The Crowd, the Light, and the Eye Contact

Posted on March 22nd, by Danny Santos II in Articles, Tips. 22 comments

crowd, light, and eye contact

When I got my first DSLR last June 2008, I slowly realized that I had no idea what I wanted to shoot… I just knew that I wanted to shoot. So I shot just about anything and everything, from stray cats on the streets to early morning sunrises in our neighbouring reservoir. But when I discovered the genre of candid street portraiture in Flickr from guys like Bradford Kim (LA), Hoa Quach (London), and Alfie Goodrich (Tokyo), I had an epiphany – this is what I wanted to do. Photographing people in the streets as if they were walking in a fashion runway immediately appealed to me.

I searched relentlessly for inspiration online and in books. The photography section in Kinokuniya was beginning to be a favorite nook. I shot candids persistently in the streets – Orchard Road was beginning to feel like home. And during my regular weekend shooting spree, I would get the occassional keeper, the photograph that would make my heart leap. And the more I shot, the more keepers I got. I admit that my first batch of keepers were mainly due to luck – when you shoot more than 100 photos in a day, you’re bound to get at least 1 or 2 good ones. I experimented further, and with a lot of patience and a little luck, my ratio for getting more keepers got better.

As I looked further into those “keepers”, I noticed one thing — isolating the subject from its surroundings resulted to a better candid street portrait. There are many elements that can help do this, but let me share with you 3 of my favorite ones:

The Surrounding Crowd
Taking a photograph of any face in any situation is easy, but to create a story out of a photograph is a little more tricky. I still remember a comment made by Keith (XpatScot) to one of my photos in flickr — “a crowd can be the loneliest place” This stuck with me since I totally agree, and capturing a face in the crowd, that one face that stands out, seem to almost always provide this story for the subject. Now the only way to establish that a subject is in the middle of the hustles and bustles of street life is to, well, frame the subject in the middle of the hustles and bustles of street life.

This works best in very crowded places. By using the Depth of Field (DOF) principle to blur out the other faces in the foreground and the background, and you’ll have a face that stands out in the crowd.

The Available Light
This was inspired by Philip Lorca-DiCorcia. In his photo series ‘Heads’, he set up light strobes in the streets hidden in plain view, camped far away with a 400mm lens, then waited for subjects to unknowingly walk through the area where the strobes were pointed, then clicked. The results were amazing. I couldn’t afford a light strobe, much less install it in the streets. So as an alternative, I looked for a shaded area in the street that had a small patch of sunlight shining through. I used that patch as my spotlight, waited for a subject to pass by, and clicked.

The result is nowhere near DiCorcia’s, but it’s a keeper in my book. A ton of patience is required, but the results are pretty well worth it for me.

The Eye Contact
This is probably the hardest way, since most photographers would prefer shooting candids without being noticed. But getting that eye contact let’s the viewers of the photo establish a connection with your subject. You could argue that getting eye contact from the subject would pretty much defeat the purpose of capturing a candid portrait – but the challenge here is capturing that eye contact at almost the exact moment that they spot you, right before they’re about to register a reaction to you pointing a camera at them. Otherwise, they’ll quickly turn away, in which case you’ve just lost the shot.

I’m frequently asked “What do you tell them when they confront you?” Well, they don’t. You’d have to be quick in taking the shot, coz if you pointed the camera too long, if you lingered after the eye contact, it will make the subject uncomfortable and can open the doors to unnecessary confrontation.

Combination of the Crowd, Light, and Eye Contact
And sometimes, you have a combination of the 3 elements in one shot. This shot is one of my all-time favorites… it’s not everyone’s, but it’s my fave. It’s the kind of shot that happened so fast that at first I didn’t think I got it:

Shooting candids in the streets is a challenge. Not only is it often daunting to point your camera at a total stranger without permission, waiting for the right subject at the right light and at the right moment requires a ton of patience. But once in a while, when luck suddenly shifts to your side and that moment arrives where all these elements come together – and you were able to push that shutter button at the right 1/125th second, all the hard work becomes worth it. You will have a keeper in your hands… and you’ll want to capture more.

22 thoughts on “The Crowd, the Light, and the Eye Contact

  1. congrats danny!

    i’ll be following your stories and your fabulous strangers…

    see you…
    somewhere… eventually one time passing by in orchard street :)


  2. Danny! First off, congratulations on what looks to be an amazing site! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, and want to say how thoughtful, concise and illuminating it was to learn about your work and thought process. I’m really looking forward to more, congratulations once again for such a great job well done.

  3. Hey, Danny, you have connected the dots well with your works on Web graphic design and the design of things graphic in people with photography!

    Find the next dot to connect and you are very well on the way to a next big thing. Keep it up.

  4. Hi Danny, every time I see your photos, every time I get inspired!
    For me, you ARE the next best thing! Cheers! ;)

  5. You’d have to be quick in taking the shot, coz if you pointed the camera too long, if you lingered after the eye contact, it will make the subject uncomfortable and can open the doors to unnecessary confrontation.

    Yup this is the most feared consequences that might happen if you point too long.

  6. hi danny,

    stumbled upon your website..your works are simply amazing..something that i always wanted to do..but didnt have enough courage to do it in singapore…photographing people on the streets. I always thought it will be difficult to approach people on the street in singapore as everyone is always rushing around and people are always very suspicious and wary of others. Your blog and street photography project is indeed heartwarming to see that there are many people who are approachable and willing to have their photos taken…..will be following you closely and learn from you..


  7. Hi,
    I came aross your “Stranger #56” on Flickr, and must say…I’ve been looking through this site and reading the articles for almost an hour. You do very great work and really inspire me to keep at it. I’ve finally been able to afford a DSLR, so I’m horribly new to the world of any type of photography except my old kodak and cell cam. I hope one day to be able to see that face in the crowd….catch that perfect moment…
    Awesome awesome work!

  8. I visited Flickr by chance, ur “stranger” took me here-and I discovered a totally new world. Seeing ur photographs I fell in love with photography, really. Regards & Best Wishes !

  9. I love what you are doing with your photography – finding beauty in the streets. It is inspiring me to photograph the little industrial town that I live in. I believe there is much beauty here, too. Thanks, Danny, for sharing your amazing photos.

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  11. Pingback: The crowd, the light, and eye contact: things that make street photographs work - a photography link from simple_iso_v4

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