you are going to photograph them.

2. Shooting from the Hip
Unless you have a very small rangefinder, the reality is that it is much easier to photograph someone without them noticing if you don’t have to raise the camera above your chest or look through the viewfinder. The advantage to shooting from your hip with the camera strapped to your wrist is that it really becomes an extension of your arm. You don’t have to shoot in front of you and can shoot sideways or even backwards if you need to. It frees you up to integrate your lens into a situation without anybody noticing. 

You can shoot from the hip with either both hands or one hand holding the camera, but one hand gives you a little more freedom to aim in any direction. Just keep your arm straight down at your side and then angle the camera up and in whichever direction the scene is happening. Then, if you need to, you can raise your arm or bend your elbow a bit to get the exact frame, but be discreet about it.

3. Use a Wide-Angle Prime Lens
A 35mm (or 20mm on a cropped sensor). When you shoot from the hip, you have to get used to what the camera is going to catch without actually looking through the viewfinder. The prime lens allows you to easily anticipate this and with some practice, it will eventually become instinctual. The wide angle helps because it allows you to get closer while also capturing more of a scene and it really injects the viewer into what is happening. Also, wide-angle prime lenses are usually very light and small, are much easier to maneuver and are much less noticeable than the larger zoom lenses.

4. The Low and Slightly Diagonal Angle
Another advantage of shooting from the hip is that you can catch people from a very low angle. Your candid photography should come from a close-up and low angle because it elongates people and allows the subject to fill the frame. This is obviously not true for every situation, but a lot of the time this is suggested.

The slight diagonal angle can be very pleasing, especially for vertical portraits. The angle injects some energy into a photo and allows you to catch a bit more of the surroundings. It creates a lead for the eye to enter the photo and keeps it there, bouncing around between the subject and its surroundings.

5. Be an Actor (and don’t make eye contact)
As a street photographer, you can benefit a lot from acting. You might play the part of a spaced out tourist, engulfed in something happening across the street, or perhaps someone who is lost and has to stop for a moment to collect himself, but you are certainly not someone who looks like he is about to take a photo.

Try acting like you're walking around daydreaming, just spaced out by your surroundings and looking in the somewhat opposite direction of what you want to photograph. Make your path intersect in the right way with the subject and then stop as if you're gathering yourself or as if you see something interesting. 

Most importantly though, is to never point your head directly at the subject, or god forbid, make eye contact! There is something almost evolutionary about eye contact that will make a person immediately notice you. Even for a split second, it will ruin your cover. Instead, try to look ‘through the person’.

6. The Stutter-Step
Sometimes stopping completely is not an option. It will just look too obvious. But at the same time you have to be completely stopped to take a photo. No matter how fast your shutter is, if you are slightly moving while taking a photo then it will probably be ruined.

So there is a move called the stutter-step. It’s basically just a very quick stop in full stride, almost like you freeze for a second in mid motion. It probably looks a bit ridiculous to anyone who’s actually paying attention, but it happens so fast that nobody will notice. Once you try it out you’ll understand what we're talking about and it takes a little bit of practice to get used to.

7. Be Prepared to Change your Camera Settings Quickly
When getting close-up, you never really know how the camera is going to read a situation and that often leads to a lot of messed up exposures. Manual shooting on the street however can take some serious getting used to, because if you suddenly go from a sunny street to a shady street then you will have to remember to change your settings. Keep a sunny and shady general exposure setting in your head and flip back and forth between them.

But what happens then if something sudden occurs? Say you’re walking down a sunny street, settings set up perfectly, when all of a sudden you look to your right and notice a couple of locksmiths in a very dark van, one passed out and one about to light his cigarette? The moment is about to happen! Well in this case, quickly switchover to Aperture Value on your camera, which you have preset with a low aperture value. Even though you will have a loss of some depth of field, you will be able to have it work in both extreme bright or dark situations with a fast enough corresponding shutter speed. You can also do this with shutter value as well.

8. Wear Dark Clothing
It will help you blend in.

9. Set up your Background Beforehand
This is a little out of the realm from what is being talked about so far, but after all there are a million different ways to take a great street photograph. Search out an interesting background and then wait for the right person to come into your scene. Be patient, it might take some time. 

This practice also allows you to be in the correct position before the person comes into the scene, so you can ::gasp:: actually look through the viewfinder! Just make it look like you are taking a photo of the background. Some of the best street photographs were planned instead of found. Find the right location and wait it out until the moment happens.

10. Blur and Grain and Black and White
The reality is that it’s not always bright out, you need a fast enough shutter speed and you don’t have the luxury of using a tripod. You will often be stuck with some blur, slight soft-focus or grain from a high ISO. You can really turn something that looks terrible in color into a great photograph by making a good black and white out of it. After all, street photography is about the content in the photo, and black and white often helps to focus on that.

11. Fill the Frame with the Subject (and don’t be afraid to crop)
Fill the frame with what is important and cut out everything else. Leave some room for the imagination. Also, with a prime lens and fast moving subjects you’re not always going to be able to be in the perfect spot or catch the perfect angle on the fly. Don’t be afraid to crop in or improve the angle afterwards. This is not landscape photography, where you are always able to plan out every aspect of your image before taking the shot. You should get used to using the crop tool, even if it’s just for a slight correction.

Just remember that the hardest part of street photography is getting out of the front door. The moments are flying around everywhere, but you need to be there and be bold with your camera to be able to catch them. Now get in there and get close!

Join The Mailing List To Recieve Free Updates!

Back Next