Four ways to avoid getting punched in the face when doing street photography.

If you are interested in getting started in street photography, you’ll no doubt be looking to get out on the street and start shooting scenes of every day life. If you have had any success capturing that amazing moment when an every day scene looks like some sort of conceptual art, you know how addictive street photography can be.  

However, it can also be daunting to step out into the world with a camera and make images on the street. Lots of thoughts come into your head. What will he say if he catches me? What will bystanders do, or think, if they see me taking photos of those unsuspecting citizens? Do I look like a creep crouching down like this taking a picture of this shadow? Will that guy punch me in the face if I take his photo?


These are all natural and normal feelings when out there doing street photography. I am no psychologist, but it seems like there are a number of social norms that are conspiring against the street photographer, and making the practice feel more daunting than it actually needs to be.  

The modern human condition of keeping your head down and keeping to your own business, not doing anything out of the ordinary to draw attention to yourself, combined with our penchant for avoiding interaction with our fellow humans unless there is a “valid" reason, cause us to have pangs of fear if we go out and interact with the world in any way that is out of the ordinary.

This anxiety can be escalated further when that interaction is reduced to its non-verbal form, such as when you are trying to capture a candid moment through a camera. You can’t telepathically signal to complete strangers that you mean them no harm or humiliation, and that your aim is simply to capture interesting moments that otherwise would have slipped away undocumented. You can't expect them to appreciate your intentions -  let alone explain the search for the street photography holy grail - the extraordinary in the ordinary.

So here are four basic practices that I use to minimise any issues when starting to shoot street.

Get a smile on your dial

First and foremost, put a smile on your face. There is nothing that draws attention more than a scowling street photographer with a furrowed brow surveying the citizens of the city like they are some sort of wild animal in a game hunt.  A simple non threatening demeanour will go along way to allaying any fears or perceived threats from you to others.  This can be difficult for us to do. We are focused, searching for light, analysing shadows, frames within a frame, obscuring, looking for contrast, colour, pattern, repetition, leading lines, angles, symmetry, juxtaposition, geometry - gah…and all the while the actors in our scene won’t sit still, won’t co-operate! No wonder it can get intense out there!

I try to put myself in a mindset of gratitude -  I try and start a street photography session by being grateful to be outside with the time to do some photography and I put no pressure on myself to capture any images - the main thing is I am out and about. I raise the camera to my eye and make a frame. This puts me in a quiet and relaxed state of mind and that translates to my demeanour and attitude. I am happy to be here on the streets.

You have nothing to hide

Don’t hide the fact that you are out there with the camera making photos. This only makes you look suspicious and makes you feel even more nervous than you already may be.  Change your thinking and begin to look forward to the possibility of interaction with strangers in public places. You never know who you are going to meet. When you take this attitude, you remove your own fear and that translates into a more relaxed state of mind. You are that guy or girl that always has a camera with them - situation normal. When you become comfortable with being open about holding the camera out in public, it lets you relax and start looking for images.  

Try this exercise - just walk out onto the busy street in a crowded area, find an inanimate and boring object to photograph, and make 36 exposures from every different angle and approach you can manage. Get down low, on your stomach. Up high on your toes. Up close and far away. Shoot up and down. There's six images for you right there...keep going.  The idea is just to get used to having the camera up to your eye and taking photos in public without worrying about what others are thinking of you - who knows, you might even make a friend, but likely not one person will notice nor care.

A nod of the head or a smile to ask permission

So you see a great scene and an interesting person in it, or a person that just has something about them that you would love to photograph. There is nothing wrong with asking permission to take someones photo. This is a street photography debate that I won’t get into here, but believe me when I say it is OK to make contact before you make a street photography image, especially when you are just getting started. I’m not saying you need to go up and get them to sign a model release! A simple raising of the camera, eye contact with a smile or nod of the head will do it for street photography. You aren’t shooting them to make a billboard advertisement, you are making a documentary street photo, so thats as far as it needs to go. You will quickly see how easy it is to get permission if you need it,  and also how little of a deal it is if someone doesn’t want their photo taken. No problem, move on, get the shot next time.


Have a reason for taking the shot

At some stage you will want or need to make an image without permission.  This is the essence of the traditional street photography ethos - capturing the every day candid moment  - that slice of life.  However, the modern day fear of the invasion of privacy, whether it is real or perceived, is something that all street photographers will need to answer to at some stage on their street photography journey. Ignoring for a moment that most of our life in public spaces is captured by CCTV (There are 11,000 CCTV cameras on Sydney trains alone), there is a genuine feeling of concern from some people when they are photographed without permission by us street photographers.

We need to be empathetic to this fear and these feelings, and we need to be prepared to explain ourselves if we are asked.  I try and always have a reason for making a photograph on the street - at least a partially constructed answer in my head, and with practice this now happens automatically.  

This is actually a great photographic exercise in photographing with intent. When you begin to strive for intent in your image making, you start to look harder and start seeing possibilities that you wouldn’t have seen if you were just waiting or walking around pointing your camera and snapping away.  With practice, you can immediately verbalise what you are trying to do when you raise the camera to your eye. The intention may not always materialise or work out of course, but this is not the point - you have a reason to take the shot. If asked, be sure to share your vision!


There is an entire psychology to this genre that I have only touched on here and will explore further as time goes by. I would love to know how you go about your street photography practice and what your thoughts are about fear, permission, confidence and intent in your own street photography. Be sure to drop me a line in the comments and let me know.