Skip to main content

5 tips for basic street photography

Street photography is a great activity to pursue as a photographer. It requires very little equipment, it can be done at any time on short notice, you have ready-made subjects and you can practice your technique without worry. Although you may not be a fan of street photography as a genre you shouldn't dismiss it as a learning tool.

Aside from practicing the technical aspects of photography, street shooting also helps you develop your creativity. Since the action on the streets tend to be fluid, constantly moving and spontaneous you are forced to really think on your feet. Your eye starts getting trained for composition, lighting, framing, textures, and all those other element that make for a great image.

So, here are a few tips to help you get started in the ever challenging and surprisingly rewarding field of street photography.

  1. Carry the right photo gear - The trick to being a street photographer is to travel light and be prepared for any situation. The more gear you carry the faster you'll tire and the more frustrated you'll get. Part of keeping yourself stress free is maintaining a minimalist attitude with camera gear. For the most, all you really need is a camera and yourself. If you have a point and shoot then you are all set. With a SLR you have to consider lens choice.

    The favored lens for most street photographers is the 50mm prime at f/1.8 (f/1.4 or better if you can afford it). Carry a longer lens and you start distancing yourself from your subject too much. You also run the risk of interference between you and your subject with a long lens. There is the tendency of getting lazy with long zoom lenses too. Too short a lens and you start getting into distorted perspectives. A 50mm floats around that point were the angle of view is similar to that of the human eye. Not quite but close enough that it makes the resulting images appear natural.

    Aside from a camera you should also have the standard accessories; extra memory cards and extra batteries. You really don't need an additional lens as it only interferes with your activities. You also really don't need a flash as this only draws attention to yourself. You should also carry a bottle of water for those hot days. If you have trouble seeing the preview screen a screen hood or loupe will help. Of course you will need a camera bag to carry all this in.

    Camera bags that look like camera bags (branded with camera logos) tend to attract attention and not always the good kind. The more crowded the location the higher the risk of getting your stuff ripped off. Of course if you're carrying light all they may get is a couple of batteries, some memory cards and a half empty bottle of water. Most of that can be carried in pockets. If you have to carry a bag get one that looks like a messenger bag or tote bag. It will make it less obvious and reduce the likelihood of getting targeted.

  2. Dress appropriately - Street photography is about capturing the everyday action of life as it happens around you. These moments happen naturally and spontaneously. You want to blend in with your surroundings so wear clothing that fits in with the location. Of course the most important part of your wardrobe will be comfortable shoes. Remember you'll be on your feet for periods at a time.

    Outward appearance is key. Looking like you belong will make you less menacing and attract less attention to yourself. You don't want to stand out as a 'photographer'. Although the action is still the same that shift in people's perception makes a big difference. People are more open and receptive to one of their own. You can also make yourself look like a tourist. It gives you an excuse for taking pictures. That's what tourists do. Or if you don't want to use the tourist excuse you can also do the, "I'm a photography student," excuse. It wraps up the answer in a nice little bundle. It tells them why you're taking pictures and your reason for being there.

  3. Preset your camera - As mentioned above, street action can be very spontaneous. You need to be quick. One of the ways of achieving this is to preset your camera for maximum advantage. First step is to reduce all outward signals. Turn off all beeps, shutter noises, flashes, sensor lights, etc. Anything that will draw attention to yourself.

    Next is to use a setting that will help peed things along. Priority modes rule over manual mode in this situation. Aperture priority or even *gasp* program mode will take some of the pressure off of you. The less you have to worry about the equipment the more you can put into your creativity. After all, it's not how you get the action, it's getting the action that counts.

    Keep depth of field in mind here. Larger openings (smaller numbers) result in blurred backgrounds while tighter openings (larger numbers) result in more detail. Depending on your lens and how it behaves you can keep it somewhere in the middle like at f/8.

  4. Anticipate the action to capture the story - Every environment has its own dynamic. People traveling through the space have agendas, activities have a certain rhythm and the environment has a specific feel to it. Architecture also adds to the overall look and feel as well. It takes a little while to get into the flow of the location and for many beginners it can be a little nerve wracking. With a camera in your hand it's easy to feel like an outsider but with practice you will soon get comfortable with your surroundings.

