Deal 10: A hot topic, at a hot price!
So you want to be a great street photographer.
You want to be able to strap your camera around your wrist and boldly walk down the streets, eagle-eyed and aware of everything around you, yet still in tune with your camera settings and its F-stops, its strengths and limitations. You want to visualize a moment happening and then capture it exactly as you saw it, to be preserved forever as a moment of history.
I’m not going to sugarcoat things; this is downright hard to do.
I’ve been doing street photography for almost 10 years and I struggle with it every single day. There are just so many competing and unanticipated aspects that all need to come together in unison for a great street photograph to work.
You will have to be persistent and learn to be hardheaded to get good. Sometimes you will see a moment and miss it. Other times your camera will be ready but you won’t see the moment until it is too late. Sometimes you will be too afraid to shoot quickly enough and will miss the moment by a split second. You will want to tear your hair out afterwards. It happens to all of us.
Street photography is a genre where you have to accept so many failures before you get that one success, where the captures can count in the thousands, while the great successes can be counted on your fingers and toes.
So let’s get down to it. What is the best way to start out? How do you take that first step into the vast pool of street photography and then set upon a path to improve and grow?
If you are a beginner, I think that the best way to start is to take your time, to be patient and to really think about what you are doing.
You don’t need to run out the door and take a thousand photos of everything that moves. You shouldn’t click the shutter constantly because you are afraid of missing the shot. The photographers that take the most shots of a subject are usually the ones that miss THE moment.
Try to anticipate when a moment will happen and capture the photo with a shot or two at the right point. Don’t be afraid to miss. You will miss sometimes, but the ones you hit will be way better than the hundreds of photos you will have otherwise taken that are almost there but not quite. Only worry about taking lots of photos if the scene starts to further develop.
After all, if you’re shooting constantly then you can’t actually see what’s happening.
Now I’m sure that you’ve already read (and I have personally written) about many different specific techniques, such as only using wide-angle primes, getting in close, shooting from the hip, using a long zoom or maybe even about popping up suddenly in front of someone’s face with a blinding flash (ala Bruce Gilden). Every street photographer shoots a little differently and there is no correct way to do it. You should eventually try out each technique.
I switch up my techniques constantly. It’s like that candy-bar commercial: “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” I may always feel like a nut, but some days I wake up as a wide-angle prime lens man and others I feel like using a zoom. Often I use both.
But let’s get back to you. To start out, I think that you should use a zoom that has a little distance to it. You can try a 28-300, a 24-105, or even a 70-200.
Keep some distance from your subject. This will give you more time to see a moment happening, more time to anticipate a moment happening, more room to frame correctly and it will keep people from noticing you as much.
In this photo I watched the box float all the way down the street in the direction of the cube during a huge snowstorm. It hit the bicycle stand and floated up into the same shape as the cube for a second and then was blown down the street. There was only a split second where this photo worked.
Think about what you are shooting and why. Train your eyeballs. Is there a strong emotion or idea present, does a person have a unique face, outfit or expression, are there powerful colors, patterns or angles in the scene? Then focus in and frame what is important.
Don’t run around the streets quickly searching out people. Instead, go to an area with some foot traffic and good lighting or an interesting background, set your camera to manual and pick the correct F-stop, shutter speed and ISO, and wait for the subjects to come into your scene. Search out the background and create the scene.
Get used to figuring out where to focus and on how to change your focus quickly. Pay attention and study the correct camera settings. This will come in very handy later when you switch to wide-angle primes.
Then, once you get your shot, try someplace new.
I can’t stress enough to take your time and get used to searching out what’s around you. Survey buildings, lighting, people, color and angles. Don’t just photograph everyone that you get close to. A great day is when you come back with a single epic photo, not twenty good ones.
Edit your photos. Really spend a lot of time editing. So much of street photography is about the editing. Learn from your successes and mistakes by looking at them, over and over. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Spend a lot of time going over what you shot. It will help train your eye for when you are out photographing.
Eventually you will start to notice themes popping up in your work that you didn’t notice while you were out photographing.
Street photography with a tripod? Blasphemy! It took hours of waiting to get this shot right.
Once you get comfortable with the previous method then you should switch it up.
Attach a wide-angle prime lens (anywhere from 20-35mm), strap your camera to your wrist, put an extra battery, card and a lens wipe in your pocket and carry nothing else. Travel as light as possible.
If you can, go someplace crowded or touristy, where you won’t be noticed as much and where there will be a lot of people to shoot and practice on.
This time get in close to people. Fight your fears and move an inch closer each day. Try shooting from the hip sometimes so people won’t notice. Shoot faster. Use your instincts that you developed in the zoom phase.
It will feel completely different and if you are like me then your first photos will be terrible. This is such a hard way to shoot and that’s why I think it is important to take your time at first with a zoom and some distance before moving onto this step.
