This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from Olivier Duong and James Maher.
Choosing the best street photography settings can be tricky, but as an experienced shooter, I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with different options. Over the years, I’ve determined what works – and what doesn’t.
That’s why, in this article, I’m going to share my favorite camera settings for street photography, including:
- The best camera mode
- The best aperture
- The best shutter speed
- The best focus settings
- The best white balance
- (And more!)
So if you’re ready to start setting up your street shots like the masters, then let’s dive right in, starting with an overview:
The best street photography settings: the quick version
If you’re in a hurry to get out and shoot, here’s a quick list of the best street settings:
- Camera mode: Aperture Priority or Manual
- Aperture: f/8 and narrower
- Shutter speed: Above 1/125s
- ISO: 200 and higher
- Focus mode: Manual (zone focusing)
- White balance: Auto
Of course, your settings choices should depend on the specific situation, as I explain throughout the rest of the article.
The first step
The first step always involves the light. You cannot figure out how to set your camera if you don’t first understand the light. How strong is the light? Is it a sunny day or a cloudy day? Is it evening? Are you in New York where tall buildings will create dark shadows no matter how bright it is or are you in an area with much smaller structures?
Get in the habit of looking at the light when you first walk out to shoot and don’t stop noticing it.
The best camera mode for street photography: Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode
The camera mode determines how your camera handles exposure; do you get to set the exposure variables yourself? Or will your camera do it for you?
You have a few options. You can use Aperture Priority mode, which lets you choose the aperture and ISO while your camera automatically chooses the shutter speed. Aperture Priority is good if you’re dealing with rapidly changing light conditions, though you’ll need to monitor the shutter speed to ensure it doesn’t drop too low. (While you can’t directly raise the shutter speed in Aperture Priority mode, you can boost the ISO or widen the aperture, which will have the same effect.)
Another option is Manual mode. It’ll let you select the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO independently. While this gives you extra control, you’ll need to pay careful attention to your camera’s exposure bar – and when the light changes, you’ll need to adjust your settings in response. (On a DSLR, this tends to be more challenging, but if you use a mirrorless camera, it’s relatively easy to adjust the exposure based on the exposure preview in the electronic viewfinder.)
You also have the option to use Shutter Priority mode, which is like Aperture Priority except it lets you choose the shutter speed and ISO while your camera automatically chooses the shutter speed.
So how do you pick?
Honestly, if you are comfortable and good with any of these modes, you can use them pretty much anywhere. But I find it beneficial to switch modes depending on the situation. Let me explain.
When there is medium to strong light, I always use Aperture Priority. The reason for this is because I want to be able to set my camera and forget about the settings. With the settings out of the way, you are free to enjoy yourself and to focus on the content.
If the light is fairly even, you won’t have to worry much. But on sunny days, particularly in New York, there is a huge contrast between the sunny part of the street and the shady part. So it’s a pain to change your settings every time you go from one to the other.
So what I will do is set my camera to the ideal settings for the shady side of the street. This means that I usually set my camera to around f/8 or f/11 (sometimes f/5.6) and ISO 800 (you can tweak these depending on how dark the shady side really is). This will allow for at least a 1/250th of a second shutter speed in the shade.
The tradeoff is that when you point your camera toward the sun, ISO 800 is a little higher than you would normally use in that situation. But the added grain is fine, and it allows you to seamlessly go back and forth between lighting situations. Your shutter speed will be something crazy fast like 1/2500th or so. But that will mean that at least your subjects will be super sharp.
On shady days or at darker times of day like the early morning or evening, I will set my camera to Shutter Priority and 1/250th (sometimes 1/160th or 1/125th at night). This will guarantee that motion is frozen, unlike shooting on Aperture Priority, when the camera will sometimes go below that threshold to let in enough light. It is hard to always pay attention to that. I will then set my ISO accordingly from 1600 to 6400 depending on how dark it is. The reason for this is to make the aperture as small as possible, even though at night you often will have to shoot wide open.
