Tips & Tricks: Street Photography with Aaron Sheldon

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

Today’s post is courtesy of Aaron Sheldon, photo walk leader extraordinaire, who will be leading our upcoming Midwest Photography Expo photo walks. You can register for those here. In the meanwhile, we asked Aaron to give us some tips and tricks for conquering your street photography fears. Here’s Aaron:

If there is one constant for all the photo walks that I have led, it is that there are always photographers who are uncomfortable taking pictures in public areas where there are people present. I understand where these photographers are coming from: I myself had the same issue when I started doing street photography. The only way past the fear of shooting in public is practice.

"Short North Gothic" by Aaron Sheldon
“Short North Gothic” by Aaron Sheldon

Here are a few “do & don’t” rules-of-thumb that I find to be helpful:

  • Relax! If you feel uncomfortable, you will look uncomfortable. A person who is taking pictures while looking uncomfortable is something that most people are going to notice. Just relax, make eye contact with people who spot you, smile, and see what happens.
  • Blend into your surroundings. I have found that, if you look harmless, people tend not to notice you. If you are in New York, DC, or any other city well known as a tourist destination, play it up. Locals (the people who are most likely to be in your images) have quit noticing shutterbugs a long time ago.
  • Leave your big glass at home. Nothing will freak people out more than seeing a photographer with a big white or black (think 70-200 f/2.8) lens aimed at them half a block away, snapping away. The best lens for street photography is a wide angle prime between 24-50mm, or a wide angle zoom.
  • Leave your huge “it holds everything, including the kitchen sink and a tripod” camera bag/backpack/rolling case at home, too.
  • Avoid photographing children directly. This is my personal recommendation as a parent. If they are part of a larger street scene, that’s no problem. But even I get twitchy if I see someone aiming a camera directly at my child sometimes.
  • Avoid publicly intoxicated people. Sure, they are fun to watch but the normal rules do not apply with them.

"Still in Motion" by Aaron Sheldon
“Still in Motion” by Aaron Sheldon

So: we know the Dos and Don’ts. We are feeling more comfortable now, yes? We have a camera body with a wide angle lens attached and are confidently walking down High Street through the Short North. But then someone sees you taking a picture in their general direction. Now what do you do?

If they look at you, look back and smile. If they smile back, you’re OK. If they turn away, you’re OK. If they start marching towards you, YOU ARE OK. Yes, even if someone is upset that you have just taken their picture while they were unawares YOU ARE OK. Why?

"Peanut Vendor" by Aaron Sheldon
“Peanut Vendor” by Aaron Sheldon

Here’s why:

  1.  You are smiling. You are not acting twitchy or nervous or like you just got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Right? Good.
  2.  It is perfectly legal to take pictures in a public place of other people who are also in that public place. A model release is necessary ONLY if you plan to use the images for commercial gain (selling as stock or to a client for advertising or other, non-editorial/fine-art use, for example).
  3. Most people LOVE to have their picture taken, once they know why you are taking it. Be honest. Offer them a copy, if they are willing to sign a model release (I like the Release Me smartphone app).
  4. If they are part of the 1% of the public who, after meeting you and learning that you are not smuggling weapons of mass destruction in your photographer’s vest, STILL aren’t smiling back, apologize and be on your way. If they are not happy with this outcome please refer them to step #2 on this list.

I will be honest and say that, yes, I have had people approach me and ask me what I’m doing and why am I doing it. But step #1 and an honest answer has kept step #4 from EVER happening.

"Coffee Break" by Aaron Sheldon
“Coffee Break” by Aaron Sheldon

Does this all still seem too daunting? More trouble than it’s worth? I have one other recommendation that will change your mind:

Go out and shoot with other photographers. People will notice a group of photographers faster but they will also disregard them faster and, if things do go sideways, you have other people there to support you.

"Santa Maria Sunset" by Aaron Sheldon
“Santa Maria Sunset” by Aaron Sheldon

Photo walks are the perfect way to get practice at street photography. The leader of the group has picked an area just for this type of photography to remove some of the hurdles you would face going out alone and is also great backup to have if questioned by passersby. Every city I have visited has had at least one good Meetup or FLICKR group or local photography club that regularly gets together and goes out to shoot.

If you are in Columbus, or are coming to Columbus to attend the upcoming Midwest Photography Expo, you are really in luck. I will be leading three photo walks through Downtown Columbus and the Short North. Each walk is unique and offers a variety of great images waiting to be captured. You can register for them here.

"Ohio Theatre" by Aaron Sheldon
“Ohio Theatre” by Aaron Sheldon

These are just a few tips to get you started feeling comfortable with street photography. The web is full of articles and videos by some AMAZING street photographers like Eric Kim and Zack Arias (his series of videos on street photography and street portraits on Kelby Training are well worth watching) to help you further your street photography skills.

Midwest Photo

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