5 Tips on how to be a Ninja street photographer
Updated: Oct 8
AKA How to take candid street photographs without being noticed, and overcome your fears of shooting strangers!
In the absence of an actual cloak of invisibility there are a few ways to go relatively unnoticed on the streets when you are taking photos. Joel Meyerowitz talked about not wanting to “bruise the scene”, and this is a great way to put it! As soon as people are aware they are being photographed their behaviour changes. The candid uninhibited moment is lost. Some street photographers covet the moment they get caught when eye contact is made, as somehow there is that magic instance of connection with the subject - which could of course lead to a conversation, or a even a confrontation. What does most definitely happen in that moment is that it is over! The scene is bruised, and you cannot work it any longer without some sort of consent from your subject, and then you’ve left the hallowed realm of candid photography…
So, I want to share with you a few ways of how to shoot on the street without disturbing the scene: how to make pictures that aren’t bruised, and where you don’t end up getting bruised because someone caught you, and they didn’t understand what you were doing!
And by the way, if ever you do find yourself in a confrontation the best thing to do, in my opinion is to just diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. By all means explain that you are a street photographer, and you are creating a record of daily life in your own way for future generations… (or whatever other reason you may be shooting street photography). But do delete the photo if your subject prefers you to. There’s no point in trying to tell them it’s legal to photograph members of the public without their prior consent in a public place (in the UK at least), as this could just upset them further. And who wants a picture of someone who you will always remember as asking you to delete their photo! I know I don’t want that bad karma.
Also ahead of giving you some tips - I’d like to mention my own policy of being kind to my subjects. And by that I mean avoiding something horribly unflattering, or something that makes fun of someone. If you get the feeling it’s the sort of picture that you could both laugh at then of course take humorous pictures. Ultimately, you will have your own set of ethics when it comes to street photography - but I would encourage you to be as kind as possible.
So how do you take photos of complete strangers without them knowing?! Well it is all about hiding in plain sight! Here are a few ideas how:
1. Blend in
We all spot someone who is acting shifty - you know, the dodgy dude with the darting eyes and hunched body, who’s giving off a tense energy, who might be moving at a different pace or in a different way to everyone else. We spot them because they are the “odd one out”, but also because they are giving off a different vibe. As a street photographer you need to be able to blend in with the crowd. When you arrive at a great spot, just observe for a little while, get a feel of the place, and then try to match your pace to the pace of the location. The more relaxed you are the better, not just for blending in purposes but also for getting you into “the zone”…
2. Don’t CHIMP
What is “CHIMPing” you might ask? Well, it’s short for “CHeck IMage Preview”. If you are shooting film or used to shooting film this will not be a problem for you, but in the age of digital cameras with screens that show you what you have photographed it’s all to easy to check every single shot you have taken. And while it’s so cool to have this facility, if you are CHIMPing every shot you take you are probably giving yourself away if someone has already wondered if you are photographing them. And aside from that you may well be missing the best shot of your life while you are looking at the back of your camera instead of shooting.
3 Avoid eye contact
It is a normal human reaction to look other people in the eye, it’s a way of connecting, which is exactly why when shooting street photography you should be avoiding it. If you are trying to capture “unbruised” moments that is! Eye contact is a way of telling someone you are open to communicating with them, and if you have combined that with a camera to your face, and thrown in a CHIMP you may well be giving yourself away, and might find yourself having to explain what you are doing, or in the worst case scenario a confrontation - which of course we want to avoid!
4. Fake it
A great way to work is to not even look as though you are photographing anyone in particular. You could fake-shoot the architecture above someone then bring your camera down to make the shot. You could fake-shoot behind someone. You could fake-video! Interestingly, people tend to be less bothered about being caught in a video than they are about being chosen to be photographed (which is actually a massive compliment if you think about it!). So, fake it while you take it!!! And again avoiding eye contact and CHIMPing is key. Although you could fake-CHIMP if you are fake-shooting above someone…
5. Use a small camera
The idea that a large camera with a long lens is a “professional” camera is still very much the case for people who don’t know about recent camera developments. And if you are perceived as a pro, then people get suspicious as to why you are taking photos. Not to mention that a big old camera will also attract more attention to you. And don’t get me started on long lenses for street photography - it’s not the Serengeti! I shoot with a Fujifilm X100V which is not only very discreet and has a fixed flat prime lens, I have the added bonus of having a silent shutter and a flip screen. No one takes me seriously when I’m out with it, and that’s perfect for street photography!
If you feel weird about photographing people Ninja style, then street photography may not be for you - it’s not for everyone, and that’s OK, there are plenty of other types of photography! Remind yourself you are not doing anything wrong taking photos of people in public places without their permission (make sure you do know the law regarding street photography depending on where you are though). And remember you are giving someone a compliment by choosing them to be immortalised in one of your photographs!
Hopefully you now have a few ideas to put into practice when you are next out shooting, and if you join me on a Weekender (shameless plug!) then I’ll give you a demo of these methods, along with few ideas about mindset and other tips, as well as introduce you to the “Ninja smile”!
Don’t forget to sign up for irregular updates and be amongst the first to find out about upcoming Weekenders, blog posts and other random news. Happy shooting without bruising! (My jokes don’t get any better I’m afraid)
Photography © Polly Rusyn