Street photography is a great subject for developing both your camera skills and creative eye. You often have to react quickly to capture the moment, and this means you need to be able to operate your camera without thinking. Capturing the essence of a place and the people who live there is a combination of portrait, landscape and still life photography, and if you do it fast, it also incorporates some sports photography skills.
Traveling to foreign countries is an exciting challenge for the street photographer. As well as needing to work quickly and discreetly, you’ll experience new cultures and places to test your creative abilities. If you don’t have the time or money for foreign travel, there are plenty of opportunities to develop street photography skills in your local towns and cities. Here are some tips that will help you to produce great street photography shots.
1) Travel light.
For some photographers, the ideal equipment for street photography is a digital SLR or mirrorless camera with a telephoto zoom lens. This is especially true if you are interested in street portraits, or just too shy to get close to strangers. If you’re prepared to get close to your subjects, a camera with a wide-angle or standard lens will be all you need. Carrying camera bags/cases loaded with lenses and accessories will make you stand out in the crowd as a photographer. Having lots of equipment will slow you down and could mean you’ll miss shots.
For many years (about 25), I shot with a Pentax Spotmatic 35mm camera and a 35mm, medium wide-angle lens, but I’ve also shot with twin lens reflex cameras. Then I moved to Nikon film cameras and about 2001, I started using Nikon digital SLRs. A couple of years ago, I discovered micro four thirds cameras, and have been using an Olympus OMD-EM5. Depending on my needs, or just my “feeling”, I will go out with only a 9mm bodycap lens, or a 17mm lens. Recently, I have been using a 12-40mm/f2.8 pro lens. If I could only own one lens, for street shooting, I’d take something in the 17mm range, on a micro four thirds body.
2) Do some research.
If you aren’t familiar with the place you plan to shoot in, it’s worth carrying out some research. What times of day are the busiest? In a city, often there are more people around early in the morning as the working day begins. Is there a market day or festival which would be a great backdrop for street photography? It also helps to know the direction of the light at different times of the day and how the weather is likely to be on the days you plan to visit.
In large cities, like Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo, etc. the are lots of people on the streets all during the day and early evening. In large entertainment areas, like Times Square, subject abound into the late night.
3) Capture people in natural situations.
The essence of documentary and street photography is recording people going about their everyday lives. A commuter hailing a taxi or a market seller stacking goods for display are examples. A telephoto zoom is ideal for this type of shot. Using a wide aperture helps to isolate people from distracting backgrounds. If you prefer to get closer to your subjects or don’t have a telephoto zoom, practice shooting from the hip so you don’t draw attention to yourself. A camera with a tilting screen is ideal for this approach.
4) Shoot in auto mode.
Street photography is about telling stories and capturing moments. If you’re thinking about camera settings and the technical aspects of photography you may be distracted. Modern cameras can produce correctly exposed shots in most situations, so don’t be afraid to switch to auto mode. Use a camera you are familiar with for street photography projects so you don’t have to refer to an instruction manual or waste time experimenting with settings. To be clear, you should know and understand all your camera’s setting, but it is also important to know when to use each feature. Sometime people think the shooting in manual, all the time, is the mark of a pro. To me, it is the mark of someone who wasted a lot of money, paying for features that are never used. Understand the camera modes, and know when to use them. Personally, I am generally most interested in depth of field, when I am on the street, so I use aperture priority, with the f-stop at about f8-f11, unless I’m on a subway. In that case, I will open up and maybe tweak the ISO.
Another thing I do is wear the camera around my neck, and keep the thumb of my right hand resting on the shutter release button. That way, I can take a picture without making any movements and can often take a picture of someone, whom I am talking to, without them being aware that I did it. I love to then show them the image. The next image has a very soft focus, but the guy was literally kneecap to kneecap with me — oh, and he wasn’t angry. He was just asking about my bodycap lens.
5) Don’t be afraid to talk to people.
Shooting from a distance means you’ll capture natural expressions and behavior, but there are times when it’s better to talk to people and ask if you can take their picture. Approach potential subjects with a friendly smile, and respect their wishes if they don’t want to be photographed. You may be surprised at how often people are willing to pose for you, particularly in tourist areas. Take several shots as you talk to your subject, and frame pictures to include the surroundings and give context.
Last summer, I wrote an article about a trip to Los Angeles. In it, there are several photos that illustrate what I have been saying, but of particular importance to the idea of candid vs.posed, or asking permission, is the story of “Robert”. Please scroll down to the part about Robert. The article is here.
Street photography goes back to the earliest days of cameras and when people began to take an interest in documenting life in pictures. It’s a great way to develop skills for a career in photojournalism, but it’s also a great way just to improve all your photo skills. You can make a start in street photography with some basic equipment, and you can develop your own style and approach.