7 Common Mistakes That Newbie Street Photographers Make

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7 Common Mistakes That Newbie Street Photographers Make

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Over the last few years I have worked with enough budding new street photography enthusiasts, to notice a common thread of early mistakes that many of them make. A lot of these are very simple tendencies and changes, that can make a vast difference to the final output. It’s for this reason that I try to teach these 7 tips from the very start. Follow along so you can avoid the seven common mistakes that newbie street photographers make:

Grand Central, NYC Street Photography

Grand Central, NYC.

1. Thinking too much while shooting

If you are reading this article, you are on the right back. You should read about photography to teach yourself, and study the work of great photographers. However, when you are out there, in the process of shooting, try to not over-think things too much. There are so many tips and tricks, and you may worry a lot about capturing bad images, but that can all get in the way sometimes.

Instead of worrying about the results, get lost in the process. You can assess your results during the editing phase. When you are out there shooting, have fun. Explore, take your time, relax, and just watch everything go by. This is a type of photography that you really have to enjoy to do well, and the best part about it is that you can go out and do it nearly anywhere and at any time. You can do it in 10 minute spurts, or during your lunch hour. You can even do it with your iPhone if you don’t have your camera. The more fun you have with the process of being out there, getting lost, and exploring, the more dedicated you will become, and the better street photographer you will become.

2. Traveling too heavy

There are many great videos of the old masters shooting street photography. You know what is the one common thread between many of them? It’s that they had manageable sized cameras, that they could easily take anywhere, and they more often than not they used small prime lenses. You can certainly shoot street with an SLR, and do it very well. There are top photographers that do just that, but at the same time are you really going to want to carry that tank of a camera around on a daily basis? That’s the big advantage of a smaller camera, and the technology is catching up quickly with the large bodies. A small Fuji camera, or a Ricoh, will do wonders, and you can even get an older used version for much cheaper than the new ones. There are many iPhone street shooters as well.

Astor Place, NYC Street Photography

Astor Place, NYC.

Likewise, you do not need a big bag of lenses and filters. If you haven’t tried it, I can’t stress enough, how freeing going out for a day with a single small camera body, and a single prime lens, can make you feel. Leave the rest behind. Yes, you will miss out on that 200mm zoomed shot of the water tower, but you will come back in the long run, with so many more good photos, and you will have a lot of fun doing it.

3. Trying to get somewhere too quickly

We’re all in a rush these days, running from place to place. Luckily, that is one of the worst ways to do street photography. To do street photography well, you need to slow down, and take your time. You can’t always be in a rush. Look around, and wait for things to happen. Wait with your camera, and let the subjects come to you. The slower you go, the more aware you will be of your surroundings, and the more able you will be to capture those extraordinary fleeting moments. Use photography as a way to break out of the rushed lifestyle, and to get lost and slow down for awhile.

4. Not standing in the middle of the action

Broadway, SoHo, New York Street Photography

Broadway, SoHo, NYC.

It is so easy to get intimidated when you are first learning. Many people start by photographing from a distance, and they never really push themselves to get right in the middle of what’s happening. Carry your camera proudly, put a smile on your face, and get involved in the action. Get in the middle of the street.

You might notice that if you are standing too far away and shooting, then people will actually think you are up to no good. But, if you are directly in the middle of the action, people will walk right by thinking that you are doing nothing wrong. Sometimes you’ll even blend in more being in the middle. How could you possibly be doing something wrong if you are right there in the middle? Nobody that obvious would be doing anything bad, but that photographer creeping around over there in the corner, just has to be a stalker. Stop and wait right in the middle of an area where things are happening, and just let everything happen around you. Engulf yourself in the experience.

5. Not putting the camera to your eye enough

I hip shoot a decent portion of the time, particularly when things are happening incredibly fast, but I also try to look through the viewfinder as often as possible. A lot of new photographers only hip shoot, and it quickly becomes a crutch. After a while, they become even more afraid to put the camera to their eye, than when they started. Force yourself to get comfortable shooting through the viewfinder. Just stand in a busy place, with the camera to your eye for a while, until you feel comfortable. After that you can add in the hip shooting. There will be situations where a hip shot is beneficial, but you will get better shots, and better framing, when you look through the viewfinder. Take pride in seeing it all coming together, and capturing that split second moment where it does.

Fire Hydrant, SoHo, NYC

SoHo, NYC.

