What I’ve Learned in The Trenches– MY 5 Step Guide to Street + Snapshot Photography

A couple years ago, you may recall, during a month-long artist-in-residency at the Ace Hotel in NYC I took the opportunity to celebrate the snapshot — quintessential street photography — and I called the exhibit Dasein: Invitation to Hang. ['Dasein' is a German word used by philosophers to refer to raw human experience or the fundamental mode of "being there." I found that when applied to photography, the snapshot was the ultimate photographic expression of us simply, authentically being in the world / caught on film. ] The exhibit featured an ever-changing wall of snapshots, both my own and selections chosen from nearly 15,000 submissions across the globe.

At the core of the work what I found was my own sense of street photography – regardless of whether it was on the street, on a train, or backstage with the band. Point being that street photograhy – the art of the snapshot if you will – is about the moment. It’s about choosing to take the photograph. It’s about mood, and –quite often–it is about talking to strangers.

I was reflecting on that project this morning and wanted to share a bullet point list of things I learned that could be easily applied to anyone’s work.

chase jarvis dasein1. The Law vs Respect. When it comes to street photography, there is the law, and then there is etiquette. The laws permit us to take pictures of anyone in a public space [for which thousands of paparazzi thank the gods every day], even taking pictures of private property from a public space is fair game. But let’s face it. Do you really want to be ‘that guy’? Etiquette is an entirely different matter. And note that while it’s ok to take the photo – USING or displaying the photo later is an entirely different manner protected by laws, permissions, likeness, etc. But that’s another post.

2. Discrete but not creepy. While some photographers live by the “If you see a good picture, you take it” rule. I do not because I’ve decided that my role in life is to evoke the messages and emotions and thoughts that I want to evoke – not to simply document. This isn’t for everyone, but here’s how it translates into my work… I am discrete but not creepy. I often connect with my subjects. Your style will vary. Aside from the rare times I shoot candidly, my general mode of being is two fold. I either (a) quietly and quickly snap the photo; or (b) I say “hey, can I take your picture?!” with the camera pressed to my face OR simply a wave to get someone’s attention with the camera snugged up to my face. I click the shutter when they look up.

3. It’s all about the aftermath. Nine times outta ten when using the above techniques, my snapshot subjects either don’t know I’ve shot a photo or don’t care. But here’s the critical point IMHO – if they do care, or even if they lock on to you, take proactive action. Introduce yourself and say thank you. It’s almost entirely about the interaction AFTER you shoot the photo. And this is where non experienced photographers blow it. Sure it takes vision to get the shot – no questions there. But in keeping the shot and keeping your integrity as an artist operating in a grey space…. It’s 10% being before 80% after…. People will either warm up or blow you off and it’s your job to read them. How do you get good at reading this? Experience. You will quickly be able to read if someone is aloof and doesn’t care that you’ve snapped their photo, or if you’ve ticked somebody off. Moreover, connecting with subjects after the fact is often an amazingly insightful part of the process. I’ve heard amazing stories, been inspired, been awakened, and felt more human after talking with unknown photo subjects on hundreds of occasions.

4. When things go south. Rarely, after engaging with someone in number 3 above, the unknowing subject will react negatively. In that case, cut your losses. I always prefer to be a good human than to be unpleasant. On just a handful of occasions in my entire career (I can think of 2 in this sitting…) has anyone asked me to delete a snapshot of them. In this case – despite it being my right to have ‘taken’ the photo (NOTE – ok to ‘take’ the photo in a public space but not ok to later USE or display the photo by law without proper permissions…), I have–during both those rare occasions–deleted it with a smile and a shrug as I showed it to them.

chase jarvis gasmask bong nyc dasein

5. Some recommended don’ts…
–I don’t photograph the homeless or downtrodden without their permission or even better only after a long conversation where it becomes clear that a photograph is on the up-and-up.
–I don’t photograph young kids in the street that I don’t know without first connecting (eyes, nod, hand wave, etc) with their parent or guardian. Just don’t do it. Otherwise, you’re creepy.
–Don’t try to use snapshots commercially. Ever. You will get caught and you will be breaking laws.
–Don’t take your gigantic camera on the streets. It will wreck your chances at getting good imagery. If a Dslr is all you have, take a small, short lens and that’s it. Even better, consider being discrete with a point and shoot – or my favorite – the new mirrorless camera platforms. There are lots of reviews and stories about those here on my blog. Feel free to search for them.

Above all, IMHO use common sense and common courtesy as your guide. Sure – get sneeky, get gangster, get ‘the shot’, but you can do it without being a nut job. Plenty of other photographers have done amazing projects in the streets that are in your face, against people’s will and without warrant. My suggestion? Leave that to somebody else and focus on the pictures that you want to make through respect and hard work. You’ll thank me later.

