The Essence of Street Photography: The Paparazzi

by on August 11, 2009

in Technique

Julia Roberts: close up side shot

There are many different elements to street photography. As I’ve stated in previous posts, good things to focus on are the recession and the unusual/candid. There are lots more elements to street photography than that, and in this posting we will be focusing on something that I’m only now delving into: the paparazzi.

Explaining What the Paparazzi Is

Before you start saying, “Oh no Chris, why did you sell yourself so low down on the food chain?” this all needs to be cleared up. The collective term used is paparazzi. In truth, there are two different types: the paparazzi and the celebrity photographer.  When we talk about paparazzi (or a paparazzo) we talk about the types that constantly and steadily invade the private lives of celebrities and public figures. That isn’t always all bad as they expose lots of what the world cares to see and hear about. Celebrity photographers on the other hand prefer to wait for the target to come out in public, snap the photos and leave.

What the latter does is no different legally than what some fan may do with their iPhone. Neither of the two are bad guys; they’re simply fulfilling the need for a niche market but sometimes using unconventional tactics to do so. The media makes them seem a totally different way, but in fact they’re just misunderstood.

A Day on the Job

Both photographers use elements of sports photography and photojournalism. The collective paparazzi report on something as it is happening but like in sports they only have a couple of seconds maximum (if they’re lucky) to do so. In addition to that, it needs to be done correctly and to the standards which deem the photos profitable. I messed up big time recently while trying to shoot Julia Roberts on the set of her movie, “Eat, Pray, Love.” This was an extremely challenging task for many reasons.

Julia Roberts: close up far shot

First off, both photos shown in this post are unacceptable and cannot be sold. The reasons why are because:

1. All photos need to be taken from in front of the celebrity. Get in front. No matter what the situation, you must be in front of the celebrity when shooting. If she is walking down the sidewalk, you need to be in front of her walking backwards while shooting. Side profile shots will never sell.

2. The celebrity needs to fill the entire frame. You have to shoot full frame, head to toe in vertical position. Always, always shoot vertical, never horizontal. We must be able to see the celeb from head to toe and allow some buffer on all sides for post edit.

3.  You must get close to the celebrity, if you do not have the required telephoto lens you need to do everything possible to get in nice and close to the celebrity. I shoot with a 50mm F1.8 and a 28-105mm F4 lens. The latter is what I mostly use for paparazzi work. The problem is that its sharpness is okay at the widest angle and variable at its most telephoto.

4.  Follow from start to finish. My agency told me that “If you see Julia walking from a trailer or movie set, follow her to the next location and keep shooting. Her security may ask you to stop but you are well within your right to keep shooting as long as you are not blocking her and you are not on private property.”

That’s exactly what happened actually. See the guy behind Julia in the tan colored button-down? He threatened me to not get any closer and told me that, “You’re done.” He added in not to follow them either. What he didn’t realize is that his associate in the green shirt was blocking Julia the entire time and didn’t even let me get my shots. Now that wasn’t fair because of the fact that I negotiated with other crew members to allow me to get shots of her.

What you also need to keep in mind is that like all street photography, my photographing her is totally legal in the public streets of New York City. No one can stop you from taking photos.

Methods

Apparently just saying, “Just give me a couple of front profile shots of her and I’ll be out of Brooklyn.” didn’t seem to work although they were seemingly compliant want showed a willingness to work with me. But this was all a huge learning experience and I will continue to do this type of work until I get it right.

It’s addicting, but by far it is one of the loneliest and most mind-pressing jobs I’ve ever taken on. Hours upon hours of waiting and watching can become frustrating until those couple of seconds come where your adrenaline floods your bloodstream and you move through the world with complete celerity as it all slows down. That and racing across the streets while avoiding moving cars on Smith St all makes it a pretty damn satisfying job. I may stay with it as photojournalism isn’t always very profitable for a freelancer/college graduate like me and I don’t see myself enjoying the full-time benefits that my mentors experienced.

What you need to do is keep trying and understand that you will mess up. The important thing is to always learn from your mistakes: I love making mistakes as long as I can learn from them and improve myself. Part of it will also be braving the guard who come at you and just don’t stop, you need to be able to meet them head on and get your photos.

