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Paparazzi versus Street Photographers: What's the big difference?

Taken with my Ricoh GR. My paparazzi buddy Nigel, sitting, waiting, stalking? 1/1500th sec F/4 @ ISO 400.

Spring has arrived in Vancouver and my favourite neighbourhoods are filling up with people and noise and life. The nicer weather doesn’t just affect foot-traffic, but more film crews are shutting down streets and attracting spectators, especially the paparazzi. I’ve been bumping into a few of them lately, but my favourite is a fellow by the name of Nigel (here’s a picture of him on my Instagram). He’s a really nice guy and always willing to talk to me. As I look at him and then look at myself, I wonder what the difference between what he does and what I do, photographically and socially. Are we so different? Are we so similar?

This moral conundrum got me thinking about what I do when I shoot on the street. Am I basically a paparazzi who shoots for free? Many of my images I do ask for permission and I often exchange email addresses with the people I meet. In fact, many encounters lead to personal and professional collaborations and friendships. However, I also take ‘natural’ images of people within a certain context, and for these I do not ask permission. What’s the difference between what I do and the paparazzi, other than the fact that we don’t ask for money for the images? Their pay-off is financial, while mine is the amount of hits on my blog and likes on my Instagram account. So are we the same?

I don’t think so. After meeting and seeing many paparazzi, street photographers, wedding and portrait photographers (and also just tourists taking snapshots), there is a clear difference between all these different groups. The difference isn’t just in the equipment or if they get paid to do it or not, although monetary compensation is part of the equation. I did talk about this on a previous post, but I will go into more detail and more reason now. This is what I said on my previous article:

There is a fine line between us and them (street photographers vs paparazzi), and maybe we can discuss that down below in the comments section, or perhaps in another article in the future. My basic philosophy is this: I love people and want to capture everyone in a way that contributes and enhances my overall image, but also beautifies my subjects at the same time. I prefer interacting with my subjects and I would like to get to know them whenever I can. 

Fuji X-Pro 1 w/XF 14mm. Hastings St.
1/1000th sec F/16 @ ISO 1600.

Perhaps not every street photographer follows this line of thinking, but I believe I echo the sentiments of most. For instance, if the subject gets upset that we took their picture without permission, we happily delete the image from our digital cameras immediately (more difficult with film cameras). If someone asks to have their image removed from my blog or Instagram account, I will gladly comply (like most street photographers), even though I have the legal right (in Canada) to refuse to remove it. Why do I want to appease strangers? Because I like people, that’s why I’m a street photographer! Yes, many of us are shy so we take pictures discretely; but if were just a little more bold, we would probably ask every person we thought looked cool or beautiful or interesting to pose for us. Those of us who are serious street photographers usually say that we gain the most joy when we get to meet new people while shooting on the street. Shooting random strangers gets boring after a while. We have a strong desire to get to know who we are photographing. Street photographers improve their craft as they get better at interacting with people and their environment, not just learning how to take a better photograph (this is similar with wedding and portrait photography). As we improve on our people skills, our picture taking skills also improve, as we learn how to get the most out of our subjects.

Another difference between street photographers and paparazzi is that we give our images away if the subject wants a copy. I usually give people my business card and ask them to email me (just in case they are uncomfortable giving me theirs) and I will forward them the picture at no cost. No strings attached. They can use the image anyway they want, as long as they don’t pretend that they took the image (photo credit is courtesy when posting on Instagram, Tumblr, etc.). In fact, I forwarded Nigel’s picture to him when he told me that he wanted to send his children a recent picture of himself, since they hadn’t seen him in a while. Do you see the irony in that? A paparazzi asking a street photographer for a free picture? But I don’t care, I don’t want to charge him for the portrait I took of him as punishment for what he does with his celebrity images. I do what I do because I love people, and he does what he does. He doesn’t shape the way I see myself or my photography.

So are paparazzi and wedding/portrait photographers similar since they both charge for their images? Nope. I use to shoot weddings and portraits, and I know many who still do this for a living. One thing in common between street photographers and portrait-wedding photographers is that we all strive to be good with people. This is probably why so many female photographers thrive in the wedding photography market, even though their male counterpart may often be better photographers. I’ve met great photographers who are not that great with people, and I’ve met the opposite (average photographers who are really good with people). Unless you’re a professional model who knows your own body and face, I think you’re better off leaning towards a wedding photographer you actually enjoy being around. 8-12 hours with someone you don’t like is not conducive to great images. 

