A Post By: James Maher
In this article, I’m going to explain everything you could ever want to know about street photography, including:
- The best cameras and lenses for shooting on the streets
- How to overcome fear when taking pictures of strangers
- How to capture beautiful street photography compositions
- How to find the best street photography lighting
- Much more!
By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be a street photo expert, and you’ll know how to capture stunning street images like a pro.
Let’s dive right in.
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What is street photography?
Think of “street photography,” and you’ll typically imagine a photo of a stranger walking down the street in a city like New York, London, or Tokyo. But while these shots are a huge part of street photography, the genre is actually far more expansive.
You see, street photography is about candidly photographing life and human nature. It is a way for us to show our surroundings and how we as photographers relate to it.
People don’t need to be present in a street photograph, nor does a street photo need to be taken in a city. It can be taken anywhere, and it can portray nearly anything – as long as it isn’t posed or manipulated. A street photo can be shot at a family barbecue or in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City.
Note that, while technical quality is always important, it is not celebrated in street photography the way it is in, say, landscape photography. A landscape image needs to be sharp. It needs to have perfect colors and plenty of tonal detail. But street photography is different; it can be grainy, poorly focused, or slightly off-kilter.
Can these issues ruin a street photo? Yes, sometimes, so it’s important to aim for technical mastery. But if an image is technically imperfect, it may still be great (or, thanks to these deficiencies, it might actually become better).
Ethics in street photography
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Street photography is intrusive. Photographing people candidly usually means that you do not have their permission beforehand.
To do street photography, you will need to come to terms with this. Every time you hit the shutter, there is a chance that your subject will be bothered. Some won’t mind, but some will.
That is the moral cost of street photography. Most of us do it because we like people, and we like exploring, and we like capturing culture. The camera is just a way to bring back moments that we see and enjoy. The images we take have value – both current and historical. When you look at images from the 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, or even from 15 years ago, which are the most interesting? Usually, it’s the ones that include people and culture. Those are the photographs that so many viewers find fascinating, because they offer lots of cultural value.
However, it’s up to you to decide whether street photography is worth it. Yes, it offers benefits – but the cost is real, too.
How to get over your fear of photographing people
Fear is one of the toughest obstacles to overcome for street photographers. Beginners often think, “What if my subject sees me? How will they feel? Will they be mad? How will they react?”
But an important fact to keep in mind is that getting caught doesn’t have to be that bad.
Think about the first time that a comedian bombs on stage. Once it happens, it’s over, and they no longer need to worry. Similarly, someone will see you take their picture, and it’s important that you speak to them.
(Keep in mind that, when you do street photography right, most people won’t notice. But occasionally, they will.)
When someone asks you what you are doing, be confident and comfortable. I say that I am a photographer carrying out a project capturing the culture and people of New York, and I thought they looked fabulous (flattery is key!). If they continue to question me, I will explain more; I’ll tell them that I did not mean to make them uncomfortable and that I’m happy to delete the image if they prefer. Only twice have I ever had to delete a photograph. Those are pretty good odds.
By the way, if someone catches you, own up to it, but don’t be combative. Even if it is in your legal right to photograph on the street, don’t use that as your argument. You don’t need to argue at all. And no matter what, keep a smile on your face.
Keep in mind that the stealthier you try to act, the weirder you can actually look. Sometimes, being obvious and taking photos in a direct way can be the least confrontational strategy. The more obvious you look, the less people will think that you could possibly be doing something wrong. If you were, why would you be so obvious?
Finally, consider starting somewhere busy, such as a fair or a market. It’s a great way to get over the initial hump because you’ll be less noticeable – and as you improve, you can move on to different places.
Is street photography legal? Street shooting and the law
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Do not hold me (or Digital Photography School) accountable for what I have written below. These are my own beliefs based on my research. Do your own research and familiarize yourself with the laws in your area.
In certain locations, street photography without permission is illegal. Some places make it completely impossible to do street photography, while in other places photographers may be able to ignore the laws. In some countries, street photographers continue to take candid images, but only where the person’s face is unrecognizable.
In the US and the UK, there is no right to privacy in public. This means that you can legally take photographs of anyone in a public place. Note that the definition of “public place” may vary from one country to the next, but it does generally include parks, sidewalks, roads, and outdoor common areas of office buildings. Most indoor locations, on the other hand, would be considered private places, such as shops, churches, schools, and office buildings.
