Street photography is one of the most challenging but at the same time one of the most rewarding genres of photography. Documenting people in their everyday environment is not easy – it requires patience, hard work and sometimes even some bravery to be able to approach and photograph complete strangers. In this article, we will provide some helpful tips to get you started.
1. Choosing the best lens
Deciding which lens to use is one of the most important factors for street photography. You may be tempted to use a telephoto lens, but that’s more than likely to result in more harm than good. You don’t want to be that creepy person standing across the road aiming a giant lens at strangers.
If you want to look inconspicuous you’re going to need to get up close and among the action. Use a wide-angle lens and get lost in a busy crowd. Many street photographers choose a compact camera that’s less confronting than a large DSLR, the advantages being smaller, lightweight, and discreet.
2. Camera settings
The quickest and easiest way to set up your camera for street photography is by switching the camera to AV (aperture-priority mode) and selecting your f-stop (aperture) and ISO manually. The camera will then decide the shutter speed (exposure). On a bright sunny day a good place to start is around f/16 with an ISO between 200-400. If your camera displays a shutter speed higher than 1/200th a second you are ready to roll.
Take note of the shutter speed your camera is reading and make adjustments to aperture and ISO accordingly. If your camera is giving you a shutter speed that is below 1/80th you run the risk of a blurred shot, but that could be used for good effect too.
To overcome blur simply increase your ISO and/or choose a wider aperture. If you’re new to photography you can always set camera to P mode (program or auto) and let the camera select the correct settings. You can still adjust the EV if you want to over or under expose the shot to your liking.
This is useful if you are shooting run and gun (in a hurry with no time to think), but you have little control over what the camera is doing, so this isn’t always the best option. Program mode does a pretty decent job, but I wouldn’t rely on it in low light where there’s a high possibility your shutter speed will be too slow to freeze the action.
3. Get close to your subjects
Using a wide-angle lens enables you to get nice and close to your subjects. The advantage of the wide angle gives the viewer a sense of being there in the moment. You’ll also blend in with the crowd as part of the environment, rather than standing out across the street with a long lens.
Many successful street photos were taken only few meters from the action and sometimes only centimeters away. Walking through a busy street, market or park can result in some rewarding pictures if you are observant and keep your eyes open for interesting subjects. If your images aren’t how you visualized them, then you may need to get closer, so use your feet as your zoom to be sure you’re in the right place at the right time.
4. Shoot from the hip
If you’re using a DSLR you may not be able to use your LCD screen to compose and shoot. If you feel self-conscious bringing the camera to your eye, why not trying shooting from the hip? Most prime lenses have a depth of field scale so try using manual focus and select a smallish aperture (say f11), setting your focus point at around 5 meters. With these settings, everything from about 3 meters to 15 meters away from you will be in focus and you can simply aim your camera at your subject and shoot.
Remember, you may need to raise your ISO to ensure a fast enough shutter speed. It will take a little practice to learn how far you need to be from your subjects to get them in the frame and you’ll have a fair number of failures to start with but this can be a good way to photograph incognito!
5. Shoot silently
One final setting I use a lot while shooting street photography is the silent mode on my mirrorless camera. When this is selected my camera is totally silent so there’s no shutter sound to give me away – great for being stealthy when you’re photographing someone at close quarters!
6. Set your stage
It may be tempting to walk aimlessly, searching for people to photograph but it’s often better to set a stage and wait for the characters in your play to come to you. Look out for a location which can provide an interesting backdrop to the people you photograph – this could be a historic building or local landmark.
Alternatively, it might be a colorful wall, or perhaps a shop window containing a display at which folk might stop and stare. Spend a few minutes watching the routes people take, and notice whether they regularly follow the same path. Then wait for the right person to walk onto the stage you’ve set.
Don’t be afraid to vary your point of view too – you might choose to select a low angle for some shots or a higher one to give a sense of power over your subject. If your camera has an articulated LCD screen this can be enormously helpful.