The paparazzi are different. I’m not saying that they are all socially dysfunctional. However, I would say that the lifestyle often attracts a certain type of personality, and also the style of photography tends to mould a certain type of personality over time. Being nice as a paparazzi doesn’t really help you get better pictures. Also, when a celebrity doesn’t want their picture taken and makes it clear they’re not happy, a good paparazzi will and should continue to shoot… that’s their job right? If the celebrity looks horrible, or is caught with a bad expression or doing something stupid, the paparazzi will take the picture, knowing they’ll make more money from it. The nature of their job is to exploit their subjects! Portrait-wedding photographers (and street photographers) won’t do any of these things. We shoot those who want to be shot, and we try to beautify our subjects, and not exploit them or the situation.

Ricoh GR. 1/1000th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 320. Built-in camera filter. DTES on Hastings near Main. 

Let’s talk about equipment for a bit. Most paparazzi prefer D-SLRs and telephoto lenses; not because of any aesthetic reasons, but because they can shoot their ‘prey’ from as far away as possible and as quickly as possible without being seen or heard. They know that many celebrities have bodyguards and other people that protect them from the paparazzi so they need a work around. They have no interest in meeting or getting to know who they shoot…maybe I should rephrase that. If the opportunity was there to get up close and talk to them, perhaps some paparazzi are star-struck and would welcome the opportunity to meet those whom they shoot. But unlike invited press photographers, who do get a chance to meet and greet with celebrities, the paparazzi must stalk their celebrities with telephoto lenses. 

Street photographers are different. We typically work with smaller, more discrete cameras, and generally work with lenses between 28mm to 50mm. I know some go wider, some more telephoto, but it’s generally best to work at a distance where you can get the subject and environment in a single shot, no bokeh. We want to see ‘who’ and we want to see ‘where’. The 35mm focal length (23mm in APS-C, 17mm in M43) is a nice distance, and that’s why the Fujifilm X-100S is a street photographer favourite. I like 28mm because of my Ricoh GR’s, but you get the idea. We want to be close to our subjects, not far away. It’s nice to be able to talk with them while we take their picture, and it’s also nice to have a wide view of where our subjects are and how the environment enhances the overall image. Perhaps when someone starts off doing street style photography, they may start with telephoto lenses due to shyness, but over time the focal length gets shorter and shorter as they become braver and want more contact with the subject.

I think street photographers are also different than many other styles of photographers (including wedding, portrait, commercial photographers) in that we kind of have an equipment fixation. To many working pros, the camera is only a means to an end. When I meet these guys, they usually only care about sensor size, AF speed and ISO sensativity. It’s all about the equipment, the technology, the megapixels. Boring!! Many look sarcastically at our equipment as street photographers, thinking that they are superior because their technology is superior. How silly. As well, I’ve seen pros throw their equipment around and into their camera bags like carpenters will throw their hammers into their toolbags. I use to shoot pro football (CFL) so I’ve shot along side sports and press photographers…I’ve seen these guys and how they treat their equipment. It’s just a tool.

Fujifilm X-100S. 1/1400th sec F/4 @ ISO 800. The Bay on Granville Street.

Street photographers are a lot like amateur photographers or camera collectors in that the equipment isn’t just a means to an end, but its own separate but connected piece of the puzzle. The romance and mystery of street photography exists somewhere between the camera, our vision and the subject. Typically, we shoot slower, more deliberate, more selective. Fastest AF speed isn’t on the top of the list for a street photographer. How many of us dream of owning a Leica M3 with the 50mm Noctilux, with a beautiful leather half-case and matching leather strap? What does this have to do with getting the best possible image? Nothing. DSLR’s will outperform most mirrorless cameras, most rangefinders, almost any camera prefered by street photographers. And yet, these are the type of cameras street photographers choose. Why? 

