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7 Secrets Every Aspiring Street Photographer Should Know

Street photography ain’t easy. It’s a fast moving world out there and it takes a lot of practice to be able to capture it well.

However, it’s not just about practice. Every seasoned street photographer has a bag of tricks to make their lives easier when out on the streets. Below are few of my “secrets,” which I do not think are written about enough. They are not just technical tricks, but tips to help you seek out great content for your photos, so that they are interesting and powerful.

Mona.

1.  Stop Moving

Do you treat your street photography as if you are taking a beautiful stroll through the city? There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is very hard to walk, pay full attention and still capture quality street photos at the same time. You will often find yourself out of position when a moment happens and it is much easier to be noticed when you try to get yourself into position. Finally, people are usually moving in the opposite direction of you and so it can be tough to stop your motion enough to achieve a sharp shot while framing correctly at the same time. All of this takes a lot of coordination to pull off while moving.

The key is to slow down. Make a point to stop every few blocks and wait for a few minutes. See what happens. You want the subjects to come to you and not the other way around. Explore your surroundings in a detailed way and wait for things to unfold around you. You will be surprised at the amount of moments that will occur while you are just standing around.

Rucker Park.

2.  Pay Attention to the Eyes

If you want to improve your street photography (or portraiture) by a thousand percent then paying attention to a person’s eyes is the way to do it. People can be so skilled at hiding their emotions on their faces but their eyes will never lie. I see too many street photos with blank stares these days. Search for that hint of emotion in a person’s eyes and it will have a transformative effect on your photography.

In addition, direct eye contact can be extremely important. It creates a powerful connection with the subject. I usually try to avoid being noticed and so I often don’t aim for eye contact but sometimes waiting for a person to look at you is exactly what a photo needs.  The photograph will still be candid as long as you capture the subject in the moment that they first look at you and before they are able to react.

Death of a Salesman.

3.  Focus on Details

Street photography is not only about capturing crazy juxtapositions or fitting as many different people or objects into an elaborate frame. In fact, this is something that I see way too much. Often, it’s best to simplify your photos and search for the ‘little things’ – the tiny hints about life that everyone else seems to miss. Look at the details: a person’s hands, an expression, a piece of clothing, or a single object framed very close. Powerful ideas and emotions can be portrayed through the simplest of scenes.

Sleeping in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street.


4.  Shoot at ISO 1600

Digital cameras these days are amazingly good at high ISOs. If you are in bright sunlight or shooting still objects then you don’t need to shoot around ISO 1600, but for the rest of the time it is a good idea. I pretty much live in ISO 1600, 800 and 3200. Shooting with a high ISO will help you achieve sharper images by letting you to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture, allowing for more of the scene to be sharp. As long as you are using a decent digital camera, you will quickly notice that shooting with a high ISO will create a much higher quality image, despite the extra grain.

Also, grain is beautiful! Just make sure to not brighten the exposure too much in post-production with a high ISO photo. That will ruin the photo. If you are shooting with a high ISO, exposing correctly is extremely important.

Layers of the City, East Village.

5.  Find shots without people

Street photography is often wrongly associated with being entirely about photographing people on the streets. Street photography is about people, or more specifically about human nature, but people don’t need to be present in the scene. There are an infinite amount of opportunities out there for epic street photos without people. You just have to look for them.

But let’s not confuse a street photograph without people with an urban landscape. An urban landscape is a straight shot of an urban environment, such as a simple shot of the Empire State Building. Street photos on the other hand say something about human nature. They have a message to them. Take the example of Layers of the City. This photograph represents the changing nature of Manhattan and particularly the neighborhood of the East Village, which is currently the fastest gentrifying neighborhood in the city. It portrays the progression from the seedy underbelly of the neighborhood to a sleek and sterile future. The shot says something about human nature and the nature of cities. It is not just a straight shot of a construction site.

Noodletown, Chinatown.

6.   Shoot at Night with Artificial Light

Night is one of the most fun and rewarding times to shoot on the street. In general, I find street photos at night to be more moody and powerful than their counterparts taken during the day. And you don’t need to use a flash (although I do enjoy the flash look). I prefer to shoot without a flash because I love the colored and authentic look of artificial light sources and I want to take advantage of the beautiful qualities of these lights.

The trick to shooting street photography at night without a flash is to find bright areas and wait there (and shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200). Use glowing storefront signs and hang out near streetlamps. It will be worth it.

The Last Throes of Paper.

7.   Like A Fine Wine

Street photography is like wine; it ages extremely well. This idea is something that you need to pay attention to when out shooting. Think about what is going to change. Focus on current trends or things that won’t be around in 2, 3, 10 or 20 years. For example, take a look at this 2012 shot of five people reading paper on the subway. This is not my favorite image by any means but it is going to age well extremely quickly. In 3 years, capturing an image like this may be impossible when almost everyone is using e-readers or their phones. This idea makes this image much more fascinating to me.

