Introduction to the “why”
There is no way to start this article without the famous quote by the not any less famous war photographer Robert Capa who is known to have said:
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.
Street photographers around the world have adopted this principle as their mantra. A Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden who is most well known for his very close up shots done with a 28mm lens and with flash is perhaps one of the most known (and controversial) street photographers who gets extremely close without asking permission. I will come back to Bruce Gilden more in this article.
Of course just because one gets close doesn’t mean the picture will be “good enough” and vice versa. Obviously common sense. Henry Cartier-Bresson did not like to get close to his subjects. Yet he made many iconic images and certified himself to to the hall of fame of street photography.
If you’re into street photography and wondering about why to get close if it’s not at all the decisive factor of what makes a good photograph, I’ll give you some reasons and insights I’ve found out myself.
It’s important to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Blindly doing something without understanding the reason behind it, is usually not a good idea whatever you’re doing.
Reason 1: be yourself
In order to understand why Bruce Gilden does what he does, it’s important to understand that it’s not possible to become a photographer of that level if you’re not doing something that’s unique to you.
If getting close is what you want to do, then you have to do it. There’s no point trying to force yourself to do a style of photography that is not you.
Just look at the comments on Youtube of Bruce shooting with a flash in NY. The amount of hate he receives is an article of its own. What (among other things) the commentators fail to realize is that it’s who he is. Telling an artist that the way he does his art is rude and he should do something else, is not going to work. Bruce himself has said that if he’s not able to do pictures the way he wants to do, he quits.
We should only do the art we want to make. If we start making things we don’t want to make, it’s not art any more. It’s a chore. It’s a job. Whatever you want to call it.
So, you as an artist need to find your thing. Try getting close, try doing Bresson-style of images or something else and just see what turns you on. To paraphrase Gilden: Learn from the past, take something that’s done before and make it your own.
Reason 2: you have more choice
Here is another tip. Take photos from afar and close. Don’t just take one photo if you can take more. You can decide later which is the best photo. If you only have one, there’s nothing to choose from. There’s plenty of cases where I myself have taken a photo of my subject starting from further away and gradually moving closer while taking pictures – and it’s not always the close up photo that I end up choosing. But sometimes it is. The point is, you really don’t know before you see all the shots on your computer screen.
Reason 3: you become bolder
Every street photographer who likes to get close to his subjects knows how frightening it can be. One part of you wants to get close and another part of you comes up with all kinds of excuses why you shouldn’t. E.g. it’s not appropriate, I’m taking advantage, I look stupid, I might get punched, It’s not going to be a good picture anyway… etc.
If you keep pushing your comfort zone over and over and over again, you basically stretch that zone further. It’s not going to happen over night. It might take couple of months before you become more comfortable getting close but it will happen.
What makes things easier, is having some common sense. E.g. going to some shady area in the middle of the night and using flash close range is probably a stupid idea. Even Bruce Gilden who grew up in Brooklyn told that when he was once in Peru in a rough neighbourhood, he did not take out his camera. The idea behind being bold is to be bold not stupid.
Reason 4: you measure the distance more accurately
If you never get close and finally decide to do so, you might discover afterwards while post processing your pictures that you weren’t as close as you thought you were. Then you repeat the process only to discover that you’re still a bit far away from your subject.
By continuously getting close and later seeing the result and repeating the cycle over and over again, you are more aware of the distance and more likely to properly assess how close you need to get in future situations.
Reason 5: you’re NOT being creepy
Anyone telling you that it’s creepy or wrong to take pictures up close are just random people who don’t understand what you’re doing. Let them be, there’s no point trying to explain it to them. They wouldn’t comprehend it anyway.
Think about it this way. Which is creepier, someone secretly taking a picture of you with a zoom lens from afar or someone taking a photo close to you? The difference is that one person tries to hide something where another is hiding nothing. There’s nothing creepy in taking a picture and being open about it. If the person doesn’t notice, he doesn’t notice. That again, doesn’t mean anything.
What about ATM machines which have tiny cameras that make pictures of you? Most people don’t even know that every time they take out cash, they’re being photographed by the ATM machine which is in most cases owned by a private company. Food for thought.
The conclusion is this. Understand that if you like to get close to your subjects, then simply do that. It’s not about being a model citizen, it’s about doing art.