How I Approach Street Photography

My default mode is the candid frame. Second, is street portraiture.

Originally published November 22, 2017. But I still approach street photography in the same basic manner.

Some say hindsight is 20-20. I say it’s more like f8 on a Mumbai afternoon. That is to say, reasonably sharp and in focus.

Admittedly, it has taken quite some time for me to come to terms with exactly how I approach street photography. Because in the very beginning, I didn’t really know how to even operate my DSLR efficiently enough to the point where it was a second nature procedure. Then once this hurdle was cleared, I discovered the sheer chaos of what was before me: Around 18 million residents of one of the most densely-packed cities in the world.


There were two other hurdles I had to clear. One was the hefty Canon DSLR strapped to my shoulder. The other was the color of my skin.

Being a foreigner was and still is the biggest hurdle for me to clear on a regular basis when I’m shooting street photography anywhere in India. Clearing hurdles isn’t even an apt analogy for my situation. It’s more akin to being the Invisible Man until THEY see you, from which time you morph into one of three things in their eyes: a rock star, a mobile charity, or the devil. Sometimes all three! I could tell you stories, my friends. If you’re lucky, the won’t see you at all or ignore you. These are the wishes of candid shooters like myself.

The poor invisibility factor nearly made me give up shooting street photography right from the word aperture priority. Even during my low-down points when I had virtually given up and aimed my damned telephoto lens at a subject over 100 yards away, they always seemed to notice me. It was eerie and frustrating. I’ve wrote about the phenomenon in one too many posts already, and this time around I’ll reference this one.

I’ve too written about the phase when I started shooting street portraits as a way of dealing with all the candid shots I was missing. I even started to enjoy it immensely and began to appreciate interacting with so many people, even children, whom I thought to be the least interesting of all subjects until I recognized that they were doing more interesting things than adults at any given time.

In short, it was a process. Hindsight is f8 on a Mumbai afternoon. I’m a candid shooter at heart and I failed miserably at it in the beginning. Then I adapted and found myself shooting street portraits. Then came the interesting realization: I really could take candid shots more often than I gave myself credit for.

The only reason I can come up with for the change in my shooting style from there onward was confidence. I felt I could walk into places now and just not worry about being spotted. I’d let my camera sort out the candid from the portraits by keeping it ready at all times.

By keeping it ready, I mean I’ve got the camera strap wrapped around my wrist at nearly all times. This lowers my profile considerably, especially after switching to a much smaller Sony mirrorless system in the A6000.

What I mean by profile is exactly that, the way I look. I never was a fan for strapping my camera around my neck like a tourist. There are obviously places in the world where this would be an advantage, but not here in Mumbai for me. Previously, I had the Canon slung around my shoulder and in hand, which was a better method than having the thing around my neck like a noose. But it didn’t matter to the average person on the street. A foreigner walking down the street with something on his shoulder was far more interesting than a foreigner walking down the street with nothing strapped to him. Then once my camera got smaller, my profile also flew a little lower under the radar. Short of buying some fixed lens compact (which I’ll never conceivably do for various reasons) that can fit in my pocket, I feel I’m utilizing the best strategy possible for myself. The Sony is safely secured in my hand down at my side or slightly elevated, always ready to shoot.

These days I’ve realized the strategy I’ve been working with almost subconsciously. This is how I approach street photography these days with my new camera. I go for the candid shot nine times out of 10. If I’m spotted, I know right away whether or not I want a street portrait. It’s important to sort this out quickly, because if I really did want a candid shot of a subject and was spotted, I may have the option to try again. I’d likely ruin this opportunity if I went in for the street portrait prematurely.

It’s time for some easy-to-follow bullet points.

I prefer candid shots, therefore:

*My camera is always in my hand below my chest while maintaining the lowest profile as possible

*I will attempt candid shots first

*If I like a subject but am spotted, I go in for the street portraits

It’s that simple.

Ironically for me, the most difficult shots to get are candid photos. It’s actually easier for an introverted foreigner (in my opinion) to approach strangers in India because typically Indians love to have their photos taken and they usually break the ice by asking you questions about where you’re from, what you’re doing in India, etc. It’s nearly impossible to not love the process if you’re a street photographer! The people here I’ve found generally more welcoming than Americans or Europeans. Again, my opinion, but I’m sure there are many street shooters out there who would agree.

My street photography workshop clients have discovered this for themselves in their own ways. One of them was a very outgoing individual and had no problem approaching individuals or groups of people for street portraits but admitted that he needed to work on his candid photography. Another client mentioned how short the window is for taking candid shots while recognizing the fact that asking people for their photos wasn’t really an issue at all. It was even fun.

I have a theory that practicing candid photography is the easiest but also the most challenging form of street photography. Approaching strangers at first may be a daunting situation for some of us, but once you get over the initial ice-breaking phase then it’s the easiest thing to do. Come to India and take one of my street photography workshops and I’ll show you!

Otherwise, I think the Candid-Street Portrait approach is a great way to approach street photography almost anywhere in the world because it’s one way to confront the general chaos out there if you prefer candid street photography. It’s simple too, almost too simple to mention. But it’s funny what I had to go through to realize how simple street photography actually can be.

Hindsight is f8 on a Mumbai afternoon.

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