And this is only a small sample. The exciting thing about street photography is that for each of these seven “secrets,” there are dozens more. What other tips and tricks do you use to improve your street photography.

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. Visit his website or say hi on Facebook or Google+.

  • rugfoot

    Some really sound tips. And I love the point that street is about people but you don’t have to have people in the picture.

  • cerenatee

    No. There is no privacy expectation on the street UNLESS you want them for commercial work – work that sells a product. You can use them personally and sell them personally, like a print or a book, because they’re considered a work of art. Someone just tried to sue a street photographer for using his picture in a book and he lost because a public street is just that, public, and the book was considered a work of art. If a release was needed for every shot of a person, there would be no street photography.

  • Josh

    Street photography allows one to be more creative than any other area of photography. I won’t ever go back to editorial work, but journalism did enhance every aspect of my street and documentary shooting styles. It’s the ethics and laws of photography that many don’t understand on why people are so scared of cameras and end up in law suits. However, if a photographer isn’t getting the name of a dominant person in their picture that photo isn’t finished. Take the time to talk with the people on your streets, it opens up more avenues to other opportunities. They will feel more comfortable with you around with that camera and it keeps you from looking over your shoulder all the time.

  • adams

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Some older comments

  • Michal France

    January 7, 2013 08:09 am

    Thank you for a great article! The historical value slipped completely out of my mind. And it makes one to think also about present.

    Thanks!

  • Ben Chapman

    January 3, 2013 09:00 am

    I'll admit I'm scared by the prospect of street photography.

    I've got to get out there

  • Vaidhi Kohout

    October 17, 2012 01:00 pm

    There is one photograph taken and displayed by Maher shot at an high ISO , with the shadows or silhouettes of three people standing before 4 people who are sleeping on the street, the fact that they are actually people was not immediately obvious to me, as they look as though they are just piles of stuff, which makes a great and brilliant subject for an image.

  • PhotoHog

    June 10, 2012 04:01 pm

    I enjoyed the article, but it's people like mike (aka Photog Nazis) that make photography un-fun. Usually I learn to ignore those types of people because they have no idea of what it means to really enjoy life.

    Anyway, some of these tips helped. I often have a fear of looking at people and snapping photos of their faces. I live in NYC and I see a lot of things happen on my street alone.

  • Jenny

    May 16, 2012 12:49 pm

    I get a lot of problem when it comes to people reacting that you have taken their pictures. In a culture like ours, people will surely react violently and or sheepishly--teasing you in the end :(

  • Samantha

    May 14, 2012 07:55 pm

    Wha about permissions? That's always a difficult area for me... Did you have to get permission from all those people to take photos? Or is that only if you intend on selling them? Do you ever get weird looks from people when you are trying to take photos? Lol just a curiosity question. :)

  • Paul

    May 14, 2012 07:02 am

    Thanks for this post, I am fascinated by Street Photography, but to date haven't found the time to develop the skills or the eye?

  • July

    May 12, 2012 06:31 am

    Very good article! Good references and excellent accompanying photos. I leave a picture of my Project 366, the last urban route I did. Regards

    166/366 – Amigos para siempre wp.me/p21y9o-hF

  • Ali Kazim Malik

    May 12, 2012 01:48 am

    This is really helpful. Might actually take these tips and put them into ACTION! :p "street photography here I come" :)

    Check out some of my photography and like my page on facebook.
    Thank You!!!!

    www.facebook.com/AliKazimPhotography

  • Mridula

    May 12, 2012 12:18 am

    As I am scared of offending people I almost always end up shooting without people.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/05/food-food-food-malaysia.html

  • eternalhope

    May 11, 2012 10:09 pm

    These are valuable tips, thanks for sharing them James. I wanted SO, SO much to do street photography with my DLSR when I was overseas in Kenya, but feared what reactions I would have, so I tended to stick to using my mobile or P&S, which just does not cut it!! Any advice for shooting in foreign countries when taking photos of people may attract unwanted attention to myself?

  • Aaron

    May 11, 2012 08:21 am

    Excellent! This is something that I'm looking to make more of an effort to learn and these are invaluable tips. Really well written.

  • Photography workshops in new zealand

    May 11, 2012 07:51 am

    @ Kadles. By my statistics, about one in every 400 people will get annoyed at being photographed. In those very few occasions I just delete the photo, tell them I’ve deleted it and move on. I don’t let there problems become my problems.

