This article was updated in November 2023.
Candid street photography is a ton of fun – but it can also be pretty difficult, especially for the beginner street snapper.
In this article, I share my favorite 19 tips and strategies to level up your candid street shots. These are techniques I’ve developed from over a decade of photographing on the streets – and I guarantee that, if you apply them carefully, you’ll end up with great results.
Let’s get started.
1. Travel light and with minimal gear
Many beginner street shooters work with a DSLR and a midrange zoom lens – and while it’s fine to do street photography with such bulky equipment, lightening your load will make a huge difference. You will have more energy, your coordination will be better, and you will be faster and more willing to explore. You’ll also be able to photograph in situations where you don’t feel comfortable bringing a large camera.
So what type of gear do I recommend?
First, consider a more compact street photography camera. Mirrorless models – especially APS-C and Micro Four Thirds options – are smaller and lighter, plus they look less intimidating to the people you’re photographing.
And if you do want to stick with your DSLR, consider using a small prime lens, such as a 35mm or a 50mm. A 50mm f/1.8, for instance, will be far smaller than your standard zoom. It’ll also be very cheap and offer high-quality optics.
Note that prime lenses will restrict you to a specific focal length, but this limitation can actually be quite freeing. By sticking to 35mm or 50mm (the two favorite focal lengths for most street photographers), you will quickly learn to see how the lens sees, and you’ll be able to better visualize shots before you raise the camera to your eye.
2. Hold your camera effectively
Speed is key in candid street photography, and how you hold the camera can make all the difference in the world. I like to wrap the camera strap around my wrist instead of around my neck. It is much quicker and easier to maneuver the camera this way, and it also allows you to easily shoot from the hip (see the next section!) if you need to.
When walking down a street I usually hold the camera in front of me at a 45-degree angle, halfway between vertical and horizontal, with my finger on the trigger. This way, I can easily get my camera into the right position if something spontaneous should happen, without tipping off the subject that I am going to photograph them.
3. Keep a grip on your camera
Whenever possible, try to keep your camera in your hands and at attention when you are photographing. If you allow it to hang off your neck or your wrist, then when an amazing moment occurs you will have to locate and grab the camera before putting it to your eye.
Not only will that cause you to miss great shots, but it’s also a lot more noticeable. Holding your camera at all times is really the least conspicuous way to capture a candid street image.
Also, try to keep the camera up high as much as you can. Then, when you take an image, you won’t have to move your arm at all!
4. Fill the frame with your subject (and don’t be afraid to crop!)
My biggest critique of street photographers is when I see a photograph with an extremely interesting subject, yet the photographer decided to shoot the entire street and make what should have been the entire photo become just a small part of the frame. Fill the frame with what is important and cut out everything else. Leave some room for the imagination.
Also, with a prime lens and fast-moving subjects, you’re not always going to be able to be in the perfect spot or catch the perfect angle on the fly. Don’t be afraid to crop in or improve the angle afterwards. This is not landscape photography, where you are always able to plan out every aspect of your image before taking the shot. You should get used to using the crop tool, even if it’s just for a slight correction.
5. Shoot from the hip
Unless you have a very small rangefinder, the reality is that it is much easier to photograph someone without them noticing if you don’t have to raise the camera above your chest or look through the viewfinder.
The advantage to shooting from your hip with the camera strapped to your wrist is that it really becomes an extension of your arm. You don’t have to shoot in front of you and can shoot sideways or even backwards if you need to. It frees you up to integrate your lens into a situation without anybody noticing. You can shoot from the hip with either both hands or one hand holding the camera, but one hand gives you a little more freedom to aim in any direction.
Just keep your arm straight down at your side and then angle the camera up and in whichever direction the scene is happening. Then, if you need to, you can raise your arm or bend your elbow a bit to get the exact frame, but be discreet about it.
6. Try the low, diagonal angle
Another advantage of shooting from the hip is that you can catch people from a very low angle. I often prefer my candid photography to come from a close-up and low angle because it elongates people and allows the subject to fill the frame. This is obviously not true for every situation, but a lot of the time this is my personal preference.
