Urban photography (also know as street photography) can take many forms. These include architectural, fine art, portrait, landscape and documentary photography.
What urban photography does is seek to captivate audiences with depictions of everyday life.
This article will show you how to get started with street photography, and how to turn the cities you’re in into photography playgrounds.
Getting Started with Urban Photography
People, animals, places, details, landscapes, abstracts. Urban photography encompasses such a large scope for material that it can be hard to know where to begin.
Street photographers use all kinds of cameras to capture their surroundings. Some resort to classic film with fully manual film cameras or even box brownies. Digital photographers may choose a top-of-the-line rig or make use of a classic family-range compact.
Keep in mind that smaller, light-weight cameras are generally preferable. They are less intrusive, making for more intimate photographs of people.
More technical considerations include ISO sensitivity, dynamic range and auto focus speed. A camera with a lag in autofocus will leave you with a day’s worth of blurry shots of moving subjects.
Features like LCD screens, continuous shooting speed, lens’s focal length, aperture and on-board flash are also important considerations.
Lens selection is as important as camera body selection. Prime lenses are used for their light-weight and predictable results. The less moving parts the better. However, for larger scenes, a zoom or wider angle lens will be better fit.
Like many photographer’s kits, my photography bag is always packed with a few different pieces of equipment. My camera, a 5D MKII, paired with either my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM or my Canon 50mm always come along on photography trips with me.
The 50mm, my ‘prime’ or ‘fixed focal length’ lens, offers a 50 mm field of view on a full frame sensor. Henri Cartier-Bresson used the 50mm prime lens for his street photography because it minimized the lens distortion that you’d experience with a wider lens.
The 50mm is labeled as an ‘average view’ lens because it has the same field of view that the human eye has. This will give your work a more personal touch and allow the viewer to relate.
My larger EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens is the workhorse for my urban subjects that require a wide-angle lens with some zoom to capture detail. The lens is great for shooting urban landscapes, people, and detailed abstract subjects.
The downside of this lens is that it’s pretty large and imposing. From my experience I’ve found that the larger the lens, the less accommodating people are to be photographed.
The lens is also physically heavier than the 50 mm lens, which makes it hard on the back after a long day of shooting.
Have a Bit of Fun Sometimes
For a bit of fun, I also like to have a disposable or ‘toy’ camera. Disposable cameras are quite cheap in bulk, and are really easy to use. Some even come in plastic housing for underwater photography. They are durable, so they last a long time, especially if (like me) it takes you a long time to use up a roll of film.
Disposable cameras also have a very distinctive look about them. Even though they usually have low-quality film inside, they have a retro feel that brings back memories of school photography.
One recommendation I have would be to purchase disposable cameras that come with an in-built flash. Without the flash, even brighter situations can turn out underexposed.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different cameras to see what you like. The more comfortable you are with your camera, the less you’ll worry about the technical aspects.
This leaves you free to respond to your surrounds much more authentically.
If you want to capture those fleeting moments when shooting candidly, you’ll need to be ready to shoot without having to toggle with your camera first.
Program Mode is one way to take control of exposure. Once selected, it will adjust both the aperture and the shutter speed. This produces what your camera considers to be the best exposure for the scene you’re looking to photograph.
Unlike Automatic Mode, you can still adjust the camera’s combinations of ideal exposures. You can change the shutter speed and aperture in tandem. This means you are free to prioritize camera settings for different artistic effects while maintaining correct exposure.
For my urban photography I shoot in either Shutter Priority Mode or Program. Shutter Priority allows me to quickly adjust the shutter speed to match a situation, leaving the camera to automatically dictate my aperture.
If I’m looking for a lot of camera movement in my image, Shutter Priority allows me to shoot at a very slow shutter speed while maintaining decent exposure.
Depending on the scene you are photographing, you may want to switch to Aperture Priority mode instead. Aperture Priority allows you to choose aperture and adjusts shutter speed accordingly. This allows for much greater control over depth of field.