    I particularly liked the last two bits of advice. Not so sure about high ISO, but then I’m often shooting around f2

  • James Maher

    May 11, 2012 06:28 am

    @Pat Roshaven - You do not need permission to sell or show them as art as long as they were taken in public.

    @faye - Just go to crowded areas!

    @todd kraemer - That's crazy that you've been threatened. I tend to be really discreet so I'm rarely noticed, but if I am then I smile and get really friendly. Just be honest with people.

    @joe chatterjee - Street photography can take place anywhere, not just urban areas. It is about people.

    @darren - definitely on the hip shooting, that is extremely important.

    @mike - I appreciate the critique of my work, but would have preferred it be more constructive. I have written about zone focusing a lot so if you check my other articles then it will be in there. This was a list of 7 secrets that are not written about enough. Zone focusing and sunny 16 are very commonly written about.

  • Mike

    May 11, 2012 05:53 am

    The photos used to illustrate this article are mediocre. It would have been more convincing if you used some work by well known street photographers who actually know what they're doing. Not to mention, no where in this article do you mention "Sunny 16" and prefocus, which is really the biggest secret to street photography there is.

  • Bev Niven

    May 11, 2012 02:41 am

    Love your tips on street shooting. How do you manage to take photos of people? Whenever I try people get very upset. As soon as they see the camera they either go the other way or tell me not to take their picture. So how do you do it?
    Thanks and great shots!
    BN

  • Steeny Lou

    May 11, 2012 02:08 am

    I live in a small community. There is one grocery store. Last summer, I sat outside of that store with a few of my kids, pretending to review pictures on a digital camera, but really we were taking candid shots of people coming to and leaving the store. Now, armed with some ideas from this article, I might sit there again - hard to go unnoticed in this small town, though. :)

  • Virginia

    May 11, 2012 01:31 am

    BTW. I saw a small exhibit of Vivian Maier's work in Los Angeles last October. Amazing work.
    V

  • Virginia

    May 11, 2012 01:30 am

    I enjoyed your article. I too thrive on street photography mainly when I'm in Paris. You gave me some new things to think about when I"m out and about.
    V

  • andrew

    May 10, 2012 11:59 pm

    I tried so many street photography before but never get a good shot. It is very hard to get a good composition or the right timing. People, cars and things are just moving so fast. Also to shoot someone in the eyes will need a lot of guts to do so. A very good tips indeed. I probably applying this tips on my next outing.

  • Darren

    May 10, 2012 09:27 pm

    My big tip is to experiment shooting from the hip. With a wide angle (I use 15mm on a crop sensor, so 24 FF equ.) hold the camera in your hand and practice framing shots without looking. While practising I broke the golden rule and did a LOT of chimping. Have your image review set so you can see how you're framing, it shouldn't take too many days of practice before you can ditch the review (or flip your screen over if you use the 60D like me) and snap away.

    One thing I'd like to learn is zone-focusing, that way I could have the camera in live-view but with the screen off and shoot without shutter noise.

  • Joe Chatterjee

    May 10, 2012 02:35 pm

    Is it a rule that Street Photography should be limited to Urban areas only? Take a photograph of a winding road going through a forest. There are flowering plants on both sides of the road. On the road you can see four people on two bikes winding their way through a bunch of cows lazily crossing the road. Can this thing caught in a frame be classified as Street Photography?

  • Aditya Datar

    May 10, 2012 01:46 pm

    Hi i really liked this article !
    Good Job
    I hail from Pune which has some of the most interesting streets in the world...
    so watch out people on the streets- i'm coming

    to see my photographs ,u can follow me on Twitter @AdiDatar

  • Todd Kraemer

    May 10, 2012 01:10 pm

    I'm a street photographer seeking cyclists. Some folks get offended others smile and pose. Some have threatened camera assassination. In fact, I have faked a photo delete to get out of someones hair. I want to go "Bruce G" and throw the smackdown, however, I do have a little compassion for others needs. Any words of wisdom?

  • Kevin

    May 10, 2012 04:28 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/73481282@N04/7132670829/in/photostream

    This is something I'd like to try more. Although photographing strangers is still an obstacle in my mind. Just gotta do it!!!

  • Faye

    May 10, 2012 04:05 am

    Thank you for so many helpful ideas. Any suggestions for shooting street scenes in London and Paris?

  • Alexx

    May 10, 2012 01:08 am

    I love it. I truly love it.

    I'm actually very interested in street photography and I love doing it when I get the chance.

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • Pat Roshaven

    May 10, 2012 12:28 am

    Would I need to have the written permission of people I've photographed if I sell these photos or use them on my website? What about photographing children? Would I need the permission of their parents?