The slight diagonal angle can be very pleasing, especially for vertical portraits. The angle injects some energy into a photo and allows you to catch a bit more of the surroundings. It creates a lead for the eye to enter the photo and keeps it there, bouncing around between the subject and its surroundings.
7. Be prepared to change your settings quickly
I often shoot my candid street shots in Manual because I like to have my exposure dialed in before taking these types of photos. When getting close-up you never really know how the camera is going to read a situation and that often leads to a lot of messed up exposures.
Manual shooting on the street however can take some serious getting used to, because if you suddenly go from a sunny street to a shady street then you will have to remember to change your settings. I usually keep a sunny and shady general exposure setting in my head and flip back and forth between them.
But what happens then if something sudden occurs? Say you’re walking down a sunny street, settings set up perfectly, when all of a sudden you look to your right and notice a couple of locksmiths in a very dark van, one passed out and one about to light his cigarette? The moment is about to happen:
Well, in that case, I quickly switch over to Aperture Priority on my camera, which I have preset with a low aperture value. Even though you will have a loss of some depth of field, you will be able to have it work in both extreme bright or dark situations with a fast enough corresponding shutter speed. You can also do this with a shutter speed (via Shutter Priority mode) as well.
8. Raise your ISO
If you attend photography workshops or take photography classes, you’ve probably encountered the standard advice: keep your ISO as low as possible.
Yet while high ISOs can create unpleasant noise effects, modern cameras offer very impressive high-ISO capabilities; you can often shoot at ISOs of 1600 and 3200 with minimal noise, which is why, in my view, you shouldn’t be afraid to boost that ISO.
I typically shoot candid street photos at ISO 400 in sunlight, ISO 800 in light shade, ISO 1600 in dark shade, ISO 3200 at dusk, and ISO 6400 at night. With an entry-level or less-advanced camera, I would drop this by one stop (i.e., shoot ISO 200 in sunlight and up to ISO 3200 when doing street night photography).
You see, a high ISO gives you a huge advantage. It lets you use a fast shutter speed, even in low light – which means you can shoot handheld, you can freeze motion, and you can use a small aperture to maximize depth of field.
(Why is a deep depth of field necessary? For one, if you fail to focus on your subject, you may still get a sufficiently sharp shot. Plus, it’ll let you keep multiple subjects sharp within a single composition, which is a great way to add context and complexity to your candid images.)
9. Try zone focusing
Zone focusing is the technique of turning your camera to manual focus mode, pre-focusing it to a distance of about 8-10 feet, and then capturing your subject once they are in the range of sharpness for your camera. This is easier to do with a wide-angle lens with a medium to small aperture such as f/8 to f/16 so that there is more area of your image in focus. Keep in mind that this is a skill that can be improved – there are many photographers who can zone focus well even at f/2.
You can read more about zone focusing here, and while it is a little difficult to learn at first, you will quickly get much better at it. The main benefit of this type of focusing is so that you no longer have to lock the autofocus in on your subject. This allows you to be a little more spontaneous with your shooting, and it will give you an added split second to take the photograph. That, in turn, will allow you to better capture those very fast moving moments.
Most importantly, it will allow you to be a little more candid than you can be using autofocus. Since you won’t have to point the camera directly at your subject to lock in the focus nor will you have to look through the viewfinder to make sure you are focusing correctly, you can be much more inconspicuous. This will allow you to shoot from the hip and still know that your shots will be sharp.
10. Pick a spot and wait
Street photographers often just take a camera, walk around, and explore – but by constantly walking, you may be doing yourself a disservice. You’ll miss out on the shots that require a bit of patience (which are often better than the shots you’ll get when walking around).
So instead of walking constantly, head outside – and when you find a promising location, linger for a while and wait for something to happen.
By picking a spot, you give a magical moment plenty of time to materialize – and if you’ve chosen your location carefully, you’ll be able to combine subject interest and a good background for a top-notch result. After all, it’s when the right location merges with an interesting moment that a great photograph appears.
