Definition of street photography
Capturing candid moments featuring strangers in a public space (including the beach, or countryside).
Why do it?
Street photography could be said to embody the raison d’etre of photography: capturing unique, fleeting moments.
It’s not for everyone. Some photographers think you are weird for doing it, like you are some lone, ravenous stalker, stealing people’s souls.
Others find the results plain boring. I agree that there are a lot of awful, bland, pointlessly random photos that are posted and labelled as street photography, but check out the work of some of the photographers who have inspired me, which I’ll list later in this post.
I find that street photography enhances your vision, slowing you down and offering another way of seeing the world around you, finding moments of beauty in everyday surroundings.
It’s a great counter to life in front of the screen at home and the controlled predictability of life – grab a camera and get outside. You never know what you will see.
I also find it’s a good for meeting and engaging with people – even if you are being discrete, you end up chatting with people.
Warning: it can become compulsive. Indeed, if you’re serious about getting some great pictures, it may be necessary to become obsessive.
However, starting out in street photography can be intimidating.
Most normal people have inhibitions about photographing strangers going about their private business. Not to mention fears of confrontation or getting beaten up.
A good way of starting out is to shoot in a place where it is not unusual to have a camera: street markets, public events, busy places like the steps of the British Museum, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square.
Or just start out photographing your family and friends in the park or garden.
Practice your stealthy shooting skills on your nearest and dearest in the safety of your home.
You could even walk around without a camera, sharpening your vision and taking imaginary photos. These often tend to be much better than the ones you come away with in practice, and might inspire you to try it for real!
Face it, you are going to get challenged and confronted at some point.
Unfortunately, photographing people in the street can appear creepy, especially given the current climate of paranoia about paedophiles or unspecified nefarious use of photographs online.
I believe it helps to if you have good intentions and feel you don’t have anything to be ashamed of.
People pick up on the vibes you give off.
If you feel good about it, people will not be alarmed, or even notice you at all.
We will all respond to confrontation in our own way. I try to stay calm, reassuring, humble and apologetic to defuse the situation. Accept the fact that you are invading someone else’s privacy.
Smiling usually disarms people.
Business cards or booklets that show you are a serious photographer can help put people at ease.
Being confronted is unpleasant. It makes you feel really bad and usually ruins your day.
If it’s too high a price to pay, give up street shooting and take up landscape photography.
You may think that lurking in a doorway across the street with a 200mm lens will make you less conspicuous. It is actually more likely to freak people out.
I’d ditch the zoom and get close with a 28mm to 50mm equivalent lens.
This means you have to be discrete.
Get into the habit of having a camera in your hand all the time. Again this argues for something small. A phone ticks a lot of boxes, but I’ve never warmed to using one for photography.
Use a camera with a completely silent electronic shutter.
(although this one was taken with a Hasselblad which has a loud mirror slap)
And finally, wear comfortable shoes.
But before you leave the house
Load references, and inspiration in your mind by looking at the great work of other photographers (see below for a list of suggestions).
Also go onto flickr and learn to identify cliches – random people in the street, people walking in front of adverts/street art.
Plan. Is there a big outdoor event happening in your town?
Go where people are. Squares, steps, café tables, corners.
How will the weather affect the way people behave?
Try and shoot in good light. Golden hour.
Make sure you have enough batteries to last the day.
When I’m walking around the street, I keep my shutter speed up at 1/250th sec where the light permits, whack up the ISO and give myself as much depth of field as possible.
On sunny days you may want to try manual hyperfocal distance focusing. Basically you set your manually set your focus between about 1.5m to 10m using a narrow aperture so there is no lag when you release the shutter and no chance of your AF focusing on something other than your subject.
Switch to burst/drive/multi-shot at critical moments, but I set to single shot to avoid having an awful lot of files at the end of the day.
Make sure your flash is off!
Street shooting techniques
Obviously all the normal aspects of taking a good photograph apply – quality and direction of light, composition, etc. but the following techniques are particularly useful on the street.
Look behind you. Look up.
Keep your camera in your hand all the time. You will attract attention if you fumble to get it out at the critical moment.
Don’t hesitate – just take the picture. Sometimes you only have a second. Don’t miss it.
Learn to shoot from the hip (or more accurately the chest). This takes practice to frame accurately – practice it!
Follow your heart and your instincts. Dare to be original.
You need to be quick, but also calm. Passion, but with ice in the blood, like Harry Kane in front of the goal.
Take more shots than you think you need to – but only when you have something worth photographing.
Compose yourself and your images. Don’t take a machine gun/scattergun approach. An infinite number of monkeys on typewriters may eventually produce a Shakespeare sonnet, but there are already enough crap street shots out there. To increase your chances of producing a gem, take time to frame your shot, watch for interesting or uncluttered backgrounds, amusing or interesting juxtapositions.
Don’t be afraid to get down on one knee, or even onto your belly to get the shot. You’re a photographer. This is what photographers do.
Work a scene. Walk around, observing the subject from various angles until the picture elements arrange themselves into a composition that pleases
Wait. Be patient. Anticipate.
Is your subject likely to head into that space?
Track subjects, but don’t stalk (i.e. don’t follow them for more than a minute or so.)
If there’s an interesting frame or backdrop waiting to be filled, an empty stage aching for an actor to step into it, then, wait for the right (not first) person to arrive.
But don’t wait there all day. When you are in the zone, street photography feels quite Zen. Linger a while at an interesting scene, but don’t try to force it. Move on and come back later when you feel like it. You really don’t know what is waiting around the next corner.
Note promising locations. Come back often – like a fisherman setting his nets. Wait for the right light.
Look for emotion.
To capture people’s unguarded expressions, gestures and body language you need to get close.
A wide angle lens (28mm-35mm equivalent) can be useful here. Shoot slightly wide of your subject so the lens doesn’t appear to be pointing at them, but move your AF point onto the subject’s face.
Don’t lower the camera and make eye contact after taking the shot.
Don’t ‘chimp’ your LED screen after taking a shot – point the camera to another innocuous subject without taking it from your eye.
Or you could snap someone and move on quickly. Sometimes they are not sure if you actually photographed them.
Dos and Don’ts
Don’t take pictures that disrespect the subject.
Don’t take sexualized images for other’s titillation (upskirts, down cleavages, etc.)
Do use your common sense! If someone looks potentially dangerous, don’t risk provoking them.
Do try to get candid shots but if someone catches your eye you might want to ask permission. This takes you more into the genre of street portraits.
Do ask permission before taking pictures of children if their parents or guardians notice you. I usually do this with a gesture, indicating my camera.
Don’t stick your lens in the face of a homeless person.
Evaluating your work
Don’t expect to get world class images every time. If you can get one or two classic photos in your life, you have achieved something!
You have to enjoy the process, because to get any decent work, you’re going to have to put in many many hours and years on the streets.
Be self-critical. Avoid taking boring pictures (rather trite, but useful advice from Tony Ray Jones).
Does the picture move you or interest you? Not sure? – ditch it.
Show your work to others.
Don’t bother spending ages trying to post-process a mundane picture until it turns into a masterpiece (believe me, I’ve tried).
Make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. It’s part of the creative process.
Inspiring street photographers
W. Eugene Smith