[Here are some of my favorites from my NYC project. Got a street photography tale to share? Sound off below. Success stories and disasters both welcomed. Will try to get to any questions if you've got em.]

[Here are some of my favorites from my NYC project. Got a street photography tale to share? Sound off below. Success stories and disasters both welcomed. Will try to get to any questions if you've got em.]

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40 Responses to What I’ve Learned in The Trenches– MY 5 Step Guide to Street + Snapshot Photography

  1. joe June 25, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    agree with just about everything here… rule #1 in photography, as in life, don’t be a dick.

    it isn’t rocket surgery, people.

  2. runbei June 25, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Good for you, Chase. I’ve been a photographer, part-time pro and amateur, since 1966. In these 47 years, similar to Chase, I’ve taken just two photos that I consider even mildly negative or “in your face.” One was of a woman who needed to see her own judgmental face. The other was of a cop who confronted me when I snapped a dozen pictures in the waiting room of the Redwood City superior court. I would gladly have taken out the film and handed it to him, but he was so confrontational that I decided “eff-em.” Never used the photos, BTW.

    Re street photography, I find that the usual rules apply – take only those photos that evoke a real feeling in your heart. The rest are a waste of time, always. The rational mind is not a photographer.

    There’s also a level of grounding that helps. My spiritual teacher said, “Before there can be an expansion of the heart, there needs to be a certain grounding first.” That means pulling our energies back inside until we can figure out what we’re about on the day. I find that the best “place” to be is rather impersonal – not emotional but capable of focused feeling at a deeper than superficial level. Since I follow an inner path and am a monk, I try to feel what’s trying to happen, and avoid spinning off into my own take-charge projects, which rarely results in photos that are pleasing in any way.

  3. effie lissitsas June 25, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    This is a great article because I love street photography but can be shy or even hesitant about it at times.

    That said, for point number 4, you say, ” but not ok to later USE or display the photo by law without proper permissions…”

    How does that comment work for photo journalists then? I’m sure that majority do not obtain nor receive permissions to produce that photo….

    Again enjoyed reading this!!

    • Mark Sass June 25, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Documenting current events is a different story. As well as photographing celebs. Photojournalists can use those photos.

    • Luca Ragogna August 28, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      Effie, you can use street photography for editorial or journalistic purposes, or for self promotion or fine art without a model release but marketing, advertising and other commercial uses are off the table.

      • Diane December 24, 2013 at 9:33 am #

        Yes, see the recent decision in favor of photographer Phillip Lorca Dicorcia about his street photography. He set up lights and photographed passersby unbeknownst to them. He had a gallery show and a rabbi who was one of his subjects sued. The rabbi lost. The judge ruled that the photographer had the right to exhibit and practice his art. Of course, it should be noted that this pertained to the work of a rfine art photographer and a gallery show. But, it is still an improtant ruling for all of us.

  4. Michael June 25, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    All valid points and especially #1 and #2 should be obvious. But I guess they’re not always. Many times I’ve seen folks with long lenses (pr photos taken with long lenses) and that’s just for cowards IMHO. Be there, be present and blend in. Joel Meyerowitz shows it well how to blend in. Don’t run around town from one point to another trying to find a photo but stay on the corner and observe and wait. Many don’t wait anymore.

    As far as cameras go. I’m quite the opposite of discreet when I set up the 4×5 on the street or at a place to document the social landscape. And that more than anything generates interest and positive reaction. Walking around with a MF camera in Downtown Seattle also only elicited interest. I guess a guy with such an old camera can’t be creepy (or a terrorist) :) .

    The law side is a whole different story and differs from country to country anyway. And yes, NEVER ever just photograph children without consent of their parents.

    The question as always I think is the intent. What do I want the photograph to convey. Am I just out snapping away or do I want to tell a story. If the latter, telling that story to the people you photograph can open doors.

    Cheers,
    Michael

    • Diane December 24, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      The problem is, that if a few classic photographers followed your suggestions, the world would be a poorer place. We would not have Helen Levitt’s amazing photographs of children or Walker Evans ground breaking subway series, where he hid a camera in his coat and photographed commuters. Privacy is a tricky issue, but I feel that making it a black or white, do-this, do-that situation with street photography is very bad, very stifling to creativity. There is not one way to be an artist, a photographer, and certainly not a street photographer.

  5. Chad Michael Lyons June 25, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    I have been shooting the streets of Seattle for nearly 7 years. Chase, your article is spot on. I have had so many encounters while out shooting; a few sketchy ones a few life changing, and thousands of photos that keep feeding my addiction to capture the moment. Great Article. http://www.chadmichaellyons.com take a look, I would love to hear a quick thought. You are inspiring.

