How I’m Making Peace With My Camera… and How You Can, Too

My friend, photojournalist and fellow writer Lola Akinmade, has written a great series of informative articles about how to take better photos.

Trouble is, I haven’t been able to use Lola’s tips.

I’ve long had an ambivalent, conflicted relationship with my camera. Fifteen years of travel–Costa Rica, England, France, Switzerland, China, Canada, The Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba– and I have few photos to show, much less photos that convey what my journeys have meant to me.

I’m always worried about exploiting people, making locals feel uncomfortable, intruding on someone else’s space, causing offense.

But more and more, I’ve needed to develop my own stock set of photos for various projects, so yesterday I decided to confront my conflict with the camera. I stuck her in my bag and hit the streets of Mexico City.

I started shooting tentatively, almost apologetically. I waited until people looked away. My courage faltered, and I pushed the camera back into my bag. I lost great shots.

And then I decided: It’s now or never. Click. Focus. Click. More than 100 photos later, I’d had great conversations with protestors, police, dancers, and shoe shine men. I’d captured some exquisite moments–a businessman falling asleep on a bench while waiting for a bus. A vendor with a mullet waiting to sell shaved ice. I was exuberant.

If you’re a conflicted camera-phobe, here are some tips for making peace with your camera:

1) Start shooting in a really busy place. Fewer people will notice you. They’re going about their own business and don’t much care what you’re doing. Crowded city centers are a great place to start getting comfortable with the camera.

2) Start with a goal. Nothing will make you want to send your camera back to solitary confinement more than searching for a great shot and not finding it. Instead, choose a subject and then pursue it. I started yesterday by photographing Mexico City’s old movie theatres. Bonus? I wasn’t taking photos of people, so I wasn’t feeling intrusive.

3) Set up some subjects. Once you’re ready to start photographing people, get your feet wet by photographing folks you know. I asked the man on the corner who sells car parts if I could photograph him. We talk every day, so I already have rapport established with him. While the shots were posed, I got a better feel for the camera, lighting, and what to focus on.

4) Walk your neighborhood. Stay in a familiar place. Capture images of the sites that have meaning for you. This practice will help you learn how to start seeing the familiar through fresh eyes.

5) Shoot from the hip. I learned this tip from Francisco’s son. Though I still don’t feel comfortable walking with a camera hanging around my neck like a tourist, when you do so, you can hold the camera at hip or waist level and shoot candids without others’ notice. Brayan shot a great series of photos of a man entirely without his realizing it. The photos are intimate but non-invasive portraits that would not have been possible had he asked permission first.

Now I can get back to Lola’s articles!

Do you have any tips for the camera-phobe? Share them in the Comments section below!
Photo: sergei.y (creative commons)