The reason why I don’t shoot Shutter Priority on sunny days is that so much light is hitting the camera if I am shooting at 1/250th or even 1/500th and ISO 800 in the sunlight, my aperture will need to be f/32 or f/64. My lenses can’t go smaller than f/16, so that creates a problem and forces me to have to change the settings when I go from sunlight to shade.
If the light is very consistent, or if you are very good with using Manual mode, you can, of course, use this setting. With consistent lighting, it’s easy to choose your settings and forget about them. However, if the light is not very dark I usually just prefer Aperture or Shutter Priority.
The time when I will use Manual Mode is often at night. That’s when it is so dark that I need to choose the minimum settings possible to freeze a scene and get it sharp, usually 1/125th and f/2, or sometimes indoors, where the lighting is usually pretty consistent. For instance, on the subway system, I will usually choose Manual mode and shoot at 1/250th and f/2.8. Consistent lighting is where Manual mode shines.
At the end of the day, either Aperture Priority or Manual mode can work just fine. Sure, Aperture Priority is handier when you’re moving in and out of sun and shade, while Manual mode is better if you’re dealing with more consistent light – but my best recommendation is to try them both and see what you think.
The best aperture for street photography: f/8 and narrower
The aperture influences both the exposure and the depth of field, so it’s important you choose this setting carefully.
Wider apertures (e.g., f/2.8) let in more light, which is great if you want a bright exposure in the shade or at night – but narrow apertures offer more depth of field, so you’ll get greater sharpness throughout the scene.
Which should you choose for street shooting?
Personally, I’d recommend selecting the narrowest aperture you can afford. An f/8 aperture is a great starting point, but if you can go narrower, do it. The goal here is basically to maximize your area of sharpness throughout the scene. The greater the depth of field, the greater the margin of error when focusing – so even if you focus just behind or in front of the subject, the image will still turn out sharp. Make sense?
If you’re working in low light, an ultra-narrow aperture may result in dramatic underexposure, so you have to be flexible. Therefore, when the light starts to drop, you may need to widen your aperture to keep a nice exposure, and that’s okay. Just be mindful of how the adjustment will affect your zone of focus.
Note that you can try using a wide aperture (and the resulting shallow depth of field) to create beautiful artistic effects. This is more commonly used in other photographic genres such as portrait photography, but if you’re interested in capturing unique images, widen your aperture as far as it can go and see what you can produce!
The best shutter speed for street photography: 1/125s or faster
If you’re using Manual mode, then you’ll need to choose the shutter speed yourself. If you’re using Aperture Priority mode, you won’t have the option to select the shutter speed directly, but you can change it by adjusting the ISO, adjusting the aperture, or adjusting the exposure compensation.
Remember that a fast shutter speed prevents both camera shake and motion blur; therefore, the faster the shutter speed, the sharper your shots will turn out. Unfortunately, fast shutter speeds also let in less light, so you must carefully strike a balance between sharpness and exposure requirements.
Which shutter speed should you choose for street photography?
Basically, just stay at 1/125s or above. Things usually happen fast on the streets, and if you drop below 1/125s, you risk camera shake and motion blur. I’d also encourage you to boost the shutter speed to at least 1/250s if you’re photographing a very fast subject, such as a biker or a car.
If you want to be extra certain that your shots will turn out sharp, you could go even higher. The problem is that the higher you go, the more you’re forced to boost your ISO, which comes with other problems (as I discuss in the next section).
The best ISO for street photography: ISO 200 and higher
The ISO affects image brightness, so it comes in handy when you want to use a narrow aperture and/or a faster shutter speed. Unfortunately, while higher ISOs brighten up the scene, they also produce noise – but in my view, many street shots actually look good with noise, especially if you’re shooting in black and white.
That’s why I recommend you start at an ISO of 200 for street photography. As long as you’re getting the shutter speed and aperture you need, just leave it at 200. If the light drops, however, boost it as needed. (For instance, when shooting at night, you’ll often need to use an ISO of 1600 or even 3200!)
The best focus settings for street photography: Manual zone focusing
Beginner street photographers often shoot with their fancy autofocus modes, but I recommend an alternative:
Manual zone focusing. In my experience, it’s faster than autofocus, and it’ll never let you down.
