Three lessons I have learned from shooting the streets. By Steve Huff

LESSONS

Three lessons I have learned from shooting the streets.

By Steve Huff

Street Photography has enjoyed a huge resergance in recent years. With the many blogs writing about it, workshops showing others how to do it, and the constant barrage of street shooter hobbyists sharing their photos, street shooting has seemed to meld into all sorts of things, much of the time having nothing to do with the old school style of which most everyone was inspired. My favorite street photographs of all time were shot by none other than Vivian Maier. Not only are her photographs very special, they bring back memories of a time before I was even born. The cool part for me is that her amazing street photos were all shot in my hometown of Chicago, giving me a glimpse of the people of the past. If you are not familiar with her story, I urge you to watch the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”.

I consider Vivian’s work to be more than “street photography” as many know and practice it today. I see her work as something special, something magical and more along the lines of “street portraits” much of the time. She loved shooting people and she had a talent for it that many of us (including myself) do not. As I browse through the book of her work “Out of the Shadows” (which I HIGHLY recommend, amazon link HERE) I am over-run with emotion as I am taken back to the past, to slices of life that we will never see again. Because Vivian captured this fraction of a second on to film, a memory was made. A time capsule if you will. I have said many times that we already have a time machine here on earth, and it is called a camera. While we can not physically go back in time, looking at old photos will take us there in our hearts and minds. A camera is a powerful tool when used in the right way.

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When I started shooting street images I was horrible at it (and still consider myself a street hobbyist with so much to learn). I was fearful to let anyone know or see that I was taking an image of them. I was afraid to lift it up and make eye contact with the subject, and I usually came away from a day of shooting with nothing to show for it. Eventually I told myself “you must never fear taking a photograph”! Fearing the actual act of taking a photo was killing my passion for photography and that was not good. If I wanted to get out on the street and snap those special moments, those slices of life, the people I meet and those time capsule memories…then I needed to just do it and NOT think about it.

*The 1st lesson I learned is to never fear shooting in public. Just do it, and act as if it is as natural as looking at someone and giving a smile. But also you must use your instincts as to WHEN and when NOT to shoot.*

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After a while I realized  there was absolutely nothing to fear when out shooting people out in public. 99% of the time I get a smile back, a nod or a grumpy face but never have I been attacked and I think that comes from my instinct. What I mean by this is that after a while you start to get an idea of whom to approach, who to raise your camera to and who NOT to do this with. I can sense if someone will have an issue with me taking their photo, and in these cases, I skip it. Many will say “take it anyway” but I believe in respect when shooting on the street in public. I also believe in some sort of acknowledgement if you want a “street portrait”. Not setting up the scene but making sure the person is OK with you taking their portrait.

Rio Brazil: Saw this happy smiling man sitting on the street and sat down to chat with him for a while. He did not speak English but he wanted me to take his portrait after he saw my camera, so I did. For me, making a connection to strangers is one of the appeals of taking street portraits. 

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Las Vegas NV: I noticed a rowdy bunch of guys on the street selling nightclub tickets so I walked up and asked if I could grab a shot of them. When I approached I was calm, cool and confident as confidence usually gets your subject to feel comfortable. Below you can see the shot and below that shot is an image of me taking the shot 🙂 Shot using the Leica Monochrom.

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Walked by this Security guy who was directing traffic and people on the strip in Vegas. I passed him up then decided to walk back over to him. I made eye contact, nodded my head and snapped. It all happened so fast he said “you did not give me time to smile” 

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Many times I will sit down and chat with whoever I want to take a snap of. If they are OK with me shooting them after this, I will. If not, I thank them and wish them a great day.

*So the 2nd lesson I have learned for my style of street shooting is “be respectful to all and use your instincts”. Usually when you do this, you will also be respected back instead of someone getting angry and wanting to tear your camera away and smash it.*

Not all street scenes are portraits of course..all depends on the scene. Many like to catch human interactions and be invisible to the subject. I have seen some astounding images shot in this fashion from others and it is also a style that is nice to take on, but it requires patience. Many street shooters I know who shoot in this fashion will stay in one spot for hours..waiting for the one moment where they will get a nice shot. While I prefer human interaction, I do not always have a chance to chat first, and when this happens I just shoot.

When shooting street it can take years to be able to develop your senses or how to “see” things worthy of a photo. I am no expert on this, not even close but I have learned over the years that you should always keep your eyes peeled as many things happen in a split second while other situations need to be observed for a while.

