Taking pictures of strangers – to ask or not to ask?

South Korean girl with dog and bunny ear phone on park bench
It’s a dog’s life

Candids, or photos taken of people who are unaware they are being photographed, often result in the most interesting and emotive images a photographer can produce. These images are valued primarily for the emotions they convey and the stories they tell. However, by definition such images are an invasion of privacy and require an intimacy with the subjects that is essentially taken without consent.  But if you first ask someone if it is okay to take a photo, the essence of the moment you are observing is fundamentally altered and many photographers would argue, gone forever. What to do?

Though there are two scenarios where candid photography is essential – event photography and street photography – the challenge of whether to ask or not is one mainly faced by street photographers.

Taking candids in event photography vs street photography

In event photography, the photographer is a professional hired by their clients who often explicitly request a selection of good candids of attendees interacting with one another. Attendees are aware that they are going to be photographed – often through the placement of a sign at the entrance to the event or through explicit consent forms signed ahead of time – so the event photographer generally faces no dilemma and in fact, is encouraged to take as many strong candids as possible as these are the kinds of photos both clients, and subjects alike prefer when reviewing the final set of deliverables post-event.

Street view of main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace

In street photography, a passtime widely enjoyed by both professionals and amateurs alike, the question of whether to ask or not to ask is more acutely relevant. With some very clear exceptions, my feeling is that the best images come from patient observation and that asking for them in advance can, and often does, ruin them. I believe if you always operate with a respect for other people and you abide by the photographer’s version of the Hippocratic oath physicians take, “to do no harm”, you are in the clear:

  • Don’t take photographs that could in any way embarrass, endanger or otherwise inflict any kind of harm on your subjects.
  • Don’t take any photographs of people in cultures where taking photographs is feared or frowned upon, for whatever reason without getting clear consent first.
  • Photographs of other people’s children is also off the list unless the parents or guardians expressly allow it – and then I make a point of sharing those images with them
  • No paparazzi photos of any kind

There is something inherently opportunistic with taking photos surreptitiously. The very word “snap-shot” implies a quick, reflexive response to something noticed that will quickly disappear. That precise combination of  composition, lighting, and subject matter that makes for a perfect photograph is often ephemeral.

This is both the thrill and the challenge of taking candid images, of course. Getting it all right in just an instant is where the skill lies. A photographer whose aims are to capture meaningful candid images must practice almost daily to develop the reflexes and familiarity with his or her equipment in order to be there when things are happening, and be able to get the shot when they do.

For the same reason, it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to ask for consent to take a photograph in the same moment that the image presents itself to your eye.

Tips for taking better street photos

Dumplings for lunch

You get the best results in street photography when you are discreet both in your manner and the gear you are using. Whether you are at home or travelling your street photography can benefit from taking an anthropological approach.  Having knowledge of an area (often gained by having walked around it extensively), understanding they kinds of people who frequent it, what they are doing there and how the lighting and ambience of the place will change over the course of a day and into night, all contribute towards your ability to capture stunning street portraits and capture powerful images that tell stories and convey a sense of place.

Embed yourself in an a “target rich” environment until you effectively meld into the background, then wait before taking any photographs. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the practice of street photography will develop a sense of where good photos are likely to come from. Even though the moments that occur are randomly generated by the multifactorial interactions of strangers, time, the position of the sun in the sky and countless other factors, a photographer with a good eye will sense a place rich in potential and spend more time there.

There is no question, from an aesthetic point of view, that candid images are generally more appealing and more potent than posed images of the same subjects, or images in which the subjects know they are being observed.

For a good time...
For a good time…

The act of observing something inherently changes that which is being observed. This is one of the mind-bending results of a thought experiment known as  Schrödinger’s cat by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in trying to describe the way two different quantum states can co-exist, or be in “superposition” until observed in which instant the superposition collapses into one or another of possible definite states.

