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How to take street photos like Vivian Maier

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Anyone who has been interested and actively practicing street photography in the last two decades will have encountered the work of Vivian Maier. The enigmatic nanny who carried a camera everywhere has become one of the best-known photography icons of more recent times.

While she only came into the spotlight years after her passing and essentially by accident through John Maloof, her life’s work is now known as noteworthy documentation of fleeting yet fascinating moments of her time.

As one of the key figures in the street photography revival in recent decades, many street photographers today seek to see and document life the way she did. So, it’s not surprising that photographers like Mexico-based Frederik Trovatten have been analyzing her style.

If you want to shoot like Vivian Maier, you might learn a thing or two from his video above, showing his attempts to imitate her style.

Shoot from the hip with a Rolleiflex

Vivian Maier was known for shooting with a Rolleiflex, a medium format, twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera. Anyone who has shot with it will tell you that it’s a totally different experience with its own set of challenges. First, you’ll have to train yourself to compose with a square frame, which may or may not be easy to get used to.

This camera also requires shooting from the hip using the waist-level viewfinder, which is already challenging on its own. The image you’ll see through this finder will be laterally reversed; moving up is down, moving left is right. So if you do decide to get a TLR, you might want to acquaint yourself with the framing before you head out for a shoot.

Use Kodak Tri-X film or a timeless monochrome look

Vivian Maier mostly shot with black and white film. There are many choices out there, but Kodak Tri-X would be a great film stock to start with. Frederik noted that it was her film of choice for both 35mm and 120 format. Actually, it remains one of the favorite emulsions of street photographers today for its classic monochrome look.

Photographing people in the streets

In the video clip of Ira Glass speaking with Inger Raymond (whom Maier cared for as a nanny), we learn that she mostly just pointed her camera at people and took her shots. While she didn’t feel the need to ask for permission most of the time, remember that your own ethics and practice as a street photographer come first. Frederik himself tried taking portraits in this style, but he did note that it isn’t something he usually does.

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In the end, he did ask for permission or at least conversed with his chosen subjects. He also mentioned an important detail about taking photos of kids, and that it pays to be mindful of the rules in your area. The bottom line: Use your best judgment!

Mind your composition

One of the things that made Vivian Maier such an influential photographer — even if she didn’t intend to showcase her work to the world — is her eye for composition. Knowing this, Frederik also took inspiration from how she incorporated reflections in her photos, and her clever use of mirrors to take self-portraits. Make sure to study her compositions and experiment with reflections out in the streets as well!

Don’t forget to check out Frederik Trovatten’s YouTube channel for more of his photography tips and tricks.

Screenshot images from the video

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