What methods can you use to shoot street photography anonymously? Where you can enjoy the thrill of shooting street without revealing your subject’s identity.
I am very fortunate to live in Canada, a country where street photography is legal. As long as I am shooting in a public space, I am entirely within my rights to take photographs of strangers. However, being able to create street photographs freely is not the case everywhere. In some countries, it is illegal to take recognizable images of people. Or post pictures to social media without the subject’s consent.
In this article, I am not going to get into the legalities about shooting in the streets. Instead, I’m going to explain methods to photograph strangers in ways that do not reveal their identity. This way, you can shoot street photography anonymously, without the fear of landing in hot water.
Who says that street photography is always about people? I love taking photos of animals that I meet on my walks. I find that my favourite images have an environmental feel to them, and include some of the surroundings. These types of images tell more of a story than a simple pet portrait does. For powerful images, shoot from the animal’s perspective. And don’t forget to look up. Birds make great street subjects.
A great thing about photographing dogs, in particular, is that it often leads to conversations with their people. Take advantage of the conversation to see if you can create a street portrait!
Wide Shots from a Distance
Another great way to create street shots is to stand back from the action. As long as people are not identifiable, this type of photography is allowed. And, in some cases, even if people are recognizable, if there is no single dominant person, this is also OK. Make sure you check the laws in your local area first, though.
These types of shots take careful planning. If there are many people, try and wait until they spread themselves out. Also, watch your background. Make sure that it compliments your subjects.
You may have been told to photograph people from behind when you were new to street photography. It is a less intimidating way of shooting when you are brand-new to the genre. However, it is also a great way to protect the anonymity of your subjects.
Be discerning. Photographing any old stranger from behind will not make a compelling image. When I shoot pictures of people from the back, I try and tell a story using other elements in the scene. I also look for gestures, such as people holding hands and hugging. Eloquently dressed people with hats also make great subjects to shoot from behind.
The Human Presence
Some purists will say that all street photography must have people. I beg to differ! Photographing scenes where there are no people, only the feeling that someone was there, is mysterious. Again, the idea here is to tell a story. Look for discarded items, graffiti, vacant streets at night, and architectural details. Use light and shadow to add mystery to your scene.
Shooting silhouettes is another classic way of protecting the identity of your subject. For all the technical ins and outs on shooting silhouettes, check out my blog post from earlier this year.
A silhouette is most powerful if your subject is easily identifiable — people dressed in tight-fitting clothing work exceptionally well. Also, look for supporting geometric elements, such as architectural features, trees, and bold backdrops to set off your subject.
Like silhouettes, shadows can be used to make bold graphical elements in your frame. Simplicity is key here. Because shadows fall directly on the background, an uncluttered surface shows off shadows best. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of mystery though, an abstract shadow adds mood!
Who says that you need to see an entire person for a compelling street image? Leaving something to your viewer’s imagination is powerful. Think stories and gestures again. Look for people doing things with their hands, such as waving, pointing, or holding a cigarette. In the image below of the couple holding hands, I wanted to emphasize their connection and their skateboards. I did not need their heads or feet to convey that story; including them would have diluted it.
I couldn’t resist photographing the woman in the Christian Louboutin shoes wearing a flowing skirt. Who was she and where was she going? How could she afford those shoes? If I had included her full body, that would have removed the mystery from the image. Also, the shoes and skirt were critical here. The photo would not have been the same with someone wearing sweat pants and running shoes!
If you are photographing feet, consider shooting from a low perspective. Doing so will bring in more background elements, helping to tell more of a story than just a pair of feet. And again, be discerning. The more unusual the pants, legs, and shoes are, the more interesting the image will be.
So far, I’ve discussed methods that some may feel are a bit cliche. This next method is a bit more subtle. Look for situations where something is blocking the distinguishing features of the subject. This type of shooting takes patience and some luck. But most of all, you need to know your camera well and be able to react quickly. These moments don’t usually last long!
