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Conquering your fears in street photography – Part 1

By Brian Lloyd Duckett

Brian Lloyd Duckett is a professional street photographer who runs workshops across the UK and Europe. He shoots exclusively on Fujifilm, the X100F being his weapon of choice. In this three part guide, which aims to build your confidence, Brian gives you an insight in to what he teaches to help you become a better street photographer.


So what’s the problem?

One of the most common questions I get asked by workshop participants goes along the lines of: ‘How can I overcome my fear of shooting strangers on the street?’

Whether you’re just getting into street photography or are a seasoned operator, you’ll have heard lots of people talk about ‘conquering your fears’. There are whole workshops – even books – on the subject and there’s certainly no shortage of opinion about how to best deal with the issue.

This discomfort with photographing people is a feeling most of us have at some stage, to a greater or lesser degree, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Some people fight the feeling and shoot away regardless; some will just give up and shoot something different; others will learn a new set of skills to help them deal with such difficulties. Even the most seasoned street photographers have these feelings to some extent – from mild unease to uncontrollable terror.

In terms of our psychological make-up, fear is a defence mechanism; a warning system that aims to keep us out of danger. A small element of fear is not necessarily a bad thing; it keeps us sharp and can provide a quick dose of Adrenalin that will drive us on to get the picture. Conversely, fear can be debilitating; it can prevent us from getting any pictures at all – and this is why some people fall at the first hurdle and give up street photography completely.

Personally, I have always approached street photography from a photojournalist’s viewpoint, with a core belief that I have every right to do what I’m doing. And I must say that I have never had any particular issues: if I encounter a problem I just smile and walk away (but I’m aware that’s easier said than done). Having said that, I have one ‘killer tip’ which is a game-changer – more on that later.

Before we explore the issue in depth, let’s pause for a moment to think about how and why such difficulties arise. There’s no doubt that there is a trend for shooting strangers in the street at close quarters, due in part to the rise in popularity of ‘in your face’ street photographers such as Bruce Gilden and Dougie Wallace. When many people think of ‘street photography’ they immediately think of this machine-gun approach and perhaps don’t consider other styles and ways of working.

I try to get students to understand that street photography encompasses many approaches. Does a street photograph need to include people at close range? Of course it doesn’t. Just look at the ‘grandfather’ of street photography, Eugene Atget, who produced beautiful images of the streets of Paris – very few of which featured people at close range.

But do you really need to get into people’s faces? Why make life uncomfortable for yourself? Why do something you really don’t want to do? Try thinking of street photography in a wider sense. As well as documenting people on the streets, consider shooting atmospheric urban landscapes, striking abstracts or geometric patterns; maybe let the people take second stage to the architecture, the shapes, the textures or the wider documentary purpose.

My main point here is to really question your motives for shooting close-ups of strangers. If it’s for a specific project or if you have a strong sense of purpose, fine – but otherwise you may find that a random collection of random people on random streets has little enduring appeal.

However, it’s not my job to put you off something you may really want to do! There is undoubtedly some terrific street photography which has people as the focal point so let’s explore some ways in which you can banish your fears and become a more confident street photographer.

Confront your fears

Before you can start to overcome your fears of street photography you need to identify exactly what they are – and then decide whether those fears are rational. Once you have worked out what your fear is based on you can set about conquering it. Most people’s fears would fall into one of the following categories:

• Fear of making people angry
• Fear of physical violence
• Fear of being robbed of your camera gear
• Fear of attention from the police or security guards
• Fear of being forced to delete images
• Fear of having your motives misunderstood (when photographing children, for example)
• Fear of people thinking you’re strange
• Fear of being challenged

All of the above are, to some extent, legitimate fears. But stop and think: if you’re simply taking someone’s picture, what’s the worst that can happen? It is surely only the threat of physical violence which would cause any real difficulties – the other fears, whilst uncomfortable, are unlikely to lead to serious consequences.

Another point to remember is that if people do see you taking their picture, they don’t really care. In an age when just about everyone has a camera with them – even if it’s just a phone – there is a familiarity and an acceptance about people snapping on the streets. Also bear in mind that we are used to being photographed by CCTV cameras 24/7. And, in most big cities, people are often so self-absorbed and locked in to their own little world that they are oblivious to what others are doing around them.
However, it is the last point on the above list – the fear of being challenged – which causes difficulties for most people (and most of the other points stem from this one).

In parts 2 and 3 of this feature, I’ll be giving you some practical advice and my top tips to help make your street photography a more comfortable experience.

**Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author.** 


More from Brian Lloyd Duckett

Website: www.streetsnappers.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/streetsnappers

7 replies »

  1. OK, I agree that there are fears, but the thing that holds me back the most is the ethical issue of taking someone’s photo without their knowledge and/or permission when I may intend to publish (and/or sell) if the shot is a great one. I know this has been discussed at length in all kinds of forums but would be interested in your opinion. Thanks.

    • Hi David,

      As far as the UK is concerned, it’s perfectly legal (and, in my view ethical) to take someone’s picture in public without their consent. We have fairly lax privacy laws and as long as they (and you) and in a public place there’s no issue with taking a picture.

      As for using that picture, you have plenty of freedom; you could, for example, publish it on your website, social media, publish it in your book, put it in a public exhibition and even sell it to a newspaper or magazine. The principle restriction is that you can’t sell it to someone for ‘third party commercial use’ – ie. for someone else to use the image to sell, promote or endorse a product or service. This latter point is important if you wanted to place the image with an image library such as Alamy or Shutterstock; they wouldn’t accept it without a model release form signed by the subject.

      That’s it in a nutshell. It’s quite a complex area and I hope to address it in detail in a future blog article.

  2. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3. The author makes a critical point that street photography is not necessarily about being up close to people; part of the magic is looking for simple but striking compositions whilst walking the streets.

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