Ditch the DSLR and embrace smartphone street photography. Bet you’d never have thought you’d hear that.
Your smartphone ticks all the requirements for street photography. And can get you some amazing results.
Do you want to find out how best to use your mini handheld device? Read on.
1. Use Apps for More Control Over Your Phone’s Camera
There are a plethora of apps you can use for your smartphone photography. The apps to look at here are those you will need to take the photo. There are of course other apps you should download, and you’ll learn about these later in the article.
From the smartphone camera point of view, camera+ is the best option. It allows you to have more control over your camera by offering a series of options.
This is a great option that gives you some control over exposure level. You can’t adjust shutter speed or aperture manually, so exposure lock is as close as you’ll get.
One technique you can try with this feature is aiming your phone at the sky to get an exposure lock on a bright scene.
With that exposure value locked in you can take photos of people lit up by a shard of sunlight in the market. And the background will stay dark.
Apps like camera+ are great for street photography. They give you much more control over how the photo is taken.
A lot of street photographers like to pre-focus their photos. This allows for quick moments of capture, as the camera does not need to find a focus position.
Focus lock perhaps two to three metres ahead of you will get you some nice results.
The camera allows you to adjust the shutter speed. This is for functions like stabiliser release.
This setting means the photo will only be taken when the camera is absolutely steady. It’s a useful function for low light where the shutter speed may have to be slow.
You may find that using this function makes you more conspicuous. You’ll need to wait for your camera to be steady.
But it does allow you to photograph in those moody low light markets.
Camera+ also has a range of post processing tools to make your photo look even better.
These come as a range of filters, which you can increase or decrease the opacity of.
You’ll also be able to straighten your photo, and crop the image as you see fit. All before exporting the photo to your camera’s photo library.
India is an amazing location for street photography. This photo was taken using the hipstamatic app.
2. Which Smartphone Should You Use
The best smartphone contest is still between Samsung’s latest device and Apple’s. At the time of writing that’s the Galaxy S9+ and the iPhone X. Are there other camera choices out there? Yes, and brands like Huawei have good cameras as well.
Where the Samsung and iPhone really do better though is the range of apps they have available. These can really help to improve your smartphone photography.
The ergonomics of your smartphone are also worth considering, especially with the trend for larger screens.
It’s desirable to hold and take the photo with one hand, something that’s not as easy to do with a larger smartphone. A smartphone holder is a great solution here, one that comes in disc form.
Holding the smartphone like this allows your thumb to be free to take the photo one handed.
Nice framing of the two people sitting down here was achieved using the tree. The frame is kept simple.
3. How to Get Around the Lack of Background Blur
Smartphones have become the new point and shoot devices. They’re great to go out and have fun with, and there are minimal settings that you need to worry about.
As a photographer you just need to think about strong composition. And a compelling story in your photo.
So what’s the catch? Your inability to adjust your aperture to be able to blur out the background. And the smaller size of the image sensor are the two standout drawbacks.
Not every photo has to have a bokeh background. But you can often add this in post processing.
That means you’ll need to look for nice backgrounds instead.
- A wall – Photographing a wall as the background to your street photo works well. Especially if that wall has nice colours and textures.
- Framing – Perhaps you can look to photograph through a window or doorway, and frame your subject this way.
- Plain backgrounds – Avoid overpowering bright lights. Or limbs coming out of the back of your subject’s head from other people. And generally busy background scenes.
Here the vendor is looking after his food. There is a nice story here, and the background is not a distraction.
4. You Can Get Closer to Your Subject With a Phone
“If it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa
This often used quote by Robert Capa is one of the best you can learn if you’re a street photographer. When you’re using a smartphone to take your photo this is even more the case.
The focal length of your smartphone is wide. Although you can zoom in, it’s better to just get closer to your subject. The good news is that your phone is small and doesn’t need to be held to the eye when you take the photo.
This will allow you to get much closer to the person you’re taking a photo of. All without them realising you’re taking their photo.
As far as other people are concerned you could easily be playing games or texting.
That means you can take photos without being spotted. This is a luxury you can’t afford with a regular camera.
A smartphone photography tip for when you do this though, turn off the fake shutter sound on your phone! It will give the game away if you leave it on.
Market vendors selling food is a classic photo for many street photographers.
5. Try Different Composition Techniques for More Unique Photos
Whatever camera you’re using, you still need to compose a good frame. There is a temptation to point it in any direction with street photography.
Then aim at a few people, and you have a good street photo.
This simply not the case.
