7 Ways to Become More Spontaneous with Your Street Photography

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As you become more experienced and comfortable doing street photography, you will notice that the way you shoot will begin to change. You will notice more, focus more on what you like, and your work will improve significantly. At this point, it can be important to embrace spontaneity in the way that you shoot.

street photography NYC

So often the first shot of a scene that you take will be the best, for reasons I can’t explain, except that your gut and instinct are something to embrace with this type of photography. The more experienced you become, the more vital they will be.

Here are some tips that have helped me to shoot in a more spontaneous fashion.

1. Choose your camera settings so that you can forget about them

The first step is to figure out your camera settings so that you can forget about them. You don’t want to worry about your camera or changing settings as you’re shooting. When you’re feeling good, it often feels like the camera isn’t there.street photography

If it’s a shady day and the lighting is consistent, then it’s easy to choose your settings and not have to worry about them. But it becomes tough when you are shooting in direct sunlight, where some areas are lit with extreme light and others are in the shadows.

For these situations, what I will do is change my camera to Aperture Priority mode, around f/8, and I will put my ISO up high, to around 1600. I will make sure that when I point my camera at shady areas it will still give me a fast enough shutter speed, like 1/250th of a second, to freeze motion in people. Then, when I point the camera in sunny areas, the shutter speed will be something insane, maybe 1/1000th or more of a second.

Obviously, these settings are not perfect for sunny areas since the ISO is high, but with newer cameras, ISOs of 1600 look beautiful. I prefer to shoot with these settings because it allows me to forget about my settings regardless of what light I walk into. It makes the day much more fun and relaxing, and I can spend more energy looking around.

2. Slow down and shoot quick

street photography NYC

When I work with newer photographers, I often seeing them run from place to place, searching for that elusive spectacular moment, as if the more ground they cover will yield more of those moments. Those moments will occur whether you are moving fast or not. Except when you are moving fast, you’re not focusing on the area that you’re in at the moment. There are interesting photos everywhere, particularly in places that you might have previously disregarded.

The slower you move, the faster you will be able to react when something happens. By increasing your awareness, you will allow yourself to be more spontaneous. You will have more gut feelings to follow. This will allow you to react much quicker when actually capturing the photograph.

3. Spend more time looking with your eyes than the viewfinder

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In street photography, your eyes should be the real viewfinder. Focus your energy on looking around. It’s actually hard to do, especially if you are easily distracted or going from place to place. Notice the potential for something to happen with your eyes and get in position, then the viewfinder and camera will follow. But it should almost feel like the camera isn’t there – the hard work is done before you even bring it up to your eye.

4. Figure out how to take good photographs anywhere

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Stop taking things for granted. The more you think an area will not provide you with a good photograph, the more you should try to get a good one there. Much of the time you’ll get nothing, but you will be surprised how often this works out, and it’s a fantastic way to train your eye.

This will also allow you to create unique and interesting photographs. By shooting in areas where not many others photograph, your good shots will be unexpected. They will stand out.

5. Go with your gut

street photography - crosswalk

We’ve talked a lot about going with your gut already, but what does that really mean? When you’re out there shooting, you’re going to get feelings that moments are about to happen. Most people wait to actually see something happen before they shoot, and often the moment has disappeared by then.

When you feel something good is about to occur, capture the moment in a quick and spontaneous way. Go for it instinctively – use your instincts to your advantage and develop them. While many of these shots will turn out to be nothing, when you hit one at the perfect moment, you will be left with an incredible image that you could not have captured otherwise. Be spontaneous.

6. Don’t worry about perfection

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It is common for newer photographers to worry about cutting people’s feet off, something getting in the way, or the shot being skewed. I have heard so many comments about wishing that a person, group, or object wasn’t in the background or in a certain location. This is, of course, important stuff to consider. But when I hear these comments being made, I detect that the reason they find these things annoying is because they ruin the perfection of the image.

Have you ever shown an image to someone and the first thing they notice is this random background detail that’s barely noticeable? This is part of having too much focus on perfection, and it can drive you crazy. You’re trying to get the most perfect and clean image possible, and that is rarely possible in street photography. You take what is given to you, and an interesting moment is an interesting moment.

Street photography is supposed to feel real, and so many of those imperfections can add to that feeling of it being a spontaneous moment. They can improve an image just as much as they can ruin it. Try to embrace these imperfections when you can as being part of a real and special moment.

7. Don’t be afraid to take weird photographs

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These photographs are for you. You don’t need to take photographs that appeal to everyone, and not everything has to be perfect, grand, and pleasing. Capture photos that are not standard, off in some way, and weird. Focus on what interests you and try to foster that. This is where the voice in your work will begin to shine.

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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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  • PJB_NUFC

    Great article, James, thank you. Point 6 was like looking in a mirror for me and has opened my eyes quite a lot.
    Thanks,
    Phil

  • Glad you enjoyed it Phil! Yes, #6 can really free you up.

  • pete guaron

    What I love most about street photography is that it is unbridled – a kind of “photographer’s lust”! Your first point is about setting the camera so you don’t spend the day fooling with settings – you’re all primed, and ready to shoot. This frees you up, for points 3 & 4 – you can see more, better, sooner, and with more imagination.

    Great post, James – and it raises the bar for some, taking a step towards stuff that a lot of “conventional street photography” walks past and ignores. It doesn’t HAVE to be a person – they don’t HAVE to be facing the cam. It’s about seeing and recording what’s there – in your own terms. If someone else appreciates it, all the better – but frankly, so what if they don’t? It’s YOUR image, and we don’t all like the same things anyway. But concentrating on what YOU see will help move the standard of your street photography up the ladder.

  • Great comment Pete! Agree with all of this.

  • Jennifer Benson Benton

    I really needed to see point 1. I was at a festival yesterday and fought with shade and light all day long. I actually might go back out there today and take make more photographs using your advice. Thanks, I really enjoyed the column. Jenn

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