Due to the diverse range of subjects in urban photography, it’s hard to make one rule about camera focus. Auto Focus is handy for quick, candid shots for people photography, but it can often be inaccurate, or get confused, delaying the shutter.
Another method is setting your camera to manual focus mode and pre-focusing at a set distance, with a smaller aperture like F/11.
In addition, if you’re photographing through glass, you’ll need to use manual focus as the Auto Focus will struggle with reflective surfaces.
Stay Close to Home
Photography travel across the world is fantastic fun, but you don’t need expensive trips to make successful photography. You may interact with it every day, but the landscape closest to home is as good a subject as any to start out your urban photography.
Sometimes we get so familiar with a place that we forget its artistic merit. Try seeing your local area through the eyes of a stranger. Or take a series of images from an unusual perspective, by placing your camera on the ground.
Exploring close to home reduces the stress of photographing in an unfamiliar location and allows other locals to get to know you. This could open up more photographic opportunities in the future.
Bars, parks, sports clubs, community halls and nearby nature reserves all hold great potential for urban photography. Or go for a wander in the suburbs and see what you can find! It’s amazing what you’ll notice through the lens of a camera.
Focus on Detail
Sometimes it’s the details of an environment that are really worth photographing. It’s up to you to seek out the unnoticed beauty of a landscape. Search for unusual patterns and textures, contrasting colours and hard lines.
Physically moving closer to a subject is also a powerful way of isolating a subject and drawing attention to it.
One of my favorite things to photograph is concrete bollards. It may sound boring at first, but the incidental subtleties in each square of concrete is unique and holds a particular story.
Colour or Black and White
Choosing whether to shoot in colour or black and white can be a tricky decision in urban photography. Traditionally, urban photography is photographed in black and white. But nowadays, there are plenty of street and urban photographers who focus mainly on colour.
Generally, a black and white scheme emphasises form and light. A monochrome image highlights texture and tones, creating a more dynamic range in both animate and inanimate objects.
For urban photography, black and white also helps reduce distractions to direct the viewer’s attention to certain parts of an image. It’s also easier to emphasize drama with strong contrast and heavy vignettes.
Coloured images, on the other hand, place greater emphasis on the world as seen through the human eye. Its familiarity connects with a viewer on a more natural wavelength. Colour, especially bright, punchy colour naturally draws the eye of a viewer.
Different emotions or times can also be conveyed though colour photography. Warm colours suggest an autumnal portrait and cool colours can portray winter. Lush greens remind a viewer of the freshness of spring whereas fiery oranges and reds are characteristic of summer.
One of the most useful tips I’ve learned when it comes to urban photography that involves people, is lens selection. Smaller, more compact lenses are a lot more people-friendly than large, bulky ones.
However, if you are looking to photograph urban landscapes or detail, a larger lens may be necessary. The key is to be prepared.
Pack a selection of lenses to cover everything you expect to encounter. Better yet, pack for the unexpected! Having a good pair of lenses could be the difference between a missed opportunity and a great shot.
A classic technique for shooting street portrait photography is the ‘sit and wait’ method. Instead of hunting for the perfect shot, choose a visually interesting spot and wait for a subject to enter your frame.
This way, you will feel much more comfortable photographing them and it will also be less likely that they will notice you. This allows for a more candid, natural looking photograph.
Keep in mind that not all urban photography has to have people in it. Look for visual elements like leading lines, colour, detail and pattern to emphasise the form and shape of an urban landscape.
I enjoy scouting for evidence of human intervention devoid of the actual culprits. Graffiti, footprints, abandoned buildings, rubbish, are all traces of people and the passage of time.
Waiting in a particular spot for a subject to come to you is a great way to capture candid street portraits of people
Urban photography embraces the spontaneous, accidental encounters of life and the hidden beauty in the urban environment. The genre has a wide scope in subjects, which may seem daunting at first.
But shooting urban landscapes presents the opportunity to photograph many different disciplines at one. In every urban sprawl there is limitless potential for photography, all you need to do is seek it out!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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