Cartier-Bresson used to say that he could tell whether a photographer was any good by seeing how the photographer held the camera. I can’t go that far, but I can give a few tips that would tell me whether the photographer was a novice or not.
The street photographer is a bit like the old western gunfighter – which is to say they are twitchy – and always ready to take a shot. Their world is filled with missed shots, and possibly great things that are going on all around them. You may be walking along the street with them talking about what to have for dinner and find them suddenly spin around – take a shot – and keep up the conversation. Their eyes are searching for something all the time.
So what that means is:
1) The use of lens caps. If you are walking around with a lens cap on your camera then cannot be a street photographer. Use a UV filter to protect the lens and never use a lens cap, at least not on the lens that’s attached to the camera; even if the camera and lens are in your bag.
2) Always have the camera hanging around your neck, in a mode that is ready for what could happen next. I know that lots of street photographers walk around with the camera in their hand with the strap wrapped around their wrist. My own take on this is that it makes the photographer more – not less visible. My advice is to think and act like a tourist. And a tourist doesn’t hold the camera in their hand – they have it dangling from their neck. (Obviously I’m not talking about point and shoots).
3) When starting off – don’t be afraid to act like a tourist. If you come to New York City and you’re standing on a corner – even if you’ve lived here all your life – don’t be afraid to have a map of the city sticking out of your pocket. Don’t be afraid to look up at tall buildings like you’ve never seen them before. If you speak another language and someone gets annoyed with you – don’t answer them in English. You are just another tourist in the Big Apple.
4) Do not force yourself to take pictures of obviously dangerous people. They exist. If you are comfortable with your street skills and have been doing this for a while – and you think the shot is worth the potential danger – then by all means. But not in the beginning.
5) Under no circumstances do you want to pick a fight with a cop. The point of street shooting is to get your pictures – not to confront authorities. If for example, you are photographing on the subway in New York and a cop or anyone tells you that this isn’t allowed – just apologize and say you didn’t know. Get off the train and get on another one and start again. It is perfectly legal to photograph on the subway so long as you don’t use a tripod or flash; but you will run into authorities that want to stop you.
6) No your rights – but you don’t have to press them. If you are in a public place and are taking pictures of something that can be seen with the naked eye – you’re in safe territory as far as the law goes. You may not be able to use those pictures for commercial purposes – but that’s another story. But as a general rule, my own philosophy has been to walk away from the confrontation because in most cases your shot has either been taken already, or has been ruined. If you are annoying people too much – then you aren’t doing it right. And with digital cameras there’s always the possibility that the confrontation will escalate and you may find yourself forced to erase images from your card.
This philosophy has worked well for me. In twenty-five years or so of street shooting – often in dangerous neighborhoods – I have never found myself arguing with someone or had any serious physical harm done to me or my camera.