Additionally, if you lie in wait, you’ll be faster at noticing your surroundings. You won’t be focused on walking, so you can instead spend time scanning the flow of people.
Plus, people will be coming into your scene rather than the other way around. This might not seem like a big deal, but in my experience, it makes the whole practice of candid street shooting easier and less confrontational.
One last note: If you want to do candid street photography while remaining unnoticed, make sure you raise your camera to your eye before your subject walks into the image. Then keep your camera up as the subject leaves the scene. That way, it’ll seem like you were just photographing the background!
11. Chase the action
It will be important for you to eventually photograph in all types of situations, from less busy to very crowded, but particularly when you are learning, go where a lot of action is happening. Go to fairs, get out at busy times, shoot from busy corners. The more that is happening, the more invisible you will be, and the less you will be noticed by other people. This will help a lot with your comfort level.
In addition, if you’re in a busy area, you’ll often have all sorts of interesting elements around you, so you won’t have to move much. That way, you will be able to spend more of your energy watching your surroundings for a good moment to occur. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t photograph while you are walking and exploring, just that you should do your best to stay in busy areas.
12. Be an actor (and don’t make eye contact)
As a street photographer, you can benefit a lot from acting. You might play the part of a spaced-out tourist, engulfed in something happening across the street, or perhaps someone who is lost and has to stop for a moment to collect himself, but you are certainly not someone who looks like he is about to take a photo.
I like to act like I’m walking around daydreaming, just spaced out by my surroundings and looking in the somewhat opposite direction of what I want to photograph. I will make my path intersect in the right way with the subject and then stop as if I’m gathering myself or as if I see something interesting. My body will often be angled away from the subject while my camera will be at my hip pointing up at it. Then I take a photograph or two and walk out of there like nothing happened.
Most importantly though, is to never point your head directly at the subject, or god forbid, make eye contact! There is something almost evolutionary about eye contact that will make a person immediately notice you. Even for a split second, it will ruin your cover. Instead, try to look ‘through the person’.
13. Avoid the camera snap
Similar to the last point, the way you move your camera can play a big part in keeping the situation candid. There is one thing that most photographers do, called the camera snap, where they take the camera away from their eye instinctively right after they take an image.
Of course, there will be shots that you take so quickly that people won’t notice. But for other moments when people notice you, this will often give away the fact that you were taking their photograph.
Instead, take the picture and keep the camera up to your eye. Then move the camera away like you were taking a picture next to them and slowly remove the camera from your eye.
14. Know what to say if someone stops you
No matter how you look at it, street photography is inherently uncomfortable – if not for you, for the people you’re photographing. Some of your subjects will be flattered by the camera, but others will be confused or even bothered.
If you do street photography for long enough, even if you use a low-key approach, you’ll eventually run into people who question you. They may even get mad.
So what do you say when this happens?
When someone asks if you took their photo, own up to it and tell them what you were doing. Talk to them and explain why you found them interesting. I always keep a business card with me, and I offer to send the photograph if they email me for it.
No matter what happens, always keep a smile on your face. If someone seems angry, there’s no need to get defensive or angry back. It’s your legal right to take photos on the street (depending on where you are photographing, of course), but you don’t need to explain this, at least not at first. It’s not the best thing to bring up right away as it can make people even angrier.
Instead, figure out how to defuse the situation. Tell them that you didn’t mean to make them uncomfortable. Over the years, I’ve offered to delete a couple of photos when I felt it was necessary.
If you’re careful, however, you won’t experience many issues. I’ve been shooting frequently for 15 years, and I can only recall one or two uncomfortable situations.
15. Don’t be afraid to get experimental (or even weird)
Candid street photography is about capturing life and culture as it goes on around you. It doesn’t have to be about beauty, and it doesn’t have to be about creating “standard” street shots that get lots of love on Instagram.
So express yourself. Shoot what interests you. Capture subjects that are unique. You don’t always need to take the prettiest or most beautiful photographs; instead, try to create something that makes viewers think or that throws them off balance, even if it’s weird. Capture images for yourself, regardless of whether some people fail to understand or fail to like them right away.
