Street Photography: Ultimate How To Guide With 7 Steps

Street Photography is a wide topic full of grey areas, which can be confusing and discouraging but at the same time fascinating and incredibly stimulating for anyone wishing to give a shot (pun). The more you dig, the more debates, arguments and conflicting opinions you will find. The truth of the matter is that Street Photography, and all its gravitating debates, have been around since the invention of photography itself in the late 19th century. So what is it exactly and how can you be a part of it?

There are many incredible resources available on Street Photography today, from history to pure technique, inspiration, tips, and guidelines. Here are 7 questions, I found most useful to ask myself in order to grasp the essence of Street Photography. I hope answering them, to the best of my ability, will help you get started on laying down your own piece of pavement.

1. What Is Street Photography (And What Is It Not)?

If you are looking for a straightforward definition to Street Photography, you came to the wrong place and you can hit the road (more pun). Truth be told, Street Photography has an ‘organic’ definition that has been changing with time and technology. It has many moving and arguable parts, much like the scenes it tries to capture. I found it helpful to look at it comparatively, alongside its close counterparts: Architectural Photography, Travel Photography, Street Portraiture, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism. Each of these disciplines hangs in the same basket but are different plants.

Architectural vs Street Photography:

Architectural is clearly reserved for buildings and urban graphics. Street Photography, on the other hand, may contain an architectural component but certainly requires (or is expected to) the ‘life’ aspect. ‘Life’ for some means an obvious human element, an actual person, while others believe an element of life is sufficient, a trace of human presence without necessarily being a person. 

Travel vs Street Photography:

Travel implies selling a destination, while Street can be home or away, it is not about the location per se. For Travel Photography the focus is the location and its flavors.

Documentary and Photojournalism vs Street Photography:

Documentary and Photojournalism attempt to remain objective in their image rendition. They should be uncompromised, unstaged and unaltered. Street photography is also a form of observation but does not require objectivity, on the contrary. For most, Street should be completely subjective and represent the photographer’s view, his/her eye and personal experience of the moment. In this category, Dorothea Lange was considered a Documentary Photographer back in her day, part of me wonders if she would still be today.

Street Portrait vs Street Photography:

The Street Portrait sets in the minute you ask for consent to capture an image. By interacting, you changed the scene, it is to a certain level ‘staged’. Whereas according to Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, in the book Bystanders, ’candid is the core of Street Photography’. Street Photography is ‘candid’ and ‘ephemeral’, a moment frozen in time, a split second of life you happened to seize. This aspect has been debated over time. For example, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, often asked for consent to photograph or placed the camera straight on their subjects, implying a form of interaction (staged) even though they all do preserve candidness. Gina Milicia and Lee Jeffries are contemporary masters at Street Portraiture. 

A street photograph of a Veteran during a Memorial Day parade shot in black and white.
Veteran during a Memorial Day parade. I captured him on the street, but beforehand we talked about his service and he agreed to stand in front of my backdrop. This is a Street Portrait.

My point is:

In the words of ‘Elliott Erwitt: ‘ To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

Street photography is a candid capture of a street life scene, it is an art of observation, a cultural subjective perspective of the ‘quirkiness of life on the streets’ (Bystanders, Westerbeck & Meyerowitz).

2. Who are the Masters of Street Photography?

The concept of Street Photography evolved with time and most importantly with the development of technology. In the 19th century, film sensitivity/ISO, shutter speed, flash were not what they are today (or were not at all). Therefore, some control of movement was necessary, you had to interact to slow people down. In other words, you had to stage. In addition to that, equipment was bulky and conspicuous. Capturing candid scenes was more challenging, if not impossible. But what remained from then to now, unequivocally, is a cultural capture for posterity, a visual testimony of your time if you will.

