The techniques for shooting on the subway haven’t changed much since the early days of small portable cameras. The “candid” unposed shot is at the heart of street shooting. The idea of capturing the subject(s) without having them pose or being aware of being photographed. Street photographers will also play with the startled or humorous looks they get when the subjects know they are being photographed – but the idea of finding reality in the unposed photograph is still at the heart of the matter.
“[James] Agee encouraged [Walker Evans] in his next photographic project, one he had been mulling over for some time: to make portraits of people with a hidden camera on the New York subway. The idea was born of his desire to strip portrait photography of its artificial conventions … and to provide a sober counterpoint to the disingenuous smiling faces arrayed in the window of the small town studio photographer.
“And so, on the brink of a certain degree of fame, Evans literally went underground. He was determined to capture his subjects completely unawares, in the privacy of their daydreams, when their vanity was for a moment suspended. But a fear of being caught in the act deterred him from taking off on his own. If the subjects discovered what he was up to the picture would be ruined and the confrontation awkward if not dangerous.
“To Helen Levitt, photographing in the subway (even though it was in fact against the law) was not daunting. Prodding him along, she volunteered to ride the subway with him as the photographer’s foil. During the colder months of 1938, the two would set out for several hours of subway travel on the Lexington Avenue local…
“In order to work inconspicuously, Evans did not use flash equipment in the subway car’s dim available light but slowed his shutter speed down to a risky 1/50th of a second. He painted the black chrome parts of his 35mm Contax camera matte black, tucked its body under his coat with the lens slyly protruding between two buttons and rigged the shutter to a cable release on a slender cord that led up to his right shoulder, down his sleeve, and into the palm of his hand.” – Walker Evans by Belinda Rathbone
In the 90’s, I did the same thing, with a Rollei Twin Lens medium format camera. But the camera was too big to hide beneath my coat. I would dress in a suit, and carry a flat attache case. With the case on my lap, I prop the camera up on it, tilt the case with camera towards subjects, and I had the long cable release going up my arm and into my pocket where I could squeeze it. At that time, with a manual focus camera, I already knew various distances on the train. Most street photographers in those days could tell you how far it was from one subway post to another. Or what the width of a particular subway train was. The six train, for example was narrower than the D train.
You really couldn’t wind the camera to the next frame until the train stopped and there was the commotion of people getting on and off.
I don’t shoot like that on the subway nowadays. I generally just put whatever camera I’m using, up to my eye, frame the shot, and click away. You do need to be fast if you want to get your shot before the person(s) notice you. And you need to have a friendly smile ready for whatever comes after. Or maybe you are pretending to be a tourist and the whole thing is all very innocent in your own mind.
But I assure you, that this sort of shooting without being surreptitious is the best way (or my favorite way) to go about it. You are out in the open, and if discovered, it’s not like you were being sneaky. And so long as your motives are okay – and so long as your subjects are relatively normal (neither are always true) you can do very well with a straight forward approach.