The essence of Street photography is about documenting everyday life and society on the streets. You can find opportunities to practice street photography everywhere and you don’t necessarily need to travel to capture great shots. It’s a genre of photography usually done candidly without permission and without your subject’s knowledge. However, street photography doesn’t rule out staged pictures. You may spot an interesting character that catches your vision; you can wander up to strangers and ask for permission to take their picture. This is a great way to get a more intimate portrait of someone in his or her environment.
The most important thing with street photography is to have fun and enjoy getting out with your camera. Remember your goal is to capture emotion, humanity, and depict a person’s character. It takes time to get your shot, but with some practice and patience it is rewarding.
Choosing the best lens
Deciding what lens to use is one of the most important factors for street photography. You may be tempted to use a telephoto lens, however that’s more than likely to result in more harm than good. You don’t want to be that creepy person standing across the road aiming a giant lens at strangers. If you want to look inconspicuous you’re going to need to get up close and amongst the action. Use a wide-angle lens and get lost in a busy crowd. Many street photographers choose a compact camera that’s less confronting than a large DSLR, the advantages being smaller, lightweight, and discreet.
The quickest and easiest way to setup your camera for street photography is by switching the camera to AV (aperture-priority mode) and selecting your f-stop (aperture) and ISO manually. The camera will then decide the shutter speed (exposure). On a bright sunny day a good place to start is around f/16 with an ISO between 200-400. If your camera displays a shutter speed higher than 1/200th a second you are ready to roll. Take note of the shutter speed your camera is reading and make adjustments to aperture and ISO accordingly. If your camera is giving you a shutter speed that is below 1/80th you run the risk of a blurred shot, but that could be used for good effect too. To overcome blur simply increase your ISO and/or choose a wider aperture.
If you’re new to photography you can always set camera to P mode (program or auto) and let the camera select the correct settings. You can still adjust the EV if you want to over or under expose the shot to your liking.
This is useful if you are shooting run and gun (in a hurry with no time to think), but you have little control over what the camera is doing, so this isn’t always the best option. Program mode does a pretty decent job but I wouldn’t rely on it in low light where there’s a high possibility your shutter speed will be too slow to freeze the action.
Get close to your subjects
Using a wide-angle lens enables you to get nice and close to your subjects. The advantage of the wide angle gives the viewer a sense of being there in the moment. You’ll also blend in with the crowd as part of the environment, rather than standing out across the street with a long lens.
Many successful street photos were taken only few meters from the action and sometimes only centimeters away. Walking through a busy street, market or park can result in some rewarding pictures if you are observant and keep your eyes open for interesting subjects. If your images aren’t how you visualised them then you may need to get closer, so use your feet as your zoom to be sure you’re in the right place at the right time.
Take your camera everywhere
Street photography is spontaneous and waits for no-one. It’s a discipline you must practice to make perfect. Your camera is an extension of yourself, it’s your gateway to sharing your vision with the world and you don’t want to miss an amazing photo opportunity by not having your camera on you. If you’re serious about street photography you will have your camera within reach at all times.
This is known as the ‘decisive moment’ where you have only a split second to capture your subject before it’s gone forever. You rarely get a second chance so be prepared.
Ignore the voice in your mind
Some people struggle with the idea of street photography. Some concerns may be the fear about your subjects getting angry because you took their picture, threaten you with physical violence, or even worse call the police. Fear is simply false evidence appearing real. These are all common fears, but it’s possible to overcome by practicing and getting out more with your camera. Here are some suggestions to overcome your concerns.
Find an interesting spot to sit with your camera. I spend a lot of time at cafes and restaurants when I travel, my camera ready for any opportunities. Observing from a comfortable setting you’ll feel at ease and can wait for pictures to come to you. You are less likely to be noticed sitting outside a café with your camera than what you would be standing in the middle of the street.
Tune out and listen to your iPod while you are out walking with your camera. Music is somewhat of a distraction that can help relax and inspire creativity. It may not sound logical but it works wonders and if it means you’re comfortable in your surrounds than it’s worth a shot. [I don’t suggest doing this at night, in uncrowded or unfamiliar places! Always be aware of your surroundings.]
Shoot from the hip
As a general rule of street photography, if you can get the shot with the camera to your eye, you will get a better shot. However, there are times when it’s not possible to raise the camera to your eye, and so shooting from the hip is a useful method of capturing a decisive moment. When I first started shooting on the street I found it difficult holding my camera to my eye and pointing it towards strangers, so I started holding the camera by my hip to capture more candid pictures. At first I wasn’t successful, but the more familiar I became with my camera and the focal length I managed to capture some great candid moments.
Shoot at night
Night photography in the city is a great opportunity for unique images. It’s not as easy as shooting during the day; you will need to be mindful of low shutters speeds to avoid blur and use your ISO and aperture to compensate for low light.
Take a tripod with you if you plan on doing long exposures. Alternatively, using a fast aperture lens will enable you to shoot low-light scenes and still freeze the action. When shooting at night try finding interesting lines, shadows and compositions to give the image a bold visual statement. Silhouetted subjects are interesting and can create nice compositions with the shadow filling the foreground.
Think outside the box
Powerful ideas and emotions can be portrayed through the simplest of scenes. Most people wrongly associate street photography with people or portraits on the street. You don’t always need people in frame, or capturing interesting juxtapositions or fitting as many different people or objects into frame. It may be difficult in some busy places, but take a walk down a quiet alleyway or side street and look for different subjects that interest you. There are infinite opportunities for all kinds of images with or without people. While in Vietnam I spent time wandering the streets photographing bicycles, which I have turned into a small series titled ‘Transportation’, that has been quite popular among the photo community. This was unintentional, but by doing something different I discovered a series that I may not have explored otherwise.
Image quality isn’t everything
Some photographers may disagree with me here, but from my personal experience, shooting on the street I haven’t been concerned with image quality as much as I am when shooting landscapes or commercial work. Yes, you should strive for high image quality when possible, however, with street photography it’s not as important. In my opinion, composition, light, drama and the story you are trying to tell are of more important than image quality. If your images capture those four things than you’re on the right path to becoming a great street shooter.
Sharpness, low noise and immaculate image quality are worthless if you have poor composition, bad light and no atmosphere to tell a story. Focus on what’s important, that’s essentially what makes a great street image.
Most importantly have fun
Like all genres of photography it’s important to enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy. If shooting on the street doesn’t sound like your kind of thing then chances are you’ll probably take ordinary images. Creativity flows where the passion lives, so do what makes you happy, not what other people expect to see. I love shooting street because it gets me out and about, meeting interesting people and seeing everyday life from a fresh perspective. That’s what inspires me to do what I do.
Street photography requires practice and the more you get out there, the more your eye will develop and your confidence grow. The approach is much simpler than other genres and manipulation should be kept to the essentials, with minimal to no post-processing. The only manipulation I tend to do with my street photography is done through the camera viewfinder.
Perception and intuition are the most important factors. Perception requires a creative eye for detail and is an attentive effort. Intuition is immediate and is not duty-bound to any attentive reasoning. These two factors are combined to create the decisive moment, an amazing process that takes your images to the next level. Because of this process, it’s here in the moment that street photography is captured and expressed.
Strong street photos come from powerful ideas and emotions captured in a simplistic manner. It comes down to perception to force yourself out with your camera to capture decisive moments that unfold in front of you.