Street photography is an incredibly difficult form of photography. You need to go out into the world, capture spontaneous and often instantaneous random photographs of scenes and people who you’ve probably never met before. And somehow, eventually put these disparate moments all together into a cohesive body of work.
Specifically, the initial jump in experience from complete beginner to decent street photographer can seem incredibly daunting. But there are specific street photography tips that can make this jump much simpler for you and fairly easy. It’s really the next jump that takes the real-time to master!
1. The camera is important!
I’ll be the first one to say that you can use any camera for street photography. I’ve used iPhones, mirrorless, SLRs and even medium format cameras. They all work and you can figure out ways to make them work well.
That being said, some street photography cameras are more conducive to helping you excel at the genre (I highly recommend the Fujifilm X100V). Small and light is the name of the game and these days mirrorless or micro four-thirds cameras are what I believe to be the best for street photography. They provide the image quality, camera speed and high ISOs, but most importantly, they are small.
Using a small camera will, of course, make you less conspicuous when out on the street, but even more so than that, you will have faster hand-eye coordination and be able to shoot more spontaneously with a light camera. You will become more instinctual.
Also, I highly recommend using a light prime lens such as a 35mm or 50mm (full-frame equivalent). These lenses will allow you to get close. They are small, and just the act of using a prime lens will make you much faster and more intuitive with your camera. You will get used to the focal length and moving to frame the scene. You won’t have to waste time zooming. And your camera will be smaller and lighter.
2. Quick settings
The first step to figuring out the best settings for street photography is to look outside and see how strong the light is. This step is what dictates all the next steps. Then I will set my ISO, and I will set it pretty high.
My general rule is to set the camera to ISO 400 if I am in bright sunlight, 800 to light shade, 1600 for dark shade and 3200-6400 for dusk into evening.
This being said, even if it is sunny, if there is a shady side of the street that you plan to photograph on at points, you need to set your settings for the shady side. If you strictly set them for the sunny side, then your shots will often be blurry on the shady side. Since buildings are so tall in New York and there are so many areas of shade, I am usually at ISO 800 on sunny days unless I am staying in the direct sunlight for a long time.
The reason for settings the ISO high is to give us much more flexibility with our aperture and shutter speed. I typically prefer to have as much depth of field as possible (although that’s often not possible if the light is low), so on sunny days, I will usually be around f/8. This is in case I miss the focus on a subject a bit and so I can get multiple subjects at different depths to be fairly sharp.
You can do street photography well in Manual, Aperture or Shutter Priority mode if you know them well. That being said, I typically recommend Aperture Priority, so the camera can set the shutter speed. Changing the camera constantly in Manual just takes away too much focus from the subjects for me. I will set the ISO and aperture and then pay attention to the shutter speed that the camera chooses.
During the day, I try to keep the shutter at 1/250s of a second or faster to freeze motion in people. At night, I’m OK going down to 1/125s or 1/80s of a second.
3. Acting and getting close
How you carry yourself if the key to getting close to your subjects and getting close is important to have your photography feel intimate. While a lot of times I shoot very quickly so subjects won’t notice anyway, I always try to look like I don’t notice them in the first place. I keep my gaze slightly to the side or above them as if I’m engrossed in the background.
And when I really need to be candid, I will aim the camera up at something behind them like I am photographing the background. I look around through my camera to capture them, then put the camera back up toward the background. It just looks like I was looking around with my camera and they were in the way.
I also try to not take my camera away from my eye after capturing a person, instead waiting for them to walk through or aiming my camera away before removing it, so as not to tip them off that I took their photo.
Finally, it’s OK to wait and let your subjects come to you instead of you getting in their face. By waiting in a busy area you will allow people to enter your personal space instead of you entering their space, and this changes the dynamic significantly.
If you carry yourself in the right way with these tips, you will be able to get away with much more than you might imagine.
4. Capture expressions and gestures
A main goal of street photography is to share emotions and feelings in our photographs, and an important way to do that is to show these feelings in other people.
Don’t just look for the flashiest person, look for the person who has the most interesting expression on the face, in their eyes, or with their body language. This is a major aspect to hone your focus on.
5. Capture photographs without people
Street photography is about creating nuanced photographs that have some sort of meaning behind them. They’re more than straight, pretty photographs.
But this counts for more than just people. You can create wonderful street photographs without people in them. It can be a little tougher at first to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Start by trying to capture unique scenes that show something about what an area is like or what it feels like to be there.
6. Embrace spontaneity and imperfection
Street photography is about capturing special and real moments and those moments come fast and they come when they come. Work on being quick and intuitive with your camera. If you feel the potential for something interesting to happen, react.
It may or probably will be a bad photograph — most street photographs are — but the key is to get that one special one out of a hundred, or even a thousand photographs. You can’t do that by being slow and timid.
Similarly, real life isn’t perfect, and your street photography shouldn’t be either. Embrace weird angles, soft focus, things in the way. Sometimes these imperfections will ruin an image, but just as often they will make the moment feel that much more special, and that is what we are really interested in.
Now get out there and shoot!