In the US and the UK, you can use photographs taken in public places for artistic purposes without the need for a model release. This means you can sell street shots as fine art prints or as illustrations for books or cards. However, you cannot use these images for commercial or advertising purposes without a model release from every person in the scene. You cannot use the images to promote a product, and you cannot use them in a way that may insinuate something false about the subject.
Legal rights aside, it can also be smart to research the locals’ friendliness toward street photographers. In some locations, it is much easier to photograph people, while in other locations, people may be much more confrontational. One of the reasons New York is such a great place for street photography is because the people are used to seeing cameras.
You should also assess each person before you snap their photo. It’s usually not worth it to photograph anyone who looks very angry or who might have some mental disability. Use your judgment, and if your gut says no, then wait for the next shot. There are a lot of opportunities out there.
Getting started with street photography: 3 simple tips
Later on, I’ll discuss more technical street photography concepts, but I want to start you off with a few of the most helpful tips.
1. Find a good spot and wait
This is the best street photography tip I can give you:
Look for a good location. And when you find one, just wait.
If you only shoot while walking, you will come across many wonderful locations – but you’ll only give yourself a brief moment to capture the right image. Instead, find a nice location…and then wait for the perfect moment. By hanging out in one area, you’ll be able to focus your attention on the scene, plus you’ll be ready with your camera.
Also, if you lie in wait, people will enter your personal space, not the other way around. That way, you can feel more comfortable shooting (and your subjects will feel more comfortable, too).
2. After shooting, keep the camera up
Grab your camera, then take a photo.
What did you do with your hand? Most photographers, the moment they’ve captured an image, will drop their arm down and let their camera dangle. And this is what tips people off; it clearly indicates that you have taken their photo.
So make a conscious effort to adjust your behavior. After you capture an image, don’t drop your arm. Instead, hold the camera in place until the subject leaves the scene. That way, your subject will think you were just photographing the background and that they were in the way.
3. Photograph where you live
What are the best locations for street photography? Most beginners believe that, to get great shots, they need an “interesting” area to shoot, like New York City or London.
But here’s the truth: You don’t need a highly populated area to take interesting street images. The best photographers can take good images anywhere.
If you’re struggling to photograph where you live, try a little exercise: List the least interesting areas within 20 miles of your home. Then go there and force yourself to figure out how to take good photographs. You’ll find it tough at first – but pretty soon, you’ll be capturing some great pictures!
The best street photography equipment
You can do street photography with any type of camera. You can do it with a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, a point and shoot camera, and even a smartphone. You can do it with any type of lens, too: a heavy zoom, a tiny prime, or something in between.
That said, different equipment does offer specific advantages. A zoom lens will let you capture the more obvious opportunities at different distances but will be heavier, more noticeable, and more cumbersome. A prime lens will restrict you to a single focal length but will also be light, freeing, and fun to use.
In fact, prime lenses actually offer a big advantage: you will begin to see the world more intuitively with one focal length. While the limitation will stop you from capturing certain shots, you will become even better at capturing images within the constraints of that focal length. Ultimately, you’ll become quicker and more spontaneous with your camera.
Also, traveling light and compact will give you a lot more flexibility, especially in places where a large camera stands out. In my experience, lighter cameras and lenses are more fun to shoot with, and they let you enjoy photography in situations you normally wouldn’t take a bulky DSLR setup.
The best street photography camera settings
There is no one correct way to do street photography, and many of the best shooters use completely different methods. However, you’ll want to consider a handful of factors (and if you’ve been photographing in a specific way for a long time, I’d advise testing out other methods, if only to push you out of your comfort zone).
Below, I share my favorite street photography camera settings, starting with:
In street photography, you usually want a narrow aperture for increased depth of field. A deep depth of field will let you capture a variety of situations on the fly, plus it will prevent you from missing focus on fast-moving candid subjects. And it can provide beneficial context and storytelling, too.
While I won’t recommend one single aperture, consider stopping down to around f/8 or f/11. Assuming your subject is a few feet away and you’re shooting with a wide-to-standard focal length, this will give you plenty of depth of field to keep your subject sharp, even if you don’t have time to focus properly (see the zone focusing method, explained below).