    Once you are 'one with your environment' you will start seeing the interaction of the inhabitants. The shoppers winding their way through the streets, bags in hand. The business people out for a quick cigarette or rushing off for a quick lunch. School kids playing hookey, old ladies waiting for the bus, vagrants looking for deposit bottles, all these images make for great story telling. When you can see the story unfolding in front of you it allows you to start anticipating tableau, that single frame that neatly wraps up the entire story.

  5. Respect your subject -The great thing about photographing in public spaces is that you can photograph anything you want with very little restriction. Public space is just that, public. However, there are social limits and you should be sensitive to that. The letter of the laws states that you can not photograph someone in a public space who has an expectation of privacy. What this means is that if a couple go off behind some bushes for quiet conversation you can not go hunt them down and snap their picture. Otherwise it's fair game. Like wise for children. If a parent appears to be shielding them from your camera then back off. Give them space. If they're running around getting into wonderful mischief, well, there's a story just waiting to be captured.

    Most photographers starting out in street photography suffer from 'stage fright' and tend to hold back in capturing those key moments. It's natural, after all you don't know how people will react to your camera. Once you start getting into the rhythm of your environment and your confidence increases you will notice that your approach to people will change. Specially when you find out that most people don't mind having their picture taken. I have been in many situation where a conversation starts after I've taken someone's picture. It's a great way of networking. I have actually picked up a very good client on one of my street shoots so make sure you carry business cards with you.


Most Popular Posts

Large DIY Diffusion Scrim

One of the most commonly used tools in my photographic arsenal is the all purpose diffusion screen . I use it to soften light, create gradients and light fields or as a background. One of my current favorites is a metal framed 4' x 4' foot scrim with thick white artificial silk made by Matthews. I didn't think I would use it so much, being so large, but having borrowed it from a friend I really came to love it. The downside for me is the price. At just over $100 I couldn't really justify the cost, considering I want at least two of them. Time for a DIY alternative.

DIY Softbox Storage Hanger

If you own a softbox, or two, you understand how bulky and unwieldy they can be. Imagine owning several in different sizes. Storage becomes an issue. One solution is to break them down and store them flat, but that becomes a pain after the first few times struggling to put one of these things together. It is more convenient to just grab one "off the shelf" and go to work. Allocating shelf space seems like such a waste of valuable storage space. In my case I have two square softboxes, three striplights and soon two more rectangular ones. That's a lot of real estate. Time to come up with a storage solution that doesn't require floor space or shelf space. The solution I came up with is a compromise of an idea I originally had of hanging them from the ceiling on pulleys so they would be out of the way until needed. I still like that idea, but for now I will be suspending them from a wire rack shelf system in my studio. Here is what the system looks like.

Don Julio - Hero Shot

For starters, a hero shot is one in which the product is showcased in all its splendor. Careful attention is placed on making the product look its very best. For this shot of Don Julio I knew I wanted to give the bottle some majesty by photographing it from a low angle. That low angle makes the bottle look tall, towering over the viewer and creating a position of dominance. Can't you hear the choir of angels singing in the background? I also knew that I wanted a rich, moody image with lots of darks. I am partial to darker images, which is surprising to most people because the majority of the work I do are images on white backgrounds. But that's another story. I also tried a lifestyle type shot with glasses and lime slices but I wasn't feeling it and ended up scrapping it. Again, that's another story.

Observations on composition - Pieter Bruegel

In this article I am reprinting a critique I published on regarding the painting entitled ' Census at Bethlehem ' by famed painter Pieter Bruegel , who was born in what is now the Netherlands in the 1520s. The first point I would like to say is that you first need to consider both the medium and the time frame of this painting. Being a painting, the artist has a certain advantage of being able to carefully direct the large amount of content presented to the viewer, unlike, say, a photo of opportunity of the street photographer (I strongly believe Pieter would have been the 'street photographer' of his time). Even a studio photographer, with the luxury of space and time, would have a hard time justifying creating such a complex composition. Where you would see this type of visual composition today would be in modern cinema. In particular, period pieces that rely on background elements to "sell the era" .  Secondly, the era in which thi