One of my favorite pastimes, especially when I’m in the city, is trying to capture people, and the ‘decisive moments’ they create, on camera. While the end results of street photography are often very satisfying it can sometimes be intimidating to photograph people you don’t know. I’ve never been a prolific portrait photographer but I’ve come to love the challenge of street photography and I thought I’d share twelve of my techniques so you can too!
1. Do Street Photography with a small camera
It’s very easy to get weighed down with loads of gear, thinking you might just need that one lens you’ve left at home. Street photography is one of those genres where less really is more. Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the most iconic of all street photographers, was famous for using a Leica rangefinder and a single 50mm prime lens for almost all of his working life. While it’s not necessary to go to the expense of buying a Leica, his practice of using the simplest of setups is as valid today as it was nearly a century ago.
So what sort of camera should you use? Well, of course, you can use any type of camera for street photography but this is one of those occasions when a smaller camera is a distinct advantage. With a DSLR you have to lift the camera to your eye to take a photo and this can be a bit of a giveaway when you’re trying to take a candid photo of a stranger. DSLRs also have the disadvantage of being large and bulky and, despite the fact that lots of people have them these days, they are still seen as being the choice of the ‘professional’ photographer by many. This can make them intimidating to subject and photographer alike in a situation where you’re trying to blend in.
So what’s the alternative? My personal preference is for a mirrorless camera. I use a Panasonic Lumix GX8 but there are many other brands which work just as well. They’re small and light and it’s really easy to use the LCD screen to compose your pictures rather than the viewfinder which can aid your attempts to blend in. I’ll come to this again later when I deal with technique.
Of course, if you really want to travel light, why not trying shooting with your smartphone? Everyone has one these days and you really will blend in!
2. Use a lightweight prime lens
What about lenses? My personal favorite is a small prime lens. As well as being light and compact, lenses of this type tend to have a very fast maximum aperture so they let in lots of light and give you control over how much of your image appears in sharp focus. If you’re new to street photography it may seem more intuitive to pick a zoom lens. However, in this fast moving genre, too much choice can actually slow you down as you try to figure out which focal length to use.
Talking of focal lengths, I would suggest starting off with a 50mm prime. You can buy a basic 50mm f1.8 prime pretty cheaply – even more so if you pick one up second hand. The 50mm lens’s field of view is similar to what we see with our own eyes so it will feel natural to use. Its focal length will also give you options to get up close and personal with people or to take a wider view and include some of the backgrounds. Another classic focal length for street photography is 35mm, although this will require you to get closer to your subject and that may seem a little too scary if you’re taking your first steps! It may seem tempting to pick a longer focal length if you’re just starting out. However, this means you’ll be photographing people from further away and it can make your pictures feel less intimate and more detached.
3. Blend in
If you’re new to street photography and are feeling nervous, a good place to start is to shoot somewhere touristy. This means there will be lots of other people around with cameras and you will feel less self-conscious. If you’re surrounded by tourists, a good strategy is to try and blend in. Carrying a bulky camera bag, with loads of heavy gear will immediately mark you out as a serious photographer and make people more aware of your presence. Try using just a small bag, or simply sling the camera over your shoulder on a strap and pop a spare battery in your pocket. If you want to go for the full tourist look, you can always wear a baseball cap and sunglasses!
So you’ve got the look – now you need the techniques…
4. Use LCD Screen to compose and release the shutter
If you’re able to compose pictures using the LCD screen on your camera that will allow you to be more surreptitious. This will enable you to keep your camera away from your face so your subject will be less aware that you’re even taking their photo. Sometimes it’s even possible to frame up your picture then press the shutter button while you look in a different direction!
If your camera has a touchscreen it’s also worth checking whether it has a mode which allows you to trigger the shutter from there, rather than pressing the shutter button. I can set my GX8 up so it will focus and shoot immediately when I touch the screen. This means there is zero delay between me touching my chosen point of focus and the shutter opening.
5. Shoot from the hip
If you’re using a DSLR you may not be able to use your LCD screen to compose and shoot. If you feel self-conscious bringing the camera to your eye, why not trying shooting from the hip? Most prime lenses have a depth of field scale so try using manual focus and select a smallish aperture (say f11), setting your focus point at around 5 meters. With these settings, everything from about 3 meters to 15 meters away from you will be in focus and you can simply aim your camera at your subject and shoot. Remember, you may need to raise your ISO to ensure a fast enough shutter speed. It will take a little practice to learn how far you need to be from your subjects to get them in the frame and you’ll have a fair number of failures to start with but this can be a good way to photograph incognito!
6. Shoot silently
One final setting I use a lot while shooting street photography is the silent mode on my mirrorless camera. When this is selected my camera is totally silent so there’s no shutter sound to give me away – great for being stealthy when you’re photographing someone at close quarters!