A useful tool for anyone to get started, and that is true of pretty much any discipline, is to look at and get inspired by the work of those who came before us. This is not a step meant to intimidate anyone new to Street Photography, it really is incredibly inspiring and educative to study Masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Cunningham, Robert Doisneau, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Gilden, Helen Levitt, Mark Cohen, Weegee, Vivian Maier, Eugene Atget, William Klein, Alex Webb, Robert Franck, Steve McCurry, Peter TurnleyThomas Leuthard, Alan Schaller. But there are so many incredible Street Photographers out there, it is torturous to limit this list. I could keep adding for a while.

My point is:

Don’t be intimidated by the Masters, let yourself be inspired. And remember that what you produce today, is a personal testimony for posterity. You may well be one of the Masters of tomorrow.

3. What Camera Gear and Settings Do I Need for Street Photography?

The questions of gear and settings are equally full of debates and opinions. It mostly depends on what you are looking to capture and what you is. Let’s break it down.

Light vs. bulky gear

I personally shoot everything with my Canon 5D mark iv, which is rather heavy but performs well in all circumstances and I know it by heart. I can switch settings with my eyes closed. As for lenses, I usually walk around with a 50mm f.1.4 or an 85mm f/1.2 (one or the other, the 50mm is lighter), and a 16-35mm f/2.8. All packed in an inconspicuous brown courier shoulder bag made for photo equipment (padded). No tripod, no flash. With this equipment, I can work fast and walk for a few hours (with minimal-ish back pains).

Smart Phones

If you are looking for minimal size, smartphones are a ‘modern days’ tool of street life capture for one reason is that it is the most unnoticed device. Not my personal preference, but an option to consider. On the one side, it could allow you to capture scene completely under the radar, on the other, you may lose on image quality or aesthetics control.

Gear is a personal choice

But like everything else in Street Photography, it is a personal choice. A lot of photographers will recommend light and small gear, mirrorless body for instance, and one do-it-all lens. Gina Milicia, a seasoned Australian portrait and commercial photographer, who creates stunning street portraits, likes to use a 24-105mm with a full frame body. Henri Cartier-Bresson considered using flash ‘impolite’, while Eric Kim, an extremely knowledgeable and fascinating Street Photography blogger, highly recommends it. Stanley Kubrick occasionally used infrared technique for night shots (a very advanced technique for the 40s) or flash for dramatic effect (also rare back then, as it was considered very dramatic, almost ‘film noir’. But we know who he turned out to be later on). And for those wondering why I refer to film director Stanley Kubrick in a Street Photography article, you will love looking at his photography work for Look Magazine from 1945 to 1950, an incredible image collection of New York City life on the street.

My point is:

Your main concerns should be the capacity to capture enough environment (wide angle) for storytelling (discuss further below) and portrait, as well as your ability to move around. You have to decide which way you want to go. And don’t forget at least one extra battery!

 

My street photography gear: shoulder bag, canon 5d mark iv, Canon 16-35L lens, Canon 85mm L, Canon 50mm L
50mm, 85mm, 16-35mm, 5D mark iv, shoulder bag and extra batteries

Camera settings for street photography

An important part of street photography is the ‘scene’, the environment. The background has a major role and has story power. In order to capture several layers of action and have a sharp focus on all the elements, it is wise to shoot at an aperture of f/8 or higher. At the same time, elements and moments move fast, therefore you also need to work on a high shutter speed, 1/250 minimum (you can push to 1/500 minimum in bright daylight). 

Remember, both these aperture and shutter speed levels combined will reduce your light intake, which means you will have to push your ISO up, which in turn creates grain depending on how performant your gear is. But nowadays, you can push to 6400 ISO fairly safely, and grain is actually a great artistic appeal in black and white. If you don’t want grain, you will have to use flash.

As a portrait photographer, I’m a sucker for natural light, shallow depth-of-field, and creamy bokeh. It is counterintuitive for me to pass f/8 (except when I’m on landscape mental mode). But know that one of the beauty of Street Photography is the fact that flaws, such as focus and motion blur, are actually 100% ok as long as it fits in with your purpose.

