If people watching is in your nature, you owe it to yourself to try some street photography. It can be addicting, and the fleeting moments you can capture will be one of a kind. It is a genre of photography similar to fishing. The more you enjoy the process, and the more you cast your reel out there (is this correct fishing terminology?), the more you will catch.
Time and experience trump everything due to the difficulty, and while perseverance is the only way to do street photography well, there are some important tips and strategies that can set you off in the right direction. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Travel light and with minimal gear
Many of you will have a DSLR and a mid-range zoom lens. While it is fine to shoot street photography with this equipment and many do (and even more start out this way), lightening your load will make a huge difference. You will have more energy, your coordination will be better, and you will be faster and more willing to explore. You will also be able to photograph in situations where you would not want to bring a large camera.
Not only are micro-4/3rds and mirrorless camera systems lighter, but they look less intimidating to the people you are photographing. If you have a DSLR, consider using a 35 or 50mm prime, or a pancake lens for these reasons. Fortunately, you do not need the fastest versions of these lenses, so it will not be quite as expensive. A 35mm f/2 is usually about half the size of a 35mm f/1.4, and Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 is both small and only $125.
Prime lenses will restrict you to a specific focal length, but this limitation can actually be quite freeing. By sticking to a focal length such as 35mm or 50mm (the two favorite lenses for most street photographers), you will learn to see how the lens sees.
You may miss out on certain moments by not having a zoom, but at the same time, you will be able to capture more quality images within the ideal distance for the lens that you are using. You will be quicker and more spontaneous with your camera. You will even start to think more about your perspective and framing without having the luxury of the zoom, and as the old saying goes, you will begin to zoom with your feet.
2. Raise your ISO
It used to be taught that you always needed to use as low an ISO as possible. This is because the early digital cameras were terrible at high ISOs, particularly over 400. Luckily, new digital cameras blow the old ones out of the water in terms of high ISO ability. You can now shoot at ISOs of 1600 and 3200 with beautiful looking grain/noise, but the stigma of using high ISOs still exists.
For street photography, I will typically shoot at ISO 400 in sunlight, 800 in light shade, 1600 in dark shade, 3200 at dusk, and 6400 at night. With an entry level or less advanced camera, I would go down one stop in ISO, i.e. ISO 200 in sunlight and up to 3200 at night.
Benefits of high ISO
This gives us a huge advantage. Being able to raise our ISOs this high not only allows us to shoot handheld in dark situations, but it also allows us to simultaneously shoot with a faster shutter speed to freeze motion and a small aperture to maximize the depth of field.
Some photographers prefer a shallow depth of field, but in the fast moving world of candid photography, I prefer a large depth of field for a few reasons. First, if you miss the focus on your subject, they can still turn out sharp. If you are photographing at f/2.8 on the other hand, your image will be ruined if you miss the focus. Next, since context is very important in street photography, if you have multiple subjects at different depths or important background elements, it will allow everything in the frame to be relatively sharp.
I prefer to shoot at 1/250th of a second to guarantee that there is no motion blur in my subjects, although I will go to 1/160th or 1/125th in the darkest of situations. In bright light, I will shoot at 1/320th or 1/400th of a second. A high ISO is what allows me to shoot with these speeds, no matter what the lighting is like.
3. Pick a spot and wait
Street photography and going for a walk go hand in hand. Sometimes you just want to take your camera and explore on a nice day. However, by constantly walking, you might be doing yourself a disservice. Instead, try to find some promising locations on the way and linger there for a while as you wait for something to happen.
Picking one spot does a few things. First, it allows you to combine a good location with an interesting moment. If you find a quality location and just take a quick photo and move on, you’re killing so much of the potential. By waiting, you give yourself more time for that magical moment to happen. It’s when the right location merges with the interesting moment, that a great photograph appears.
It’s when the right location merges with the interesting moment, that a great photograph appears.
You will also be faster at noticing your surroundings and quicker with your camera because you will be focused on looking around instead of walking. In addition, people will be coming into your scene and entering your space instead of you entering their space, so it makes the whole practice of street photography easier and less confrontational.
A small but important tip that goes hand in hand with this idea has to do with the camera snap. The camera snap is the quick, instinctive removal of the camera from their eye that photographers do immediately after clicking the shutter. It is the motion that tips your subjects off to the fact that you just took a photo.