7. Set your stage
It may be tempting to walk aimlessly, searching for people to photograph but it’s often better to set a stage and wait for the characters in your play to come to you. Look out for a location which can provide an interesting backdrop to the people you photograph – this could be a historic building or local landmark. Alternatively, it might be a colorful wall, or perhaps a shop window containing a display at which folk might stop and stare. Spend a few minutes watching the routes people take, and notice whether they regularly follow the same path. Then wait for the right person to walk onto the stage you’ve set.
Don’t be afraid to vary your point of view too – you might choose to select a low angle for some shots or a higher one to give a sense of power over your subject. If your camera has an articulated LCD screen this can be enormously helpful.
8. Look for light and shade
As well as seeking out interesting locations for your street photos, don’t forget to keep an eye on the lighting conditions. The overall ambient light will have an impact on your exposure settings – for instance, if you’re shooting in a dark area you’ll need to raise your ISO to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any motion. Let’s have a look at some of the different conditions you might encounter…
Overcast, cloudy weather: Days like this may require you to up your ISO a little but the clouds will act like a huge softbox, giving a soft, even light, which is very flattering. You won’t find many shadows but this sort of weather can be great for first steps in street photography.
Bright sunshine: This can be challenging, especially if you are trying to compose shots using your camera’s LCD screen, but the rewards can be enormous. Look out for interesting interactions between light and shade, especially in cities. You may find a dramatic pool of light that’s just waiting to be filled by a passerby. Look out too for the way people’s’ shadows fall on the pavement and the surrounding buildings. You may discover a spot where you can simply shoot the shadows and leave out the people who create them entirely. Try shooting towards the light too and notice how your subjects become silhouettes.
Rainy days: Rain may not be your first choice of weather but it can be great for street photography. Dull stone pavements glisten with moisture and you can grab some great shots of people wrestling with their umbrellas as they try to reach their destination quickly. Do remember to dress appropriately and take some protection for your camera too – something as simple as a hotel shower cap or a handkerchief draped over the top can be enough to keep the worst of the rain off.
9. Look for characters
So you’ve set your stage – what sort of people do you want to photograph? I always look out for interesting characters – be that people with a unique dress sense or someone with a ‘look at me’ hairstyle.
Don’t forget to look out too for interactions between people too and aim to tell a story with your pictures. That story could be the interaction between people or the way they respond to their surroundings. Sometimes it’s helpful to include more of the setting in your images too – there could be something nearby that will give your scene a sense of place, such as an iconic building or a familiar mode of transport.
10. Feeling shy? Look for street performers.
If you’re feeling nervous about photographing strangers, street performers and buskers are often a good place to start. By performing in public they are expecting attention and are usually very happy to have their photo taken. Do remember to pop a few coins in their collecting tin though by way of a thank you.
Dog walkers are often a good choice of subject too, especially if you want to try your hand at a street portrait. They’re often very pleased when someone pays attention to their beloved pet and it can be a good way into asking for a more posed picture of them with their dog.
11. Get close!
Don’t be afraid to get close to people. If you’ve chosen a spot where there are a lot of passersby let them come to you – just resist the urge to press the shutter button too soon. Do remember, many people on the street will be deep in thought about their own lives so there’s every chance they’ll be oblivious to your presence, especially if you use some of the subtle techniques I’ve suggested.
If someone does spot you, just smile and the chances are they’ll continue on their way without stopping. In most countries, you are entirely within your rights to photograph anything that happens on the streets, as long as you aren’t on private property. If your subject does stop and talk to you, simply explain that you’re documenting life in the area and perhaps offer to email them the picture if it comes out well. You can, of course, offer to delete the picture if they’re really unhappy but I’ve never experienced any negative reactions from people.
12. Black and white or color?
I’m a big fan of monochrome for street photography. It gives street images a timeless, documentary feel, and can be a great way of enhancing the sense of light and shade. It has a more practical benefit too. If you’re shooting a formal portrait, you will take the time to find a backdrop which doesn’t distract from the subject. However, in the fast-moving world of street photography that ‘decisive moment’ (a phrase coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson) may occur just at the moment when someone wearing a red coat walks into the background. Left in color, this can be a huge distraction but if you convert to monochrome the irritating red coat blends into the background!
Of course, there are times when a color picture is just what is needed. It may be a busker with striking red hair or a yellow taxi cab in the background which just shouts ‘New York!’ at the viewer, giving a sense of place.
Don’t be afraid to try your pictures both ways – it’s so easy to convert pictures to monochrome these days and virtually all cameras have a built in black and white mode. If you want to know more about shooting in black and white, please refer to that article.
So there you have some handy tips to get you started in street photography. If you’ve never tried it before do have a go. Don’t expect to end up with lots of keepers, especially at first, but once you’ve built up some confidence you will undoubtedly find it addictive! If you give it a try, do post your photos, or a link to them, either in the comments at the bottom or over on Photoblog.com.
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