Start with a semi-automatic mode

Street photography beginners may find it easier to start with either Auto or Shutter Speed Priority mode, to be able to focus on the scenes to capture instead of the constantly changing light and subjects. Once you’ve been around a bit and found your groove you will naturally move on to Manual to make more assertive artistic choices.

I shot this unprepared with a 50mm when I should have used a wider angle, and my settings were locked for a different scene. Settings at f/4.5, Shutter speed 1/400, ISO 100. The man in the front is blurry and I just missed the skateboarders’ jumps. But notice the 3 layers of action, foreground (man on the bicycle), middle (skateboarders), back (bateaux mouches).

My point is:

On the street, things move fast. It is easy to miss a legendary image just because of wrong settings. Prepare settings before you start shooting (as much as possible) once you have selected an area. And remember to stop and check once in a while.

4. What Makes a Good Street Photograph?

What goes in the image itself is a wide topic worthy of its own article, but for the sake of guidelines, I’ve gathered a few essentials.

The key is to make the ordinary interesting. These shots should not be flat or pointless, otherwise, they are merely snapshots of your uncle’s last vacation that he insists on sharing with everyone at Thanksgiving. A common mistake made by Street Photographers is missing the mark on the ‘Kapow’ moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson said ‘You must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative’. This quality doesn’t happen in a day (like Rome), but it does happen daily. In other words, persevere, practice and keep shooting!

Look for contrasts in light and content

Play with shadows, tonal contrasts, contradictions/conflict of elements, oppositions of scene to people, sharp to blurry, immobile to motion blur. For instance, a fancy clothes storefront with leather purses in the window and someone carrying boxes or trash bags. These choices are all tools to create a purpose for your image.

Look for layers

and juxtapositions, depths, the use of background, foreground, and even a middle layer. It creates complexity and adds on to your story. But keep in mind that does require an aperture of f8 or beyond.

Look for natural elements

Use the environment with leading lines, geometry, textures and negative space. They are priceless ingredients to direct the eye of the viewer into reading the story of your image.

Perspective matters

Play with the perspectives and angles. Sometimes one scene taken from below or straight on changes the entire vibe of the shot.

Composition

Consider your composition, remember your basic rule of thirds, the golden ratio or Fibonacci Sequence. The composition is what helps your viewer’s eye read your image, and help him/her understand what the story or the purpose is.

Details

Pick up and include details. A poster on a wall or a street sign that contrasts with the scene is a huge addition to the impact of your image.

The Narrative

One of the fundamental aspects of Street Photography is ‘storytelling’, or the almighty narrative. What is your image saying? There are no rules to which story counts most or which way to tell it better. What makes an impactful image (or series of images) is its narrative. It took me a while to grasp what a narrative means and how to express it. My own ‘aha’ moment occurred when I saw the two following: first, Stanley Kubrick’s series on the Shoeshine Boy (1947) and Raymond Cauchetier’s film set contact sheets for Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). That’s when I understood the concept of narrative. A series of images makes it easier to carry an audience along a story, but it does not mean it does it better than a single image. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘puddle jumper’ has a life of its own in one single take and a phenomenal richness of details. The narrative can be carried through many things, suggestions and hidden elements, powerful details, a recurring character or place. It is the story that carries the shot to a whole other dimension.

Leading lines and light contrasts

 

The back alley tap dancer. Between his facial expression, the cat on the foreground and the people watching him, there are lots of details supporting the narrative.

My point is:

Street Photography is about capturing the candid, seizing the flower of the day, shooting what is there, yes, BUT with form and content. Finding something interesting is easier than capturing it in an interesting way.

5. What Are the Best Places to Shoot Street Photography?

Anywhere is the simplest answer.

There is a wide (mis)conception that Street Photography should be in a gritty big city, New York City being one of the ultimate Street Photography destinations. But really anywhere should be great Street material. In fact, it is an interesting exercise to choose a not-so-obvious Street Photography scene, let’s say in an ordinary suburb or a small village. I was baffled to see Stanley Kubrick’s choice to shoot a series in the equivalent of a Dollar Store back in 1946.

