There is No Bad Light for Street Photography

There is No Bad Light for Street Photography

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One of the advantages of being a street photographer is that you certainly don’t need to get up before dawn to catch the good light. Harsh sunlight, nighttime and rainy days are only a few of the most desired situations on the streets. Getting up too early, before people are out and about, may actually be counter-productive in your search for the decisive moment.

The key is to use light, any light, to your advantage

Any time of day or night, be aware of the quality and quantity of light, and look for interesting light sources and subjects.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Nighttime photography

The night adds a new dimension to your street photography. There are so many interesting light sources to work with such as street lights, traffic lights, car lights, neon signs, etc. Even bright Smartphone screens illuminating people’s faces can make for a fun shot. Learn to focus manually for night photography. Even if the auto focus works in most conditions, practice switching to manual focus rapidly, it may save the shot!

It’s true that a simple slider action in post-processing can bring out details from the shadows, but that doesn’t mean that you should always use it. This is a common mistake that I see too often when the night scene starts to look like it was shot in the daytime. Let the shadows fall where they do and embrace the atmosphere and mystery of the night.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Don’t worry about noise, especially if you shoot black and white. First, you can now push the ISO of most cameras to very high numbers with very little noise. Second, the little bit of grain in your pictures will enhance the mood and atmosphere. Likewise, embrace the motion blur and the slightly out of focus shots. Who says that a good image has to be tack sharp? What’s the point of technical perfection if your subject is boring, or the story non-existent?

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Silhouettes

The key to successful silhouette photography is to find a well-defined subject. Remember that not everyone makes an interesting street photography subject and the same principle applies to silhouettes. The shape of the body should be well defined, capturing the right gesture is even more important to achieving a strong image. Many elements can add interest as well, such as umbrellas, bicycles, hats, etc. Watch for obstructions in front of and behind your subject, and if they are moving, make sure you don’t catch them in between steps. Setting your camera in burst mode will increase your chances of getting the right gesture. Remember that your subject is not the background, which can act as a distraction, so do not be afraid to blow out the highlights behind your silhouettes unless it is an integral part of the story.

In order to shoot successful silhouettes, you need to take control of your camera first. Instead to going through all the steps here, check out: How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps.

Shooting into the bright sun

Shooting into the sun when it’s low in the sky can create some dramatic shots. Add a sunburst effect when possible. The starburst effect is best achieved by setting your camera at a small aperture and hiding the sun partially behind a structure or person. Experiment with exposure compensation to get a nice dark silhouette and once you’re happy with the result, wait for the right subject to enter your frame, or the right action to happen.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Strong shadows

Street photographers love shadows. Similarly to silhouettes, not every shadow works. It should be really dark and well defined. The surface on which it shows will also play a part in the result. It’s important to strategize and position yourself to get the best possible shot, the shadow may hit a wall next to the subject for instance. Long shadows are also really interesting when shot from a higher vantage point. Sometimes it’s all about the shadow, and the subject casting it does not even need to be fully included. This method, if well executed, will add an element of mystery.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Reflections

Sunlight can create some really cool reflections in windows, puddles, or other surfaces and add interest to your street photography. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

High contrast situations

Harsh sunlight and deep shadows can create ideal situations for the discerning street photographer.  The sun comes out after the rain? Even better! The wet pavement will add yet another dimension and interest.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Dappled light

One of my favorite daylight situations in street photography is when I find a nice source of dappled light. Remember that even if the situation is ideal, not every person walking down the street will make an interesting subject. It’s often a game of patience…

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Rainy days

As long as you protect your gear (and yourself), rainy days can provide some of the best street photography opportunities. People on the streets will behave very differently when it’s raining, creating some interesting situations. Umbrellas also make for good props. There are also ways to embrace the rain by focussing selectively through windows, car windshields, etc.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Open shade for street portraits

If you enjoy doing street portraits, then the same simple rules that you apply for any other portrait will help you achieve the best result. Once you’ve asked your subject for a portrait, you might as well go the extra step and ask them to move slightly, or even cross the street for the most flattering light. Look for open shade to avoid harsh shadows on their face.