A tip that helps with this, is to not take the camera away from your eye right after you take a shot of someone. It’s a natural habit to remove the camera from your eye briefly when you take an image. Instead, get in position, and wait for a person to be in the right spot, Then, take the image, but continue to keep the camera to your eye as they walk through the scene and past you, as if they got in your way and you are trying to photograph what is behind them. This trick works incredibly well in areas with quite a few people walking around.

6. Rapid firing with the camera

Turn the machine gun setting on the camera off. A lot of people think that if they take 10 photos of the same scene, they will be guaranteed to get a good one. Where’s the art in that? I actually find that holding down the shutter button, and taking a stream of shots, is a way to guarantee that you will screw up the shot. You need to be able to visualize what you are getting. See the moment as it happens, then capture the elements as they all fall into place. That only takes one shot. Then, as a scene further develops, you can take more, but see the moment and grab it. If you miss it, and you will miss some, there’s always next time. Let go of the fear of missing a shot.

In addition, with rapid fire you will end up taking 10 times the number the photos, over the course of the day. How are you going to find the perfect moment in all of that? Nobody has the time, or the hard drive space. With less, and more purposeful photographs, comes a much more enjoyable editing session.

7. Under and over-editing

East Village, New York Street Photography

East Village, NYC.

A lot of new street photographers will both under, and over-edit their photos. What I mean is that they will show too many photos, and they will over-process them. Be ruthless with narrowing your photos down to the best ones. You want people to actually give your work attention, and if you show too many photographs at one time, they will tune out. By showing too many photos you are relying on the viewer to do the editing in their heads about what they like. That’s not fair to them, do that work yourself. Spend that extra time organizing. Use a starring system to give your photographs ratings and make sure that there are not too many five star images. Spend the time after each shoot to narrow it down to just the cream of the crop. If you don’t do this consistently, you will allow your archive to pile up into an unorganized mess.

When you do the actual editing to your photos, keep a light touch. You can, and should fix the exposure, blacks and whites, vignettes, color temperature or black and white tones, contrast, and all that other good stuff. However, a lot of new street photographers go way too far. Part of the extraordinary nature of street photography is that it was actually captured in the real world. It was not made up. If your photos are too edited, and lose that real feeling to them, it kills the thing that makes them special.

Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? How have you overcome them? Do you have any others you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

  • Michal Rosa

    https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=mistakes+that+street+photographers+make

    All of the top ten hits are better than this article. So what was the point of writing it?

  • Sorry you feel that way Michael. This wasn’t written for Google, it was for the DPS community.

    These are all very common tendencies I deal with on a daily basis when teaching new photographers and I thought it would help people out.

    You might have read all 10 Of those first page Google articles in that link, but this was written for people who haven’t. If you’ve been photographing for a long time this article probably wasn’t meant for you. And at least on my computer, that first link happens to be another article I wrote for picturecorrect.

  • Tony Bassman

    Thanks for this article, I have been nervous out starting street photography, but I’m going to give your tips a go.

  • Andy Lewis

    I liked the article. Some people are so rude? I particularly liked don’t skulk around- stand in the action and also photo as though you are waiting for the people to get out of the way. Those are really good tips I think and will try them. Thanks for writing

  • JvW

    Mr. Maher, Michal Rosa never has a good word to say about articles on dPS but he keeps on commenting. That should tell you how seriously you should take his contributions. Ignore the ignoramus.

  • This article is great! It’s a very good starting point for anyone interested in professional photography. The first thing that you need to learn is what NOT to do.

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    thank you

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    thank you

  • Josh

    These tips can apply to a lot more than just street photography, but I will say this as an addition. If you are shy, or don’t shoot much cause you worry what others may think. Join a group. Especially if you’re a newbie. Hopefully they will do walks or go to events and this makes everyone more comfortable because they aren’t the only one walking around with a huge camera. Not only that, but if you join a good group you can get help from other members if you’re struggling with a setting or not sure why your photo isn’t turning out like you had hoped, doubling your learning experience with hands on help. Also making a commitment to go out and shoot with others helps prevent you from coming up with excuses as to why you aren’t out shooting. There is a lot more benefits from being part of a group as well, like safety and sharing photos afterwards.

  • This is true and he’s about to be banned from commenting on our site. We can appreciate different opinions but there is no need to be rude about it.

  • Leyden

    I appreciate your article, and we all have are own ideas on the over all ‘tone’ of street pics, but all your examples are ‘dark’ and a wee bit ‘artsy’ – is that intentional? Don’t take that as derogatory, I like them all – just curious.