Most street photos feature moving people. You’ll need a fast shutter speed to keep them sharp.
I prefer to shoot at 1/250s in the shade and 1/400s or 1/500s in direct sunlight. But if I need to, I’ll drop to 1/160s and sometimes 1/125s.
Note that your minimum shutter speed should depend on your own stability (e.g., if you’re standing still, you’ll be able to shoot much better than if you’re moving). It should also depend on the speed of your subject; a bicyclist or jogger needs a faster shutter speed versus a walker.
Also, always peek at your photos afterward to check the sharpness. That way, you can learn as you go along.
You’re trying to squeeze as much depth of field as possible out of your camera. You’re trying to keep the shutter speed fast.
To do this, you’ll need to boost your ISO.
I will typically set my camera to ISO 400 in sunlight, 800 in light shade, 1600 in dark shade, 3200 at dusk, and 6400 at night. With entry-level digital cameras, I would probably drop by a stop (to 3200 at night, 1600 at dusk, and so on).
Fortunately, in street photography, noise often looks good, though test your camera to see how the images appear at high ISOs (and do some prints to see how the noise appears on paper, too). With newer cameras, you can easily go to ISO 1600, 3200, and higher.
What’s the best camera mode for street photography? You can shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or even Manual mode – but I personally prefer Shutter Priority.
You see, you’ll often be shooting into the sun one moment and away from it the next, and if you’re shooting in Manual mode, you’ll need to change your settings every time you turn your camera. It’s much more efficient to set your camera to Shutter Priority, dial in your preferred shutter speed, and start shooting.
That said, in consistent lighting situations, when shooting indoors, or when shooting at night, I will switch to Manual mode. And when I want a very shallow depth of field, I’ll switch to Aperture Priority, choose a low ISO, and set my aperture to f/2.8 or so.
Composition in street photography
Capturing perfect street photography compositions is difficult – but it’s also essential, because a good composition is key to a great street photo.
That’s why I’d urge you to compose your street photographs the same way you’d compose a landscape image. Assess the scene and arrange all of the elements together. Every element counts, no matter what it is; the best street photographers have a way of bringing everything together in just the right way.
Sometimes the subject is all that’s important, and you’ll want to frame it or blur the background away while forgetting about everything else. A lot of photographers will shoot this way 100% of the time, especially when first starting out, but that’s a mistake. The subject matters, but the environment matters, too.
Try to combine the main subject with other elements to create a more complex composition. Can you create relationships between subjects to add new meaning to a scene? Whether or not you decide to make the surroundings prominent, you always need to be aware of them. It’s better to intentionally discard background elements than to not notice them at all.
Lighting in street photography
In street photography, you should always keep an eye out for your main light sources. How is the light hitting your subject, and where is it located in relation to that subject? How is it hitting the background? What color is the light, and are there multiple light sources?
However, it is important to understand that there is no best light for street photography. The harsh midday light will be just as beautiful and interesting as the warm dawn or dusk light. What’s important is that you make the most out of the light in any location.
Some photographers will use a portable flash to illuminate their subjects and separate them from the background. This can create a great look, but keep in mind that flashing a stranger in the face can be very confrontational.
Also, when the flash is too strong, it can take away from the feeling of reality; this is a look that some photographers dislike and some photographers desire, so it’s a decision you’ll have to make. If you’re going for a surreal look, then a flash could be a big asset.
Advanced street photography tips
In this section, I’ll share some high-level street photography advice. If you’re looking to take your street shooting beyond the basics, then pay close attention.
1. Look for facial expressions and gestures
Scenes with people just walking down the street or standing in place are not enough. To take your images to the next level, you must photograph people with strong facial expressions or gestures.
As humans, we recognize what others are feeling through their facial expressions. So when you’re out shooting, one of the first things you should be doing is paying attention to people’s expressions. You can also get subtle cues from a person’s body, so keep an eye out for how a person gestures through their body, hands, legs, and feet.
Then, when the expression or gesture is at its peak, take a photo!
2. Seek out imperfection
The beauty of street photography is often in its imperfections. I discussed this at the start of the article, but it bears repeating: you do not need to make your photos perfect in every way. Strong grain (or digital noise), an image that is slightly askew, an element that is slightly in the way, and poor lighting can all make an image imperfect – but they can also make it more real.
