The cloak of invisibility.

                              Paris Museum.

It's in the Harry Potter books and in super hero comics.  It's the cloak of invisibility.  And in addition to foiling rogue magicians and killer aliens from alternate dimensions it is also highly prized by photographers who would like to see without being seen.  Problem is the cloak of invisibility doesn't exist.  We have to create our own.  I've shot in many places and in the midst of many cultures and there are a few things I've learned about becoming invisible.  I think about this when I head out to shoot.

For a street shooter I'm blessed to be "only" five feet and eight inches tall.  This is pretty average for most of the world these days.  If you are very tall or very, very short it can be harder to blend in.  I am of average weight for my height.  Not rail thin.  Not too thick.  I don't stick out because nothing sticks out.  No jutting ribs, no belly over belt.  Nothing to take a second look at.

When I go out to shoot I try to think about the way most people dress in the city I'm shooting in.  I like to buy work clothes.  I try to never wear running shoes.  I tend not to wear shorts unless the city I'm in is routinely hot and most people wear shorts.  I tend not to look at people unless I am photographing them but I also try not to look away.  I don't wear sunglasses when I shoot.  People need to see your eyes to gauge your intentions.

I don't wear clothes with big logos or bright colors.  I'm interested in never attracting attention.  I even try to buy boring eyeglasses.

All of this would be undone if I dragged along a big camera bag and lots and lots of gear.  The reason I shot with Leica M cameras for many years is the same reason I like the new micro 4:3 cameras.  They are low profile.  Not showy.  Certainly not professional looking to the casual bystander.  Nothing like a Canon 1DS with a 70-200mm 2.8.  I want my camera to be as uninteresting as the aspect I'm trying to create for myself.  People are wary of your intentions when you bring the whole cyclotron array along with you.  You look intent on capturing something.  You distance yourself from the crowd by dint of inventory.  You move with a different cadence and a different demeanor.  You become "them" and not "us".

I'm spending more time street shooting in San Antonio.  I'm practicing my invisibility.  Why? Because if you can leave the ego in the trunk of your car with all the rest of your high end photo gear you'll have access.  And access beats glamor gear every time you go out to shoot.  One camera.  One lens.  One intention:  To look and to share.  Not to capture and harvest.

    Lottery ticket booth in Rome.  I've been spotted.  My cloak of invisibility was torn open by    the Nikon f5 and the 85mm on the front.   


Craig said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm not a very good street shooter, but I think it's mostly due to my self-consciousness. I need to get beyond that to be more effective in that domain. The Canon 5D Mark II probably doesn't help, but I've recently picked up an old Nikon FE (black, not chrome) which, with a 50mm f/1.4 of similar vintage, should be much less attention-getting -- unless it turns out people are drawn to a 30-year-old film camera even more than to a modern DSLR!

Geir said...

To be spotted doesn't seem to bad here. I like that image. What lens do you use on the mft when street shooting?

peterb said...

The casual bystander can not distinguish between your Canon 1Ds with a 70-200 or a Rebel XT with a kit lens. Or, for that matter, between that and your Leica.

The only invisibility cloak is in your head. Take the picture, or don't take the picture. But worrying about whether you've been seen has nothing to do with photography.

psu said...

I have never believed in this cloak. Or at least, I don't believe that the cloak has to do with how others see you, it's more about how you think others see you.

I've never been a very good candid photographer, especially with strangers. It's just not what I practice. But once a class assignment forced me to do it and I took some of the best shots of my life with the 1990 film equivalent of the current Nikon D700...

i've never done better with smaller cameras (digital P&S, Konica Hexar), and i've never noticed that people notice smaller cameras any less than they notice big ones once you point one of them in their face. So I think the whole camera size issue is overblown. It's more important to be comfortable with your tool and just use it and *project* an air of friendliness to put people at ease.

kirk tuck said...

I've done it both ways and watched other people work the street with both set up and I'll have to respectfully but adamantly disagree. While everything is "in your own head" there are realities that are relevant. And associations that I find everywhere. The human brain has much capacity to set "threat levels" and what you have in your hand is as important as what you have in your brain. If you don't think so, go out and try it. A lot.

lokii said...

love the lottery ticket booth shot. my favorites among my street work are often photos where I've been spotted.

Curt Schimmels said...

I agree with Kirk on this. My experience has been the same - that when I take long lenses on nice bodies, people notice. When I shoot with a rangefinder (or now, my E-P1) I rarely run into anyone that pays attention.