  • Hi Leyden – I don’t know if all my images are dark, but a good amount of them tend to be. It’s intentional. As for artsy, not sure exactly how to answer that one. I try to have my images have some meaning or strangeness behind them whenever possible, so I guess the answer to that is yes. But I don’t know how intentional it is, that’s just what I end up seeing.

  • Glad you liked it Andy!

  • I completely agree Josh. For some people it can take time to get comfortable and going out with friends or other photographers is a really fun way to get over that initial hump.

  • You’re welcome!

  • Thanks!

  • My pleasure Tony! Just keep trying. It’s very fun to do, but takes a little consistent practice to get comfortable with.

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  • Chris Porsz

    No need for the ‘newbie’ in the title as the points James makes are invaluable to all street photographers including myself. Excellent advice.As a result I am going to try to put my camera to my eye more and turn off the scatter gun approach.

  • Geoff Naylor

    Thanks for the good tips James.
    The first thing I noticed was the weather there in New York; heavy coats, wet streets, umbrella’s, darkness. It can’t always be so poor, so is this a particular view of the city you’re trying to portray?
    The other thing that struck me was that all of your images are in New York: one of the world’s major conurbations. As a student I remember being sent into a village to take photo’s. The pavements were almost deserted and I stuck out like a sore thumb to anyone who happened to pass my way. It’s never easy to make good street images but in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires or Calcutta there’s an awful lot more subject matter to choose from than in Nowhere, Oklahoma.

  • Thanks Geoff,

    I just happen to be from New York, so that’s why a majority of my street images are from here. The reason why all these images are from these situations is because they are all recent, taken over the winter. Less light, brutal weather, it’s just the environment here now. I try to show recent images that I’m taking in these articles and not just the life highlights. Come spring, there will be a lot more color and sun.

    As for shooting in busy cities versus the rest of the world, I both agree with you and disagree. Yes it is easier to candidly take images in public and not stick out. If you are traveling and not familiar with an area, you will stand out, and that’s okay and shouldn’t stop you as long as the area is friendly to you. But if you’re from the area, wherever it is, and know the place, you can take a smaller camera with you in your daily life and get just as good street images as if you were from New York, they’ll just be different and more sparse.

    Check out the work of William Eggleston, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander, and even Bresson (not the city stuff). It’s just as interesting as the busiest street corners, and sometimes even more interesting because it’s more common to see the busy street work.

  • Thanks Chris! Hope you’ve been well 🙂

  • SueWsie Wils

    Same problem I have. There are no big cities nearby. A couple of dead-end towns – not far enough gone for ‘grit’. How do I make street photography work there?

  • Cherie Tabor Cayemberg

    Great tips. I thought the biggest mistake/risk would be getting smacked in the face by someone that didn’t want to get their picture taken 🙂

    Seriously though I love these. There is one that I would disagree with to some extent. The turning off the rapid fire. If there isn’t much action, then perhaps, but if there is then you need to be able to take several photos and decide which is the best. That’s where the art is in it! Also, even if you are simply photographing a speaker you may not get the best shot as they speak, whether that is because they move and gesture frequently or because you catch them with their mouth in an unpleasant way. Heck…or capture their mouth closed. Where’s the action in that shot?

    DPS posts are so much fun! Thanks!
    Cherie

  • Lyn Wilson

    As an enthusiast, I have joined several photography walk-about a in Melbourne, Australia, and find them very good for helping learners in the art of street photography. Sometimes, if you ask nicely, people will let you take photos and ask for an email copy. Set up a tripod and see how many wander over to ask what you’re doing, get involved in a discussion. Some of these observers may have something to add to your learning.

  • Hi Cherie – thanks for your comment. I’m still very anti-rapid fire, but actually for a different reason. I think it’s too slow for this type of spontaneous photography (even though it’s very fast in general). For sports, it’s one thing, but I think when you rapid fire you end up missing the moment in between the shots. I think there’s a very split second moment where the shot it perfect and waiting and catching it intuitively is the best way to get it. Of course you’ll mess some up, but the ones you get are usually fantastic. That’s just my opinion and it may not be the right one or the right one for you, but it’s why I talk about staying away from it.

  • Check out the world of of William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Trent Parke. There are a lot of photographers that have done and are doing incredibly good work in areas that you speak about. I would research it more to give you inspiration about what is possible.

  • I.babasan

    I’m very tankful!!!

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