It was not the case for Cartier-Bresson. And it’s not the case for you, smartphone or no smartphone.
Composition and other technical elements apply to photography across the board. Good photos will come when you use framing in your photos. When you look for leading lines, and think about colour contrast and harmony.
Of course, the most important thing in a street photo is the compelling story. But don’t neglect these other elements when you take your photo.
6. Have a Theme to Work With
Getting good street photos is nice, but having a focus to your work will push you creatively. So why not turn your smartphone street photography into a little project or photo essay?
There are plenty of themes that you could work with to build your body of work. How about trying some of the ideas below?
- Keep to a city – Perhaps the most famous street photography project of recent times is Humans of New York. You can look to emulate this theme by choosing a town or city near you, and create a set of street photos from there. You don’t have to focus on portraits.
- The local market – It’s not an accident that photographers gravitate towards markets for their photography. Particularly street photographers. Do you have a local fish market you can photograph? Lots of stories there, with a strong theme that will bring a set of photos together.
- Light and shadow – Now you know how to control your exposure levels through the exposure lock function. How about making a set of photos that looks at light and shadow? You could create moody silhouettes. Or find a vantage point to take photos of people’s shadows from above.
- One location – Limiting yourself to one location will often give you interesting photographic results. It will force you to think creatively about how you can get different types of photos. You’ll need a good spot to begin with. Use a busy hawker stand, or a wall that often has people walk past it.
In this photo people are just getting off a ferry. An ideal time to capture good moments.
7. How to Minimise Battery Use While Photographing
Using your smartphone as a camera for extended periods of time will drain your battery. This is something you’ll need to take into account.
The screen on your device will be on live view while taking photos, and this will be a major drain on your device.
Turn off the WiFi and turn the brightness of your screen down. Be careful with the brightness though, as too much will impact your ability to take photos.
Pack an Extra Battery
Most photographers will bring an extra battery with them. If you plan on photographing all day, the chances of one battery making it through the entire day are low.
The market for external camera batteries for mobile devices is now a big business. The type of phone you us won’t matter. You’ll have plenty of options
The best option is a phone case that comes with a built-in external battery.
Don’t want a bulky phone? Carry a power bank with you, and when you stop for lunch or dinner charge your phone while you eat.
Make sure you don’t forget your charging cable!
8. Check If You Need a Model Release
In street photography you’re going to be taking photos of complete strangers. In addition to that your aim is to do this in such a way that they’ll continue to act naturally. Most likely because they’re unaware of you taking the photo.
The question arises, then, if this is a legal thing to do.
The answer is it very much depends on where you live. One of the most famous countries in the world for street photography is France. They made it illegal to photograph people in a public place without prior permission.
Luckily for most street photographers, other countries don’t have such stringent rules.
Here is a brief look at what’s OK when doing street photography in the majority of countries.
- Taking the photo – As long as you’re in a public place, taking photos of people is perfectly fine, and is your right. The exception comes when your image shows a person in a defamatory photo. As long as you show respect towards your subject you will be OK.
- Editorial usage – Using your phone images in articles for a magazine, or a newspaper is OK so long as it’s not the cover image. You’ll also be able to display prints in an art gallery, and sell limited edition prints of your photo.
- Commercial usage – To use your photo in any kind of commercial way you’ll need to get a model release. It’s always worth having an app with a model release attached to it. Have it available for situations where you might want a release.
This photo shows a street vendor waiting for a new customer, as a passerby walks past.
9. Which Apps Should You Use for Post-Processing
It’s the end of the day, and the final thing to do for your photo is to post process it. There are a range of apps that allow you to process your image quickly on your phone these days. A few of these are listed below though there are many others.
- Lightroom CC – Adobe’s Lightroom has become the standard post processing tool for many photographers. And now you can edit on the go.
- Snapseed – Google bought the algorithm for the very popular Nik Efexs a few years ago. They then applied it to their Snapseed app. It’s no surprise that this is a very popular editing tool.
- VSCO – Another great app that allows you to edit your photo through a range of filters.
You also have the option of post processing them on your main computer.
Processing on your computer is a better option. You have more functionality with the programs you use on a computer.
Once your photos are ready, the next step is to share them on social media. For more on gaining social media success as a photographer, check out this article.
Street photography with your smartphone can be a lot of fun! Do you have a favourite technique you like to use? Which phone do you find gives you the best results for your street photography?
We’d love to see examples of your smartphone street photography. Share them with us in the comments section!
Get out there, and start capturing the world with your phone!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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