Street Shooting in Rome. Getting close.

Robert Capa is reported to have said, "If your pictures aren't good enough you aren't close enough." It's a great quote for photographers. A while back I spent a couple weeks shooting for fun in Rome. On one of the first days there I was shooting in the main train station and trying to get good candid shots of arriving families, vendors and porters. Then I spied the guy with the cup of espresso. I tried to blend in but the medium format camera I was using was hardly stealthy. The man caught my eye and motioned me over. I thought he was going to lambast me for trying to photograph him. Instead he waved me in, smiled and said, "You need to get closer!" I smiled and snapped the shutter. We both laughed. A huge print of this has been on the wall in our kitchen for 12 years. It makes me remember to enjoy coffee and enjoy life. And to get closer.

After that experience I stopped trying to sneak around with my camera and realized that I could just ask, gesture, smile etc. and I'd get better shots. By the time I shot the card players I'd switched from my "stand-offish" 75mm normal lens and I was leaning into the group with a 50mm wide angle. I learned that you need to invest time instead of zooming by and snapping. It's so much fun to catch a milieu instead of a scene. Although I really can't explain the difference.

These two images have withstood the test of time. I have copies of each in my studio and every time friends drop by they comment on them.

A friend who is a psychologist bought a copy of the card players. She says that it opens up dialogue with other clients. She points out that the Italian culture brings older friends together. A harder thing in America's transient culture. You can be an honorary member if your are kind with your camera.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.


  1. I think that's something I need to do more of - I have an innate reservation about going up to strangers and asking if I can take shots, something I need to get over.

  2. I concur with Mika's post above, I have recently found though (purely by chance I insist!) that going out on the streets to shoot after a couple of beers removes all my reservations and brings out the real photographer within me.

    I was in the backstreets of London just last week and what I did notice though time and again were people trying to get street shots using Nikon D700's, D3's and equiv Canon's. No, no and no! IMHO always use a camera that to the average person poses no threat at all - my personal guns being a Contax G1 & Olympus OM-2 and just bought a nice toy Lomo Cosmic Symbol, since I stopped wandering around with a Nikon D200 and changed to a more appropriate camera I found people ignore you more and the opportunities just open up. Using the G1 I took almost a whole film in a London pub of a flirting couple over an evening whilst only 3 feet away with me pretending I was playing around with my camera's settings and barely drew a glance from them. Looking forward to seeing that roll when processed! Nice article Kirk and Capa was right but then even he wasn't using something that stood out for that type of shot I would guess.

  3. Close enough ... and with enough context (ie. a wide enough perspective). Do you agree? I'm not shy about being in close and interacting but my lenses used to be too long to then also get enough context. Like your card players ... we need to see the back of a head or two to sense the closeness. In other words, for a given focal length, what trumps what ... closeness or context? I'm not sure there is a single answer but it is a dilemma a face every time I shoot. I think your point is that we should consider shooting shorter focal lengths in general forcing us in closer? Peace, Glen

  4. Hey Kirk, you have captured the very essence of what we have lost in this country!
    My first experience with this little espressos was that I could not sleep for days after I had a bout five of them in a row :)
    I lived in Prato Italy for about two years and still miss the interaction of the people.

  5. always been one of my favourite photographic quotes. Mind you, given how he died (standing on a landmine, while covering the Vietnam war) there maybe should be attached a warning about getting too close to your subjects.

  6. These are some of my favorite images. Maybe it's because I really wanted to shoot them.

  7. My photography professor in college insisted we shoot all our assignments with primes, because he felt we needed to understand and become comfortable our lenses. In the early seventies, zooms were still in their infancy with nowhere near the sharpness of primes. On handing out assignments, he always left us with this bit of wisdom: "Take two steps closer, then another one."

  8. I visited Istanbul a couple of months ago for a few days of 'street' photography. Perhaps it was the culture, perhaps it was the fact that I didn't speak the language and people took me for a tourist (evidently, if you're a tourist nobody wonders why you want to take their picture) but I learned that a wave of the camera and raised eyebrows were all I needed to get a nod (Note: In Turkey a different sort of nod can mean 'no'- these were the 'yes' sorts of nods... I hope).


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!