It’s tough out there on the streets if you love to take photographs. All day long, you rove around back alleys and markets while the uninhibited pageant of human life unfolds before your eyes. But the second you raise a camera, spontaneity leaps out of the window. As humans, we’re programmed to be self-conscious when the cold glare of the lens falls upon us. That’s why I believe the ability to capture images, without drawing attention to yourself, is one of the most useful skills you can develop as a photographer.
Telling the story
Candid photography á la Henri Cartier-Bresson is not merely a matter of slinking around like a ninja assassin snapping strangers from behind. Successful pictures encapsulate an entire story in a single frame. As a stealth photographer, your goal is to tell that story from the viewpoint of an intimate observer, without impacting on the characters—to capture a real slice of life, unposed and unaffected by the presence of a camera. This, of course, entails shooting first and asking questions later—an act that requires a sizeable pair of brass cojones. It also requires preparation, some job-specific skills, and the right attitude. Oh, and let’s not forget the right gear.
Freeze frame: This snoozing flower vendor was shot with the camera at waist level, to avoid attracting attention.
A stealth shooter’s kit
The smaller and less conspicuous your camera, the better your chances of catching slice-of-life shots undetected. If you’re just starting out, a small SLR with a fast-focusing wide angle lens can do a good job; anything that beeps, flashes or takes 2 seconds to focus and expose is best left at home.
Tips from the hip
Shooting with the camera pressed against your body can let you sneak under the radar in situations where holding it to your eye would attract attention. This comes at the cost of control over composition, so follow these tips to improve your chances of getting a good shot:
• Shoot at a wide angle. You can always crop in on details later.
• If the camera allows it, shoot in bursts of multiple frames.
• Invest in a spirit level for your flash hot shoe, to keep horizons straight.
• Choose a medium-to-high ISO and fast shutter speeds.
• Be prepared, always. If you fumble for your camera when an image presents itself, you lose the moment, and any element of subtlety.
• Know your equipment inside out, so that you can make adjustments quickly without having to look. Consider using a clear UV filter rather than a cap to protect your lens, as it’s one less thing to manage when a photo presents itself.
• Cultivate subtlety in your actions. Avoid furtive movements that could make you look like a stalker.
• Practise your chops in locations where people naturally suspend their sense of personal space. Festivals, sporting events and busy tourist attractions are all rich hunting grounds.
Attitude is the key
When you’re starting out, it’s easy to convince yourself that people hate having their pictures taken by a stranger. Net result: You keep the camera sheathed and miss fantastic shots. In reality, and cultural objections aside, people rarely object to being photographed, unless they’re doing something dodgy.
So, when you are on the street and you see that magic moment, be confident and decisive. If your subject spots you, lower the camera and give them a big smile. Chances are, they’ll smile back.
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David Stott is a writer and photographer based in Australia
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