5 Great Tips for Discreet Street Photography

Discreet street photography of a drag queen in London

In my previous post about the things I avoid in street photography I talked about how remaining discreet was important in my approach to street photography.

I’m looking to completely avoid any interaction with the subjects in my street scenes, and the more unseen I remain the better.  As I shoot with a wide 28mm (full frame equivalent) lens it also means I have to get inside the scenes, as opposed to shooting them from the outside with a longer lens.

So how do I manage to stay discreet whilst shooting street photography with a wide lens like this?  Well, I headed out on Saturday to shoot street photography for a couple of hours and I’m going to include some shots from that shoot around central London whilst giving you 5 great tips, gleaned from some of the masters of street photography, on how I shoot discreet street photography.

#1 The Vivian Maier Approach

Street photography of woman with flowers at London KIngs Cross station.
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane. Kings Cross Station, London (Feb 2018)

One of the great street photography stories of the 21st century is the posthumous discovery of Vivian Maier’s fantastic street photography.  Maier famously shot most of her work on a Rolliflex viewfinder camera.

With a viewfinder you hold the camera between waist and chest height and then compose the shot by looking down at the viewfinder plate to compose the shot.  This means she didn’t have to lift the camera to her eye which often tends to draw more attention to the photographer.

When I’m out shooting with my Olympus OMD EM1 mark 2 camera, I have the benefit of a flip out and fully articulating LCD screen. This enables me to use the camera, when I choose to, in a very similar fashion to using a viewfinder camera like Vivian Maier.

It’s not the same as blindly and randomly shooting from the hip which, to be frank, anyone can do and get the the odd good result.  I’m still composing and framing the shot as I would had I put the camera to my eye, but I definitely find using it this way is less intrusive.  Maybe its the fact that I’m looking down and not directly at someone, but it’s certainly a much more discreet way of working.

The great thing with the Olympus OMD EM1 mark 2 is that the LCD is as responsive as the viewefinder, so there’s no issue with a lag between clicking and shooting.

#2 The Garry Winogrand Approach

Street photography of girls in Trafalgar Square, London
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane. Trafalgar Square, London (Feb 2018)

I love the street photography of Garry Winogrand.  He’s definitely one of my great street photography inspirations.

If you ever watch him work, and there’s videos of him in action online, he works fast and in a very fidgety kind of way.  It’s almost as if he’s not sure he’s doing things right or that his camera isn’t working properly.  However, this is very intentional and is a technique I use a lot myself.

I fiddle with my camera, putting it to my eye, taking it away, looking at as if something’s wrong.  It tends to give the impression you’re trying to sort your camera out rather than taking actual shots.

Also I occasionally point it away from my intended subject, as if taking photos of something else, like Nelson’s Column as I did in the above shot.  People soon think you’re a hapless photographer taking photos of other things and turn their attention elsewhere.

You quickly become unobtrusive and forgotten about, allowing you to get discreet shots.

#3 The Henri Cartier-Bresson Approach

Street photography of drag queens and a street entertainer in London’s Chinatown
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane.  Chinatown, London (Feb 2018)

Henri Cartier-Bresson is of course a photographic legend and one thing he was often fond of doing, was finding a scene he liked and then just waiting around for something to actually happen.  Perhaps it was an interesting backdrop, a certain junction or – as my shot above – a scene waiting for something to happen in it.

The beauty of this is that you tend to blend into the background and people forget you are there.  In many respects, you’ve become a part of the scene and almost invisible to others.  If you find a scene where something else is happening that’s definitely going to take the attention away from you.

Notice how in that crowded scene no one is noticing me at all.  Yet, I’m right there in amongst it, just waiting for something else to walk into the scene.  A few minutes later, some drag queens entered the frame (you’ll notice just over the shoulder of one is one with a cone hairstyle – I followed them on and got “cone hairstyle” in the main image at the top of the post) – CLICK – I had my shot.

The other advantage of hanging around and staking out a scene is that people, when they do notice you, feel like they’ve walked into a photo you’re taking as opposed to you coming along and taking a photo of them.  It might seem a fine line, but it makes a big difference.  People in such situations are more likely to apologise for “ruining” your shot, rather than being confrontational.