Thing happen so quickly this way, and otherwise you would spend so much time worrying about the focus, framing, settings and trying to catch every single person that passes you by that you would forget to really see what was happening and to visualize the moment before it comes.
Here you can shoot faster and take more photos than you would in the zoom phase, but still try hard to get a moment with one shot.
Shoot with a fast shutter speed setting and make sure you are fully stopped before taking a photo. Many people say that 1/160th is the minimum you should be shooting, but I try to use 1/320th as my minimum as long as it’s possible.
Try unique angles and perspectives. Shoot diagonally. Focus in on faces. Make yourself nervous and get your heart beating. Adventure out and have fun.
Take your camera everywhere like this, whether to the market or the train station. Travel light and keep yourself aware as often as possible. I have terrible ADD, so constantly paying attention is not my strong suit.
Don’t worry if you can’t capture anything of value at first. It takes time. With some practice you will get good.
Once you get good at using a wide-angle prime lens then you should go back to switching it up between a prime and a zoom. After awhile, you will begin to notice a technique that works for you and a style within your work. Pay attention to this when editing. It’s important and will help you ‘see’ when you are out in the field. Often you will have tendencies that you won’t notice until you edit.
You can stick to one lens or not, but developing a personal style certainly doesn’t mean that you have to pigeonhole yourself this way. A style is primarily developed through the content that you photograph and how you choose to edit.
And also, keep in mind that a large zoom lens will miss shots that a light, fast wide-angle will get, while a light, fast wide-angle lens will miss shots that a heavier, larger zoom will get. It’s a fact of life and something not to get frustrated about.
As street photographers we will miss a thousand percent more shots than we make, but when we get that truly amazing moment, the one that we never would have been able to capture without taking all of those crappy photographs and trying out all of those different techniques, then this is what will make everything worth it.
Another street photograph on a tripod? The horror!
March 18, 2012 05:35 am
Great article. I am building my confidence up in this area of photography. Seen plenty of great moments whilst walking around, just need to have the confidence to always have the camera ready so i can actually try and capture some of them. I find it very intimidating but as with everything confidence comes with practice i guess.
January 10, 2012 05:40 pm
Very good article James. You really teach the basics of street photography, that I still learning everyday.
I just start to doing so and I am having lots of fun, seeing the everyday urban life.
August 12, 2011 12:57 am
Nice article;e. Very helpful and insightful. Thanks!
August 7, 2011 11:29 am
I tried street photography in a little bit controlled environment at an airport. There was almost a 5 hour long gap between connecting flights and the departure terminal looked like a shopping mall (most of the international airports are now a days). There were people, the food court, good setting. So I thought why not!
After not more than 10 pictures and some stares later, I kept the camera down. I was too timid.
August 6, 2011 05:14 pm
Been doing street photography for some long time. I use Nikons and Tamron lens 18-250mm Macro capability with my D300 and recently D7000, with Auti Iso program and manual controlled exposure. I've improved, but still, wary somebody will snatch my set, even if its slung around my neck and shoulder sometimes. Best and relaxed street photography from your car with cooperative driver. firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 6, 2011 02:25 am
You don't need permission unless you are going to use these for commercial or advertising work in the U.S. The laws in other countries are much different so make sure to check.
Robert and Andy, don't be afraid of being caught (just don't photograph anyone that looks dangerous :) ). I just smile if people notice and keep walking and most people don't care. If someone does care then I tell them what I'm doing and then they usually get it. Only a couple of times ever have people asked me to delete photos and I have obliged.
A lot about street photography is just getting over your fears and you can only do that with practice (and its easier to do this work in crowded areas).
August 6, 2011 01:47 am
Thank you James. I'm not ashamed to admit I am scared to death of street photography (which probably also stems from my general fear of authority, crowds and of course confrontation.) But...we must do things which scare us in order to make us better, your article taught me that today and I look forward to applying your principles. Again thank you for the inspiration!
August 5, 2011 07:29 am
Great article James, thanks. Street photography is a passion of mine. The greatest challenge I find is the reaction of people if and when they discover what you're doing. This ranges from indifference to mild suspicion to outrage to laughter and ridiculous posing (mostly vague suspicion I've found).
From my aversion to annoying people I've developed quite a folio of people's 'portraits' from the back. I know this sounds like a cop out but trying to caption emotion in the image in this way is not easy and I love the challenge.
Marcy...I'm sure everybody has an opinion on whether getting permission is "allowed" but one thing to keep in mind is that some competitions require permission from the subject of an image (which cuts out most of my work and is, I think, really limiting).
August 5, 2011 02:23 am
Excellent article, one of the best that I've read lately on this subject. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one feeling nervous about shooting someone in the street. I'm still mastering the Zoom phase. Great job, James.