7. Look for light and shade
As well as seeking out interesting locations for your street photos, don’t forget to keep an eye on the lighting conditions. The overall ambient light will have an impact on your exposure settings – for instance, if you’re shooting in a dark area you’ll need to raise your ISO to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any motion. Let’s have a look at some of the different conditions you might encounter…
Overcast, cloudy weather: Days like this may require you to up your ISO a little but the clouds will act like a huge softbox, giving a soft, even light, which is very flattering. You won’t find many shadows but this sort of weather can be great for first steps in street photography.
Bright sunshine: This can be challenging, especially if you are trying to compose shots using your camera’s LCD screen, but the rewards can be enormous. Look out for interesting interactions between light and shade, especially in cities.You may find a dramatic pool of light that’s just waiting to be filled by a passerby. Look out too for the way people’s’ shadows fall on the pavement and the surrounding buildings. You may discover a spot where you can simply shoot the shadows and leave out the people who create them entirely. Try shooting towards the light too and notice how your subjects become silhouettes.
Rainy days: Rain may not be your first choice of weather but it can be great for street photography. Dull stone pavements glisten with moisture and you can grab some great shots of people wrestling with their umbrellas as they try to reach their destination quickly. Do remember to dress appropriately and take some protection for your camera too – something as simple as a hotel shower cap or a handkerchief draped over the top can be enough to keep the worst of the rain off.
8. Look for characters
So you’ve set your stage – what sort of people do you want to photograph? I always look out for interesting characters – be that people with a unique dress sense or someone with a ‘look at me’ hairstyle.
Don’t forget to look out too for interactions between people too and aim to tell a story with your pictures. That story could be the interaction between people or the way they respond to their surroundings. Sometimes it’s helpful to include more of the setting in your images too – there could be something nearby that will give your scene a sense of place, such as an iconic building or a familiar mode of transport.
9. Feeling shy? Look for street performers.
If you’re feeling nervous about photographing strangers, street performers and buskers are often a good place to start. By performing in public they are expecting attention and are usually very happy to have their photo taken. Do remember to pop a few coins in their collecting tin though by way of a thank you.
Dog walkers are often a good choice of subject too, especially if you want to try your hand at a street portrait. They’re often very pleased when someone pays attention to their beloved pet and it can be a good way into asking for a more posed picture of them with their dog.
10. Get close!
Don’t be afraid to get close to people. If you’ve chosen a spot where there are a lot of passersby let them come to you – just resist the urge to press the shutter button too soon. Do remember, many people on the street will be deep in thought about their own lives so there’s every chance they’ll be oblivious to your presence, especially if you use some of the subtle techniques I’ve suggested.
If someone does spot you, just smile and the chances are they’ll continue on their way without stopping. In most countries, you are entirely within your rights to photograph anything that happens on the streets, as long as you aren’t on private property.
If your subject does stop and talk to you, simply explain that you’re documenting life in the area and perhaps offer to email them the picture if it comes out well. You can, of course, offer to delete the picture if they’re really unhappy but I’ve never experienced any negative reactions from people.
11. Black and white or color?
I’m a big fan of monochrome for street photography. It gives street images a timeless, documentary feel, and can be a great way of enhancing the sense of light and shade. It has a more practical benefit too. If you’re shooting a formal portrait, you will take the time to find a backdrop which doesn’t distract from the subject.
However, in the fast-moving world of street photography that ‘decisive moment’ (a phrase coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson) may occur just at the moment when someone wearing a red coat walks into the background. Left in color, this can be a huge distraction but if you convert to monochrome the irritating red coat blends into the background!
Of course, there are times when a color picture is just what is needed. It may be a busker with striking red hair or a yellow taxi cab in the background which just shouts ‘New York!’ at the viewer, giving a sense of place.
Don’t be afraid to try your pictures both ways – it’s so easy to convert pictures to monochrome these days and virtually all cameras have a built in black and white mode. If you want to know more about shooting in black and white, please refer to that article.