  • James Maher

    May 9, 2012 11:15 pm

    @kadles shutter noise is pretty annoying - but I find it's only noticeable to other people indoors or in the subway. I tend to just go for it anyway though, with a smile of course in case I get caught.

    @Jason St. Petersburg Photographer - That is definitely a fairly common thought, but I'm on the other side of the fence there. I think street photography is about people, not necessarily of them.

    @daniela beddall I'd experiment to see what works best for you, but I find the range from 28mm to 50mm is generally best for me. I tend to stick with 28mm or 35mm.

    @Vi Film grain is definitely more pleasing, but modern cameras are finally starting to do good things at high ISOs.

  • Craig

    May 9, 2012 08:55 pm

    Very interesting read. I've not been shooting for long and hadn't really given street photography any thought. However, the author makes a valid point about the reportage and documentary value of this short of shooting: looking back in years to come; much like a nostalgic or historical record.
    I suppose street photography is a parenial type of shooting too, because weather conditions will have little impact and not be such a consideration as it would be for, say, landscape or outdoor- macro shots, and other domains dependant on favourable or at least certain and particular weather conditions.
    Enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Vi

    May 9, 2012 08:48 pm

    #4 - right, people should experiment with ISO as latest digital cameras allows achieve very good results. Thought I don't like digital grain.

  • Teayogi

    May 9, 2012 07:43 pm

    Thanks for the tips on street photography. I particularly liked the distinction between the urban landscape & street photography. It helps me to think more about the subject matter, the historical context of that moment and the context in which i am making the image.

  • Daniela Beddall

    May 9, 2012 07:21 pm

    Ive never done street photography but this artical has really inspired me to have a go! What lens would you recommend and do people ever say anything if they see you photographing them?

  • Gunapati Ram Mohan Redddy

    May 9, 2012 06:56 pm

    the tips are really good..Thanks

  • steve slater

    May 9, 2012 05:38 pm

    Some good tips.
    Love street photography but you need to get over the initial trepidation. The more you do the easier it gets.
    I love to get peoples expressions:
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Street-photography-in-Italy/G0000hUJPPSs5RRA/I0000pO04IaJx6l4

  • raghavendra

    May 9, 2012 01:03 pm

    secrets revealed!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2010/09/one-fine-evening.html

  • Elizabeth

    May 9, 2012 11:10 am

    Great article! I have never tried street photography but always wanted to. I will just have to go and do it. Thanks for all of the tips.

  • rich

    May 9, 2012 11:02 am

    Some great advice here.

    Since I've started using the 5dm3 (upgrade from the 50D) I've found that the high ISO performance has given me a whole new approach to street photography.

    For instance, this shot would not have been possible with my 50D:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/41898910@N03/6884357146/in/set-72157629327383250

    More 5Dm3 shots here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/41898910@N03/sets/72157629327383250/with/7030466289/

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    May 9, 2012 10:52 am

    I agree with the author about staying in one place to make street photography shots. When I used to live in Tokyo I would pick the corner of an intersection best positioned for light and stay there for awhile until I felt the spot had been played out, rather than walking constantly down any given street.

    However, I disagree with the author about not including people in shots. If there are no people in the shot, then to me, that is not a street photography shot. There has to be a person in the shot to be street photography.

    This is one of my favorite street photography shots from Tokyo, taken specifically in Takadanobaba of a pretty girl crossing the street searching for something:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2012/5/3/try-street-photography-for-making-memorable-shots-of-cities.html

  • Scott Horvath

    May 9, 2012 10:39 am

    Great post and very timely for me because I was just telling my wife tonight that I wanted to do some more street shots. I've recently become more intrigued by street photography and there's something raw about it that appeals to me. I've only done a few things I would consider "street" so please take a look and let me know your thoughts. Remember though, I'm really new to photography in general (about a year now) so I'm still rough around the edges. Thanks for any comments you might have: http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=15298640%40N03&q=Street&m=text

  • Jeff E Jensen

    May 9, 2012 09:23 am

    Oh man, it's been a while since I've had the opportunity to spend any time on some street photography. I really need to get back after it. These are all great tips, James. I especially like #4. No reason to be afraid of 1600!

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2010/07/people-of-chicago.html

  • Scottc

    May 9, 2012 08:12 am

    Great photos! Great advice on ISO settings as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4894025166/

  • Kadles

    May 9, 2012 07:49 am

    What do you do about the shutter noise? Do you ever have people angry about getting their picture taken?

  • Robert Colameco

    May 9, 2012 06:53 am

    I have tried street photography and generally failed. These hints make a lot of sense. I am motivated to keep trying. Thanks.

  • Katrine

    May 9, 2012 06:35 am

    perfect article. i was never sure about street photography. that really helped a lot!

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