  6. Nicole June 25, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    The first time I approached a stranger, he shot me down hard. I was trembling. It was over 10 years ago and I can still see the shot in my head. It would have been amazing. I respected him and didn’t take the picture. But at the same time it was an exhilarating experience. It was a connection. I was hooked on that rush of being vulnerable and exposed, to be honest, to be rejected or rejoiced. It doesn’t matter, I still keep seeing things and make the effort to immortalize it. I am a photographer and that is my job.

  7. Roman June 25, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Great article!
    Although I don’t show my streets photos I like to photograph streets and can’t agree more with the author.
    If I want to photograph someone in certain situation really close, I will take the picture and after they look surprised at me I will smile. Sometimes they will smile back, sometimes they will ask why did I take a picture and I will show it to them and talk for a sek. or two and move on.

  8. Sebastjan Vodusek June 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    Nice tips!

    I just recently started my own street photography project. It’s a personal journal of Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. And I haven’t constricted myself to any format except that all the photos are in black and white or later converted to black and white. Some were taken with the DSLR some with iPhone and latest ones even with an old KODAK Portrait Brownie No. 2 that I acquired at a flee market for about €15.

    I found that I really have a blockade shooting on the street with a DSLR. I just can’t do it. I’m saving up for a X100s, but it’s still a bit expensive for me as a student. And I need my DSLR for work, if I didn’t I would just sell my 7D and get that Fuji.

    However I found out that the Brownie is quite good for street photography. It’s quiet and quick as you don’t need to focus, you just point and shoot and people don’t even know it’s a camera. The eight medium format photos are perfect for a day out in the city. You are however limited to enough light.

    Here is the link to the tumblr site where I post the photos: http://ljubljanacity.tumblr.com

    Any tips and critics are welcome!

    Cheers, Seb

  9. Paul Treacy June 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    I’ve been at the street photography thing for a long time. Rarely have I had trouble. It’s a matter of daning in and out of the shadows, trusting your instincts and being ready to smile and make nice.

    I’ve been threatened very occasionally but once I explain what I’m interested in and that I’m not taking anything from anybody, rather I’m simply interested in making photographs then people often just leave me alone and allow me to continue. Sometimes those that were initially ill at ease at my presence will invite me to fully immerse myself in their activities which has, on occasion led to friendship.

    Mostly, however, people don’t even realise that I’ve made pictures and sometimes I’ve been in their presence for quite a while without ever a word being spoken. We speak most eloquently when communicating non-verbally, seems to me.

    Chase, it’s worth really pushing yourself. It’s not always about portraiture. Once someone looks into the camera the spell may be broken. Not always, but often. I believe that the closer you are, the less visible you are in a way. I mean 35mm or 28mm close. None of this zoom lens business. Using a zoom lens will often just get you beaten up.

    Keep your wits about you. One thing I must say is don’t drink when you’re making street photography unless you’ve been welcomed into the fold. Stay sharp. Alcohol will dull the senses and just causes trouble.

    Also, it’s all about making pictures, not TAKING. The language we use is all wrong. Change it and you’ll see an immediate effect.

  10. Paul Treacy June 25, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    That should have been “dancing”. Sorry.

  11. Ron Parida June 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Awesome article! Street photography is some of my favorite work to look at, but for some reason I didn’t spend too much time trying to figure HOW people captured those photos. How random people would agree to having their picture taken. This only really crossed my mind when I first went out and tried it.

    My experience went SO badly, I haven’t actually gone out since :O

    Anyways loved the blog post! Very insightful!

    PS, is that picture of the three guys, with the one in the middle holding the guitar, taken in the NYC subway? The tiling behind them looks like it’s Canal Street (I believe. Could be wrong).

  12. Berni v D June 25, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks Chase for your thoughts and advice. A question remains: why was it ok to display the street photography at the Dasein-Project or in this blog? It’s also USE. ( it would be really sad not to show them though :-) )

    If showing street photography is not possible – what sense does it make then?

  13. Tom June 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    “I don’t photograph young kids in the street that I don’t know without first connecting (eyes, nod, hand wave, etc) with their parent or guardian. Just don’t do it. Otherwise, you’re creepy.”

    Not sure abou the US but in most European countries and Australia it’s illegal to photograph minors without the permission of their legal gardian.

    • Verdoux June 26, 2013 at 4:36 am #

      That’s actually not true. Publishing those photos might be illegal, but taking them is not.

    • Paul Treacy June 27, 2013 at 1:25 am #

      Tom, in the UK most people think it is but in fact, it’s not. Frowned upon, yes. Illegal, no. Most of Europe would be the same. No right to privacy in a public place in an open democracy. As it should be.

  14. Vinoth Varatharajan June 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Damn…and I thought I was breaking these rules….

  15. Vinoth Varatharajan June 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Damn…and I thought I was breaking these rules…. my portfolio is build and branded as iShootStreets (.com) ..

  16. Ronin June 25, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    What if you have a great shot that you want to use in an exhibit or commercially?

