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If you’ve been following this blog you will know that street photography is my single biggest passion. I’m never happier than when I’m out on the streets of whichever city I’m in, armed with any sort of camera – and never more satisfied than when I look through a days work and find a single street shot that feels just right enough to be a keeper
I’ve been shooting street life for years now, and although I feel I’ve improved quite a long compared to my earlier work, I am still learning – and I’m still not very good! It’s one of the hardest forms of photography if you ask me, but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s not the most popular type of photography, it’s not the kind that sells too easily, but who cares? It’s just what I love the most, and that’s all that matters. If you share this passion with me, you will definitely enjoy reading the following tips that I wrote down based on all the stuff I’ve learned about street shooting over the years – they’re just some simple tips and ideas, really – but maybe there’s something in there that you didn’t think of yet and some others yet that’ll open your eyes a bit more and understand the street better. If you’re not much of a street shooter, you might still find a few ideas and concepts that you can benefit from for all forms of photography in general
Ok, first of all, street photography is more about you than your camera – it’s more about your mind than your technique and your knowledge of theory and all that stuff. It’s about you. Not your gear. Not your technique. It’s about how you approach the shot. It’s about how you see the street, and how you capture what you see. It’s about getting the shot almost without thinking, so that when the perfect moment arises, you’re aware of it, and you see it, and once you see it, capturing this moment perfectly will just be a natural motion for you. This is what street photography is about. This is the magic that shrouds it – this is how you get a shot that will make people really feel it – this is street photography. This is what you need to achieve. Some day. You will
To start off, I’ll note a few tips on technique and settings and gear that will be suitable for street photography, as you can’t really capture any photograph without a camera, but the bigger part of this list is all about your mind, your vision, and how you approach the street
Gear and Stuff
- Use a single camera: Try out a few if you like, but when you’re out on each shoot, pick one camera, one lens – that’s it. Maybe an extra battery/memory card, of course, but multiple bodies/lenses? Oh no
- Use a small camera: A rangefinder, a mirrorless camera, even a good compact. Street photography is about being discreet. You don’t want to be carrying a large DSLR and being obvious everywhere you go
- Use a wide angle lens: A wide angle lens or even a standard lens makes you get in close and connect with the scene, instead of shooting from a distance (with a telephoto lens) and appearing like a spy. Connect with the scene. Engage. Get in close. On FF a nice 28mm or 35mm works great, even a 50mm. On a crop sensor DSLR/mirrorless, 18mm, 28mm, 35mm works fine.
- Use a prime lens: Notice I mention single focal length lenses above. Yes, use a prime lens. Prime lenses make you work for the shot, they make you think before you shoot, and while they don’t magically take great shots for you, they help you take better shots. Use a prime lens for the streets
- Turn off AF: Even the fastest AF system can get it wrong, and could hunt for focus, or even focus inaccurately, causing you to miss your shot, or ruin it completely. A moment is all it takes to miss a street shot. Instead use Zone Focusing, a manual focus technique where you focus by judging the distance of your subject, and set your lens to focus to that distance, using the distance scale that is there on most lenses
- Use a small aperture: Doesn’t need to be too small, but definitely don’t go too wide. Street shots don’t necessary need shallow depth of field and blurred backgrounds – in fact, the entire scene is part of the shot, it’s all important, much like a landscape – so keep the aperture fairly narrow, which helps a lot when zone focusing, giving you a lot more leeway when estimating camera-to-subject distance i.e. even if you judge the subject’s distance slightly incorrectly, you’d still get it in focus
- Shoot film: It’s wonderful. Black and white Film
- Shoot digital, shoot color: Don’t use your camera’s black and white mode. First of all, the conversion in-camera is not that great – and secondly, when you shoot color, you have the option of both color and monochrome versions. If you want to feel like shooting film, I guess the black and white mode is suitable – but if you want more options and a better conversion monochrome, shoot color and convert in Photoshop
- Shoot RAW: If you shoot RAW, you can shoot in your camera’s monochrome mode, and still convert to color, if you want. It allows you many more options when post processing, including better black and white conversion. I always shoot RAW on the streets
- Think of the technical aspects: Think of composition, lighting, exposure – all that – which will help you get the shot looking as pleasing as possible – but remember not to overthink these details on the street
The Other Stuff
- Shoot often: As often as you can. This goes without saying, I guess
- Go alone: Friends slow you down, distract, and hold you back. However, if you have a couple of buddies who are into street photography, and don’t mind what you do on the streets, it’d be a good idea to join up with them – friends give you confidence. Try to strike the perfect balance!
