Street photography: it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s one of the most rewarding genres of photography out there. But let’s get one thing straight: being a successful street photographer means being a master of light.
In other words, lighting is a key component of great street photography. After all, by carefully working with the light, you can capture shadowy photos, silhouettes, upbeat shots, ethereal images, and so much more.
So buckle up, folks. This isn’t just another article – it’s your step-by-step guide to elevating your street photography lighting game. In the following sections, you’ll discover the key concepts and advanced techniques to make the light work for you, not against you; I explain the best types of light for street shooting, and I also offer tricks and techniques I’ve developed over the years that’ll help you achieve consistently gorgeous photos.
Let’s get started.
Street photography lighting: the basics
Before you even think about diving into the complexities of lighting subjects on the street, it’s important to master the basics. Every street photography master – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Alex Webb – is intimately familiar with the light; they know its moods, its whims, and most importantly, how to manipulate it to create jaw-dropping imagery.
In the sections that follow, we’ll take a deep dive into lighting quality and direction, the foundational pillars of good lighting. Understand these, and you’ll be ready to delve into the more advanced techniques I discuss later on.
If you’re keen on capturing show-stopping street photos, you can’t afford to ignore lighting quality. The term refers to whether the light is “hard” or “soft,” and understanding these two variations can radically impact your imagery.
Hard Light: Picture a sun-drenched afternoon, the kind that throws sharp shadows on the pavement. This is hard light in all its glory – crisp, intense, and not to be ignored. The contrast it delivers is remarkable, generating deep shadows and dazzling highlights. Take a stroll around noon, especially on clear days, and you’ll see how this light delineates every edge and contour. It’s a double-edged sword, though; the harshness can be unforgiving on faces and can obscure intricate details. So use it wisely.
Soft Light: On the flip side, there’s soft light – think early mornings or late afternoons when the sun hugs the horizon. Or imagine an overcast day where clouds diffuse the sunlight. This light is a detail’s best friend, flattering surfaces and reducing harsh shadows. Soft light provides a subtler range of tones, enabling you to capture the intricacies often lost under harder lighting conditions.
Knowing when to use hard or soft light can elevate your street photography to a new level. For instance, if you want to showcase gritty realism, hard light can be your ally. But if you’re shooting a street portrait and desire a more forgiving light that evens out imperfections, opt for soft light. The sun’s position can be your cue here: aim for early mornings or late afternoons for softer shades, and brave the midday sun for a starker, more dramatic effect.
Once you’re in tune with the quality of light, it’s time to start thinking about its direction. Frontlighting, sidelighting, and backlighting – each adds a unique layer of drama and detail to your compositions.
Frontlighting: When the light source is behind you, directly illuminating your subject, that’s frontlighting. The outcome? Colors that pop and details that are laid bare. It’s like the spotlight is on your subject, making every feature noteworthy. But beware, while it’s great for highlighting textures and hues, it can sometimes make the scene look flat, devoid of depth.
Sidelighting: This type of lighting is three-dimensional. When light strikes your subject from the side, it carves out shapes and shadows, adding a tactile quality to your photos. It’s perfect for emphasizing the contours of buildings, the geometry of a setting, or even the wrinkles on a fascinating face. However, the drama can also lead to dark, undefined areas, so balance is key.
Backlighting: Here, light streams in from behind your subject, outlining them with a luminous glow or even plunging them into silhouette. In other words, it’s theatrical. Backlighting is ideal for creating atmospheric shots, but tread cautiously. Exposure can be a challenge, and you might end up losing detail in the foreground.
Directionless Light: Let’s not forget the overcast days or twilight hours where light seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. While it lacks the dramatic flair of more directional lighting, it creates an even, subdued tone that can work wonders for certain moods and themes.
Tips for working with lighting in street photography
Now that you’re familiar with the basics, let’s take a look at how you can use lighting to elevate your street shots!
1. The best street photography lighting is all light
Here’s the thing about street photography:
You can do it at all times of the day, in sun, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow, and more.
And no matter when you decide to shoot, if you use the light carefully, you can achieve stunning images.
Street photography isn’t like landscape photography, where you generally want to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. And it isn’t like flower photography, where you’ll often benefit from a flat, overcast sky.
Instead, street photography is infinitely flexible. Want to shoot in a downpour? Want to shoot at night? It’s possible, and I highly recommend you try it.
That said, the best street photographers don’t ignore the light. They learn to work with the light, so that no matter the situation, the light elevates the shot and gives a top-notch result.
I recommend you start by asking yourself, as soon as you pull out your camera:
- What type of light am I working with?
- What is the direction of the light?
- How will the light change over the next few minutes?
Then use your answers, combined with the street lighting tips I share below, to get beautiful photos.