*The Third thing I have learned is learning how to “see” and “observe” as things usually move quick on the streets*

Rio, Brazil: Seeing this elderly man sit down on the bench I observed his actions for a while. He was just sitting there like a statue for 10-15 minutes, moving very little in this time. What I saw is a man, sitting like a statue next to a real statue. The three younger ladies behind him were enjoying the Ocean view in Rio while this man may have been looking back on his life while listening to the water. 

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St. Petersburg Russia at Midnight (yes midnight) – Saw this couple ready to kiss with the midnight sun behind them and the boat chugging along..raised my Leica M9 and shot. For me this captures the romance of this city perfectly.

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Recife Brazil: This woman was not the friendliest looking person but who knows, she may have been sweet as pie. The look on her face tells me she may punch me if I snap, but then again, maybe not. I wanted to get a profile but as I snapped she looked behind her. This is not a technically great photo but it is edgy. I was recently asked if I like “Beauty” or “Truth” and I always say “TRUTH” as that is reality. Beauty and fake beauty is everywhere but truth trumps all. 

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Seattle: Saw this girl having a great time on the beach. The sun was setting and the weather was amazing. Wanted to catch her laugh to show that in this one moment in time, this person was having a great time in their life. Happy and full of life. 

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Inside of a truck stop somewhere in middle America: Was eating lunch when I saw a kid outside the window begging his grandmother for money so he could buy a toy he saw inside the shop. She refused at first, telling him NO NO NO! She then relaxed, pulled out a smoke and gave him her coin purse. Seems the cigarette gave her some peace 🙂 I was watching the interaction take place for a while before deciding to snap a shot.

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Berlin Germany: While in Berlin I saw this couple cuddling and holding hands so I followed them down the street for one minute. At a street crossing I saw her embrace him and right after I shot this she smiled at me as she knew I captured some love right there 🙂 

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New York City: Hanging around NYC was a blast and it is a street shooters dream. I love this one that I caught of a man coming out Penn Station

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Rio Brazil: A woman massaging her man’s neck and back as she whispered sweet nothings to him. They acted like they were all alone and oblivious to the surroundings. I squatted down, snapped the shot and afterwards the guy looked and gave me a  thumbs up. I was alone on this walk in Brazil with my Leica and never hesitated to shoot.

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Scottsdale AZ: At a bar just before Christmas I was greeted by a dog at the bar. He was shaking everyone’s hand who came in and was just like an old bartender, but friendlier. I had to snap this hand shaking dog so I could always remember the laughs we had that night. 

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Berlin: Shooting people on a bus can be interesting. This woman looked deep in thought and I wondered what she was thinking about..of course I will never know that, or her, but I like the photo. 

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Somewhere in Brazil…another Bus shot. 

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Rio: I was eating lunch at an outdoor cafe near the beach when I saw these two guys. I raised my camera, gave them a nod and they gave me a pose 🙂 

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Seattle: A street performer who has been here for a long time singing to all of the tourists…

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Berlin: I saw this man riding a bike with some pretty nifty socks.Had to get a shot.

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While walking down the street I saw  these two parking attendants arguing. Usually one would stay out-of-the-way of  two guys getting into an argument but I snapped without them knowing until AFTER I snapped the shot. They were cool with it and ended up laughing at themselves in the end. 

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Seattle: Seeing this little boy skipping, dancing and enjoying an apple at the Gum Wall. I snapped when he looked over at me as he was taking a bite out of his apple

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So basically the moral of MY story is when I dropped the fear of taking images of strangers, and when I learned to use my instincts of when and when not to shoot and when I learned how to “see” better it all added up to improve my street photography to a higher level than when I first started. While I have lots to learn, and I do not do too much street shooting these days, I always have fun with it, which to me is the most important! If you do not have fun with photography then it will get old..fast. So always shoot what YOU enjoy shooting, even if it is flowers, leaves or trees. Whatever makes YOU happy is all that matters!

OF COURSE there is much more to it than those three things but that is a good starting point. Also being comfortable with your camera and lens will help you along the way. 😉

Recife Brazil: Two girls on the beach. This was late night and I was out with my M9 and Noctilux. When they saw my camera they said “TAKE OUR PHOTO”!! To me, this is what it is all about..interaction with others, having a great time and nailing a nice photo to take you back to that moment.

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SMILE! This one was taken somewhere in Seattle and she loved having the attention and her photo taken 🙂 

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Talin Estonia: Shot this girl on the street during an early morning walk

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To those who want to get better at shooting images on the street can start with losing the fear of shooting strangers, learn to develop their eye and how to observe and also to be respectful to those we approach and want to photograph. Most of all, have fun.  While I will never be a master of the street. I have loads of fun doing it 🙂

Steve

65 Comments

  1. Thought provoking and enlightening write up and superb photos (as usual).
    Would love to have seen street pics taken with a TLR by you in your style.
    I think Rollei USA offered you one?

