That’s a Nice Camera. I’m Sure It Takes Great Photos

If you clicked this story, then this was probably said to you a few times. Photographers will let out a sigh of exasperation. Non-photographers will not have any idea as to why someone would be bothered by this. But yes, you have a nice camera. And it’s very capable of taking great photos. In today’s world, no one is making bad cameras. But there are tons of awful photographs made with the cream rising to the top in certain situations.

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Tutorial: How to Shoot Portraits of Total Strangers

 Have you ever had the bizarre urge to walk up to a total stranger and say “can I take your picture?” ​Yeah? Then you’re in the right place.

You’re about to read over 3,000+ words on the art of creating street portraits, or what I like to call “the gentle art of photographing strangers.” My name is Michael Comeau. I’m a portrait photographer based in New York City. I’m also a textbook introvert. I spend more time alone than with other people. I suck at small talk. And I never, ever talk to strangers… unless I’m shooting ​their portrait. ​But you don’t have to be a social butterfly to shoot great street portraits. You just have to turn your camera on and your brain off.

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Portrait Photographers: Portraiture is About A Lot More Than Just the Eyes

When you’re starting out as a portrait photographer, everyone teaches you all about the eyes. “Get them in focus!” “Make it the most in focus and strongest part of the image!” That’s what they say; and after years of shooting portraits, that’s what every photographer will continue to tell everyone else. “They’re the windows to the soul,” everyone says. But after years of shooting portraits, I’ve said before that the eyes aren’t honestly always that important unless you’re shooting very close up. If the eyes are a big part of the photo, then yes–indeed they are important because of how humans always make eye contact.

And then you remember there are a lot of people who don’t always make eye contact–and that body language is sometimes a million times more important.

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Advice for When People Approach You on the Street: Be Calm

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Street photography isn’t the easiest discipline. If you’re a practitioner of the form, some of your friends might ask you if you ever talk to the people you photograph. I’ve asked that of many street photographers, and I’ve had it asked of me. The answer is, almost always, that the street photographer does not talk to the people in the frame. Definitely not before the shot, and not after. Yet, there are occasions when talking is unavoidable, when the person in your frame is more aware of you than you anticipated. While street photography is, in large part, the art of stealth in a public space, you have to be ready for the occasions when the person in your photograph talks to you.

Talking to your subject takes a good deal of confidence, both in yourself as a photographer and in your photography. We can leave the deeper questions to Humans of New York. For now, all you need to think about is explaining who you are, what you’re about, and inevitably, why you’re photographing them.

This isn’t necessarily the time for artistic statements, especially if you’re in a city where people are short on both time and attention. Perhaps you’re working on a project in which the person you photographed fit the bill for the next shot in your series. Give a quick synopsis of what the project’s about, and let them know they’re good for it. Or perhaps you’re just shooting on the street. There’s something about them that made you take their photograph. Tell them what that something is. People often respond well to flattery.

Of course, you may be caught offguard by someone who doesn’t want to be photographed, someone who takes a hostile approach to anyone who aims a lens their way. Be calm in all aspects of your practice, and be particularly calm if someone storms over to you after realizing you’ve photographed them. Keep it brief, and don’t stumble over your words. Simplicity and directness will, more often that not, be enough to defuse any hostilities.

Anything can happen on the street. If you’ve got quick feet and an unassuming manner, you can move from one shot to the next with ease. Just be prepared for when you have to talk.

Let’s Talk About Gear

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm 27mm f2.8 first impressions (14 of 18)ISO 8001-60 sec at f - 2.8

It was at a party a few weeks ago here in Istanbul that I asked a working photojournalist what she shoots with. Given that she’s worked in conflict zones, I was curious about her equipment. “Canon,” she told me. I pushed the line of inquiry a bit further and asked, “5D Mark II? Mark III?” She replied, “Yeah, 5D.” That essentially ended the conversation, and it wasn’t the first time a photographer’s given me a vague answer about gear. On many occasions, I’ve heard that it’s not about the camera, it’s about the person holding the camera, and that’s true. Yet, without the camera, we would all just be folks with an eye for composition and a natural sense of light, and the visual record of the past 150 years or so would be virtually nonexistent. The subtext underlying the resistance to talking about gear seems to be that it’s somehow amateurish and unimportant, and that notion is hogwash.

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