While street photography may seem easy on the surface, that you just have to be there in the right moment, the reality is that it is one of the most difficult forms of photography. What are those right moments? How do you see and capture them when they happen so quickly? How do you work around the fear and the intrusion in people’s lives to come back with these special moments? I’ve been shooting on the streets for 15 years and still struggle with these questions daily, but here are the foundations for how I approach my photography and fight through those tough moments.
1. Find a busy or interesting spot and let things happen around you
The speed at which the moment occurs in street photography can be lightning quick. Sometimes you can see it coming, but often it will hit you instantly and then disappear before you can react. If you are constantly walking around while photographing, you are making it even more difficult on yourself to capture these moments.
Instead, pick a spot where either a lot is happening or where the environment is interesting and linger there. Focus your energy on watching your surroundings and watching people who are coming from a distance. This will allow you to be much more aware of a moment that is about to occur and will allow you to get yourself in a position to capture it.
This tip is particularly helpful if you are nervous about street photography or are using a large SLR or lens. By picking a spot, the people you photograph will be entering your personal space instead of you entering their space. It makes the transaction much more pleasant for both parties.
2. Watch for facial expressions and body gestures
I’d be lying if I could tell you what actually makes for an interesting street photograph. Those photographs just happen and you know it when you see it, but this one tip will help you narrow in on that significantly.
Pay attention to the emotions shown by your subject and try to capture them. Focus on the looks in people’s eyes, the expressions on their faces, and the interesting positions of their bodies that hint at something deep down. Your viewers will respond to these emotions when they look at the photograph. Give me a photograph of an ordinary looking person with an extraordinary expression versus a flashy person with a boring expression any day of the week.
3. Get rid of your preconceived notions and be spontaneous
This is a tip that was taught to Garry Winogrand early in his career that was incredibly important to his development. It’s one thing to teach yourself about street photography and it’s another to go out and do it well. You can have types of images in your mind that you would like to capture at a later point, but when you are out there you need to take in what the world gives you and embrace luck.
Whenever you have an inkling that a photograph might be there, just go for it. Be quick and don’t over-think things. Take weird photographs that you question if other people will like. If you find yourself thinking about whether or not you should take a photograph usually the moment will have passed before you even make your decision.
4. Raise your ISO
I typically shoot with an ISO of 200-400 in sunlight, 800 in light shade, 1600 in dark shade, and 3200 to 6400 at night. This allows me to use a shutter speed of around 1/250th of a second (or 1/160th at night) to freeze the motion in people, while also achieving as small an aperture as possible to have more sharpness throughout the scene.
I do this because if you miss the focus in that quick moment with an aperture of f/4 you will often ruin the shot. Whereas if you are in the range of f/8 to f/16, there is a good chance the photo will turn out okay. Also, street photography is often about combining elements, and if you have people at different depths or an interesting background, a smaller aperture will allow them to all be relatively sharp.
5. Perfection is overrated
Continuing from the previous point, street photography is very different from landscape photography in that perfection is often overrated in this genre. Grain or noise is part of the look and can even further the feeling that this was a real and unplanned moment.
You can skew horizons, have unplanned moments, have things get in the way of part of the image and still have the photograph work as long as it is interesting. Sometimes these imperfections will ruin the image but other times they will make it that much better, so try not to over-think every detail of the photograph. The perfection that we are looking for is in finding those spectacular moments.
6. Photograph where you live
You do not have to always go to the most interesting and busy areas to get good street photographs. People don’t even have to be present in a street photograph as long as there are hints of life, and often the most mundane places will create the best photographs.
The areas that you frequent the most are the ones you know the best. Photographing them will allow you to consistently improve your photography and be better at understanding your environment. The more you resist doing this, the more you should do it until you come back with photographs that make you happy.
7. Think about the themes and ideas in your work when you edit
While we already covered the importance of being spontaneous when you photograph, editing is the time where you can assess how you are doing. This is when you can search for themes and consistencies in your work and where you can ultimately develop a style over time. It’s where you can think about things you did right or wrong and types of photographs that you would like to capture in the future.
Group similar images together in collections and grow these themes over time. These groupings will often begin spontaneously, and as you start to understand them when you edit, you will be able to actively seek out images that fit within the idea. Editing is where you develop your voice within street photography.
Now go out, forget these tips, and be spontaneous!