How to Take Photos of Strangers
It sounds simple: you go for a walk and shoot…
“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
That’s an iconic phrase from the classic 1948 black-and-white film noir entitled Naked City. And it speaks to the very opportunity that awaits you in your city, every minute of every day as a mobile street photographer.
Here are some tips to get you going.
Street Photography: What is it?
If you’ve spent any amount of time walking the streets of a large city, one thing is certain: you will happen upon just about every type of person you can imagine.
Every one of them has a story.
Street photography has been defined, in part, as photographing the human condition in public places. Naturally, the “human condition” is wide ranging. It includes all of the positive and negative aspects of existing as a human being and it can include any number of emotions.
Sometimes it’s obvious:
Street photography isn’t limited to taking pictures of people, however. It can be anything depicting human characteristics.
Look up at the sky. It could be the way a group of buildings towers above us, making us feel small, maybe even powerless. It could be the freedom of a bird, soaring above us, or a tree, growing and flourishing right next to us—a few signs of nature in a seemingly colorless concrete jungle.
If you’re taking pictures in a large city, you have hit a veritable goldmine of potential subject matter. Just about everything is fair game.
Remember the Fundamentals
First and foremost, street photography involves being in the moment and becoming a part of it. Bring your imagination and your creativity with you. You are uniquely you and the way you look at things in the world is different from anyone else. Use your own unique perspective to make your pictures different, too.
However you define street photography, always remember—the fundamentals of taking good pictures should always apply. Watch your composition. Look for the rule of thirds and how you frame your shots. Watch for symmetry. And so on.
Develop your eye, practice the basics, and you will be well on your way to becoming not only a good mobile street photographer, but a good photographer in general.
Timing is Everything
Street photography can be, literally, wandering the streets of your city, waiting and watching for something that catches your eye—something that will tell the story of that moment. Be ready to capture it.
In no other photographic setting is timing more important that in street photography. Sure, if you’re a professional photographer taking pictures of a live sporting event, you’d better be prepared to capture the moment because you’re only going to get one chance. But the same can be said with street photography. Be aware and be ready to shoot.
Luckily with your iPhone, the process is simplified. You can pretty much point and shoot to capture the moment before it gets away from you.
On one occasion, I happened upon a small dry cleaning shop. Inside was a woman who was leaning back against the glass of the storefront with her hands clasped behind her head. It was pretty obvious she was waiting for her laundry.
The sun was hitting her bare arms and blonde hair like a spotlight so it immediately caught my eye. I hurried to take a few pictures as people rushed back and forth in front of me. After about four quick shots, the woman stood up and the moment was gone, but I managed to get one photo I really liked, one image that told the story of that particular moment.
Try to Blend In
As someone whose goal it is to capture people being themselves in public, you will need to find a way to blend in, to look like you are one of them, not someone trying to document what they are doing.
For starters, dress conservatively. You don’t need to don a camouflage outfit—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but avoid wearing bright colors. Blend into the environment around you.
There are also subtle techniques you can use to avoid looking like you are taking pictures, if that matters to you. Just about everyone is walking around with a smartphone these days. Not all of them are taking pictures. If you hold your iPhone in portrait mode rather than landscape mode, you will give the appearance you are doing any number of things other than taking pictures.
You could also sit down and rest your iPhone on your legs in landscape mode. You know that you are taking pictures, but nobody else knows what you are doing.
Truth be told, in a crowded city, most people won’t notice or won’t really care what you are doing. They have things to do, places to be, and people to see. As long as you stay out of their business, they are probably not going to be too concerned with what you are doing—if they notice you at all.
I tried to blend in just outside an office building where I loved “the look” of the place. The lighting, the design, the huge glass doors. Everytime someone walked out of that building, they were silhouetted against the light behind them. When the next person walks through that door, I thought, I will have a good picture.
The thing is, every person that walked out of those doors also walked right past me and down some stairs. I really couldn’t blend in. To avoid any potential awkwardness, I sat on the ground with my back resting against a railing and balanced my iPhone in landscape mode across my knees. For all they knew, I was playing a game.
That maneuver probably wasn’t even necessary, but at that moment, it felt like the right option for me. Do what makes you comfortable, so you can clear your mind and concentrate on taking good pictures.
What the Law Says About Taking Pictures in Public
Over two billion people now have a smartphone. Facebook users are uploading 350 million new photos each day. And in the amount of time it takes you to read this sentence, over 2,000 photos will be uploaded to Instagram. Thus, it might seem like you can just take pictures anytime and anywhere you want.
Not so fast. There are a number of state laws specifically designed to protect people against unwelcome photographic intrusion into their personal affairs. As far as street photographers are concerned, however, you have a lot of freedoms.
According to the legal wizards at ShakeLaw.com, public places, like your city streets, have the lowest levels of protection. So, generally speaking, everything is fair game. Taking pictures specifically to cause embarrassment to someone, however, could get you in trouble. Plus, it’s not very nice.
When in doubt, assess the situation as a whole, and try to put yourself in your subject’s shoes. Before you take a picture, consider where you are, what you had to do to get the picture, and how likely it is that the image may cause someone distress. Then do the right thing.
On one occasion, I had unknowingly wandered onto the property of a large financial firm. A security guard came racing toward me from her booth, waving her arms in the air. I couldn’t understand what she was saying until she got closer, but I knew I had done something wrong. As it turned out, she was trying to tell me I couldn’t take any pictures of their building from that particular spot.
“If you step back onto the sidewalk, you can take any picture you want,” she said.
“I just wanted to take a few pictures of these pigeons,” I responded, pointing to the flock that had landed on a railing about four feet above me.
We went on to have a pleasant discussion about iPhone photography and…pigeons.
No harm, no foul—as they say. But the lines of what was city property and what was private business property were very blurry. I didn’t want any pictures of their building anyway, so it didn’t matter.
The lesson here is to obey the laws, especially when someone points them out to you. Be kind and stay out of trouble. When someone asks you to not take a picture, don’t take it. Perhaps you could ask them why if you’re up to it. It might lead to an interesting and informative conversation.
Editing Your Work
As always, focus on taking great pictures as if there were no option to edit them afterward. This will make you a better photographer immediately. But lucky for you, there are some incredible editing options available to make your good pictures great.
Many times, street photography is depicted with black and white images. You can find a plethora of diverse black and white filters in the Enlight app where you can even fine tune the image’s structure, brightness, contrast, exposure, intensity, hue, and much more. Experiment with these settings and see what you like the best.
Alternatively, you can go against the street photography grain and choose from a seemingly endless number of colorful options.
I had a beautiful sunny day for my photo walk and I knew that I wanted a filter that captured some of the color of the day without too much contrast. In fact, I wanted the color to be kind of washed out. In my mind, I knew exactly what I wanted. It was just a matter of finding the right filter that captured the “street photography vibe” I was looking for.
It didn’t take long when I found the Enlight app’s Fuji filter. This one perfectly captured the feel I was looking for, so much so that I didn’t want to make any more adjustments. I squared up the image in Canvas and applied the Fuji filter. That was the extent of my editing work.
Eight Million Stories
With your iPhone in hand, you have a unique opportunity to capture the story of your city, through your eyes, with your pictures.
You are a mobile street photographer and there are eight million stories in the naked city. Now go find them.
Written by: David Kindervater of iPhonePhotoLab.com.
All the photos in this article were edited with Enlight and photographed by David Kindervater.