How to Discreetly Take Pictures of People

by Mike on May 18, 2010

People of the City from Michael Comeau on Vimeo.

I’m a pretty avid street photographer, especially of people. I don’t know, I kind of have dreams of shooting wildlife, but living in Brooklyn, I’m pretty much limited to household pets and rodents.

So I’ve gone with the next best thing – PEOPLE!

When I first got serious about photography in 2009, I imagined that I’d focus on urban landscapes, but as I’ve become more courageous and skilled with my camera, I’ve gravitates towards capturing random people’s slices of life.

As far as the privacy debate goes, my attitude is, if you’re in public you have no real expectation of privacy.

However, I do believe that if I’m going to take the liberty of photographing people without their knowledge, I should treat them with dignity.

But with that out of the way, I’ll do my best to answer the question – how do you take pictures of people in public without them knowing it?

It all revolves around blending in to your surroundings and not drawing negative attention to yourself or your camera.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

1) The Smaller the Camera, the Better

95%+ of my shooting is done with a Canon Rebel t1i and the cheap-ass 50mm f/1.8 lens. Why? Because it’s light, unobtrusive, and relatively small. Not as small as a four thirds job like the Panasonic GF1 or a P&S like the Canon SD4000, but not nearly as big or attention-grabbing as a Nikon D3 with a giant f/2.8 zoom lens.

2) Use Less Gear

If you can, leave your tripod and big external flash at home and only carry a small bag. The more you look like a pro photographer, the more you’ll drive people away from you.

3) Move Fast

Learn your camera and get familiar with your focal length (primes help here) so you’ll be able to act quickly when you see something interesting in front of you. The faster you move, the less you’ll be noticed.

4) Act ‘Normal’

One weird thing I’ve noticed is that the more you act like what you’re doing is normal, the less people care. In fact, you’ll probably just be mistaken for a goofy tourist.

5) Put on Music

I rarely take pictures outside without my iPod blasting away at my eardrums. It helps me tune out distractions and focus on what I’m shooting. More importantly, it supports point #3 – I don’t act suspicious because I’m distracted by the music, and because I’m more relaxed. My current obsession: MGMT

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