August 5, 2011 01:12 am
I have just started playing with street photography, but am nervous about upsetting people who don't want to be photographed. An article on how to capture true street photography without having to plan an escape route would be very helpful.
July 31, 2011 12:29 am
Great article. I always carry a pocket point-and-shoot camera, even when I'm walking around with my DSLR. I found very early that crown reactions are very different when I shoot with my DSLR vs my pocket camera.
Here's some of my favorite street shots.
July 30, 2011 11:16 pm
Are you "allowed" to get permission to take the photo? In other words, is that still street photography? I got this man's permission to take this photo in the Fes medina.
July 30, 2011 10:41 pm
Good article on street photography. I think the wide angle work is the most interesting.
July 30, 2011 09:44 pm
Very encouraging and inspiring, I'm gonna get out today evening to apply these tips!
July 30, 2011 04:43 pm
Great article. Was wondering how people you manage the release form issue when photographing people that are the main subject of your shot.
Are you chasing down the person asking to sign a release form or you just let it go? And if you do let go, how then you can use the shot? What limitation? If can help, i'm writing from belgium.
July 30, 2011 08:15 am
Nice article James. Very encouraging. I just started getting interested in street photography, having recently gotten an dSLR. The courage part is definitely something to build/work on.
July 30, 2011 08:13 am
Too many rules.
All you need to know is
1 be prepared for sore feet and
2 learn that you win some, you lose some.
July 30, 2011 07:19 am
I, too, long to do street photography, but am reluctant to give a shot--you know, in the streets. The photography I do documenting the activities of my club is excellent practice for anticipating and capturing those "special moments."
This article does a good job of breaking down the components of good street photography.
July 30, 2011 07:11 am
Interesting article, and some of the accompanying photos are stunning.
I had a little luck with this on occasion, nothing do to with a serious attempt. This is my favorite one.
July 30, 2011 05:04 am
@srinidhi av I was joking about not using a tripod for street photography. I do it frequently and love it but it's something that people don't often think about or consider.
I'm happy to hear the rest of you liked the article. If you take one thing from it, it's to experiment with different lenses and techniques and to try to focus on what's going on around you rather than just on the camera settings.
Shooting closeup with a wide prime lens might seem like the holy grail of street photography, but there are uses for all different types of lenses and techniques. So experiment and have fun with it!
July 30, 2011 04:56 am
So wait, tripod in dim or evenings a yes?
Great article! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and wonderful shots.
July 30, 2011 04:44 am
awesome article ... one of the best that i've read on the subject of street photography. thanks for sharing!
July 30, 2011 04:35 am
great article, I like street photography a lot, even though I'm an amateur :).
I agree in what you say about the lenses, to give more time and space to get the right moment and scene. But in my opinion the 50mm it's one great piece of the street photography, makes you go more into the subject and get the feeling of it.
some my pictures
you can find more in my flickr page.
July 30, 2011 04:23 am
Wow! Great tips and insight on Street Photography! Thank You so much!
July 30, 2011 04:22 am
I apppreciate the things you focused on in this article. I will to try to starat taking my camera with me on the street and also use a prime lens more often.
July 30, 2011 03:54 am
Loved your article. Street photography is something which I find really interesting and challenging. Thanks to it, I've ended up roaming the streets like never before. If not shots, I do come across I corner I never noticed, a little shop that I had always missed, a new eatery, a hidden alley.
July 30, 2011 03:46 am
Thanks for the post ... a tripod would be sacrilege!
July 30, 2011 03:38 am
Now THAT'S an article from the heart, thank you very much for that. It counts for all I guess but in my experience, my camera is my mirror, especially when it comes to street photography. I use people on the street to help me over my fear to get in contact with.... people. So there's your mirror, the way you approach them is the way they will show your reflection back into the lens.
July 30, 2011 03:17 am
I know street photography has been around for years but it seems like its recently received a big surge in popularity. I don't mind at all, its very cool stuff. Thank you for the article.
July 30, 2011 03:16 am
I cannot agree more with what James has written! I've shooting street for a couple of years now and am just moving from the long lens to the short prime (or in my case a short zoom). Learning to anticipate the environment you are shooting is more critical than learning to anticipate the actual moment of the shot. I cannot count the lovely shots I've taken only to discover I failed the exposure side of the equation. You can get a lot back in RAW, but you cannot work miracles!
Also, I cannot say how hard but how incredibly awesome Jame's technique of hipshooting street work is. I am working on mastering it now. It will challenge you to know your camera and lens in ways you never thought possible!
Thanks James for the awesome post and keep up the amazing work!
July 30, 2011 01:57 am
In the last photograph, using a tripod (or some form of stabilization) is what makes the picture so good. Without it, the whole picture would have been a blur. The contrast of lady standing absolutely still while others move at their pace is captivating. I don't agree with your disapproval.
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