You see, many of the best street photographers manually focus their lens a few feet in front of the camera, wait until their subjects enter the prefocused zone of sharpness, then hit the shutter button.
Check out this illustration, which includes several possible prefocus zones:
You see, by manually focusing the lens in advance, the photographer can ensure that either the blue zone or the red zone appears in focus all the time. That way, if a subject walks into the prefocused zone, the photographer can grab a sharp shot without needing to fiddle with autofocus settings.
Because here’s the thing:
Even if you have the fastest autofocus in the world, there’s always going to be a focusing delay. Plus, the autofocus might miss your main subject and hit another subject instead.
Zone focusing eliminates these problems because a zone is like a force field in front of your camera. Anything that enters the force field will be in focus, which is pretty darn nifty, right?
How to set up zone focusing
When setting up your prefocused zone, you’ll need to think about the type of shots you want to take.
So ask yourself: Do I want photos of close-up subjects, or do I want to shoot people from a distance? That will determine the perfect point of focus.
Let’s say you want to take a few shots with your subject less than one meter away. Just put your lens like this:
The aperture is at f/16, so you should put the marking on the left to 0.7, then look at the “16” marking on the right. Do you see how it’s at “1.2”? That tells you that everything between 0.7 to 1.2 meters will be in focus.
The farther you are from the point of focus, the larger the depth of field. Therefore, putting the point of focus at one meter will keep a lot of space in focus. And if you want to photograph people over a meter away, you can put the leftmost “16” to “1” and check the rightmost “16” indicator to determine your most distant area of focus.
If your lens doesn’t have those marks, that’s okay! It’s where a tool like DOFMaster comes in handy:
Simply select your camera from the dropdown menu, then dial in your lens’s focal length. Pick your f-stop, set your ideal subject distance (i.e., point of focus), then hit Calculate.
On the right-hand side, you’ll see your focusing zone (it will correspond to the near limit and far limit calculations). If you like the focusing zone, then manually focus at the subject distance and get shooting. If you don’t like the focusing zone, then feel free to adjust your f-stop, your subject distance, and even your focal length until you get a pleasing result.
Note: When you select a focal length and an aperture, the calculator will also give you the hyperfocal distance for those settings, which is the point at which you can focus for maximum depth of field. Set your lens to the hyperfocal distance, and everything from half that distance to infinity will stay in focus – which is perfect if you want to keep as much of the frame as sharp as possible.
In fact, most of the serious street photographers I know set their lenses to focus at the hyperfocal distance. It’s only when the light starts dropping that they start to widen the aperture and rein in their point of focus; that way, they can keep their exposures looking bright and keep their subjects sharp.
The best white balance for street photography: Auto
You can use white balance presets to nail the white balance setting in-camera – but in my experience, this is mostly a waste of time.
First, it can be tough to get the white balance exactly right when you’re working in the field.
Second, fiddling with the white balance can cause you to miss shots that you’d otherwise capture.
And third, as long as you shoot in RAW – and you definitely should! – the white balance is adjustable in pretty much any post-processing program.
So just set your white balance to “Auto,” and let your camera make its own decision. If you like the results, it’ll save you a few seconds of post-processing. And if you’re not a fan, you can always tweak the white balance in Lightroom, Capture One, or Adobe Camera Raw.
The best street photography settings: final words
Street photography is one of those practices that is very tough to get right technically at first. Everything happens so quickly, hand-eye coordination is so important, and of course, there’s the fear involved in capturing people in candid moments without their approval. While it may seem like you just have to wait for the right moments to occur and get lucky, the reality is very far from that.
However, the irony is that while the technical aspects are very difficult at first, eventually they will become second nature, and the real difficult aspect will be finding those interesting and inspiring moments. Those moments don’t occur very often, and when they do you have to be fast enough to see and capture them. So if you don’t have the fundamentals down, it will be tough to get to the next step.
So try out the street photography settings I recommended. See how you like them. Of course, it’s still possible to take great street photos with other settings – so if you decide to go a different route, that’s okay, too.
Now over to you:
What do you think of these street settings? Do you have other settings that you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- What are the Best Street Photography Camera Settings and Why
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES