Having a camera isn’t enough if you want to get great shots of people on the street; you also need to have the right intuition. We asked Brandon Stanton, whose Humans of New York (or HONY) blog boasts hundreds of thousands of followers, to share some of the wisdom from his years of patrolling the streets in search of interesting, unique, and memorable characters. Here’s an introduction to Stanton’s work, mission, and mindset:
Five tips for street-shot success from HONY’s Brandon Stanton:
1. Ask Permission
There seems to be a sentiment out there that somehow “legitimate” street photography involves only candid shots. I began with candid shots myself. It was when I began interacting with my subjects, however, that my photography truly began to stand out. By involving your subject in the process, you can not only compose your shot better, but also reveal more of the subject’s personality.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that “posed” is somehow less genuine than “candid.” Having extensively tried both approaches, I strongly disagree. In a way, people on the street are always “posing.” A pleasant interaction can actually help to break down our facades. It’s tough to stop strangers on the street — so not many photographers are doing it. Therefore, it’s an easy way to begin producing unique photography.
2. Don’t Let Anyone Make You Feel Weird
This one is hard to explain, but very important. There are mean people in this world who will make you feel like you are “out of line” or “rude” because you politely asked for a photograph. If you don’t have much experience, these people can really shake your confidence. When I first started, one bad interaction could really make me question myself: maybe they’re right, maybe this is weird, maybe I’m a bad person for doing this. I don’t have these thoughts anymore. I’ve now stopped over 10,000 people on the streets of New York. I’ve had pleasant interactions with over 9,800 of those people.
I’ve learned this: Less than two percent of people in this world will yell at a person who politely asks for a photograph. (And that’s in a tough place like New York City.) If someone does yell at you, it’s very much their problem, not yours.
3. Control Your Shot…
When someone agrees to let you take his or her photo, it’s easy to get a bit overexcited and rush the shot. But this is a mistake. The “ask” is the hard part. It can be such a relief to get the hard part out of the way that you accidentally mess up the easy parts. Take a deep breath and look around. Where is the best light? Where is the best background? By the time someone has agreed to be photographed, he or she is usually more than willing to help you take the best shot possible. Take advantage of that willingness. In the end, both you and your subject will be happier for it.
4. …But Don’t Overcontrol
Never “overrule” a subject’s suggestion. I learned through trial and error that unexpected events make for the best portraits. After photographing hundreds of people, I began to notice that some of my best shots were coming from the subjects who would not listen to my suggestions. So I decided to let go of the process more. Now, whenever a subject has an idea, I go with it. I also don’t try to keep the street out of my shot. If people start walking into my photo, I start snapping. The longer I do street portraits, the more I try to embrace the chaos and randomness of the street.
5. Engage with the Street
I’ve noticed that the quality and quantity of my photographs are not so much dependent on the distance that I walk or the time that I spend, but rather the degree to which I interact with the street. If there is a crowd gathered, investigate. If there’s an interesting sound, find its source. If someone is laughing hysterically, find out why. Great photos emerge from a strong curiosity. Find great photographs. Do not wait until they find you.