#4 The Daido Moriyama Approach

Street photography of a mother and daughter at London Kings Cross station
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane. Kings Cross Station, London (Feb 2018)

I hate talking about gear and cameras when it comes to street photography. I’m a great believer in that old cliche that the best camera for street photography is the camera you have with you at the time.  Street photography, for me, is about moments rather technical perfection.  So I’m not going to say you should have this camera or that camera to shoot street photography.

But when it comes to remaining discreet and unobtrusive on the street, then the size of camera you have will often impact on how invisible you remain.  Big DSLR bodies with big lenses are often going to stand out, and the sound of their shutters is anything but discreet.

Personally, I tend to shoot street photography with one of two cameras.  My carry everywhere camera is a Ricoh GR II compact.  The old Ricoh GR analogue cameras were favoured by Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama, because of their discreet size and ease of use.

The Ricoh GR II slips into my pocket and when I take it out to shoot it’s so small hardly no one ever notices it – even when I get in real close. If they do notice me, I often look like a hapless tourist with a small compact!

There’s also a lot to be said for ease of use when looking to be discreet.  The less you have to think about camera settings the quicker you can work and less likely you’ll be noticed. I find the Ricoh GR II excellent in that regard, especially if you utilise the 3 custom ‘my settings’ – but let’s leave that for a future blog post.

The other camera I use for street photography nowadays is the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark 2.  Yes, it’s much bigger than than the Ricoh GR II but as a micro four thirds mirrorless camera it’s a lot smaller – and lighter – than most DSLRs. I shoot with the Panasonic 14mm (28mm full frame equivalent) f/2.5 lens on it, which is also very small and discreet.

In addition to the tilt screen, which I mention in #1 above, the other massive advantage of the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark 2 for street photography is the silent shutter feature.  In quieter situations it helps to have no audible clicking sound to draw attention.  This was extremely useful in the shot above at London Kings Cross station.  I took a number of shots of this scene – but without the silent shutter feature I would have most likely drawn attention straight away and wouldn’t have got this particular image.

Whilst talking about gear, the other good tip I often advise (and practice myself) is using black electrical tape to cover brand names and white text on cameras and lenses.  It’s amazing how doing that you can make your camera just a little more discreet (and also stops those boring conversations about gear you sometimes get drawn into!)

#5 The Martin Parr Approach

Street photography of legs and shadows in London
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane. Kings Cross Station, London (Feb 2018)

If you ever watch Magnum photographer Martin Parr at work you’ll notice he’s relaxed, confident and smiles a lot when shooting candidly.  I’m a firm believer in smiling a lot and looking relaxed when out shooting street photography.  It’s amazing how quickly you’ll draw attention if you look awkward, nervous and serious.  Human perception tends to pick up such characteristics as warning signals.

If you smile, you’ll immediately look less threatening and, as I find, you often come across as an innocent but slightly silly tourist.  Of course, shooting street photography can be nerve-wracking for some and makes you awkward.  But just remember you’re not actually doing anything wrong.  Take a few deep breaths, relax and just enjoy it. You’ll be amazed how less likely you are to be noticed as a result.

The photo here is literally a great example of using all these 5 tips to being discreet.  I was extremely close to the gentleman with the different coloured socks – maybe 2 feet away at most.  Having spotted the potential of the scene, I simply planted myself opposite and started fiddling with my camera for a bit, a smile on my face as I did.  He looked up but just figured I was trying to sort something out on my camera and went back to reading his book ignoring me completely.

As you can see in the shadow, I had flipped out my LCD screen so was using my Olympus OMD EM1 mark 2 like a viewfinder.  With the silent shutter turned on I was then able to shoot away without any audible clicks at all – which would have definitely drawn attention to me at such close quarters otherwise.

The only other tip here was not to overdo it and overshoot the scene.  In the same way as staking out a scene can make you become more invisible, overstaying within it can also draw attention back to you – especially as close as this.  So you do have to judge when it’s time to move on.

Your Favourite Tips for Discreet Street Photography?

Discreet street photography of man with chipboard on Charing Cross Road in London.
Discreet Street Photography by Darren Lehane. West End, London (Feb 2018)

So those of my 5 favourite tips for staying as discreet as possible when out shooting street photography.  Of course, there are plenty of other different ways and it’s all about finding out what works best for you, but hopefully my tips will help you along the way.

Do you have any other good tips on how you remain discreet on the street?  I’d love to hear them…so just leave them in the comments section below!

You can see my street photography portfolio at http://www.dlehanestreet.co.uk


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s