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I recently spent a few days in the beautiful country of Morocco, mostly practicing street photography in the medinas (old cities) of Fès, Meknès, Rabat, and Chefchaouen. Compared to Europe or the US, I found that Moroccans are much less enthusiastic about being photographed and I got lots of refusals when I asked for permission and angry looks when I didn’t ask and was caught shooting people.
I quickly realized that, if I wanted to bring home some candid street scenes, I needed to use a different, more discreet approach that consisted essentially of shooting from the hip while pretending to be looking elsewhere. Here I want to share some information about my technique. Keep in mind that it was the first time I had tried to do this with continuity and consistency, so I made lots of mistakes and won’t pretend to teach anyone how to get the best results, but in the end I came home with some good shots, so I must have also been doing something right.
First, some words about my equipment. For my street photography, I used either my Fuji X100s or my Fuji X-E2 fitted with the 35mm f/1.4 lens. The X100s has one big advantage for this stealthy approach: it is incredibly silent. You can hear the sound made by the shutter only if the environment is very quiet, a condition that is not typical of a bustling Arab city. The 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm on a full frame sensor) is the perfect focal length for capturing street scenes with just enough context and, being slightly wider than normal is more forgiving of sloppy framing, an inevitable consequence of not looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD when taking a shot. I tended to carry the camera around my neck, just like the typical tourist, with my right thumb on the shutter button.
I mostly used the X-E2 with the f/1.4 lens in order to have one more stop of exposure, with respect to the X100s’ f/2, when the light was fainter. I generally carried it attached to my BlackRapid R-Strap, dangling upside down at my side or behind my back. As a consequence of its position and of its longer focal length, I got the framing wrong more often than not, so I set the camera for fast repeat shooting to maximize the number of keepers.
Exposure-wise, after some trials I went for an aperture of f/8 to get enough depth of field, sometimes opening up to f/5.6 if it was very dark, or stopping down to f/11 if it was very bright. I set shutter speed to between 1/250 and 1/500, depending on light conditions, in order to avoid motion blur due to my or the subjects’ movement or camera shake originated by not properly holding the camera. I activated auto ISO (with a maximum of 6400) to let the camera set the proper exposure by changing ISO while aperture and shutter speed were fixed by me.
I almost exclusively used manual focus, prefocusing at the distance I expected my subjects to be, and fast continuous shooting in JPEG mode, to minimize the time the camera was spending writing to the memory card: I knew I had to shoot a lot to get a decent number of keepers.
When I had set my cameras, I spent a lot of time walking down the narrow alleys and the souks of those cities, looking for interesting subjects or scenes. When I spotted one, I slowed down my movement or stopped altogether, pretending to be looking at some exposed merchandise or to be waiting for somebody, then, without moving the camera from my body and using the hand that was casually resting on it, I took a quick series of images. Sometimes, if the subject was still, I swung from side to side, hoping the framing was OK in at least one of the images. Once I thought I had gotten something, I moved on.
In some occasions I was really close to my subject, but I trusted the ability of the X100s to be dead quiet. I have some photos where people are clearly looking into camera, but I don’t think they realized they were being photographed. I suppose they just looked at the camera because they thought it was cute or different. For sure, I could have never done the same using a big, noisy DSLR, with its mirror slapping up and down and sounding like a machine gun.
I must say I am quite happy with some of the images, but I have to admit this style of shooting reminds me a lot of spray and pray: You shoot a lot and throw away most of the photographs just to find some gems and proper framing and composition are a matter of luck. I am asking myself if this is good photography but, on the other hand, I quite like the candidness of some of the resulting images. I don’t think I could have obtained this spontaneity if I hadn’t acted like a fly on the wall, seeing but unseen. What do you think?
In closing, I would like to add a few words about the ethics of shooting people in the street without their consent. The fact that this is legal in most of the world doesn’t mean that it is always right.
Joerg Colberg has a good article about the issues involved, even though I don’t agree with all of it. In any case, I’ve set my own rules–which I list below–and I will try to follow them if I ever do this again. That doesn’t mean I will not reconsider them in the future or that you should do the same.
- I do not photograph people in circumstances that could be considered degrading or damaging to their dignity.
- I do not photograph beggars, drunkards or homeless people without their consent.
- If somebody spots me and indicates they don’t want to be photographed, I will respect their desire. If I have already taken their picture, I won’t publish it unless it is of great relevance (something that is not very likely, me not being a journalist). In the interest of disclosure, I will add that the first version of this article contained two images that violated this rule and that have subsequently been removed. I decided to keep the image at top of the kid hiding in the doorway because it illustrates the point I am making and because he is not easily recognizable.
I still think that candid street photography is of value in showing the daily lives of people on the street and that we shouldn’t stop doing it just because some people think it’s an invasion of privacy, but I agree with those that say we should always be as respectful of others as possible.
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