On the surface, street photography can seem like a simple practice: go out, wait for those lucky, incredible moments, and take the shot.
But in reality, street is one of the most difficult forms of photography to pull off.
You often need to wait for a very long time for those spectacular moments to occur, and when they do appear, you can miss the moment or ruin the shot.
Still, getting great street photos is not impossible. Read on for seven street photography tips which will make everything much easier, both technically and conceptually.
Practising these tips will help you roll the dice with much better odds.
1. Raise Your ISO
Street scenes move lightning quick. Some of the best moments will appear and disappear in front of you in an instant. To offset this, you have to set your camera to be able to catch these fast-moving scenes.
The most important setting is your shutter speed. The shutter speed I prefer to use is 1/250th of a second, which will guarantee that your subjects will be sharp.
At night you can go slower, to 1/160th or 1/125 in order to let in more light, but slower than that will introduce motion blur.
Secondly, I prefer to use a smaller aperture (when possible) so that I get more depth of field in the image. This is a personal preference, of course. I prefer it because there’s less of a chance to screw up your images.
If you miss the focus on your main subject slightly, a larger depth of field will minimise the chances of that ruining the photo.
If you have multiple interesting subjects entering your scene at different depths or if you have a great subject and a great background, a smaller aperture will allow you to get them all as sharp as possible.
But unless you are shooting in direct sunlight, the only way to use a fast shutter speed and a small aperture is to raise your ISO.
A lot of people are afraid of this. But the noise in newer cameras looks much better than it used to in cameras 10 years ago, so it is nothing to worry about.
I typically use ISO 400 in sunlight, ISO 800 in light shade, ISO 1600 in dark shade, and ISO 3200-6400 at night.
You can use either Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual modes for street photography depending on what you are used to.
Keep in mind that Shutter and Aperture Priority modes can be very advantageous in situations where the lighting is variable.
One second you will be turning into the light and the next second you will be turning away from it.
If you have to change your manual settings each time you do that, it will get cumbersome and you may miss some fast moving moments.
2. Try Some Street Portraits
If you are a street photography beginner and nervous about trying it, one of the best ways to get yourself comfortable is to take some street portraits.
This will get you in the mood and will help you get used to photographing people.
Stop some people, tell them you’re doing a project and thought they looked great (flattery goes a long way). And offer to email them the photos.
When you do this, don’t just take one or two quick photos and run away. Try to take a good portrait of them.
Frame them right, think about the background, and most importantly try to bring out and capture their personality. They will be thankful for the effort.
3. Let the Action Come to You
One of the most important street photography tips is to slow down.
Some people will walk fast going from place to place, like that magical moment is going to be around each corner—and sometimes it is—but operating this way can cause you to miss moments as well.
By picking an area and letting things come to you, you will be much more perceptive. You will spend your energy on looking around and not on walking around.
Compositions will come together dynamically. You can wait for a scene to balance out as people and objects move around and visual weight shifts.
If you are uncomfortable with street and urban photography, you will enjoy this technique even more. By picking a location, you allow your subjects to enter your personal space instead of you entering their space.
People will notice you less and it will make taking a photo of them that much easier. You will also usually be in a much better position to capture them when something interesting happens.
4. Act the Part
It can help to do a little acting when capturing street photographs. Not all street photographers do this, but some find it useful for getting the shots they want.
Acting is a fantastic technique. It keeps your presence from spoiling moments and from having everyone stop to ask if you took their photo.
You’re trying to capture good images, but you also don’t want to make people too uncomfortable.
It’s always good to pretend you don’t notice your subjects. I will often act like I’m spaced out, in my head, or trying to figure out how to use my camera. Don’t overdo the acting, of course.
Sometimes I will aim up above or to the side of what I really want to photograph as if I’m trying to capture a scene or building.
And then, at the last second, I will move my camera into the right position, capture the image, and move on. It’s sneaky, yes, but it really works.
The flip side of this is to stay away from doing something called the ‘camera snap’—photographers will immediately remove the camera from their face slightly after capturing an image.
