5 Things About Street Photography Only The Pros Know

Real street photography strives for a story in a single frame. It’s about capturing strangers as they go about their daily lives. In order to capture the human condition in its least guarded form, it’s often done without the subject’s permission. If this sounds like what you aim for, here are five street photography tips–approved by the pros–to elevate your work.

It’s All About Soul

Expensive gear isn’t going to help one bit if you don’t work on the soul of your images first. This isn’t just composition and light. By soul, I mean the story, and the immediately relatable humanity in a given scene.

Photo by Boris Stefanik
Photo by Boris Stefanik

Steve McCurry is best known for his National Geographic photojournalism and travel photography, but defines himself as a street photographer at heart. Despite his Photoshop controversy this year, it’s still hard to refute he’s one of the best photographers of humans alive.

Let’s look at one of his most elemental behaviors for street photography; the state of mind he calls being present in the moment. Yes, we have a camera in our hands, but our primary concern is experiencing life on the streets, not on taking hundreds of pictures. We have to be aware of the sights, sounds, and smells around us first.

This idea revolutionized my approach. When I first got into street photography 7 years ago, I was consumed by photographing everything in sight. I went out to take as many photos as I could. I felt failure if I didn’t return with hundreds. Later, once I learned to be present in the moment, I was taking a fifth of the photos I used to, but coming away with many more publishable images.

McCurry says: “It’s not that you have to go out and photograph something. It has to be a natural process, a curiosity to appreciate the world we live in. As time goes on, we start seeing things differently.” Once you truly understand this, you will see your street photography improve dramatically.

Example

'Please Help Yourself to a Free Fashion and Beauty Magazine' street photography by Ben McKechnie
‘Please Help Yourself to a Free Fashion and Beauty Magazine’. Image by Ben McKechnie

I’m pretty proud of this image because of the story that’s present. Thanks to the man in odd sneakers reading a novel in front of a rack of free ‘Beauty’ magazines, I was able to juxtapose themes and get viewers thinking deeper. A commentary on the disposable nature of pop culture with more than a dash of human rebellion against social norms thrown in? Sure!

I was walking through Shibuya, Tokyo, and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the scene. The only problem was it was rush hour and seemingly impossible to get a commuter-free frame. I had to climb on a traffic barrier, lean against a lamp post, and wait patiently to get this shot. Thankfully, he was in no hurry.

Practice Gear Minimalism

This means one body, one lens, and the focusing of all efforts on soul. The real investment isn’t financial, but is made in training the mind to see photographic opportunities and to act on them in a split second. However, we should talk about gear briefly.

The right lens for the job is important. Some assume a telephoto lens would enable them to avoid confrontation and pick people off from far away. However, this would be in direct opposition to the concept of being present in the moment. You are not a sniper. You’re also not on safari with lions, so jump in and get up close to the action. A wide-angle prime lens is perfect.

street photography tips
Photo by Alva Pratt

35mm is a classic focal length for street photography because it’s wide enough to include a subject’s surroundings, therefore better for storytelling. I recommend the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art. I should mention this is on a full frame body. Paired with a cropped sensor body, a 35mm lens will produce a totally different angle of view, more similar to a 50mm lens on a full frame body. It’s a good idea to rent a few lenses first.

If you own a full-frame camera body, rent a 35mm and a 50mm lens. If you own a crop sensor body, try a 24mm and a 35mm. Which focal length feels comfortable? For me, 50mm feels too cramped, yet others swear by it. It all comes down to which one works for your creative vision.

Alternatively, analyze your most commonly used focal lengths in Lightroom. You’ll find this information under the histogram (top-right) in both library and develop modes. What focal lengths were you using when you took your favorite street photography images? Work out the average and go with the prime lens with the nearest focal length.

Settings for Speed: F/8 and Be There.

Good shots often appear quickly and disappear even quicker. In the quest to be prepared for such opportunities, I’ve discovered a lot of truth in photojournalist Arthur Wellig’s famed mantra. “F/8 and be there” is well-known in the world of professional street photography, but why?