While I don’t suggest taking photographs of two strangers kissing on a park bench in Paris is the equivalent of conducting one’s own quantum physics experiment, it is true that the kiss would be changed or possibly not transpire at all if the photographer gently nudged into their embrace and asked if it would be okay to snap a shot of them.

Ultimately, as is the case I hope every time you press the button on a camera, use your judgement. Take only photos you would be proud to share and show the world, and that enhance or elevate your street photography subjects, or that expose a story or place that brings a higher level of awareness and sensitivity to a wider audience for a subject you actually care about and are trying to make a difference in. In the end, there are no strangers in photography. Under the gaze of your lens, everyone is a somebody if you accord each individual with the respect – and compassion – each and every one of us deserves.

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Here’s looking at you kid

Candid photography lies at the very heart of why people love photographs in the first place. By all means you should pursue it as an art, a hobby or a professional practice. I believe the best photos are the ones where the photographer has gained an implicit trust from his or her subjects. This is gained through the sheer force of personality, the proof of the work you have already undertaken, and the evidence you demonstrate of having integrity whenever and whereever you and your camera are.

What photo gear to bring on your travels

What gear to bring with you when you travel

Glad I brought my spray paint with me

If you enjoy photographing the sights you see and the moments you experience while travelling, you have probably done some research into what gear to bring along with you on your summer vacation. As airlines get increasingly cheap with the amount of space they allocate to “cattle class” economy seats – the ones most people use – each piece of additional gear means added weight, and size, to your bag. With space at a premium, how do you choose the optimal travel kit to ensure you get the full enjoyment of your hard-earned vacation and bring home your trophy images that let you relive the experience over and over again when you are back home?

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Carrousel near The London Eye

Now if you are one of those people for whom a phone is going to be all you need, feel free to stop reading here. While the phone is often a great addition to the kit (and some new types of gear like the DJI Osmo+ Sports Kit, DJI Mavic Pro or the Ricoh Theta S require a phone interface), it doesn’t match up to any kind of pro lens. I know many would disagree, but the real photographers out there know exactly what I mean.

51Q9fK+1utL._SS40_Whether you are a professional photographer or an enthusiastic beginner, or just someone for whom photography is a part of the travel experience, your first and most essential piece of kit has to be the primary camera you are most likely to use and carry around with you. For me it has to be the Fujifilm X100T. (You may prefer the newer version, The Fuji XT2 but since I haven’t used it yet I can’t recommend it though I suspect it is as good or better than the one I use).

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This versatile and compact little beauty of a camera is my favourite travel camera. It hangs around your neck discreetly, looking as good in its case as out, and takes beautiful snapshots wherever you are. Great in low light, and with a few little tweaks you can make to adjust the shooting style to match your own, nothing compares to it in its price range. I would highly recommend it, or one of the similar cameras Fuji puts out for someone looking for a professional quality camera at a reasonable price that they can use in a wide range of settings. Whether you are visiting bars, taking family portraits or artfully composed images of the girl/boy you are trying hard to impress, in cathedrals, on beaches, traversing jungles or all of the above, this camera does the trick and if you only bring one piece of gear this should be it.

For a bit of extra weight it is worth considering a small GorillaPod tripod (useful for attaching camera to trees or rocks of you want to be in any of your own photos).

If you love drone photography (which once you’ve tried it is hard not to) than nothing beats the compact, travel-friendly DJI Mavic Pro. It is the smallest most portable professional drone on the market today and performs admirably in a wide variety of conditions. While I use it sparingly, I love being able to capture broad vistas, shorelines and other natural landscapes with its high definition 4k camera. Just the sheer thrill of flying it is worth bringing it onboard.

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View of Central Park in Songdo, South Korea (June 2017)

As I like to have options when I travel, I am willing to put up with the extra hassle of committing one bag of carry-on purely to camera equipment. Here’s what mine looks like for a two week tour of three European countries (the DJO Osmo+ kit not shown).

