Do as I do now and not as I did then, and maybe a certain street flower lady in La Paz, Boliva won’t swat you upside the head with a bouquet of gladiolus.
When you find somebody you’d like to photograph don’t ambush or surprise them with your camera. It will be perceived as rude (mainly because it is) and they may not react as you expect.
Before you begin your photographic endeavors, remind yourself that while women strolling with baskets of fruit on their heads or men guiding burros along a cobblestone street may seem fresh and unique to you, the converse is not true. You are the umpteenth camera-toting tourist they’ve seen and while the locals may endure being gawked at they don’t usually consider it an honor that you want to photograph them.
So what should you do? How should you behave? The most important technique to photographing people is respect. This is especially true in Hispanic cultures. If you want to photograph somebody, ask their permission. You can ask permission by smiling and pointing to your camera, or by asking them in Spanish (see the upcoming article on 10 essential Spanish phrases for photographers). If they agree, proceed.
Worth it: I paid this gentleman about $7 for his mariachi band to play a few songs while I took pictures—what a bargain!
And don’t be surprised if you’re asked for money. Faced with so many tourists taking their pictures, many street people have learned they have a chance to make some money. So if you’re stopping off at villages in Peru’s Sacred Valley and see older women in colorful costumes walking along the street carrying a lamb or baby llama, don’t think how cute. Instead, realize you’re actually looking at street models who are ready to pose for pictures—if the fee is right.
Usually the fee is right—only a dollar or two in that country’s currency. In some places, you’ll find the fee a prerequisite for cooperation, so when you ask if you can take a picture, mention or show the amount you’re willing to pay. And if you’re going to take up much of their time or ask them to pose or move to another area, offer a few dollars more. Which means you should always bring along enough small change or bills to cover at least five transactions. Some photographers may balk at this, considering street people out in the public as fair game for their cameras. However, I don’t begrudge them a few dollars. Most are struggling to get by and you are likely getting a treasured photo. A few bucks seems like a fair exchange.
If you are going to be in the same destination for several days, you may want to use the print kiosk at the local drug store to make a few prints of your photos and hand them out to your past subjects and show them to potential subjects to gain cooperation. Typically a 5 x 7 costs $0.50 or less. But people greatly appreciate such gestures and will be more likely respond to your overtures.
Heavenly timing: This nun simply appeared in the doorway as I was walking by. My camera was ready for action so I was able to grab the shot.
True street photographers are probably blanching at the advice above. How on earth can you get a realistic, spontaneous shot of people in their environment if you first ask them if you can take a picture? And they’re right.
I use two approaches when striving for spontaneous street life shots. But my overall philosophy remains the same: Respect the subject. If somebody realizes I am taking their picture and objects, I stop.
Technique one—near and nonchalant
Set your camera up before you begin strolling the street. This approach is based on using a fast shutter speed and shooting from the hip or a dangling arm. So set a high ISO (1600), a high shutter speed (1/1000 second or faster), and use a wide-angle lens. Experience will show whether your autofocus system is quiet and fast enough to produce the results you want. If not, set focus to manual and preset the focus distance to approximately eight feet.
If the intended subject is busy, you may be able to grab the shot with normal technique and not be noticed if you shoot extremely quickly. Don’t linger. More often you may want to be in the vicinity of the subject. Don’t face him or her. Fiddle with your camera while actually angling it towards the subject and taking a picture or two. As long as you don’t look at the subject, the act of lingering may disguise your intent. But don’t overdo it. If you’ve got that high shutter speed set, you can even stroll by with the camera in the hand of your dangling arm and shoot as you walk by. It’s a hit and miss technique that can give interesting results.
Far-out close-up: Set to 200 mm, I used my 70-300 mm zoom to take several shots of this gentleman from a distance.
Technique two—far with a telephoto
Perhaps the safest approach is to use a 200 mm or 300 mm telephoto and sit on a bench or street corner and watch as city life unfolds around you. If you sit for a while, you’ll eventually blend in and can quickly snap pictures without being noticed. Many people don’t seem to object to being photographed if you don’t invade their personal space—as long as you don’t overdo it.
But again, if they object, respect their wishes, and move on.