Like fashion, we don’t see cameras as just functional, but as an extension of ourselves, as a means to express who we are as individuals. Some shoot film, some medium format, some prefer rangefinders, while others like waist level finders. Each camera says a lot about the person who’s shooting with it. A DSLR is utilitarian. It’s functional, but boring. When I see someone shooting with a twin lens reflex, I get excited. Same as someone who shoots with a Leica, or a Lomo camera. Sometimes street photographers will switch cameras on certain days based on how we feel. Sometimes I shoot film, other times I shoot instant, other times I want to shoot digital. It really depends on my mood. I don’t think too many professional wedding photographers, paparazzi, or press photographers choose their equipment based on how they feel. A camera is a camera, it’s a tool. For street photographers, deciding on what to shoot with is like choosing your favourite hat or jacket before heading out. 

Fujifilm X-T1 w/XF 18-55. 1/300th sec F/4 @ ISO 1600

The final difference between street photographers and paparazzi is the matter of motivation. Street photographers are not dependant on any external force or condition to motivate them to shoot. If there are no longer any celebrities to shoot, or if there’s no longer any financial gain in shooting famous people, the paparazzi as a profession will disappear for the most part. The same goes for other photographic professions: if there’s no financial gain, most won’t do it. There has never been any financial motivation to become a street photographer. Very few of us make real money doing it, and even those of us who do, most never started doing it with financial goals in mind. It usually starts off as a hobby or a great concept or idea (think of The Sartorialist or Humans of New York), then it becomes a passion, and finally it becomes a way of life. Think of Vivian Maier, a very average person living an average life, but passionately pursued street photography throughout her life. After her death, someone accidentally discovered her private portfolio at an auction, bought her collection (including some unprocessed rolls of film) and realized the historical significance of this find. She is now considered one of the great street photographers our our time. Again, it’s all about passion.

In conclusion, street photographers are unlike the paparazzi in so many ways, there’s almost no reason to believe we are anything like them. We don’t stalk people, we don’t have people hating us, and we don’t get into fist fights with our subjects (or their body guards). We enjoy people, we want to capture real life with real people, we want to interact with our subjects, and we are not motivated by money. Most street photographers never make a penny from their photography, and will happily share and give images away for free. I recently watched a short video on a pro skateboarder by Leica and Helio Collective called  “Let Us Roam”.  As the main character Ray Barbee tries to explain what skateboarding is to him and how it relates to his love of music and also photography, I realized the connection between skateboarders and street photographers. For most street skaters (that’s how most of them wish to be referred to as), skateboarding is a way of life, and many use it as a way to express themselves and how it relates to other things in life. I think street photographers are very similar. It’s a passion, not a career. We have an intimacy with our tools (street skaters connect with their boards like street photographers connect with their cameras), and it’s a way of life, money or not. 

I guess by including the word “street” in the name, it’s an indication of how these sub-groups want to differentiate themselves from the larger, more mainstream categories, which tend to be more commercial or motivated by money. Street skaters, street photography, street art, street dance, street music, etc. all want to say that they do it for passion, and not for money. How true this is remains open for debate, but I think you get the picture. Street photographers want to differentiate themselves from other types of photography, let it be the paparazzi, studio photography, wedding photography, press photography, etc. Is this a good thing or bad thing? I don’t know. I don’t hate other photographers or what they do. I just see photography differently and want to distinguish myself as different, in a good way.

Taken with the Ricoh GR Limited Edition. 1/250th sec F/4 @ ISO 400. The far left character is suppose to be the top paparazzi in town. Nigel is standing next to him. Notice how different yet similar they look in dress and countenance?

Thanks for visiting and reading this to the very end. I know there’s so much more to say and debate, and I would love to hear what you think. I’ll send this article to Nigel and ask him what he thinks about all of this. Maybe I’m seeing the paparazzi completely wrong. Maybe they do love people. Maybe they don’t care about the financial pay-off. Maybe they do love the celebrities they photograph, even though they have a dysfunctional relationship with them. All I know is that you need a different mindset if you want to become a street photographer versus becoming a paparazzi. Originally coming from a wedding-portrait and sports photography background, I needed to change not only my equipment and shooting style, but the way I saw people and the way I approached people when I decided to shoot street style photography. Maybe this will be the subject of my next article. 

Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram where I post the majority of my daily street photography images for all to see. 

Thanks again, and happy shooting!