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Inside my Thinktank Airport International V2.0 I have:

1 Canon 24-105mm L series lens

1 Canon 16-35mm L series lens

1 Canon Mark IV body

1 DJI Mavic Pro drone with 3 additional batteries

1 Fujifilm X100T

3 extra Canon batteries

1 pair of Bushnells binoculars

1 full outdoor kit for the DJI Osmo+ (tripod, extension, car and bike attachment) *DJI Osmo+ packed separately

Chargers for DJI Mavic Pro, Osmo+ and Canon batteries

1 sling style BlackRapid strap for camera

1 Canon 600EX-RT flash head (batteries inside)

1 Ricoh Theta S camera with a GorillaPod tripod

2 Brinno Timelapse cameras (with one exterior weather proof casing)

This is excessive I know but as I plan to attend a wedding in London, tour Hamburg and then spend a week touring around Portugal with my family and some friends I wanted to have the fullest possible range of options for shooting the many varied settings I will find myself in, both urban and rural. With this kit I can shoot handheld video, panoramic photos, time-lapse videos, aerial photography and videos, landscapes, portraits and family sized groups of people. I’ll be equipped for virtually any type of lighting, and can be guaranteed to bring home a set of images and video clips that will satisfy my appetite for complete coverage.

When traveling by air, remember to keep all your batteries (at 50% charge or less) inside your carry-on as you are not allowed to pack batteries in your checked luggage. Given the way most checked luggage gets treated I keep all my gear with me at all times. The Thinktank Airport International V2.0 (though pricey) has a truly solid, well-made bag that theoretically fits inside most carry-on spaces. On smaller regional jets (the ones you are most likely to find yourself on if you are flying between cities in North America), as the overhead bins are designed for fitting a child’s lunch pail and perhaps a rolled up newspaper, you will have trouble with this bag. However, I always manage to bring it in and get it under the seat in front of me, even though a portion does overlap into your seat mate’s leg room. With a little understanding and friendly banter this can usually be smoothed over.  Do not, under any circumstances, allow the airline to gate-check your bag which is airline speak for handing over your precious cargo to unhappy workers who treat passenger luggage with the contempt and disdain of cruel prison wardens for prisoners. I suffered through one agonizing flight from Washington to Montreal watching my bag full of $20k worth of equipment be first picked up and tossed down the slide from the bridge to the ground, then get slammed onto a baggage rack, tottering on the edge, half falling off, as the cart was manhandled out of my site to the baggage loading area. Were it not for the sturdiness of the Thinktank Airport V2.0 construction I am sure my gear would have suffered. Nonetheless, I vowed to never let that happen again.

What to shoot?

Girl with flowers
Girl with flowers

Everyone has their own fun choosing what to focus on when travelling, so what follows is nothing more than a view into my own idiosyncratic way of interpreting my travels through my lens. Aside from the obligatory (and still treasured) shots of family and friends, I love shooting the kinds of things you see but quickly stop thinking about when travelling for a few days in a foreign country:

  • shots in the airport/train station on arrival/departure
  • street signs
  • graffiti
  • book covers in stores
  • postcards / souvenirs
  • art and displays in museums
  • market stalls of produce
  • street posters for upcoming shows
  • bus, train or plane ticket stubs
  • the different kinds of foliage you find in gardens
  • doors, store fronts, building façades
  • products on display in grocery stores
  • and random, quick snapshots of parks, skylines, views and anything else that tells the story of the place you are in without worrying all that much about compositions, lighting or even focus sometimes (a blurry shot through a train window moving at high speed sometimes is exactly the right expression of that moment in time).

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When I get back home I love looking through the images and putting together a mosaic of my time away.