Tips for finding the best places

With that said, there are places where you are more likely to find interesting contrasts and scenes. For example, billboards, street signs and graffitis are great backdrops if you are lucky enough to capture the right passers-by. Markets, cafes, parks, shop windows, the subway, the beach, festivals, and parades. Street corners are also full of life and options. As for whom, anyone you find interesting. But if you are shy at first, street performers may be an obvious and easy target, but they are a great way to get your confidence pumping. Most times, they won’t mind and even love it, they are not camera shy and they have interesting expressions. 

 

The violinist. Street performers are easy to practice Street Photography with.

One can argue that shooting in your own neighborhood is challenging because you won’t notice anything anymore as you know it too well. You are immune to its originality. You may need a change of scenery from your usual to be more aware of your surroundings. However, in an area you know well, you will maybe pick up on the unusual a lot faster since you already master the geographic, light and architecture. You will be able to focus on the details.

My point is:

Do not bend over backward to get to the biggest cities in the world or to find the perfect individual. Use your time more wisely by looking for the right scene, the relevant components and catching the details.

6. How to Shoot Street Photography?

One of the toughest challenges of Street Photography is to dare. Beginners may face the ‘fear’ of taking out their camera and photograph strangers. There are legal considerations, of course (which I will discuss briefly below), that can be slightly paralyzing if you don’t know them. It can haunt your level of comfort. But there are a few tips to help you overcome that fear, and let you gain confidence to use other modi operandi* (*modes of operation). 

Hide and shoot

If you are nervous to shoot, you will want to privilege discretion, not being seen in order not to offend. Smartphones and mirrorless cameras are the handiest tools for you then, as well as long telephoto lenses. You can hide and shoot. Long telephoto lenses will give you discretion, but be aware it will also create some image compression, which isn’t ideal for a human emotional feel in the image, in my personal taste.

Pretend

If you have wing-people, you can pretend to shoot them, but aim at what you really want to capture instead.

Put some hip into it

Next up, you have the hip technique. You literally hold your camera at the hip level which gives you the ‘shot from below’ angle. Now, I was never able to shoot that way as I’m perfectly unable to focus and frame properly and I end up accumulating a massive amount of fails.

Fire away

Like Cartier-Bresson, ‘click away with a joyous intensity’ (Truman Capote). Shoot fast and a lot, move around constantly. Cartier-Bresson used to say ‘Thinking should be done beforehand and afterward, never while actually taking a photograph‘. In other words, don’t over think it while you shoot and have an open mind. This method can be useful when you want to create a ‘contact sheet’ type narrative, a sequence of shots from an identical scene. Or simply to learn to let go, get lost in the moment, get in the zone.

Pre-focus and shoot

Choose a level/height and a distance to your potential subject beforehand, switch to manual focus, lock it and stay there. Start shooting.

Sit and wait

Choose a backdrop and a scene, adjust all settings, compose thoroughly, and wait until the right moment happens. Chances are that within 30min something will be just right. But then again you will go home with 100 shots of the exact same scene for one keeper. Oddly enough that is one of my favorite way to do it. It doesn’t mean it is the best way, it is just my own artistic choice.

 

I framed and waited for the right silhouette to come along. In the meantime, shot about 20 different passersby until I was satisfied with this one.

Shoot first then apologize

If you have a confident gambling personality, then this is an extremely efficient method. More often than not, people won’t ask questions, but if they do you should go ahead and say ‘hey, I’m a street photographer and I’m working on a series on Blah Blah street. Would you like to see the picture I took of you?’ If you go down that road, be ready to delete the image if they ask, or offer to send it to them.