While each of the latter items have the ability to ruin a photo, they’ll sometimes do just enough to make your image feel like a natural moment. So while you should always aim for technical mastery, realize that imperfections can be beneficial and even necessary.
3. Try zone focusing
Zone focusing is simple to learn, fairly difficult to master, and painful to explain in writing (it’s much easier to just show someone how to do it). Basically, zone focusing is a strategy where you manually focus a set distance into the scene, then take photos without adjusting your focus point at all.
You start by prefocusing your camera to a certain distance. I typically choose between 8 and 10 feet away, which is where I like to capture my subjects. Then, when subjects enter the prefocused area, you can click the shutter without fiddling with your autofocus. The fraction of a second that zone focusing saves, and the added freedom this allows, will take you a long way.
I usually only zone focus at 35mm and wider. Why? The farther you zoom in, the more accurate you have to be with your focus to get your subject sharp; it becomes very difficult to zone focus over 50mm.
When starting out, zone focusing is very easy to screw up. If you do not gauge the distances correctly, you can miss focus entirely. It is much easier to zone focus in bright sunlight, because with a 35mm or wider focal length and an aperture of f/11 to f/16, you’ll have a huge depth of field. Even if you miss the focus by a bit, your important subjects will be sharp.
Eventually, you can learn to zone focus in darker situations and at apertures up to f/2. It’s much more difficult, so take your time getting there, but it’s very possible. When zone focusing at shallower apertures, you can even learn to move the focus ring without looking, so if you are focused at 10 feet and a subject appears 5 feet away, you can adjust the focus instinctively to that distance without even looking (that’s how sports shooters did it before autofocus existed!). It takes a lot of practice, but it’s very possible to learn!
4. Develop your ideas
The hardest part of street photography is figuring out what you actually want to capture and create. What do you want your photographs to show? How do you want them to look?
These questions may seem difficult – or impossible – to answer, and that’s okay. The more you shoot, the more you’ll understand what you are drawn to. You’ll see subjects that you are attracted to, and you’ll begin to seek them out when you are photographing. Occasionally, you will have big ideas right away, but it will often take a lot of time for these ideas to grow and develop naturally.
In other words:
It’s okay to shoot first and ask questions later.
5. Spend a lot of time editing your street photography
Want to become a good street photographer? Editing is half the battle.
When you’re out photographing, it is best to be spontaneous and to get lost in the moment. Editing is where you should really think about your work in a larger setting. It’s where you can explore themes and ideas as they start to pop up in your photography. It’s when you can combine similar images to create a larger story. It’s where you can develop a style in both look and content.
Therefore, the time that you spend editing will help you when you are out shooting.
Consider using Lightroom’s star rating and collection system to organize your best work and to group photos with similar themes. Find patterns in your work and images that play well off each other, then create collections. Constantly add photos, remove photos, and change their order.
When editing your work, it is important to consider the value of realism. An image that is so over-edited that it looks fake will kill the spirit of street photography. Remember, your images don’t have to be perfect. You do not need every detail in the shadows and highlights. While you should certainly do post-production, always take a step back and consider whether or not you’ve overcooked your shot.
6. Learn from the street photography masters
If you want to jumpstart your street photography, then you must research the work of other street shooters.
This is something that you should do from the very beginning; it’ll offer inspiration, and it’ll help you understand what you are capable of achieving in this genre. View the work of photographers who shoot in a variety of locations, including big cities, rural areas, and the suburbs. Read street photography books on a consistent basis. There are many affordable street photography books (and many expensive ones, too). Your local library can be a big help!
Pay special attention to the street photographers whose work you don’t like. Street photos are often different and weird, and it can be impossible to truly get a sense of what a photographer is trying to portray by seeing just a few photographs. Read about the history and location of the photographer, look through as much of their portfolio as you can, and then try to figure out what they’re all about. You may find yourself with a completely new appreciation for the photographer, and you’ll see things in their work that initially went right over your head.
Here is a list of photographers to research when starting out. It is not an exhaustive list, but it will help get you going:
- 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
- Bruce Gilden
The ultimate guide to street photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this street photography guide, you know how to capture incredible photos.
So pick up a camera and head out! Remember, you don’t need to shoot in snazzy locations, nor do you need top-notch gear. Instead, simply learn to observe – and to capture what you see!
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