Advantages of a Vantage Point for Street Photography

If you are uncomfortable putting a camera in front of a stranger’s face yet still want candid street photography, look for a good vantage point up over the action and shoot down. You will be amazed by the sense of freedom and the results.

street photography

“Corredor Madero” captured by iivangm.

The Setup

Down in the streets a light-weight, fast camera is essential, with image quality sacrificed in order to have more chance of capturing the moment at all. With a good vantage point it is possible to work with a bigger camera, a longer lens and perhaps a tripod. Since you will not be moving much the size and weight of your camera will not matter. Nor are you restricted by other items, so feel free to take along snacks and drinks sufficient for your intended stay aloft.

Your decision whether to use a tripod will depend upon the distance over which you are shooting, the available light (and your camera’s ability to deal with low light) and also the style of shots you are hoping to capture. In most cases, you should be able to rest on some form of support (the same support that stops you falling from your perch), and that will often be a good compromise between mobility and quality.

empty road photo

Photo by Corey Templeton; ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/80 exposure.

Auto focus is an option, though if you are working a particular spot, you may find it safer to keep a zone in manual focus—particularly if the light is poor or the contrast is bad for other reasons.

When Mobility is Less Important

When action is sparse it pays to be mobile and to be free to move around to more productive areas. However, if your vantage point overlooks a busy spot and you choose a suitable time of day, then there should be no shortage of subject matter. If it also has many aspects then all the better as the action may well move around you.

When the Action is Just Too Rough

Festival photography can be exciting and very rewarding. However, large crowds and lots of action can work against you. There have been some great shots from the Holi Festival in India and Songkran (water-splashing) in Thailand. At ground level, photographers can only take a risk for their art.

active street photography

“The Holi Festival” captured by onthego tours.

Clever gear is available, but nothing can guarantee protection for your expensive camera and lenses against all contingencies. You might have good insurance but, still, what of the rest of your trip? The other option is to get up above the action where damage is much less likely and where you would probably at least get a warning of imminent saturation—and a chance to cover up or move out of the way.

Effective for Timelapse Photography

A bit of height creates an angle between your subject and the ground-as-background. This adds an essential dimension when capturing movement in timelapse photography and really brings the resulting slideshow to life.

Vantage Points in Practice

photographing-from-above

Photo captured by Ian Ford.

The Clock Tower in Jodhpur (Rajasthan, India) has a first-floor platform which allows a 360 degree view down to the market area below. The market begins to get busy at a civilized hour, since it then stays open late at night (when other photographic opportunities arise).

In Old Delhi’s Spice Market it is possible to climb stairs up to the rooftop and capture images of the levels below. Morning time is best, before the residents head off to their respective shops or other duties.

spice-market-high-view

Photo captured by Ian Ford.

Wherever you go, look around for similar platforms. Access may not be for the general public but a polite request goes a long way. A flat roof is sufficient but, above all, do be careful. This applies especially in places not designed for regular access, where the lack of barriers and general clutter can make for a dangerous environment.

The Disadvantages

Shooting down from a vantage does have some drawbacks:

  • shooting down at people means that sometimes headwear or the person’s posture hides the face
  • shooting from a distance is also less satisfying if faces/personality are important to you. If you are looking for a shallow depth of field, that calls for a lot of precision with regard to focus
  • there are times when it is helpful to be able to engage your subject, and while being above the action allows you avoid the discomfort of being turned down by your subject, it also precludes engagement with your subject
  • if you are down on the street, you can share a shot with your subject—take the photo and then show the result on the screen on the camera—which can lead to additional shots
high-vantage-point-photography-india

Photo captured by Ian Ford.

There is no one right way to do street photography, and a different approach will simply lead to different results. Try shooting down from a vantage point and see if you like what you get. It can then be a another weapon in your arsenal for those days when other techniques are not working.

About the Author:
Ian Ford is Operations Manager for Photo Tours Abroad. He took the images above whilst representing the company at the recent Jodhpur Discovery photography workshop with guest artist Nick Rains.

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2 Comments

  1. russell scott says:

    for a crowded street scene (eg the first image above) a camera on a time delay mounted on a monopod/tripod + hoisted ~2m above your head allows a similar view but from the center of the street (may take a few tries to get it right)

  2. Claude B. says:

    The way i’m doing street photos, is first to be low profile (Not a big camera, no big lens to make you look as a spy), then ask to get a picture of what you like ans you can include the persons, and say thanks!

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