Chinese man making noodles in Muslim Quarter of Xi'an, China, at night

How Finding a Rich Environment Improves Your Street Photography

One of the ideas I wrote about in The Candid Portrait is finding a rich environment for travel and street photography. This came about because I realized that the setting in a street photo is just as an important part of the story as the people.

One reason that a street photo may fail is because the photographer took a photo of somebody they saw in the street without giving any further thought to the setting. We’ve all seen the results – a photo of a random person walking down a regular city street, with a space in the photo because the person is walking past the photographer.

Last week I saw a play – an amateur production of Ring Round the Moon. The action takes place in a single room. The setting remained constant, but the characters came and went as the play progressed.

Street and travel photography are similar. If you can find a beautiful setting, then it’s a matter of waiting, observing and seeing what interesting characters come onto the stage.

This happened to me in Beijing during a trip to China last year. Unlike Shanghai, the Chinese city I know best, Beijing has a lot of historical buildings. Even people that haven’t been to China are familiar with the most famous of these – like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

One of the places we visited was Prince Gong’s Mansion, a complex of buildings, gardens and temples. One of the temples had Tibetan style prayer wheels on one side of an open courtyard. I noticed that as people passed through the courtyard they walked alongside the prayer wheels, spinning them as they went.

That side of the courtyard was in shade (it was a hot summer’s day) and I waited, watched the people go by, and took some photos. I had found my theatre, and all I had to do was wait for the characters to walk on the stage.

These are some of the photos I made that afternoon.

Chinese girl spinning prayer wheel in Prince Gong's mansion, Beijing, China

Chinese man sitting in in Prince Gong's mansion, Beijing, China

Chinese woman spinning prayer wheel in Prince Gong's mansion, Beijing, China

Chinese couple taking a selfie in Prince Gong's mansion, Beijing, China

There were other theaters for street photography in Beijing too. The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and Jingshan Park were all wonderful places to take photos. These historical locations appealed to me much more than the modern parts of the city, and I was fascinated by the way that people came to see the city’s historical sites, and how they interacted with them. There was a much greater sense of history in Beijing than Shanghai.

At the Temple of Heaven I came across couples having wedding photos taken (a shoot that takes place after the wedding itself).

Chinese couple having wedding photos taken at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

In Xi’an, the ancient capital of China located at the eastern end of the Silk Road, the Muslim Quarter was another rich environment for street photography. There were old buildings, narrow streets, and lots of food stalls.

Chinese man making noodles in Muslim Quarter of Xi'an, China, at night

In Hangzhou, the temples in the mountain forests surrounding the city were also wonderful places to explore and take photos of people. It rained a lot, and was hot and humid the entire time we were there – we never saw the sun. But this just added to the jungle like atmosphere.

Two Chinese girls taking a selfie in front of a Buddha statue in Hangzhou, China

In Cadiz, Spain earlier this year we visited the city during Carnival. The city was filled with people in costume, and with street performers and singers who had spent most of the previous year preparing for their performances. It was like the entire city had become a theatre – all I had to do was turn up with my camera and decide what to take photos of.

Street performer singing at Carnival in Cadiz, Spain

Let’s talk about street photography and gear

One of the biggest fears or worries that people have when it comes to street and travel photography is how will people react when you take their photo?

There’s no easy answer to this as it depends on where you are taking photos. You can make it easy for yourself by going somewhere people expect to have their photos taken (at public events like Carnival in Cadiz, for example), or to somewhere the people tend to ignore people with cameras (China was like this).

But wherever you are the gear you use also makes a difference. I recently switched from Canon to Fujifilm, and one of the reasons I did so was because I was tired of the weight and size of my EOS 5D Mark II. Fujifilm cameras are much smaller and lighter, and so are the lenses.

Fujifilm X-T1 camera

I have a friend who’s an experienced model. She tells me that being photographed with the X-T1 is a different experience that it is with a large digital SLR like the 5D Mark II. She finds it easier to relax with the smaller camera.

If an experienced model feels this way then how would regular people feel? You can do the thought experiment yourself. Imagine you see a photographer in the street with a full-frame digital SLR and large telephoto lens. Then you see another with small compact or mirrorless camera and a small prime lens. Who is more noticeable? More threatening? Most likely to make you react if the camera was pointing your way?

Another benefit of small cameras is that you can carry them around for much longer without getting tired. Managing your energy levels (making sure you eat and drink enough, and take regular breaks) is the key to stamina while in the street or traveling, and the weight of your gear is a major factor in this.

The camera doesn’t necessarily have to be mirrorless. A good quality compact camera, a smartphone or a small digital SLR may do just as well. If you have a large dSLR which you use for other work, consider buying a small camera for street photography.

Don’t make eye contact

Another helpful tip is not to make eye contact with the people you want to photograph. Be an observer, but don’t look directly at anybody.

Pretend to take a photo of what is behind them instead. One trick is to leave the camera at your eye once you have taken the photo, as if you are waiting for the people in the frame to move out of the way. The smaller your camera, the less likely they are to take any notice of you.

Further resources

The Candid Portrait ebook coverWhat is a Candid Portrait?

The Candid Portrait: A Photographer’s Guide to Candid Street & Travel Photography (ebook)

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer, Digital Photography School and Craft & Vision. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

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