  17. Danie Nel June 26, 2013 at 1:39 am #

    In Libya I was asked not to photograph women, and if I do, to please check with their husbands first. That was in the old part of town. Libya at the time – 2009 – was actually rather liberal. Most women would look away if they saw you handle a camera anyways. In some instances they would just smile and look down. And I must say, I have no issue with that. Respect will make a bigger impact on the individual then I’d like to believe the final image would have on the world.

  18. Faisal June 26, 2013 at 5:29 am #

    Actually you can’t a person’s picture without asking him!

  19. Brenda June 26, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    I follow the HONY (Humans of New York) FB page specifically because of the “after” portions of his shots. The little snippets of his conversations with the people he photographs add so much to the photos. People have amazing stories if you just ask.

    http://www.humansofnewyork.com/

  20. Tom4Surfing June 26, 2013 at 7:29 am #

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts. I am scared to death to try this. I have signed up for the 100 Strangers project on Flickr but haven’t yet shot stranger number one! One of the rules is to talk to the stranger and get their consent.

  21. JerseyStyle Photography June 26, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    Very timely article. Just today, my blog post is some street photography I did earlier this week in New York – http://wp.me/pmZR6-2cX

    As with all forms of photography, there are number of different opinions and options about how to go about this particular style. I agree with Chase, a smile, a nod, go a long way towards everyone’s comfortability. And, it could vary from place to place.

    @ Tom4surfing – I’m 90 strangers in to my 100 Strangers project. I don’t consider that street photography (capturing a moment). I consider it street portraiture. Go for it! ~ Mark

  22. ARCpoint Labs of Kalamazoo June 26, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Awesome article with great tips. Snapshots open our eyes to what really goes on in the world around us. We don’t take the time to ever take it in.

  23. John Enricco June 27, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    Very timely. I just finished last week a street/general photography workshop with Jay Maisel at the lower East Dide of NYC and it was an eye-opener.

    Never shot that style before and it was exhilarating and humbling. . We pretty much followed Chase’s points and tried not to be creepy about it. Talked to a few of the people afterwards and it made the picture more meaningful the majority of the shots I took.

    I do disagree with the sentiment on some of these posts that using a zoom is a “coward’s way”. If Jay M., one of the best street photographers alive can use a 25-300mm on a Nikon D4 as his workhorse then I think people should re-examine what they are saying. The zoom isn’t used because you can be at a distance (which is possible) but is primarily used because when up close to a subject (just as far to subject as a wide or normal prime) you can separate the subject from the background with a wide aperture.

    It is also for beginners good “training wheels” to become better and better at getting within closer spaces with the subject and interact. At the beginning of the week I was at fair distance but after a dozen of hours of shooting I was able to get in close and interact more and be able to open up the aperture to get some shallow DoF too in the process.

    I have some pictures posted on my IG if people are interested at http://www.instagram.com/johnenricco from the week. Lot more to learn. Thanks Chase for the post!

  24. Gianni Canali July 13, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Thanks Chase for this post.
    I’ve a question about the release:
    Whatt kind of release you received, for example, from the person shooting in your the face, to publish it?
    Written release or…?
    Thanks
    Gianni

  25. chad jaeckel August 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Definitely some great insight here. A long lens can intimidate, especially attached to a large full frame body. Good point that Jay Maisel works with this setup, but, well, he’s Jay Maisel. Very good advise to pay attention to the subject after the photo. When needed talk to them. Assure them that you are doing nothing subversive. Get advise indeed.

  26. aaron August 28, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Right now in my photo journalism class we have a project where we have to go up to 10 people we don’t know and ask to take a picture of them. The purpose of this assignment is to be comfortable with taking pictures of strangers. 9/10 times people will be OK with it as long as you’re clear and honest about what you are doing.

  27. Chris August 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Ran across this earlier today. Good rundown. I was surprised that in Canada the laws are different than the US. You cannot publish or display a photo of an identifiable person without consent of that person (with certain exceptions, mainly by my reading meant to cover ‘incidental’ identifiable persons in the background of your photo). So no legal street photography up here…

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Country_specific_consent_requirements

  28. Luis F August 28, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Hi everybody,
    great article…. I just wanted to ask you for an advice. As i mostly do street photography, and some landscapes and architecture photo, i’m about to trade my Nikon D7000 with 18-200 lens for the Fujifilm x100s… The thing is that often i avoid to get my DSLR out because it’s so bulky. I just need sharp images, mainly in B/w, and lightweight gear, so i can take it all the time with me.
    Thank a lot

  29. rob andrew September 18, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Very true! I am always amazed at how cool most people are these days with having their photo taken if you just ask. Many are flattered, And they are even happier when you thank them and offer to send them a copy. Seems like common sense but a lot of photographers try to “hit and run” and that only makes it harder for the rest of us. Great post.

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