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7 Common Street Photography Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

common mistakes in street photography

Did you know that beginner – and even advanced! – street photographers tend to make a few consistent mistakes?

It’s true. Over the last few years, I’ve worked with a lot of street shooters, and I’ve seen them mess up in the same exact ways, over and over again.

Most of the mistakes are very simple to fix. But in order to fix them, you must know how to recognize them, which is where this article comes in handy.

So to discover the seven most common street photography mistakes (and how to fix them), read on!

1. Thinking too much

When you’re getting started with street photography, it’s easy to spend too much time thinking and not enough time reacting and shooting.

I get it: Street photography is tough. There’s a lot to consider, and a lot that goes into each image. You might start to worry about the results – will my photos turn out? Will they be good enough?

But when you’re out with your camera, try not to overthink things. The more you overthink, the less prepared you’ll be to get great photos when an amazing opportunity comes along.

street photography mistakes silhouettes of people walking

So instead of worrying about perfection, get lost in the process. You can assess your results during the editing phase. When you’re taking street photos, have fun. Explore, take your time, relax, and just watch everything go by.

In my experience, street photography needs to be enjoyed if you want to do it well. The more fun you have just being out there, getting lost, and exploring, the better your images will become!

2. Traveling too heavy

If you look around online, you can find some great videos of the old masters shooting on the streets. Do you know the one common thread?

They used small, portable cameras and small prime lenses.

Astor Place, street photography mistakes

Now, you can certainly shoot street with a DSLR or full-frame mirrorless camera, and you can do it very well. There are top photographers who work that way, and they get amazing results – but before you commit to such an approach, ask yourself: Do I really want to carry around a huge camera and lens on a daily basis? Such a setup can become uncomfortable, and it’ll also be very conspicuous.

There are a whole lot of advantages to using a smaller camera for your street photos: You’ll likely enjoy yourself more, you’ll pass unnoticed, and you’ll need to worry less about safety and theft. A small Fuji or Ricoh camera will do wonders, and you can get an older used version for much cheaper than a new model.

Similarly, you probably don’t need a big bag of lenses and filters. If you haven’t tried shooting with just a single good street photography lens, do it immediately; heading out with a small camera body and a small prime lens is incredibly freeing. Yes, you’ll miss out on that 200mm zoomed shot of distant buildings, but you’ll come back with so many great photos, and you’ll have so much more fun, too!

3. Trying to get somewhere too quickly

We’re all in a rush these days, running from place to place, so it’s understandable that you want to move when you’re out.

But rushing is one of the worst ways to do street photography.

You see, to capture great street photos, you need to slow down and take your time. Take a deep breath, and let go of the urge to rush. Look around, wait with your camera, and let the subjects come to you.

The slower you go, the more aware you’ll be of your surroundings, and the more prepared you’ll be to capture those extraordinary fleeting moments.

Sometimes, you might need to remain in a location for 5, 10, 20, or even 60 minutes before you get the shot you’re after. But your feeling of satisfaction will be incredible, and it’ll make the whole wait worth it!

4. Not standing in the middle of the action

Broadway, SoHo, street photography mistakes

Many people start by photographing the streets from a distance, and they never really push themselves to get right in the thick of things. Unfortunately, such an approach rarely works well; if you shoot from afar, your images will be unengaging.

Instead, get in the middle of the street. Get smack-dab in the center of the sidewalk. Carry your camera proudly, put a smile on your face, and get involved in the action.

You might worry that people will respond badly to your presence. It’s a common fear among street photographers, but it’s one that you need to push past. In fact, if you’re shooting from far away, people may be more likely to think you’re up to no good. Whereas if you’re in the middle of the action, people will walk right by and think that you’re doing nothing wrong. Make sense?

After all, how could you possibly be doing something wrong if you are right there in the middle of the crowd? Nobody that obvious would be doing anything bad, right?

So take the plunge. Stop and wait right in the middle of the action, and just let everything happen around you. Engulf yourself in the experience. (And, of course, take some great photos!)

5. Keeping the camera away from your eye

Street photographers love the “shoot from the hip” technique, where you hold the camera against your body, then fire off shots without looking through the viewfinder.

But while this technique can work – and I use it, especially when things are happening very fast – it can quickly become a crutch.

You see, if you spend all your time hip-shooting, you’ll soon become uncomfortable looking through the viewfinder.

Yet there are plenty of situations where viewfinder shooting is actually the better move. For instance, if you’re dealing with complex compositional elements, you must look through the viewfinder if you want perfect framing. And if you need to get the timing exactly right, working through the viewfinder can be a big help.

So force yourself to get comfortable shooting through the viewfinder. Just stand in a busy place with the camera to your eye. Eventually, when it feels right, start taking photos. Take pride in watching the scene coming together, and enjoy the excitement of capturing that perfect, split-second moment when everything works out!

Fire Hydrant, SoHo, NYC street photography mistakes

Pro tip: If you’re struggling to feel good about viewfinder shooting, try keeping the camera against your eye for a few seconds after taking a shot. It’s natural to remove the camera from your eye after capturing an image, but resist this instinct; instead, press the shutter button, then hold the camera against your face until the subject has moved away. If your subject does notice you, they’ll think you’re trying to photograph something off in the distance. (This trick works incredibly well in populous areas!)

6. Shooting in bursts

Beginners often think that if they take 10 photos of the same scene, they’ll be guaranteed to get a good one. So they turn on their camera’s burst mode, they hold down the shutter button, and they take dozens of shots.

This is a mistake.

I actually find that holding down the shutter button and taking a stream of shots is an easy way to screw up all the images. To get great photos, you need to be able to visualize what you are photographing. You need to see the moment as it happens, then capture the elements as they all fall into place. If you take dozens of shots, you won’t be able to visualize anything. But if you take just one shot, you’ll be able to see the split-second moment when the entire scene works.

Of course, you don’t need to confine yourself to a single image; as a scene develops, you can take more photos. Just make sure that you’re genuinely visualizing the outcome!

And there’s another problem with rapid-fire shooting: You’ll end up taking 10 times the number of photos, and you’ll have a huge backlog of shots to sort through. How are you going to find the perfect frame in all of that? If you take fewer images and you shoot deliberately, you’ll have a much more enjoyable editing session.

7. Under and over-editing

East Village street photography mistakes

A lot of new street photographers will both under- and over-edit their photos.

What do I mean by this?

First, shooters tend to under-edit by showing too many photos.

And second, shooters tend to over-edit by adding all sorts of adjustments and effects with Photoshop.

Don’t make these mistakes. Instead, ruthlessly narrow your photos down to the best ones. You want people to actually give your work attention, and if you show too many photographs at once, they will start to lose interest. If you show too many photos, you’ll be relying on the viewer to do the extra editing in their heads – which isn’t fair to them!

So spend extra time on image organization. Use a star system to give your photographs ratings, and make sure you don’t hand out too many five stars. Spend the time after each shoot identifying the cream of the crop. If you don’t do this consistently, your archive will become an unorganized mess.

As for over-editing: When you work on your photos in a post-processing program, keep it subtle. You should fix the exposure, deal with vignettes, adjust the color temperature, play with contrast, and all that other good stuff.

But don’t go too far. Part of the extraordinary nature of street photography is that the images are unposed, unstaged, and actually captured in the real world. If your photos are too edited, they won’t feel real – which will kill the thing that makes them special.

Street photography mistakes: final words

Well, there you have it:

The seven most common street photography mistakes.

Read the list carefully. Identify the mistakes that you make. Then adjust your workflow!

Your images will instantly improve.

Now over to you:

Are you guilty of these mistakes? Which ones do you struggle with most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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