It’s a beautifully simple phrase. It gives a blueprint for capturing sharp, clear images. Having cameras set to f/8 when walking during the day provides the best chance of capturing a scene that appears out of nowhere. Ones with a tiny window of opportunity. You don’t have time to fiddle with settings. The priority is getting the shot.

F/8 gives a medium depth of field, so detail in the foreground and background. It provides enough depth of field to stop major focusing errors, as everything within a certain range will appear in focus. It also lets enough light through, thereby avoiding slow shutters speeds. Don’t stay on f/8 all the time. If a scene presents itself that gives you time, adjust settings according to your creative vision for the shot.

The exposure triangle teaches us there are multiple combinations of settings that will give a correct exposure. Recently, I read an article recommending f/16 and ISO 400 for a sunny day. I disagree and suggest not shooting above f/8 handheld. At f/16, we increase chances of seeing unwanted effects and distortion. It’s best to avoid unless on a tripod. A desirable shutter speed for street photography is around 1/200. ISO 100 and f/8 is the preferable way to achieve this. If the term exposure triangle draws a blank, check out this article for tips on how to become familiar with the language of photography.

Finally, the be there part of the phrase means getting in the middle of the action to give yourself the best chance of getting the shot. It links up nicely with the philosophy of being present in the moment – don’t you think?

Example

Street photography tips from a pro
Image by Ben McKechnie

I was on a date in downtown Seoul when I took the above image. In manual mode, I had my camera set to ISO 400 because the light was heading for golden hour territory. I had the aperture set to f/8. I knew if I came across an interesting scene, all I had to do was a quick spin of the wheel for shutter speed (this gets quicker with practice) and fire away. My date thought I was mental because I blurted out ‘Oh my god!’, sprinted 5 meters and dropped to my knees. She thought I was slightly less mental upon seeing the image.

Street Photography Tips from Magnum Photos

American street photographer and educator Eric Kim has an incredible knack for getting up and close with his subjects. He went on a street photography workshop run by Magnum Photos–the prolific agency co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson–and came back with great advice. Any tip from Magnum via Eric Kim is a tip worth sharing here.

The professionals taught Kim as long as he comes across 3 workable scenes in a day, this is fine as long as he seizes on the opportunity. This means taking as many photos of each situation as possible: in different styles, from different angles, and multiple compositions. When you’re back at home in front of Lightroom, you’ll know which have been successful. Shoot tons now and discover later.

Our natural impulse might be to take a couple of shots then move on. What happens if the subject sees us? Fight these thoughts and urges. We might want to think about how to blend in so we’re not seen, or to act in a way that makes it seem like we’re simply doing our job. Dark clothing works well in helping photographers blend and not stand out. If spotted by our subjects, we can smile and put them at ease. Don’t act suspiciously and hide the camera. Act like a professional, even if you’re not.

Example

Street photography of two Japanese woman in the snow.

Flickr user and street photographer, Damien D’Angelo, worked the scene when he came across two kimono-clad Japanese women in Tokyo. Looking at his photostream, we see he shared 22 shots (perhaps taking even more) of the same scene. He took them in a short space of time and employing multiple compositions. By doing this, he gave himself a strong chance of coming away with at least one strong image. The result was this visually striking work with a strong sense of place.

Street Photography Around the World.   

As you progress, it’s natural to want to test your skills in different environments around the world. When you do, remember acceptable street photography practices vary from country to country.

It may come as a surprise to learn Japan, as birthplace of Canon and Nikon, has some of the strictest personal privacy laws in the world. In other places, taking photos of women without permission can land you in big trouble. On the flip side, female photographers have incredible opportunities to bond with local women in ways a male could not.

Study up, be aware, and even take advantage of these differences in positive ways. Be respectful of people, their culture, traditions, and the law of the land. Perhaps most importantly when traveling, remember to be present in the moment. Leave the camera at your side, walk, and just experience. Then the best photos come.

Are you a street photographer with striking street images you’d like to share with the world? Join PhotoBlog.com and start sharing them with an instant audience today!

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About the author

Ben McKechnie

Ben McKechnie is a location-independent photographer specializing in travel, documentary, and portraits, as well as a freelance journalist. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Ben is a graduate of both MatadorU's Advanced and Fundamentals Travel Photography courses.

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