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Did you ever wonder how the photographers of the past did it? All they had were manual cameras and yet somehow they had a method that beats even the latest technology in autofocus! Wonder what it was? Let’s find out first what it was and discuss what most call the best street photography camera settings.
Now, before getting into this, let’s get something straight. If you are doing something in your street photography and it works for you, then by all means, you’ve found the settings that fit you best and you probably want to stick with them. What I am presenting here are the tried and true ways that not only past photographers used, but most street photographers prefer today. But it’s not magic by any means. With that being said, let’s start with focusing on street photography.
I know you are probably wondering how something can be faster than the latest autofocus, especially when every new camera wants you to believe they have the fastest AF in the world. The answer is – pre-focusing. What photographers of the past did was to pre-focus their camera onto a certain zone and simply shot, paying attention so that their subjects were within that area.
If you look at the example below, the photographer could either pre-focus on the blue or red area. Then anything or anyone that came within the blue or red area (depending which they chose) would be in focus.
Autofocus also comes with certain issues, because even if you have the fastest autofocus in the world, it can only guess WHERE you want it to focus. When you have people coming at you, it will most likely focus on the person that is closest to you. You could change your focus points, put if you wanted to shoot outside of that point, you would have to focus and recompose. That is not a luxury you often have in the street. Zones eliminate that problem. They are like a forcefield that you have in front of your camera, whoever enters that force field will be in focus. Those fields usually require smaller apertures, hence street photographers usually rely on f/5.6 or f/8.
In order to set up your own forcefield, you will need to know what kind of shots you want. Do you want to make images of your subjects up close, or further away? That will determine where you need to focus. Let’s say you want to take a few shots with your subject at less than one meter. All you need to do is to put your lens like so:
My aperture is at f/16, so I would put the marking on the left to 0.7, and look at the other marking on the right. That would tell me that everything between 0.7 to 1.2 meters will be in focus. The way aperture works, the further away you are, the larger the depth of field, so putting it at one meter would have had a lot of space in focus.
But, “my lens doesn’t have those marks”, you say! That’s where a tool like DOFmaster comes in:
Say you have a Canon 7D, for example. Select it from the camera dropdown menu and put in the lens focal length (say 35mm). If you focus at one meter, everything from 0.89m to 1.14m will be in focus. But the tool also tells you how to get the greatest zone of all, it tells you what your hyperfocal distance is. So if you focus at 8.09m, everything from 4m to infinity would be in focus at f/8.
Most street photographers I know set it to the hyperfocal distance. But when the light starts dropping, if they want some part of the image not in focus, or if they want their subjects really close, they use smaller zones (and larger apertures) and switch between them.
But what if your camera doesn’t even tell you where you are focused? Then you just need an app for that. You can download EasyMeasure (iOS) or Smartmeasure (Android). Then stand in front of a wall to get your distance to it, go back and forth until you get your desired distance, then focus on the wall and voila your zone is set!
Once you have your focus and aperture set, what about your other settings? You’ve got a few choices. First of all, you can leave them all on manual (shooting in Manual mode) and adjust them on the fly. Or you can put the shutter speed on automatic (camera in Aperture priority mode) and deal with ISO manually.
A good choice is to keep the shutter speed above 1/125th because stuff usually happens fast on the streets and below that there is risk of camera shake. Of course the same applies for when you are shooting manually too, better to not go below 1/125th, but that might be different for you if you shoot slowly.
The other setting that is left is ISO. You could also put it on auto-ISO, but put a cap on it. I think most modern cameras that are adjustable should be okay with a cap of 1600. But you’ll have to watch out, some cameras don’t have great auto ISO and will go to ISO 1600 in broad daylight.
The settings below will help you to focus on the image and only worry about if someone is in your focus zone or not:
One of the strengths of this system is that it accounts for transition time. Imagine you are walking out of a building, from which the inside was darker than outside, which is super sunny.
If you are in manual shooting mode for your ISO and shutter speed, you may have to adjust the exposure by three stops if an image suddenly appears in front of you. While you’re changing the shutter speed you might not have time to change the ISO and may mess up the exposure. However, if at least one of them was auto, this would have been done for you automatically.
There you have it, the street photography settings that the photographers of the past used (sans automatic modes of course) and that many street photographers still use today. But what’s most important is to find out what works best for you and your style of shooting. Try these out. They are tried and true, but nobody said you HAVE to use them. Do what works for you! Be yourself, stay focused, and keep on shooting.