2. Look for high-contrast situations
High-contrast lighting is great for street photography, because it simplifies scenes, produces interesting shadows, and can add plenty of mood.
You can often find the best high-contrast effects around noon on bright, sunny days, though the golden hours can offer nice high-contrast lighting, too, especially if you’re willing to use backlight.
Try positioning the sun behind or off to the side of your subject. Then incorporate buildings, which will block portions of the light and create interesting shadow effects:
Also, don’t worry too much about exposure. If you clip some of the shadow details, you’ll still get a very interesting result. And if you blow out the sky, that’s okay, too; the more contrast, the better!
3. Shoot at midday for strong shadows
Street photographers love shadows, and for good reason: carefully positioned shadows can look moody, impactful, and just all-around gorgeous.
Of course, not all shadows are nice. I’d recommend you get the darkest, most well-defined shadows possible, and you can do that by shooting around noon on clear days. If you can find a well-defined subject or an interesting texture on a sunny day, then the shadows will turn out amazing, like this:
I’d also recommend you carefully adjust your angle for the best result, and don’t be afraid to wait for an interesting shadow to “move” into position. In the photo above, the dogwalker’s shadow is highly visible on the textured ground – but if it had overlapped with the stairs in the bottom right corner, the result would’ve been messy and the photo would’ve lost a lot of impact.
If you’re after long shadows, then shoot early or late in the day. Make sure various shadows don’t overlap and try getting up high for a unique vantage point.
Sometimes it’s all about the shadow, and the subject doesn’t even need to be fully included. This approach, when well executed, can add an element of mystery.
Pro tip: Find buildings and other features that create interesting shadows, then wait for the right subject to walk by. For instance, I loved the dappled effect of the shadows in this scene, so I waited until a trio of people came through:
4. Turn off your flash
Flash photography might seem like a quick fix for those dimly-lit scenarios, but let’s get real: In the world of street photography, the flash is more foe than friend. Why? For starters, consider the reach. If you’re trying to illuminate a subject several meters away, your onboard flash is about as useful as a flashlight in a football stadium. The power just isn’t there.
Now, you might be thinking, “I’ll just get a powerful external flash.” Stop right there! The moment you attach that bulky device to your camera, you become a human spotlight. You might as well wear a sign that says, “Hey, I’m taking photos here!” You’ll stick out, and the candid moments you’re after? They’ll vanish before your eyes, replaced by a sea of self-conscious, camera-shy individuals.
But let’s not forget the aesthetics. A direct flash can create a glaring, unnatural look that robs your image of its subtleties. Instead of a balanced interplay between light and shadow, you’re left with a flat, washed-out mess that lacks depth and nuance. And let’s not even talk about red-eye or the disturbing ghost-like pallor that can sometimes appear when you use a flash.
Perhaps most importantly, you have to think about your subjects. Flash photography in public spaces isn’t just intrusive; it’s downright annoying for the people you’re capturing. The flash can be startling, and the reactions you get will range from mild irritation to outright confrontation.
Bottom line: Use natural light, not flash. It might seem difficult at first, but if you take the time to really get to know it, the results can be amazing.
5. Use gloomy days to add mood
Cloudy days often get a bad rap in the photography world. The light is flat, the sky uninteresting. But hang on a minute; what if we told you that overcast days are actually a hidden treasure trove for street photography? That’s right, folks; it’s time to stop avoiding those clouds and start embracing them.
You see, when the sky is gray and the clouds hang low, you get a diffused light that eliminates harsh shadows. This creates an evenly lit scene that lends itself beautifully to capturing detail and texture. And let’s face it: a soft, somber light can add a layer of depth and emotion that bright sunlight just can’t match.
Now, what about subject matter? Gloomy days are a goldmine for capturing scenes filled with mood and character. Think rainy streets reflecting neon signs, or pedestrians lost in thought, bundled up against the chill. There’s an introspective quality to these images, a quiet drama that aligns perfectly with the weather.
Compositionally, overcast skies offer some intriguing options. Because you’re not dealing with stark shadows or extreme contrast, you can experiment more freely with your framing. Want to capture that intricate graffiti without worrying about shadow play? Go for it. Eyeing a shot where the subtle gradations of a grimy wall play a central role? Now’s your chance.
So the next time you see clouds gathering, don’t put your camera away – grab it and head out the door! Moody weather offers a unique aesthetic that can turn ordinary scenes into extraordinary photographic stories.
6. Look for light sources in the dark
One of my favorite times to shoot street photos is late in the evening, when the sun has dropped below the horizon and the streetlights have come on.
You see, the night adds a new dimension to street photos. There are so many interesting light sources to work with, such as street lights, traffic lights, car lights, neon signs, and more. Even bright smartphone screens can illuminate their user’s faces, which makes for a fun shot.
