When it comes to photographing public places, it’s obvious that people must be front and center in your shots. But there’s a lot more to good street photography than getting a nice crowd in the frame. To really communicate something about a place, you need to illustrate its qualities as a site of human activity. These tips from our street-smart photographers will help you capture those perfect public space moments on film (or memory card).
1. Look for people’s patterns
The best insights into how places work come in recognizing people’s patterns of use. Telltale signs, like pedestrians always jaywalking at the same spot or kids hanging out on a particular park bench, repeat endlessly and become more apparent the longer you observe. “You’ll see some things time and time and time again,” says PPS Vice President Kathy Madden. “So it’s easy to take a picture, because it’s always happening.”
2. Always be alert
While a great deal can be gleaned from observing the repetition of behavior over time, some images can be captured only during a brief window of opportunity. “There’s all these spontaneous things going on that you need to be very lucky to get,” notes PPS President Fred Kent. “You always have to be alert.” That means having your camera ready at a moment’s notice. Kent fondly recalls the time he snapped what became a celebrated PPS image–eight older women hanging on to one another as they face onrushing traffic while attempting to cross a street together in Sydney, Australia. “I came out of a meeting, and there they were standing in the middle of the street. I had to just react, and I almost got run over.”
3. Wait for the right moment
A quick reaction can be crucial, but a good shot can’t be forced or hurried. Many times, you need to wait for it to happen. Patience pays dividends, says Fred Kent, even when capturing spontaneous moments like public displays of affection: “You have to know the evolution of the kiss. You need to watch the whole thing evolve, and then know intuitively when the best part is going to be–that instant of the most passion.”
4. Become a part of the place
To seize the right moment when it happens, you need to participate in the life of the place you are photographing. “You have to get into the soul of a place to capture it in a photo,” says Ethan Kent, who manages PPS’s vast image collection. “You can’t be a mere observer: You must be experiencing the place to see the right shots and to connect with the people who are there.”
5. Legitimize yourself
Being a part of a place gets harder the farther you are from home. Madden cites a trip to Bali several years ago when she realized she needed to create a role for herself within the places she was photographing. “In Bali, I was obviously a visitor, but I was still trying to be sensitive to the ecology of that space,” she recalls. “Everything goes on in the street there, it’s truly the river of life. I would come on foot, shop at a market, or sit somewhere. You must legitimize yourself first, then you have a role in that space.”
6. Be purposeful
Don’t sneak around or hide the fact that you are taking photographs. Act like you have a purpose, and people will be more comfortable with you taking pictures of them. Sometimes simply explaining what you are doing will win people’s trust. “I often just tell people, ‘This is such a great place and everybody here seems to be having a good time, I wanted to take some photos to show people what a great place looks like,’” says Ethan Kent. “They’ll understand and appreciate why you are there rather than view you as a threat or nuisance.”
7. Naïveté can help
No matter how legitimate and purposeful you appear, taking photographs in public always carries the risk of confrontation, especially in areas with heightened security. If someone challenges you, whether it’s a law enforcement officer or a regular person on the street, act like it’s perfectly normal to be taking pictures in a public place. PPS Senior Fellow Jay Walljasper was challenged by a big, burly guy one day while taking photos on the street in Christiana, the famous counterculture neighborhood in Copenhagen. “It seems I had just, by accident, documented a hashish deal,” Walljasper recalls. “He was the hippie equivalent of the local sheriff and it was his job to keep negative publicity about drugs in Christiana to a minimum. He said firmly that he would have to confiscate my roll of film. I already had some nice shots I didn’t want to lose, so I pleaded innocence telling him I had no idea what was going on. He relented and said he would only have to expose a few frames, which he expertly did. The rest of my photos were saved.”
8. Try a number of angles
Many different kinds of photos can document the essence of a place: Sometimes it’s a close-up of the expression on someone’s face; sometimes a long distance aerial shot. Medium-range shots can capture the nuances in people’s expression and movement while also offering some context of the physical space itself. For close-ups and medium-range shots, the trick is often to position yourself so that your subjects are facing you, not walking away from you. Aerial shots can be taken from the 2nd floor of a nearby building, or even while standing on a garbage can or using a lamppost to get some extra height. If you get much farther away, the image may become too abstract.
9. Your own photos are always better than someone else’s
When you want to convey the particular qualities and spirit of a place in a presentation or informal discussion, the best photos are always the ones you’ve taken yourself. “You can talk about a photo you’ve taken so much more convincingly and eloquently than a photo that someone else has taken,” explains Madden. Every picture tells a story, and your audience will delight in hearing the stories behind the photos you show.
10. Find a great place
It’s a simple fact that you are much more likely to take a great picture if you are in a great space. “Good places breed good images,” says Fred Kent. “In bad places, people tend to be more uptight and fearful. The better a place is, the more doors are opened up for people to be comfortable, expressive, and affectionate in public. The possibilities of a great place expand exponentially.”