Most people do this without even thinking about it. This is actually the main way that someone notices that you took their photo.
Without that, they usually have no idea. Instead, capture the image and keep the camera at your face while you wait for them to pass you by.
This way, it will look like you are capturing the scene behind them and that they are just in your way.
Now all of this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t just take the shot normally sometimes. As you get more experienced you will figure out how and when to use these techniques, and if they fit in with your style of shooting.
5. Try a Prime 35mm or 50mm Lens
Prime 35mm and 50mm lenses are often considered to be the ‘Street Photography Lenses’.
Not all street photographers use prime lenses. And this is not meant to be an overly general statement that prime lenses are better than zooms.
Each has their purpose, but prime lenses can give you significant advantages in street photography.
Usually prime lenses are much smaller and lighter. This will allow you to be faster with your camera, as well as making the camera much less noticeable.
Even more importantly, by using a prime lens consistently, you will eventually get used to the focal length. This will speed you up and allow you to frame your scenes more instinctively. It will open up a world of new fleeting moments that you will be able to capture.
All of this will help you hone the most important skill in street photography, which is going with your gut to capture spontaneous shots.
All the moving parts and heft of zoom lenses can sometimes kill that spontaneous feeling. A nice, light, simple camera will help to bring that back.
35mm and 50mm are typically the two focal lengths preferred by street photographers (I use the Fuji X100T camera, which comes with a built in 35mm equivalent lens and a 50mm equivalent adapter can be purchased).
This forces you to get closer to your subjects so they are larger in relationship to the background. By making them a bigger part of the scene, you will be better able to capture the subtle expressions and quick movements that occur.
Your photos will have the feeling that you are part of the moment, instead of looking like you are stalking people from far away.
For busy street scenes, a 35mm can allow you to get it all in the frame from a close distance. A 50mm can be advantageous for areas with fewer people, where it is tougher to get closer without making yourself noticed and ruining the moment.
6. Go Beyond the Pretty
Street photography isn’t just about capturing the prettiest image.
Sure, you want the lighting, colours, and tones to have a certain level of quality, but this isn’t the sole focus of this genre of photography. The most important thing is to make sure your images are interesting—to make sure that they have a soul.
As you move through the streets, try to recognise the potential a subject or location has to communicate something rather than look for beauty. Use your images to draw out people’s emotions and stir their curiosity.
Don’t be afraid to create weird, gritty, or abstract images. Not all of these images have to be something that you would put up on your living room wall.
Taking this point further, embrace imperfection. The most important tenet of street photography is that it is a momentary slice of real life.
It’s common for photographers to lament cutting off a foot, having an object in the way a little bit, or skewing the frame. This can certainly ruin many street shots, but often it will make them even better.
Street photographs are supposed to feel real. These little imperfections will help bring out the idea that this was a special and unplanned moment.
7. Create Descriptive Photos of Your Area
No matter how much you read about street photography or look at the work of street photographers, nothing will come close to making you better than pure repetition.
No matter what you do, take a few photos every day or every other day. Go back to the same locations over and over again, no matter where you are.
In fact, areas that you spend a lot of time in are where you should be photographing. Even if you think they are boring areas for photography.
To take this further, if you think an area is uninteresting for photography, that should be a reason to go there and photograph it. Photograph why you think it is boring. You may discover some surprising and interesting things about it in the process.
Whether people are present or not, try to capture the essence of the places you frequent. Try to get images that show what the area is really about, and build up portfolios of this over time.
Try not to take these areas for granted. Some of the best photographers, such as William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore, photographed mostly in areas that many would have disregarded and moved on.
The bonus tip is to just get out there and have fun shooting the streets. Great street photos come around rarely, so you have to have patience and faith that they will happen. Learn to enjoy the walk.
It’s a little like fishing—you cast your reel out, over and over again, until you finally get a bite.
The true beauty of street photography is the act of going outside, getting lost in thought, and just enjoying the experience. And when you suddenly capture that special image that no one else can recreate, that’s just the cherry on top.