Take a look at this next set of images. In every picture, something is blocking the subject’s face from view. Often these types of photographs are a bit humorous and unexpected.
An excellent place to start is to look for people with large hats, hoods, or umbrellas. These articles often obscure the wearer’s face. I also find that if I aim my camera at a wall that I am waiting for people to walk in front of, the passers-by will often turn their heads to see what I am photographing. This quick turn conveniently hides their face!
Most images like the ones below, though, are captured when you are on your toes. This type of street photography is similar to what wildlife photographers face. They never know where or when their subjects will appear. They have to have a high enough ISO set to achieve a fast shutter speed. Their aperture must be chosen to capture a relatively deep depth of field. And they must be able to focus quickly as the situation unfolds. So know your gear, and be aware of what is going on all around you. You never know when you will find yourself in such a situation.
A Bit of Blur
Creating abstract images is another way to hide people’s identities in street photos. There are several ways to do this, including using shallow depths of field, slow shutter speeds, natural filters, and intentional camera movement.
Let’s consider aperture and slow shutter speeds first. I often use a technique where I open my aperture right up so that I have a very narrow depth of field. Then I focus on something in front of my subject. A large aperture throws the subject out of focus while rendering the foreground elements sharp. Images shot this way are often very contemplative.
Using a long enough shutter speed to render the subject’s movement slightly soft, is another way to create a more abstract image. Experiment with different shutter speeds. If you want to keep the background sharp, then you will probably need a shutter speed faster than 1/2 second. Alternatively, you can rest your camera on a solid surface.
Natural filters, such as fogged-up windows or rain covered glass, are a great way to disguise your subject. Wet days are great for this type of photography. Shoot out of a rainy bus window or into a steamy coffee shop window. Shooting this way requires strong shapes, as almost all detail will be lost.
Lastly, ICM, or intentional camera movement, creates beautifully abstract and painterly images. This technique involves making various movements with your camera while shooting with a slow shutter speed. Neutral density filters may be required when the sun is bright to achieve shutter speeds that are slow enough for this technique.
ICM takes a lot of practice and experimentation. I have been exploring this technique for a short while now. However, I have yet to capture an image that speaks to me. A friend of mine, Alex Fredrickson, is a master though. She lives in Austria and started using ICM when the EU stiffened its rules governing data protection.
Alex works in both colour and black and white and produces stunning street images. I asked her if she would share some of her work here, and she graciously agreed. These next four images are hers. I strongly recommend that you check out her website to see more of her very creative work.
When in Doubt, Ask Permission!
What? That’s not anonymous! No, it’s not. However, striking up a conversation with a stranger can be an eye-opening experience. I have met some fascinating people this way, who I would never have crossed paths with otherwise. Now, notice how I said “conversation” and not “grab your camera.” That is because talking with someone, and truly listening to what they have to say will open up doors. At that point, you can ask permission to make a portrait. Be honest, tell them why you want to make a portrait of them, and what you plan to do with it. The conversation may go something like this:
“Hi, can I bother you for just a minute? I noticed that you have some crazy tattoos. I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind some of them? … That is so cool! I’m a street photographer; I document everyday life in the city. Would you mind if I made a portrait of you? … I have an Instagram account. Would you object if I shared your image there? And I would love to send you a copy of the photograph. Would you like to jot down my email address so I can get a copy to you? … Fabulous! Thanks so much! It was great meeting you. Have a wonderful rest of your day.”
It’s just that easy!
However you choose to photograph in the streets, it comes down to respect. Capturing street photography anonymously is one way to be respectful.
As with all street photography, the key is to tell stories with your imagery. Look for creative ways to disguise your subjects. Try to reveal a bit about them while leaving the rest up to the imagination of your viewers.
Hopefully, armed with a few of these ideas, you will be able to give anonymous street photography a try.
Thanks for reading and feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Cheers until next time.