f you’re at all like me, circumspect and bashful, then taking candid portraits of strangers can be intimidating, if not something you avoid altogether. Candids of everyday people are what drew me to photography in the first place, so to get over my reticence I came up with the following strategies.
Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations
For the shy photographer, holidays and special events can be a boon: most participants expect to be gawked at and photographed, and a few are often thrilled to be the object of your attention, primed to pose for you as soon as they spot your camera at the ready. I happened to be in Kyoto, Japan, during the colorful, expressive Jidai Matsuri festival celebrating the founding of the city. Parades and performances large and small were going on all day, and not only was it a great opportunity to capture dynamic portraits, but the abundance of other photographers, professional and amateur, meant I blended right in.
Though it should go without saying, I will mention that as photographers we must respect those holidays and festivals that are treated with solemnity by its celebrants. Exercise thoughtfulness and deference, and never snap a photo that you perceive might cause offense.
When Backs are Turned
For the very shy, this is a great way to ease into capturing folks on the street. The trick to turning this approach into a captivating photo is to find the story within the image. Maybe you’re down in Venice Beach, and you’re standing behind the fire-breathing street performer as he’s blowing out that veil of flame in front of a gaping crowd; or perhaps you catch a quiet, affectionate moment between two friends. Whoever you’re behind, make sure you’ve caught a bit of drama.
Sometimes you don’t need to see much of a person at all to still shoot an interesting portrait. In Marrakech, I almost missed seeing this guy cat-napping inside a cart:
Another way to photograph someone without seeming too obvious is when she or he is in motion. San Francisco’s Chinatown is a fun place to people watch, a neighborhood buzzing with activity from sunrise to sunset. Nevertheless, I still feel quite conspicuous with my big ‘ol camera, so I devised this little strategy to cover for my lack of courage. One rainy day I perched on a street corner and watched as people dashed across the street. Holding my shutter speed open for about a quarter of a second, I would aim at the intersection, capturing folks in mid-sprint, without ever seeming to photograph any specific person. Voilà, photographer incognito!
Too Busy Taking Selfies
This approach is a hoot, because while people are so absorbed with taking that perfect selfie, they rarely notice me. I’m sure pickpockets use this move, too, but I like to pretend that my stealing a picture is a more worthy endeavor than stealing a wallet. Once again I captured this scene in Kyoto, but as I stood with my camera before these ladies for quite some time, fiddling with my settings, neither of the three noticed me at all, ever.
Under the Cover of Night
Darkness really does provide some cover, so grab your camera and hit the streets at night. Find places that provide good ambient lighting around your potential subjects but not around you. That lighting could also help set some interesting moods, too, so think about framing your subjects around it, letting the light tell their story.
When you’re feeling bolder, then go for direct eye contact with your subject and smile! This doesn’t always work, but the feeling you get when someone does smile back is worth it. Not only did this banjo player at Glass Beach, California, smile back, he played a whole song, just for me.