  2. Good pictures. Love the Russian one!
    I love “urban” photography. For me is about interplay between people and the environment, rather then one or the other, but I still appreciate a good portrait

  3. Very nice, Steve. 🙂 You should be offering more workshops on this and I am sure it will be very beneficial.

    Wonderful examples! 🙂

  4. Steve, you definitely have an eye, and your own unique voice, for street work. It isn’t easy! Nice work and keep going!

  5. Great pics. But I prefer unposed and a mirrorless w/fast AF, actually consider crop sensor an advantage too. once they are posing the naturalness and true emotion washes away… for me. If I take a pic of smiles it’s because they were smiling not knowing they were being photographed typically

    But that’s just me. Did I say your pictures are Great…?

  6. Great pics! If you wouldnt’t have told us so, i would never believe those were taken randomly in the street! What a pro! I liked especially the one from st. Petersburg… is it really midnight or your camera got the exif data wrong?

  7. Dear Steve,
    Always inspiring!
    I have discovered again the joy to return take pictures.
    After more then 20 years “out” I returned thanks your inspiring articles and wisdom advices.
    Keep giving us this masterpieces and funny reviews.
    Thank you very, very much!

  8. Steve,

    Wonderful post. Having gotten the Ricoh GR, and being a fan of the “candid moment” style, I would say you’ve only left out one HUGE way to improve your street shooting. Never leave home without your camera. I used to shoot on weekends, going on “Photo walks” and giving myself enormous pressure to come up with something. Now I take the camera with me every time I leave the house. Granted I live in Brooklyn, where there are photo ops on every corner 🙂 but it has simply allowed me to make mistakes, accept that I cannot get every shot, but also grab shots I never would have even seen if I hadn’t had the camera with me. I promise to send some shots in for your inspiration as soon as I get around to PP them!

    Denis

  9. Nice photo essay, Steve. Over the set, the photos you shared have a kind of unity or similarity that may add up to Steve Huff street photography. Forget the “master” street photographer stuff. I seriously doubt that Vivian Maier considered herself to be a master or even thought about being one. She thought about what she liked or wanted to capture, what interested her and motivator her to see if could achieve a good image of all of them. Remember, she didn’t even see them for a long time after taking them, some not at all. My guess is that if you laid them out chronologically you would see that she was “becoming” better at it all the time, and not in anyway “being” a master or desiring to be one. For whom? Of all the master photographers–and yes she earned the title whether she personally wanted it or not–she seems to exemplify someone taking photographs to satisfy herself. That’s another lesson you can add to your already useful list. Someone edited her images for her too, don’t forget. No one has seen all of Cartier-Bresson’s negatives either; he wouldn’t allow it. It’s about him trying to achieve something that he had in mind, not someone else. Shyness? Wow, how can you not be reluctant to intrude on people? I have to keep telling my shy niece that all she has to do is what you did, but expressed perhaps as Brando might have put it: just act. Pretend you’re not shy. Most people don’t notice it anyway, so why should you. Don’t act the opposite, rude or brusk, just pretend your like someone who is not shy. First thing you discover, as you’ve shown us above, is that many people want you to take their picture. How would you ever know that if you didn’t try or ask. So, what do you like to see on the streets? (you as all of us). Take the same street and we’ll all see something different and seek different angles as well. And if you’ve done it a lot and not been satisfied, different and better kinds of light as well. Come to think of it, Renoir and his buddies used to go out and paint in the same places, some of the same things. No two paintings alike. They tried to evoke what they saw and wanted to get on canvass. Sounds like fun to me. It helps when the “characters” in your play (the street) are interesting, and engaged in compelling ways, something which we cannot make them do, of course. But we can keep walking, as you’ve done, all over the world at all different times of night and day. In fact, that’s what Vivian Maier seems to have done in all of her spare time. Very large canvass indeed. Keep them coming. (Be nice to know which cameras and lenses you used on each image . . . but I can see why you wouldn’t want that to interfere with the essay itself. Perhaps another essay: what Steve has learned about different types of gear when it comes to his style of street photography.)