By picking a spot and waiting for a subject, you can be as candid as possible. Just put the camera to your eye, take the image, and keep it there as the subject leaves your scene. This will make it seems like you were just photographing the background and waiting for them to get out of the way.
4. Know what to say if someone stops you
No matter how you approach it, there is an inherent creep factor to street photography. Some of your subjects will understand and be flattered, while others will think you are the weirdest person on the planet. If you like to photograph your surroundings and culture, people are a big part of that. Including them in what you capture can be a big part of telling the story of your surroundings, and there is nothing wrong with it.
While tough situations are rare, particularly if you handle yourself in the right way, knowing what to say ahead of time is very important. If someone asks if you took their photo, own up to it and tell them what you were doing. Talk to them and explain why you found them interesting. This will flatter some people, but others will still not understand. I always keep a business card with me and offer to send the photograph if someone emails me for one.
Keep your cool
Always keep a smile on your face. If someone seems angry for any reason, there is no need to get defensive or angry back. You don’t have to explain that it’s in your legal right (depending on where you are photographing of course) unless it comes to that. That’s not the best thing to bring up right away because it can make people even angrier.
Instead, figure out how to diffuse the situation and tell them that you did not mean to make them uncomfortable. I’ve offered to delete a couple of photos over the years when I felt it was necessary. The ability to diffuse a situation is very important, even though I have only had one or two uncomfortable situations over a 15 year period of frequent shooting.
5. It’s not just about people
It is a common thought that street photography is only about capturing people walking down the street, on a beach, or in public. That’s just not the case. Street photography is about candid photography of life and culture. While that can and should include people sometimes, other times it can be about nearly anything else. Capture daily scenes and backgrounds that you find to be interesting.
They can be weird images. Capture something unique. You do not always have to take the prettiest or most epically beautiful photograph. Capture something that makes someone think or that throws them off balance. Capture images for yourself, and ones that you know some people will not understand or like right away. It is not your job to please everyone. It’s your job to take a good photograph.
Be spontaneous and go for it
Be spontaneous. With other forms of photography, you can be a perfectionist about every detail. While it is also important to think this way for street photography, so many of these decisions are made in a split second. Let yourself go and be spontaneous with what you capture. Whenever you feel there is potential for a strong image, even if you aren’t sure, go for it. Many will fail, but some of those moments will end up being the best photos you have ever taken.
Go somewhere that you think will make it tough to capture an interesting photograph. Sometimes you will find that you will be able to capture unique content in areas that others would think of as quiet or boring. There are good photographs everywhere and the best photographers have a way of finding them anywhere.
6. Group your photos while editing
This is not a tip that all street photographers adhere to. Some like each of their photographs to live on their own. However, many prefer to group their work by feeling, ideas, or themes. For some, the book is the ultimate form of display for street photography.
Group your photos based on feel and sequence them into a loosely based narrative of some sort. Come back often and add to and take away from it. Over time, you will notice that ideas will grow organically. It will help inform you about what to capture when you are out there. These ideas will develop as you grow as a photographer.
Before you think about putting together a book, purchase a simple cork board for your office wall and fill it with 4×6 and 5×7 images. Constantly print and replace them to create a cohesive wall of images. It is a lot of fun and a great way to view your work and your progress.
7. Explore the work of other photographers
This is such a simple tip but it is immensely important. In your free time, look up the work of all types of street photographers and study their portfolios. Explore the content, the technique, and the styles that you like. Watch videos of these photographers in action to see how they approach the street. Go to gallery shows and look at real life prints to train your eye. This will give you a range of ideas for what to capture the next time you are out shooting.
The fascinating thing about street photography is that while the content is the same for all of us, what we each come back with is completely different. Studying the styles of different photographers will help inform what is possible for you to create.
It is inspiring and fun to do. Start a photography book collection or even purchase a couple prints for your walls. The more you surround yourself with it, the better you will become, the more ideas you will have, and the more inspired you will be.
Some photographers to start out with are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Daido Moriyama, Martin Parr, Elliot Erwitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Saul Leiter, Trent Parke, Alex Webb, Vivian Maier, and Bruce Gilden.
Now go out there and have some fun. The biggest tip is that the more time you spend shooting, the better images you will come back with. So shoot with some regularity and do it in the way that you find the most fun so you will continue to practice.
If you’d like to learn more about Street Photography, then please check out my ebook The Essentials of Street Photography.