If you've ever walked by someone on the street and wished you could capture that interesting face, expressive gesture or elaborate outfit, you've felt the same impulse as many a photographer before you. But what are the rules for taking street photography? Some are legal, some technical, and some are a combination of common sense and courtesy.
I take posed photos during Fashion Week in New York, Milan and other cities, where many of the well-dressed attendees expect to be photographed. But it's also fun to capture images of regular people on the street. Sometimes they know you're doing it; sometimes they don't. Either way, if you follow a few simple rules, you'll end up with a unique, split-second portrait of that interesting individual.
Here's what you need to know:
1) Start with the right equipment. Point-and-shoot cameras and smart phones don't have the range, flexibility, speed or accuracy for photographing people on the street, who tend to be on the move. Even an entry-level digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera like a Canon EOS Rebel or Nikon D model (starting around $400 new or $125 used) is a worthwhile investment for all types of photography. For an outdoor portrait, stand back and use a zoom or fixed-length lens at least 50-mm long for a flattering shot that slightly blurs the background. [See also: What Makes a High-Quality Camera?]
2) Don't be afraid to ask. It can be intimidating to ask for someone's photo, but if you really want a specific shot, you're going to need cooperation. Many people are OK with posing if you explain that it's for a photography project, photography class, street style-blog or other photo site. Be polite and try to anticipate who would be receptive to your request. Robert Doisneau's famous and seemingly spontaneous photo "The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville (1950)" was actually posed.
3) Don't just stand there. Move around so that you get a clear, uncluttered background and a good angle. It's easier to move yourself than your subject.
4) Candids are perfectly legal in the United States. Under U.S. law, anyone on public property can be photographed without their explicit permission, because they cannot claim an expectation of privacy. Celebrated fashion photographer Bill Cunningham does not ask permission before taking most of the photos for his "On the Street" column for The New York Times. This kind of photography is more challenging, but the resulting image looks more natural. (If you are outside the United States, check the laws in your country before trying candids.)
5) Pretend you're a tourist. Whenever I think someone may object to a candid photo, I just took on the street, I immediately take another photo of the scene or building behind the individual, as if the vista is absolutely fascinating and the actual human subject was simply in the way.
6) Admit you're wrong, even when you're right. Though it is legal (in the United States) to take someone's picture in the street, in the rare case that someone objects, offer to delete the photo. Defusing the situation quickly and easily is almost always worth more than the photo itself.
If you follow these tricks, you'll be on your way to taking some great portraits. And practicing street photography can be just as rewarding as seeing the results.
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