    • Larry, for me Vivian had some kind of illness which she cured by photography. She was isolated I guess by her work and mind. The camera (at that time a very professional type) helped her to overcome her shyness against unknown people. The style of her work is different to Cartier-Bresson who tried to nail THE moment of a certain scene. He twisted his body like a snake to get the angle of view for his shot. Like a raptor. Vivian was more a spectator of scenes or people just to get them, disregarding a silent but spectacular moment.
      Her camera was not mainly the tool to get pics but to hide her person behind the machine. At the end of the day she had these moments on celluloid and in her memory. For her it was enough therefore no more work like developing/printing. Just put it beside because it was not important afterwards.
      Why do I guess this? I had the same behavior when I was a chap in the age of around 20. My NikonF was the catalyst to come much closer to people as an intruder into their ‘comfort zone’ by using a 28mm wide angle. With this kind of social ‘handicaps’ I made my best pics. And, very mysterious, the quantity of shots with the ‘decisive moment’ -the holy grail of street photography- became more and more (3-4 per year).

      Vivia Maier had no flickr account or other platforms to exhibit photographs totally anonym as we can do.
      It’s life’s tragedy that she passed away without getting the honor which she deserved.Sad.

  10. Vivian Maier … what a photographer! I’m left wondering how the hell she managed to remain unknown, when she was taking all these photographs. I’m going to order that book tomorrow! I see there are also other books too … which I suppose isn’t surprising due to the number of images she took. Maybe using a TLR, where it’s rarely near your face and therefore you are less intimidating to others or intimidated when shooting, has a lot to do with the photographs she has taken. It’s a shame that more women don’t get involved in street and other types of photography, as the female photographer’s work I have seen, (Can’t remember the name of the famous American dust bowl depression era photographer!) really do put across how people feel in a way that men, don’t seem to be able to.

  11. Man, Steve… although your completely in-depth reviews, honesty about photography and equipment draw a lot of people to this site, it’s always been the passion that you have for capturing images that has brought me back, daily. And, aside from the photos of your family, your “street” work totally expresses that passion. Like you said, there are an increasing number of street photography websites, numerous styles, and a sometimes-difficult-to-understand definition of the genre, but like Vivian, yours never ceases to capture the essence of the people you’re making pictures of. It’s really beautiful, and I’m thankful you choose to share, and have the means to share with us. I only wish we could see more of your personal work on this site – it’s truly inspiring.

    Thank you.

  12. Great pictures and good thoughts about streetphotographie. This respectful and interactive way seems to me the right one.

    Ingo

  13. Steve,

    There is one more point you should add. It is something that you do so naturally, that is seems obvious. You say to “use your instincts” but that only works if you are “present to the moment.” Street photography is rewarding, because in order to be effective you have to be “right there” to see the “truth” in the moment.

    Everyone else is hurrying around you, going about their day, worried about their own lives … the street photographer has to let all of that go in himself to be able to notice the world around him. Its that OMG moment that just after you clicked the shutter that you feel like you just may have got something special. It seeing it before it actually comes together. That’s what makes street photography so special – seeing that special moment that no one else saw – and you can only do that if you are “present.” Your instincts will betray you otherwise.

    Roger

  14. Inspiring post here Steve – and nice collection of street photos as well. I’ve never been much of a street photographer myself, but after reading this I think I will go out there and give it another go. My wife always tells me that my most interesting shots are the ones that include people.

    PS – thanks for the reminder to see the film about Vivian Maier. I had a chance to see some of her work on display in Chicago – thankfully her work has finally come to light!

  15. Hi Steve,

    Love your style of photography and enthusiasm, it always inspires me when I come onto your site. As someone else has mentioned, street photography can pose more or less of a challenge depending on your location. I live in a small UK town and if I was to walk down the high street taking photos of strangers as I passed by, I suspect I’d generally get a very negative reaction and wouldn’t be surprised if I had a tap on the shoulder from a policeman at some point. Do the same thing in London and I think most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

    The story of Vivian Maier is amazing – she has to be the ultimate street photographer. I wonder what she’d think of her fame and her photos fetching tens of thousands now, looking down from above.

  16. Really nice article Steve. Was a joy to read. Very interesting what you have to say about your shots and how you made them. I like street photography but are no good at it. I think that this might be just a natural thing. Nobody is a good at playing golf from the start, talented maybe.

    As many others i see the magic of street photos from the old masters and while they are good in their own rights they were shot in a different time. A time that seems so long ago (at least for me) but isnt really. That makes lots of the magic for me.

    While photos from today might have a similar impact on people in 50 years from now on, they most likely come from lots of different photographers. When Vivian Meyer walked the streets of NYC she maybe did not met another photographer the whole day. And people reacted different that time when a person taking pictures of strangers was something new and no threat even to people who did not like it. In the age of Internet this is often times much harder for both sides – the photographer and his subject.