- Don’t be shy: People are not as nasty as they seem when you’re shooting street life – go up and take close-ups of people, they’re not about to chase you with a walking stick
- Talk to people: Go up to people and strike a conversation – you might end up with some nice, natural shots and you’d lose the tension of taking these shots on the sly. Tell them you’d email the shots later
- Keep it natural: Even if you get permission from someone, avoid trying to get the shot too perfect, or posed. Keep the natural street feel. Maybe take the shot before they’re ready? Ask them to continue what they were doing? Things like this
- Get right up close: I mentioned this already – use a wide or standard lens and connect with the shot – so that you’re physically close to the subject. Telephoto lenses have no business in street photography
- Don’t overthink the shot: Have a general idea of what you want from the shot but don’t spend too much time thinking. The Lomo phrase comes to mind “Don’t think, just shoot”. Think too much and you’d miss a perfect shot
- Click a LOT: You’re not going to get too many great shots per shoot – but the more you click, the more likely you are to get a shot you might like? Well, maybe not. But it can’t hurt
- Use the available light: Direction of light, the color of light – this sort of thing can change how a shot looks. A lot. Is the light direct sunlight, or through a cloud? Does it look harsh, or soft? Is the subject in shade? Too much shadow? Be aware of all this. But avoid thinking too much, of course! It’s a fine line between being aware of your surroundings and wasting time with the details
- Look for emotion in subjects: Shoot subjects with emotion, and character, and show how alive the street is. A good street shot is one that makes you feel. A lonely man alone on a park bench or at a bus stop tells a story, for example. A happy family spending time together in a park. A street performer doing his thing, while a crowd around him watches and applauds. This type of subject can be great for your shot. If you capture it right, of course. Tell a story with your shot and other technical aspects of the shot immediately become less important – and as the streets are full of characters and scenes full of emotion and various types of characters, it’s really not as hard as it seems. You have to look out for them!
- Look for eye contact: Eyes tell emotion like nothing else. Direct eye contact can have an amazing effect on your shot
- No eye contact works too: Few of us have the guts to go up and take a shot with direct eye contact. It happens on occasion, and it looks great – but if not, don’t worry about it. Just try to include some part of the face – a shot from the side, or a sneaky capture while their eyes are averted – or some such composition. Faces tell emotion even without direct eye contact. Sometimes shots without faces work too – think silhouettes and such
- Explore new places: Discover new places in your city, new streets, new opportunities. This should go without saying!
- Re-discover old places: Shoot more in places you’ve already explored. If you feel a particular place feels great, keep shooting there – you’re bound to get some good quality stuff some time down the line
- Move slowly: Don’t run through the street. Walk, savor, enjoy – and shoot
- Connect with the street: Don’t wander aimlessly either – feel the street, feel the emotion – connect with it. Engage. Notice what’s happening, why it’s happening, how it’s happening…and capture what’s happening!
- Avoid people? Great street shots can be made purely by using a particular location as the subject – where people may be present, but don’t have to be, where people are not the main subject of attention but instead the entire scene, the location, is
- Be patient: Street photography isn’t full of opportunities. Instead, it’s about waiting till the right one comes your way, and not missing it. You HAVE to be patient
- Don’t always shoot black and white: Color street shots can look amazing too
- Try shooting at night: It’s not as hard as it seems. Use your prime lens and its fast aperture – bump up ISO, to even 1600 or more, which can have a nice grainy effect on a street shot – and look for street environments that are fairly well lit. You might end up with some super sharp night street shots that look great and very different to the rest
- Know your camera: Don’t miss great shots by not knowing to use your camera. It should be part of you. Seeing a shot with your eye and capturing it (properly) with your camera should just come naturally, a single, thoughtless motion, like wiping the sweat off your brow
- Be yourself: Use your own style – don’t try to imitate others – and just be yourself out there. Do I need say more?
And that’s all I can think of. There’s probably a lot that I’ve missed – if you have anything to add, please leave a comment and I’ll add it here with your name – but in the meanwhile, I hope that helps you out a bit, at least!
Street photography is like nothing else, when you think about it. It’s 100% natural – nothing should be set up, nothing CAN be set up. It takes practice, skill, talent – it takes courage, experience, luck! You will not get as many keepers when shooting the streets as you probably would shooting anything else, I feel – but the few shots you do get, that one shot you get after weeks of trying, is more satisfying than anything else I’ve done. Maybe it’s just me, and my passion for street shooting – but if you’re anything like me, you’d understand. I hope you do. Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own
- Street Photography workshop in Venice and Verona with Adam Marelli and Eric Kim (bophotography.net)
- 7 Steps to Get Over Your Fear of Street Photography (digital-photography-school.com)