A street photography of a old man with a walking aide
This one should be called ‘shoot, apologize and still get in a world of insults you have never heard before’

My point is:

There are various levels of comfort according to your personality and experience out there. These are all valid ways to go. Listing some of them out for you is merely to show you there isn’t a right or wrong way, only options. Either way, get in the zone, ’the camera makes you forget you’re there.’ -Annie Leibovitz

7. What Are the Laws for Street Photography?

You have to be aware that there are laws and regulations regarding capturing images containing an ‘identifiable’ person and/or location. I am not a lawyer (although I did go to Law School back in my previous life. Long story.), so all this content should not be taken as expertise or legal advice.

But the gist of things is that laws vary from country to country, state to state. In the US, generally speaking, you can take anyone in a public place as long as your image does not have a commercial purpose, in other words making money off it. A national campaign for a beer company is out of the question with Street photography. But if you do wish to use it that way, and your image contains a recognizable person or private property, then you will need a model or property release, a signed contract between you and the person or property owner allowing you to use the image for a specifically laid out purpose.

Street Photography Ethics

Beyond the law is the question of ethics, which should be taken just as seriously. In other words, should I shoot this particular scene? Most street photographers will tell you to be respectful of people’s situations. Photographing someone in distress isn’t recommended. Just ask yourself, ‘if I were in this situation, would I want someone photographing me?’ Regarding the homeless and destitute, once again grey area and different schools, but in general, show respect is the best advice. Street Photography is not Photojournalism, but it also has a social observation aspect. A Street Portrait artist like Lee Jeffries, specializes in intimate and up close portraits (wide angle lens) of homeless people. But his approach is remarkably human. He reaches out to them, spends time with them, gets to know them and shows tremendous poetry and humanity in their portraiture. He cares for them and it shows.

Photographing Children

Finally, children. Technically, same legal point as mentioned, anyone in a public place is ok to shoot. But there again, ask yourself, ‘if this were my child, would I want this person to take his/her picture?’. There is a powerful tool of suggestion in Street Photography. You will find that very often hiding faces and suggesting human elements carries more power than a straightforward, full body capture. For instance,

  • a child’s face behind a red balloon in the middle of a colorless dirty back alley (Why would a child be in a dirty back alley you say? Well, there, your audience is wondering, you won).
  • Shoot only the feet in a puddle reflection.
  • From the back.
  • Face behind an interesting street sign that creates irony.

Suggestions allow your viewer to create an additional story, complete the scene with his/her imagination. Your image will gain dimension.

A child playing street football captured as a silhouette to cover his face/identifty
Let your audience complete the scene with his/her imagination

My point is:

When you shoot Street Photography, it is a good idea to research and check the laws and regulations beforehand. But no matter what/whom/where you shoot, show personal/professional ethics and respect, use it to your artistic advantage.

Conclusion

Street Photography is a direct translation of your own perception of a candid moment frozen in time. It is a testimony of your environment, and how you individually experience it. There are various opinions on whether Street Photography should be a happy rendition or raw and tough yet beautiful by its intensity and emotional layering. In the end, if it is a subjective art, The choice belongs entirely to you and how you choose to observe it. There are many tools and options available to you to do so. Choosing those tools is already a step into your artistic style, and your mark on the capture to come. The good news is, there really isn’t a wrong way to go. As long as you proceed with respect, don’t be afraid to try it all and make mistakes (sometimes mistakes make the best shots, perfection is not the goal far from it), that’s how you improve and that’s how to find your distinct voice.

Over to You

Are you a street photography? We would love to see your work and feedback on this article. Simply leave a comment below (you can also upload photos to comment) and let us know what you think. If you would like more inspiration, check out street photography posts on the PhotoBlog.com platform. Perhaps it would inspire you to start blogging about your street photography.

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About the author

Helene McGuire

Helene McGuire is a portrait, street and landscape photographer. Originally from Paris (France), she now lives in the NY-NJ area with her husband and three children. Born and raised in a family of artists and intellectuals, she went to Law School, traveled the world, worked for NGOs and Public Health before going back to her artistic roots. Her style blends in her life story, with a fascination for people and a love of old school black and white.

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