  17. I think these are the best photographs you’ve done on this site to date. They show your true talent. More of these. Wonderful.

  18. Steve, I love your reviews, but the accompanying photos generally are geared towards showing what a camera can do. Apparently your skill as a legitimate street photographer, has gotten ‘lost in the shuffle’ as you concentrate on reviews and let your readers show off THEIR work. Kudos. Color me impressed.

  19. I confess that I have been growing fearful of taking portraits in the street. As a result, I have resorted more and more to furtive shots, and streetscapes where people are largely incidental — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I feel I’m missing interpersonal connection by avoiding street portraits.

    Your advice and insights give me confidence to keep on trying. Thanks Steve.

  20. Love your images, especially the couple cuddling in Berlin. First time I tried street shooting, I was super nervous. Really appreciate your tips.

  21. Great post. Thanks for sharing. I would just love to get out there and make some interesting street images. Developing the courage to do it is a work in progress.

  22. Interesting read….on another note, street photography from the past, say 20 years or more, holds me captive, whereas todays images no matter how good hold no interest.

    • Totally agree Vinny, I see images long ago from Vivian,Henry and others and I am mesmorized but today’s street photographers same as you just nothing no interest at all, they just seem all the same.

    • One day sir the images that you take will be interesting to others, probably when we are dead and gone but our images will go on forever. I would love to hope that they will be admired and talked about long after I am taken from this earthly world.

  23. It is interesting, I find that it is easier to shoot in a foreign country than here in the states where I live. I guess being a tourist gives one license!

  24. Vivian Maier made some fantastic photographs and she is one of my all time favorite photographers and the movie Finding Vivian Maier is really interesting.

    The site at http://www.vivianmaier.com was closed for short time, but it seems that it has been reopened. The site has a great collection of Vivian Maier photographs.

    • “Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?” Documentary (produced by BBC, available on the net) is way better than John Maloof’s self-indulgent documentary.

  25. Steve, thank you for such a beautiful and inspirational article. Posts like this keep me coming back day after day, and I very much appreciate getting to know what makes you tick—even though we have never met in person. Thank you, thank you.

  26. So nice to occasionally read photography tips instead of gear talk. Your suggestions are spot on and the images are compelling. Thanks.

  27. Very inspirational. You’ve got to have the right state of mind to do street photography, I guess. Also, I think that in big, busy cities, where the public’s private ‘square meter’ is smaller than in a small village, it is a bit easier. I could be wrong on this, though. Should give it a try. If I find the courage.

  28. Steve, the “wrong” part in your write up is your word, “While I will never be a master of the street”. The “right” part in your write up is your word “I have loads of fun doing it” 🙂 Never think whether we will become a master or whether our work becomes a masterpiece…start the thinking from there bring us nowhere. Just start from the love, the fun 🙂 Whether it ends up to something…well, that we never know. Me? I choose to just love it, and not think too much. Hey, like Vivian Maier. She just love what she did. She never published her work, which shows she never think much about being Robert Capa. She just like taking pictures of people in the street. Her work came strictly from love, and now her name is one among many great street photographer. Never know if your the next Steve, or anyone else in this forum 🙂

    • ++1!

      Forty years ago as a young guy this kind of mood or attitude helped me when messing around in London, Amsterdam or Belfast……

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/36573929@N00/page3/

      Steve, one lesson is missing:
      Look as much as possible the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Willi Ronis and Robert Coisneau and the american counterparts. Store them in your head and don’t imitate them. Just like licks you remember when playing guitar and mix them when the time will come.
      Ah, I forgot: dress yourself in a very comfortable way, especially the shoes….. 😉

      Steve, continue your fantastic run in interacting with people!
      Bernd

  29. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your post and nice pics as well.
    I have alredy prepared half an iBook about my personal discovery of street photo in Asia. What I wrote about my own conception of street photo could be an exact carbon copy of what you wrote. I have based my behavior when I go out for photo on the same basis. Beleive me, this is my key to get a great pleasure and satisfaction with my camera. The photos are just the result of very nice moments while interacting with people in their environment.
    More I go to meet people and more I like my photos. Plus, it is like a kind of memory helper. When I watch the photos later, I can easily remember where, when, and what happened during the shot. Pure pleasure…
    Quality can be discussed, I agree. But all the rest, I keep it!
    If you allow me, I will send you the info as soon as I will have published my iBook. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.
    Cheers,
    Claude

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