I also love shooting a video (with my phone), of me speeding through all the images on my Fuji X100T to give a high speed tour of my travels. Stay tuned for June (coming soon)

My particular gear and shooting preferences aside, in the end, the best camera for travelling is the one you have with you at the time and the best things to shoot are what you see that strikes you as new, interesting, unusual or representative of the place/season/mood/experience you are in at the moment you experience it. Rather than make a production out of hauling out your big gear, use the simplest, most versatile camera you can reach readily when something – anything – twigs your curiosity. Whether that’s just your phone, or something as lightweight but also a full-fledged camera, having a camera in your hand when you see something that excites you matters more than having the absolute perfect camera and lens for the shot that’s packed away in your bag.  When you travel, you are ultimately a visitor – a tourist. You can dress and act however you want to to fit in, but ultimately, your time is limited in your destination of choice so if you care about taking home visual souvenirs, do yourself a favour and keep your camera around your neck or in your pocket, with a spare, fully charged battery and a card with ample space to hold your images in RAW or the highest JPEG you can shoot in so that you have the option to do prints or make a photobook when you get home and don’t have to deal with the frustration of having a great shot in resolution too low to do anything with but post online,

Happy travels!

Travel Photography: Iceland

Drone view of Reykjavic near city centre
Drone view of Reykjavik near city centre

I’ve just come back from a week in Iceland with a feeling of unfinished business and hundreds of photographs untaken, or that could have been taken better. It is a bit of a photographer’s curse to be so drawn to a landscape that it is hard to peel away from it and I never feel like I’ve really captured the image I was after. It is also what makes me love photography.

Taking photos while travelling is something that brings me far more pleasure than merely travelling without my camera. There are people that say that you are not in the moment, that your lens separates you from the experience and that you are never fully present because you are preoccupied with image taking. I couldn’t disagree more.

My camera (and it doesn’t matter what you are using – your phone, a small handheld or a full bag of gear), is a tool for connection, not the opposite. Because of it, I am always looking at things, taking in sights and paying attention to details I would not otherwise even notice. I am watching for light and how it changes and how it plays across the surface of a landscape. How the shadows of clouds slowly glide down a mountainside, like caresses. How the wind ruffles the mane of a horse grazing in a green field….

Lunch time
Lunch time

The bliss of travel is to experience a place as a newborn but with the mind of an adult so that you can appreciate all that you are taking in. You see, smell, taste, feel a new place in a way that is difficult to do when you are at home in familiar environments. Your senses become more acute.

Postcards from Iceland
Postcards from Iceland

Iceland is perhaps one of the best places I’ve experienced yet in my travels for awakening the senses. The sweep of the landscape will often force you to simply stop and stare. (It is so magnetic that one of the leading causes of road accidents in Iceland is people driving off the road, the drivers transfixed on some feature of the landscape they are driving through).

I would be wasting my breath trying to put into words the impression the countryside leaves on the observer. It is a landscape made for poetry. And, happily, photography. There was not another traveller we encountered who was not holding some form of camera in their hands at all times, and though this may bother some people I completely understood the sentiment being one of the worst offenders. I usually had two cameras around my neck, in addition to my phone, as well as periodic stops to fly my Phantom DJI4 over landscapes that were impossible to resist.

There is such an abundance of raw natural beauty wherever you look in Iceland that I can only feel regret for the few hours each night I had to close my eyes to sleep. Luckily, I was there during a period of complete, all-encompassing sunshine, so “night” was but an idea as there was never any darkness.  A more perfect experience for a photographer I cannot imagine and I am only sorry I could not linger longer than the brief week I had to explore.

There are some places we travel to that leave us feeling opened up and reconfigured. As if the land itself leaves an emotional impression inside of you. Iceland is one of those places. And I know that I will return.

A word to the wise: bring a wide-angle lens and plan to stay as long as you possibly can.

Below is a link to my Iceland Highlights (with a video to follow):

http://julianhaber.photoshelter.com/gallery/ICELAND-HIGHLIGHTS/G0000tMP6_iY5M9U/C0000a_2IcvB4c5k

As promised, here’s the video:

…then we take Berlin

I recently visited Berlin for the first time and immediately fell in love with the city, now my second favourite place in Europe after Barcelona. I was attending a trade show (ITB, the world’s largest travel and trade show) but managed to get a few days around the busy show to wander around a little bit of Berlin and take a few snapshots I’m happy to share here (click on the image below to visit my gallery):