Friday, January 4, 2013

Stealth Has No Place in Street Photography

"Have you got the latest stealth camera from.....? It's great for street photography."
How often have I read this or something similar  How often have I read the need for stealth when doing street photography. How often have there been arguments about the pros and cons of big cameras versus little (usually expensive and "trendy") ones. On and on it goes with the great hunters who think that shooting people and doing it in a clandestine manner like some spy with the latest "stealth camera" is what street photography is about. Why, did you know one of the most expensive camera names in the world (no names are here mentioned, and it would be a mistake by legal eagles to think they know what I'm talking about) is touted by some as being an ideal stealth camera for street photography? 

Before I really get started, why don't we look up a definition of stealth? Hang on, I'll be right back. Okay, a quick search and here is the first definition that came up (I've cut and pasted it directly):


Cautious and surreptitious action or movement: "the silence and stealth of a hungry cat".
(chiefly of aircraft) Designed to make detection by radar or sonar difficult: "a stealth bomber".
noun.  secrecy
adjective.  secret - recondite - insidious - clandestine
Blimey, it's heavier than I thought. You see, I had the idea to do a post on stealth because I dislike the word when it's used in the context of street photography. I knew it was the name of a bomber, but "surreptitious"? I can kind of live with "cautious" but, "insidious"? Wow. Actually, now I think about it, this all fits nicely with my thoughts on the subject of stealth. You see, one of the big argument for stealth in street photography is that "street photographers"  don't want to appear creepy or sneaky or in some other way disreputable.

For me, street photography is about documenting real life as it occurs. As you've read and heard me say before,  I think there are no ordinary moments, all moments have the potential to be decisive. Anyway,today is not the day to  go over all that again. Cutting to the chase, I will just say stealth goes totally against all I stand for as a street photographer and as an artist. I believe in honesty in all things, and photographing people on the street is no exception. Now, while I don't often ask for permission from subjects, I never try to hide either myself, my camera or my intentions from the people I hope to be fortunate enough to photograph.

But, I hear some of you say, if you're seen that makes it no longer a "true" street photograph. It changes the scene, it influences the subjects. On and on it goes. But, really, is this all actually true? Well, obviously sometimes a subject will see the camera and change their expression or do something to "pose" or whatever. What's wrong with that I would ask. It's not as if it happens very often. Well, not to me anyway. I haven't actually looked at the percentages, but I think the number of people who actually see me or my camera is pretty low.

And what happens when they do see me and it somehow changes their manner or pose or whatever? Well very often it is just that change that makes the image what it is. A genuine human interaction takes place; a moment is shared and experienced together. And, in my not ever so humble opinion, that is a great thing indeed. And the times when it doesn't "make" the image? Well there's been no harm  done and it's still pretty much a positive experience all round.

Oh, one more thing. Not only do I use a DSLR (with a battery grip for easier vertical work), but I also use either of two zoom lenses ranging from medium wide to telephoto. It can be a heavy beast and a pretty plain to see one as well. But I don't care! I love using it; the quality of the images it produces is amazing; and if I am going to record other human beings then I have a deep responsibility to record them in the best possible way I can. That's what I try to do.

Everything I do as a photographer in the streets is done in plain sight. Note, I do not say that I "hide in plain sight"; I never hide. There is no reason to. I do not claim to be a great photographer; no, not at all. But, I have to say that what I do and at least some of the results I achieve seem to fly in the face of the conventional  or received wisdom or lore surrounding street photography:

I do not hide, yet I am able to go unnoticed most of the time; I use a "big" camera, yet still go unnoticed much of the time; my camera is heavy, yet I am able to record moments quickly, even movements as they happen; I do not "zone focus", yet my AF lens seems to record all kinds of little nuances; I use a long lens, yet I am still (according to many viewers of my work) able to achieve a sense of intimacy with my subjects that street photography lore says can only be achieved with a short lens and by being very close to the subject. Need I go on? 

Well, there is one more thing I want to say. I've seen and heard so-called street photographers and "teachers" of street photography say that it is a dangerous thing to be doing. By this I mean to say there is a fear that is promoted (and I mean promoted) that a street photographer runs the risk of being attacked physically by irate people not wanting to be photographed. I even heard one of these "teachers" ask one of his "students' on a video: "Have you been punched yet". This might be a slight misquote, but you get the point I think.

Is this why so many people are "doing" street photography now? To prove bravery and/or bravado in the face of a perceived physical threat? If it is, then it's a very sad and scary development in the history of photography. In my entire life as a photographer (it's a lot of years!), and more to the point, in my four or five years of "serious" street photography work, I have never been punched. The nearest I have ever come to being even verbally attacked is a guy in a car yelling at me as he sped past using some colourful language about my camera which was at that point hung innocently over my shoulder. Even when people have objected to being photographed (another myth: "most people don't want to be photographed. Total and absolute rubbish. I accept that it is true in some cultures of course, but the exact opposite has been my experience) they have simply said no. Sometimes more strongly than other times, but never in a way that could be seen as "violent" or attacking.

Look, in truth there is nothing special about me. There really isn't. I am not on a hunt; I don't shoot people; I don't steal souls; I don't capture subjects. I do not sneak around looking to catch people doing silly or quirky or "interesting" things.  I simply practise my art, my street work, with compassion, love, respect and in a thoughtful, calm and, I could say, prayerful  manner.

I have no need to hide, as I have already said. I have no need of stealth. I do not do anything that could be construed as insidious. Perhaps there are a few questions those who wish to work as street photographers need to ask of themselves. Why is it that I need to hide? Do I need a "stealth" camera or mode of operating? If I do, why do I? And the big one: Do I really want to peruse an activity that could be seen as insidious?

I for one do not want myself or my work to be seen in a negative light, when what I do is so enriching, so important (in my opinion) and seeks to present an honest view of people going about their normal lives in the world we all share together

Peace to you all


  1. Excellent Blog Post, couldn't agree more with regards to Stealth, I too use a DSLR with grip (varying lens sizes) I never hide what I am doing yet often folk don't notice me, if they do then their reaction can also make a good photo. I don't agree with "in your face" (as in Bruce Gilden) or with "from the hip". Just get out there and record the streets as they are

    1. I am sorry I only just noticed your reply. I am so pleased that there are other people who have had the same experience. My hope is that the word will spread and SP will be brought to a place of truth and honesty. Not to mention fun!

  2. Great post. I never liked to be stealthy taking photos. I am somewhat self conscious but I do not have trouble talking to people and asking permission. I think you are correct and ethical in your post. Thank you.

  3. This is an intresting blog that you have posted, you shares a lot of things about Wildlife Camera, Underwater Video Cameras and Stealth Camera. Which are very informative for us. Thanks

  4. A sound methodology for street photography. I have never really understood the focus of some commentators on the whole "stealth" thing. I have only really been aggressively questioned once by someone the whole time I have been "out there" - over ten years!

    1. same here. It is very very rare...I appreciate the positive helps validate what I do to myself. If you know what I thank you.

  5. Hi Paul, I have followed your links after reading your comment on my Urban Sketchers post to see what your street photography is like. I admire what you do very much and I, too, sense a kindred feeling in your approach to your work and mine to my own. Thanks for sharing your work.

    1. Thank you Laura You are very kind It always so very good meeting a kinded spirit


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