But because the light is so limited at night, you’ll need to approach your photos carefully. First, make sure you crank up your ISO; noise isn’t a big deal in street photography, especially if you’re shooting in black and white, and maintaining a decent exposure is more important. I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least 1/60s or so, but don’t worry if you end up with some motion blur. In fact, a little bit of blur can actually enhance the atmosphere, as demonstrated in the photo below:
When you head out at night, don’t just wander in random directions. Instead, keep an eye out for light sources. Try to put your subjects in front of the lights or wait until they walk near the lights (for decent illumination).
7. Have fun with silhouettes
Silhouette street photos can look amazing, but only when done correctly. Remember that not everything makes for an interesting silhouette subject; instead, look for people or items with clear outlines, and adjust your composition and angle so that they’re carefully framed against a non-distracting background.
Also, whenever possible, pick subjects with added elements of interest, such as umbrellas, bicycles, and hats. If you can get a subject that’s gesturing – rather than simply walking or standing – that’s even better.
Watch for obstructions in front of and behind your subject, and if they’re moving, make sure you don’t catch them in between steps. Put your camera in burst mode to increase your chances of getting the right pose.
Note that silhouette street photography requires a strong light source. At night, you can use street lights and the lights from windows, but during the day, you’ll need something more – either light directly from the sun, or from windows/cars/buildings reflecting the sun. That’s why silhouettes are often most effective early or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky and you can easily place it behind your subject.
Finally, when adjusting your camera settings, don’t be afraid to drop the ISO low and crank up the shutter speed ridiculously high until you get the result you want.
8. Constantly seek out reflections
If you shoot at sunny midday, you’ll run into plenty of interesting reflections – in windows, puddles, car hoods, and more.
So incorporate these into your shots whenever possible and don’t be afraid to experiment.
For instance, you might juxtapose a (real) person and a (reflected) building in the same frame. Or you might use a reflection to create symmetry by “doubling” the scene.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can even include a self-portrait reflection in the shot!
Also, when you’re photographing window reflections, you can mix the real scene (i.e., the scene behind the window) with the reflection scene for a beautiful result.
9. Head out on rainy days
Yes, rainy days are often cold and wet and uncomfortable. But they can provide some of the absolute best street photography opportunities, so whatever you do, don’t leave your camera at home when the forecast predicts bad weather.
Why? For one, people on the streets behave very differently when it’s raining, which can lead to interesting situations. You’ll see people running with newspapers over their heads, you’ll see people walking with umbrellas, and you’ll see them huddling under bus stops and awnings.
Plus, the raindrops can add mist and atmosphere to otherwise bland scenes – and you can take this further by doing some selective focusing through windows, car windshields, bus-stop walls, and more. It’s how I got this shot:
One caveat: Rain and electronics don’t mix, so you’ll need to carefully protect your gear from the water. I’d recommend carrying a raincover in your camera bag and whipping it out whenever the rain starts to fall (alternatively, you can use a ziplock bag or trashbag if you’re in a pinch!).
10. Don’t forget about the golden and blue hours
If you’re deliberate with your camera, you can get great street shots during these times, too! During the golden hours, you’ll need to determine the direction of the sun, then position yourself for interesting backlighting, sidelighting, or even frontlighting. As I mentioned above, the golden hours work well for silhouettes, and you can also get nice reflections off of cars and windows.
During the blue hour, you’ll want to increase your ISO for a decent exposure. Then do what you can to capture a cool, ethereal look in your photos, like this:
11. Crank up your ISO
Look, I get it. The idea of pushing your camera’s ISO might have you worried about noise, but let me let you in on a secret: In street photography, noise isn’t your enemy. It might even be your ally.
First off, what is ISO? In layman’s terms, it’s a setting on your camera that controls sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more light you allow into your camera sensor, which is a godsend in low-light conditions. A higher ISO setting will let you shoot at faster shutter speeds, guaranteeing sharper images and allowing you to use a narrower aperture.
So, why are photographers often hesitant about cranking up the ISO? It’s because higher settings introduce more noise—those grainy specks in your photo. But here’s the kicker: In street photography, that grittiness can actually lend a textured, authentic feel to your shots. The grain becomes part of the story, adding character to what might otherwise be a sterile, overly polished image.
Now, how high should you go? There’s no hard and fast rule, but as a general guideline, anything from ISO 400 to 3200 can be fair game, depending on the lighting conditions. And don’t stress too much about overdoing it; you can always do a bit of post-processing to reduce the noise if needed.
Street photography lighting: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know that you can shoot street photos in literally any light – from early morning blue hour to harsh, sunny midday to several hours after dark.
So what are you waiting for? Head out with your camera and take some powerful shots!
Now over to you:
Which type of lighting for street photography is your favorite? And do you have any tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- There is No Bad Light for Street Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES