Learn to make yourself invisible.
That’s the advice about street photography given to me in the back of a cab last week. I was talking on the phone while watching the cab’s TV (yes, New York cabs have TVs in them) and there was a brief bio on a longtime New York photographer. He was known for snapping great shots of the city during the 1960s and 70s. I didn’t catch his name or hear much else he said but I do remember an image of a woman walking down the street with a hand on her hip and a lot of men gawking. She was looking right into the camera and it was obvious the photographer was close.
I loved that shot and I wondered how he got it. Did he know her? Did she get angry at him? I doubt he used a zoom. In the bio, the photographer held a small camera, maybe 35mm. That might be one of my problems. The Nikon D-7000 isn’t a full-frame camera and the housing isn’t particularly large, but my favorite lens, the Nikkor 24-70mm, is as subtle as a bazooka. I raise that big tube to my eye and immediately heads turn and subjects tense. I love the sharp pictures it takes but it’s just too big for taking candid photos of strangers.
I have a prime 50m and an all-in-one 18-200m, which I’ve discovered is excellent glass for journalism (good for shooting conference speakers on stage as well as wide angles) but doesn’t provide the sharpest images.
I think it’s all about perception. The Nikkor isn’t a powerful zoom lens but it looks like one. It gives the impression of intrusiveness. I’ve seen the same thing happen when I do interviews for work. I take out my notepad and pen and the subjects tense up, even more than when I pull out my digital recorder, which is about the size of a cigarette lighter. I can see interviewees start to relax after I begin asking questions while casually holding the recorder in my hand and not too close to their face.
The recorder looks harmless, like a toy and is easily forgotten. The pad and paper are powerful symbols of journalism. Maybe the trick to reporting and this kind of photography is the same: you have to build trust by hanging around, letting people know what you’re about. After a while, you and your equipment become part of the scenery. Invisible.