Remember: It is not your job to please everyone. It’s your job to take a good photograph.
And be spontaneous. With other forms of photography, you can be a perfectionist about every detail. While it is also important to think this way when doing street photography, so many of your decisions will be made in a split second. Let yourself go. Whenever you feel there is potential for a strong image, even if you aren’t certain, go for it. Many of these shots will fail, but some of them will end up being the best photos you’ve ever taken.
16. Try the stutter-step
Sometimes, stopping completely is not an option. It will just look too obvious. But at the same time you have to be completely stopped to take a photo. No matter how fast your shutter is, if you are slightly moving while taking a photo then it will probably be ruined.
So there is a move called the stutter-step (can you tell I’m a basketball fan?). It’s basically just a very quick stop in full stride, almost like you freeze for a second in mid-motion. It probably looks a bit ridiculous to anyone who’s actually paying attention, but it happens so fast that nobody will notice. Once you try it out you’ll understand what I’m talking about and it takes a little bit of practice to get used to.
17. Accept the imperfections
For this next photo, because I wanted the camera focus to be on the NUTS street vendor stand (to emphasize the ‘nutty’ quality of this arguing group of tourists), it meant that I couldn’t get the people in the foreground to be perfectly sharp. That just goes with the territory and sometimes you have to make some sacrifices. In this case, I think it works, but only in black and white.
As a street photographer, I’m much less afraid of blur and grain than a lot of people. The reality is that it’s not always bright out, you need a fast enough shutter speed, and you don’t have the luxury of using a tripod. You will often be stuck with some blur, slight soft-focus, or grain from a high ISO.
(Also, and this is only my personal opinion, but I think that these types of photos just look so much better in black and white. You can really turn something that looks terrible in color into a great photograph by making a good black and white out of it. After all, street photography is about the content in the photo, and black and white often helps to focus on that!)
18. Group your photos while editing
Make sure you review your street photos often – and as you do, group them based on feel. Sequence them into a loose narrative. Come back to these groups, add to them, and take away from them. Over time, you will notice ideas that grow organically, and you’ll start to feel inspired to take more shots, different shots, interesting shots.
The ultimate expression of “photo grouping” is a book, and you may want to eventually think about putting one of them together. However, before you head down that path, purchase a simple cork board for your office wall and fill it with 4×6 and 5×7 images. Constantly print and replace photos to create a cohesive wall of images. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great way to view your progress, and it’s also great for developing ideas and inspiration.
19. Explore the work of other photographers
This is such a simple tip, but it is immensely important.
In your free time, look up the work of street photographers and study their portfolios. Explore the content, learn the technique, and think about the styles that you like. Watch videos of these photographers in action to see how they approach the street. Go to gallery shows and look at real-life prints to train your eye. This will give you a range of ideas about what to capture the next time you are out shooting.
Also, don’t be afraid to look beyond the candid street photo genre. For instance, you might consider looking at still-life street shots, architectural street shots, or street portraits – whatever interests you, make sure you pursue it, as it will only help your photography!
All of this is inspiring and fun to do. Start a photography book collection or even purchase a couple prints for your walls. The more you surround yourself with street photos, the better you will become, the more ideas you will have, and the more inspired you will be.
If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of incredible candid street shooters to look into:
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Garry Winogrand
- Robert Frank
- Helen Levitt
- Lee Friedlander
- William Eggleston
- Walker Evans
- Daido Moriyama
- Martin Parr
- Elliot Erwitt
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Mary Ellen Mark
- Bruce Davidson
- Saul Leiter
- Trent Parke
- Alex Webb
- Vivian Maier
- Bruce Gilden
Candid street photography: final words
Now that you know how to improve your candid street shots, go out and have some fun!
The more time you spend shooting, the better your images will look. So keep practicing, keep developing your skills, and keep honing your craft.
Just remember that the hardest part of street photography is getting out of the front door. The moments are flying around everywhere, but you need to be there and be bold with your camera to be able to catch them. Now grab your gear and have some fun!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? What type of candid street photography do you like to shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!