Gear

I could get another lens of some sort. It’s been recommended that I invest in a 24-70mm F2.8 or a 70-200mm F2.8 lens. Another option is getting another body. After finding a video on youtube of what’s inside a paparazzi’s bag it makes sense to shoot with a 40D. Then again, my 5D Mk II is very good as it is and I’m still working with it as the purchase was less than a month ago.

Whatever the choice is, I need to be able to keep the camera in my bag to be concealed until the right moment happens and it can come out and start firing. A 5D Mk II with a 24-105mm F4 lens without a lens hood, battery grip or flash can do that job well enough and it isn’t heavy. Anything that is unnecessary is stripped off the camera, even the lens cap as the risk of losing the shot shouldn’t be taken (I just put a UV Filter on.)

If any other photographers out there have had any experience shooting celebrities, please feel free to share your comments and experiences down below as we can all learn from one another to improve ourselves.

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{ 6 comments }

1 Ilan August 11, 2009 at 7:38 am

I think it’s a bit.. not fair, to compare paparazzi to photojournalism.
Photojournalism focuses on the situation, on the human factor, on the elements around our ‘hero’.
Paparazzi, while also ‘hunt’ for people, tend to ignore any other elements when facing the celebrity. Nowadays paparazzi are all about the ‘yellow’ shots, the more ridiculous the better.
I love candid shots of people. Which I guess might be called a distant relatives of paparazzi. Here is a shot I took in Barcelona few months ago – http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/04/bona-petit.html – Yes, it might be a bit ‘yellow’ and not very flattering, but there is also a big importance to the surrounding, which lacks today’s paparazzi shots.

2 Nick T August 11, 2009 at 8:27 am

One of the defining features of the ‘street photography’ form is the lack of a subject or issue, this is what makes it quite different to photojournalism or reportage, the paparazzi photographer specifically seeks out and photographs celebrities which means he is a photojournalist rather than a street photographer. The street photographer reacts to random events or happenings rather than pursuing a series of pictures ‘about’ something.

You are perpetuating a common misperception that any photography made in a public place must be street photography, when in fact the phrase ‘street photography’ has come to mean something much more specific.

3 Justin August 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm

I’d say that while there is a general definition of “paparazzi” that can extend to those doing genuine photojournalism, the most common impression is usually the right one; hoards of photographers mobbing a “celebrity” in public, shouting, beckoning, reaching and pressing to get a shot of a person (cause that’s really all they are, just a person) getting a coffee or going into a bar or shopping. There’s nothing aesthetic about a washed out shot of some pop stars underwear (or lack of, as they always hope for) as they exit a car. There is no element of art or vision or thought in these shots aside from hoping you frame something up well enough to turn a quick buck for some rag to throw a big yellow headline over. Somehow including this cheap, invasive and often abusive technique with “street photography” seems wrong. There’s no gratefulness toward the subject, no respect and no human element. Yes it fills a niche and they say they’re “just giving the public what it wants” but that hardly seems like a valid excuse. The public only wants what’s bad for them.

4 Robert Moore August 14, 2009 at 9:57 am

The chap in the video said that he left his camera on manual however in my experience you can easily under/over expose your shot if you are in a hurry so I prefer to keep my camera set on AV (aperture priority) with the ISO set on 400 to insure I get a good shutter speed which I find is a good setting for most daylight situations.

5 Chris August 14, 2009 at 10:30 am

Hey Robert,

I couldn’t agree more with you. I always keep my camera in AV mode and ISO 800 to get the fastest shots possible. When I heard that I was like, “What? How is he that quick?”

Then I realized that it’s possibly his lens. It’s huge. I shoot with a 24-105mm F4 so I’m forced to get in closer. He’s probably got a little bit more time to take the shot because he’s so much further away.

I got mauled by Drew Barrymore’s guards the other day. My agency told me that the day before she came out of her trailer flanked by all five with a black umbrella in front of her blocking anyone. Totally ridiculous when you consider what we do for them.

6 Tom Stappers September 19, 2009 at 6:19 pm

You are calling paparazzi “The essence of street photography”? Are you joking, or just posing ignorant to get a lot of reactions? If there is such a thing as “the essence of street photography” at all, have a look at the work of Garry Winogrand(much as he disliked labeling). My advice to anybody reading this:
If street photography is still not your thing or you don’t get it, go shoot sunsets, everybody happy…

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