Golden and blue hour

Of course, there are also beautiful photographs of people to be made in the early morning and late evening hours, but always remember that there is no bad light!

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

Conclusion

Never use the quality of light as an excuse not to hit the streets. Making any light work in your favor is part of the fun and also the best way to improve your skills and get some cool shots. Have fun!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, Instagram. And listen to my new Street Focus Podcast!

  • You are right. You can make any light work when it comes to street photography. I’m still learning and I’m very much a beginner, but I think that the problem isn’t lighting, it’s finding great subjects and scenarios.
    I for one don’t think that pointing your camera at just anybody on the street and taking their photo automatically makes it a good shot that should go into the street photography category.

  • Valerie Jardin

    That’s for sure Claudiu! Not everyone in the street is a good subject. Gesture, expressions, etc. all play a part. This article is specifically about light. I’ve written many more about street photography. I invite you to visit my website for links to all my publications and listen to my weekly podcast Street Focus. All are linked in my short bio above.

  • Keith Starkey

    Great, great stuff! Thanks so much.

  • Pro Photographer

    Again, great article and some fantastic showcase imagery! Fantastic. Thank you.

  • Nigel

    These are all interesting articles and provide me with great tips but it would be brilliant if you included the exposure etc with each of the photos shown.

  • Hi Nigel… while the exposure information can be interesting, I don’t think it really helps. In general terms I guess you could see what type of photos have either minus or plus exposure compensation applied, but every photograph is going to be different. There really is no set formula. Having said that, I do tend to post the exposure information on the images on my own blog, but I’ve been on the verge of stopping that for a while now. I’m not sure that it’s actually beneficial 🙂

    I guess there is so much variation in lighting and the nuances in every scene make it impossible to say “do this in this circumstance” 🙂

  • Paul Donohoe

    For me I always try to remember that there are no ordinary people or ordinary moments Of course I agree that we should not just photograph every person in the street Just be aware that every person is potentially the one to photograph

  • Valerie Jardin

    Thanks Ken, that’s also my point. Nigel, you will never find yourself in the same situation, all that information is quite pointless. The best way to learn is to experience all the different settings yourself. That’s how I learned, until it became intuitive.

  • Nigel

    Thanks for replying Ken and Valerie. I accept you are correct when you say try different settings, which I do, but what I find really helpful on sites like Flickr is checking the settings used on those photos that include the information. They include ISO settings, exposure times etc which give me ideas to try when I’m out and about. Most monthly photo mags include exposure info on many of their images and I just find that it helps me. Each to their own I suppose!

  • Hi Nigel – I agree with what Valerie and Ken have already said but wanted to add that this article is about light and helping you to see the light in a different way. If you are too focused on settings you will miss that point.

    Try this – if you are having trouble just head out and put the camera on Program. Focus on finding light and watching the light and let the camera do the exposure. See if your pictures are better and report back to us. I will almost bet you that you will see differently. Take away the technical for a while and focus on other things.

  • Kay

    I see that recently you have to be a blogger in order to show your own staff . It’s such ashame that it does not go with quality and many good photographers won’t be published because they don’t know how to sell themselves in social media.

  • Eve

    I love sitting at the front on the top of the bus! A rainy night gave me a pleasing abstract. Thanks for the article …. learning all the time!

  • Tim Lowe

    True.

  • C.B.

    About ISO, without high ISO, I would lost the fast action on the moment in very poor lighting. As a kid was sit next to my table and eating ice cream. It need a fast action and my camera’s ISO was set to automatic, the later I found out those pictures were taken at 23,500 and 25,000 ISO. Grainy? For sure but is is still usable in color or B & W. Otherwise, no pictures at all, and those moment will never come back!

  • totally agree here. I don’t do much street photography but on the rare occasions I’m happy to let the light dictate what type of shots and locations I should seek out, rather than snapping away and saying “that would have been a great shot in “X” light later”…

  • Dominic Bolaa
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