Additionally, in some parts of the world, having the larger combo becomes an open invitation to street vendors, etc.

Poagao said...

I've tried it, a lot, and I still think both parameters, internal and external, are relevant.

I used to have trouble shooting people on the street with my 20D. I thought it must be the camera and switched to a Leica M3, then an M6. People noticed ME less, but the cameras themselves actually got more attention than the Canon, albeit a friendly, curious kind of attention.

But my attitude and outlook had changed with those cameras, and when I subsequently went out with a 5DII, I found that people didn't notice me as long as I kept a similar mindset that I'd discovered using the Leicas. Today I still have the M6 as well as a GF1 I keep on me all the time, but I find street photography perfectly possible with the 5D.

For the record, I don't use telephoto lenses at all, however, just a 50mm and a wide zoom.

Andreas said...

It is 100% in your head. It is that the data is misinterpreted and leads to a wrong conclusion. The reason many people don't succeed with "big" cameras on the street is that these are exactly the people with a mindset that doesn't help, not because the camera is big. I have gone through all of it, from Minolta 9000 with a 50, Nikon D50 with Sigma 30 1.4, Casio EX Z850, Olympus E-1 with 14-54 and OM 24/2, Olympus XA, Yashica Electro GSN, Canonet QL17, Minolta Himatic 9, Pentax K10D and K20D with 35/2 or 31 1.8, recently Epson RD-1 with 28/2 and 50, Olympus E-P1 with 17, Ricoh GRDIII and Leica M6 with 35 and 50 and even a Canon 1DMKIII with 28 1.8.

I have come to the conclusion that even the way people perceive you depends on your inner state, on how you feel. The revelation was a month ago in Croatia: I have been there to bring some prints for an exhibition and only carried the E-P1. That was fine on the streets. But 2 weeks later I was there to also document the event in which's context the exhibition took place and brought the Canon 1D. I had no problem shooting on the street with it because I was in the same good mood as two weeks earlier. On the other hand I know it can be very hard for me to be successful with a Ricoh GR when I don't feel comfortable.

Sure, there are cameras that I remember with a warm feeling, such as the E-1 with 14-54 (not that stealth). But when these were well working as street shooting tools, it was circumstances that had nothing to do with the camera itself, except maybe that the camera improved my groove. This may be attributable to size sometimes, but I think it is more the convenience of focusing and the quality of the viewfinder. The XA for example is a terrible tool for me, despite being really small and almost invisible. The Yashica GSN was great with reliable auto exposure, except for the flaw of a stiff focus ring on my example.

Then there is another phenomenon, hardly mentioned, and I am not sure it really works that way, but... with a 1D you may look somehow official, and people (especially in cultures where there is a tradition of respect for authority, like Austria and Croatia for example) think you have every right to take a picture. On the other with a small camera one can look sneaky and become suspicious.

Further I think we should realize that times are changing, and no way it is like 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago where M-Leicas may have looked inconspicuous. Today, a point and shoot and looking on a display is "normal" and people care less. But peering through an ancient looking device gets you a lot of attention today. And whether an M-Leica looks ancient or modern also depends on the finish - chrome or black. A black Leica is not that different from a small DSLR with a prime lens, except for us geeks. But don't extrapolate from you to others ;-)

Don't get me wrong, I am in the camp where the camera matters a lot. But I think it is an urban myth that an M-Leica or an E-P1 makes you stealth. If you are self conscious you can shoot with everything, as long as it feels good to your hands, eye and brain.

Michael Ferron said...

I have to disagree with some of the comments above. Carry a D3 or 1D mk whatever along with a 70-200 and you're begging to be noticed. You look like a reporter and even non-photographer types will catch that fast. I brought a little Rollei 35 to an outdoor art show and few noticed that I was taking photos of everything and everyone. The guy with the mk11 and 70-200 stood out like a sore thumb. Also those tele street shots to me come across as distant and non-connected. Get in tight with a 35-50 and you feel like you are there.

kirk tuck said...

A difference in cultures. Here a big camera means someone is taking pictures for profit or for the wrong reasons and everyone is suspicious or wants part of the profit they think you'll make from taking their photo. Capitalism. The smaller camera means less serious, more amateur. In fact, when you take a picture with a cellphone in the US you truly become totally invisible as a photographer. A technique being put to good use by Chase Jarvis and Don Giannatti....