Street Photography – 10 Ways to be Invisible

A baseball player holding a very large camera in the early twentieth century

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ggbain-0913]

 In my travels around various forums and blogs I see a lot of comments and questions from people who would like to get into street photography but are nervous and hesitant about taking the plunge.

They’re worried that they will stand out and be challenged every time they lift the camera to take a shot.

When I’m shooting in the street, my goal is to get the shot without my subjects noticing me.

That’s not always possible, but in all my years street shooting and directing documentaries, I can recall less than a handful of times when I have been approached in any hostile way.
This includes shooting in difficult places like Eastern Congo,  South Africa’s townships and the slums of Nairobi.

There are things you can do to be less noticeable. Some of them may seem counterintuitive — being more visible to be less visible — but, trust me, they work.

Here are my 10 ways to be invisible for successful Street Photography…

Don't try to hide!    Image courtesy of the Library of Congress    [LC-DIG-npcc-18518]

Don’t try to hide! Image courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-npcc-18518]

1. Don’t try to hide

If you sneak around trying to hide people will notice you.

Humans have spent most of the past three million years watching out for lions, tigers, wolves and bears [ and other people ] creeping around and hiding in the bushes.

So we don’t even think about it – we just notice when someone is trying to hide. We notice, we feel threatened, and we track them.

If you just go about your business normally like everyone else [ and your business is taking photos ] most people won’t really notice you, or if they do they won’t feel threatened. They will most likely think you are a tourist.

[ See #6 below ]

2. Don’t try to hide the camera

This is from the same surival instinct that brought you #1 above. We notice what people have in their hands – we make subconscious threat assessments all the time.

The best way to carry your camera for street photography is usually by your side, with or without a wrist strap. Anticipate the shot, bring the camera up and shoot.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule. I will sometimes hang the camera around my neck if I feel that helps me to blend in to a particular situation. You have to judge the location and the people around you.

A note about straps:

Don’t use great big paramilitary-looking glove contraptions, straps and harnesses that might stop you dropping your camera half way up Mount Everest or hanging from a helicopter door.

On an ordinary city street they make people suspicious and apprehensive.

Three street photographers in New York in the early twentieth century with cameras on tripods

Street photographers, New York. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ggbain-02979]

3. Blend in

If you’re going to shoot at a biker rally, don’t wear a three piece suit. If you’re shooting a convention of nuns, don’t wear full combat fatigues.
If you’re shooting in the street, wear normal, ordinary street clothes.

4. Don’t dart around

Move around and through the street action in an easy, leisurely but purposeful way. If you dart about like a cornered rat, people will notice you and shy away.

5. Don’t seem too interested

Use your peripheral vision.

You can look away from your subject while still keeping track of them. If people decide you’re not particularly interested in them, they’ll quickly go back to what they were doing and ignore you.

6. Act like a tourist

If you want to hang around in a particular spot waiting for something to happen – act like a tourist.
Point the camera here and there, up at buildings, across the street at the traffic.

It’s surprising how quickly people will think “Tourist” – and put you out of their mind.

7. Shoot decisively and move on

When you decide to hit the shutter, bring the camera up – take the shot – and keep moving.

Nine times out of ten, if they notice you at all, people will still be wondering – ” Did that guy just take my photo” – when you’re fifty feet down the street.


8. Shoot decisively and stay where you are

If you got the shot but you’ve been noticed, you can always stay where you are and take a couple of random shots away from your subject.
Most people will decide you were not particularly interested in them after all.

A group of photographers with large cameras at a sports event in the early twentieth century

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ggbain-14456]

9. Camera Size / Gear Overload

My advice is generally to carry one camera with one lens. Carrying 3 cameras, bags and tripods will only get you noticed.

There’s a never ending debate about the best size camera for inconspicious street shooting. Some people swear that small is essential, while there are lots of really great street photographers using full-frame Canon 5Ds and similar.

My experience is that people are more intimidated by the size of the lens.

You might be using a hefty wide angle zoom, but they don’t know that — they think it’s a tele and that you’re zooming right up their nose.

Best advice, as always, for street shooting is to stick with wide angle to standard primes. You know it makes sense!

Image of a woman shielding her face from a photographer in America in 1909

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ggbain-04049]

10. Enjoy!

Most of all, get out there and enjoy the challenges and rewards of street photography.

If you’re anxious, nervous and unsure of yourself people will notice – you won’t get the shots and you won’t have a good time.

If these tips help you to be a more confident street shooter, or if there’s any other aspect of street photography that you’d like some help with — let me know — leave a comment.

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