Street photography may seem simple on the surface, just a lot of waiting around looking for an interesting moment to happen. However, the reality is that it is one of the most difficult forms of photography. Particularly at the beginning, it can be very hard to improve in street photography.
The best moments don’t occur very often, and when they do, you have to be aware enough to see it quickly. You have to be brave enough to capture it, and your camera has to be set right.
A lot has to go right, but when it does, that’s when the magic happens. There is a specific set of tips that are important to learn early on that will make all of this much easier and, eventually, second nature.
Fear and timidness
Fear and timidness are two of the toughest obstacles to overcome for new street photographers. If you don’t feel this way, then skip to the next tip! But most people have a lot of difficulty with this aspect at first. It takes time to overcome, but the less timid you can become, the faster you will be at capturing the best moments.
No matter how tasteful your photography is, street photography is a little creepy! We’re kind of stalking people on the street a bit. But it’s important to know that we’re doing this for a reason. We like people and we want to create interesting photos of our society.
The fear aspect will get better with time – the more you shoot, the easier it will get. But it can help early on to capture some street portraits to get you comfortable. You will quickly realize how many people will be flattered by what you are doing.
Another important thing to know is how to deal with a situation if you are caught.
I just like to smile and be honest. I tell the person that I was photographing the area and the people and culture, and I thought they looked great! Flattery can get you a long way.
If the person seems uncomfortable after you speak to them, offer to delete the shot. You don’t have to, of course, but it’s the right thing to do.
And always be careful about who you photograph. Sometimes, a photograph is just not worth the chance of getting yourself in trouble.
General camera settings
I typically prefer to shoot on Aperture or Shutter Priority settings. Since you are usually going back and forth between different levels of light, this allows you to focus on the scene itself instead of going back and forth on your camera settings. In steady lighting conditions, Manual Mode works very well, though.
Raise your ISO up! I typically use ISO 400 if I am in pure sunlight, ISO 800 in light shade, ISO 1600 in dark shade, and ISO 3200-6400 for dusk into night.
Raising the ISO allows you to have a faster shutter speed to freeze motion. It also gives you more depth of field to make sure you capture the focus correctly, or if you have multiple subjects at different depths.
On Aperture Priority, f/8 is usually my ideal setting whenever possible. It allows enough depth of field but also enough light to enter the camera. And as it gets darker, I will go down with the aperture.
Finally, I always try to keep my shutter speed above 1/250th of a second to freeze motion in people. The key on Aperture Priority is to pay attention to your shutter speed as the lighting gets darker, to make sure that it does not dip too far below 1/250th.
Prime lenses are made for street photography. They are smaller, lighter, and less noticeable. Also, the act of using a single focal length will make you much faster and more intuitive with the camera. Using one is a key way to improve your street photography.
Zooming constantly will just slow you down and keep you off balance when a moment occurs. With a prime, you are ready when something happens.
I prefer a 35mm and 50mm focal length depending on what I am shooting. Both are wide enough to capture complicated shots that mix foreground and background, and they allow you to get close and intimate with your subjects.
When some people think of street photographers, they think of the photographers that jump out in people’s faces to take a photograph. It just does not have to be done in that way to get great, candid, close shots. I find the opposite approach to work much better.
I prefer to act like I am just looking around at something above or behind the subject I want to capture, and I carefully get myself in position. They just think I’m probably a tourist looking around, and while they notice me, they continue in their own world without realizing I’m photographing them.
I also take very quick shots where nobody notices. That way, you don’t have to do any acting in these situations. But, acting comes in handy very often.
Finally, you don’t always have to walk around while photographing. Pick an area with foot traffic and wait around. Doing this allows your subjects to enter your personal space instead of entering their space. It also allows you to get very close and nuanced photographs with much less chance of people noticing what you are doing.
Emotion and gesture
One of the keys to creating interesting street photography is showing emotion and feeling in your images. One of the best ways to do that is to capture those emotions and feelings in your subjects.
Pay attention to the looks in peoples’ eyes or the gestures in their bodies. Try to see who is walking around wearing their emotions on their sleeves, so to speak.
I would rather photograph a non-descript person with incredible emotion over the flashiest person just walking down the street emotionless.
This is a general tip for improving most photography, but it is especially difficult for street photography. The closer you get, the more intimate your moments will feel.
But you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself at first. Start from further back and over time, work to get closer and closer. This is a process that can take a little time to get comfortable with.
Spontaneity and intuition
At some point, you need to become fast with your camera to capture some of those split-second moments. Embrace your intuition and work to become spontaneous and fast with the camera.
You will miss a lot of photographs this way and come back with a lot of bad ones (why editing is so important), but the special photographs will be special.
If you feel that there is the potential for a great photograph in your gut, just stop thinking and go for it. The worst that can happen is you will delete the photograph later on.
Unlike some other forms of photography, perfection is not celebrated as much in street photography. We’re looking for real and unplanned moments, and these moments are not perfect.
Sometimes the best way to improve your street photography is to just loosen up.
What matters is that the photograph is interesting and it looks good. Everything else is gravy. If the photograph has those qualities, who cares if it’s skewed, a little blurry, highlights are blown out, or if there’s an element in the way. That’s the real world.
Sometimes these aspects will ruin your photograph, of course, but just as often they’ll ground the moment in reality.
Photograph in busy and quiet places
As you are learning and getting comfortable, it’s very important to practice in busy places with a lot of foot traffic. This gives you many chances for great photographs and it’s easier to work in a candid way as well. This is how to work out the kinks and develop your technical skills and overall awareness.
But it is equally important to photograph in slower and quieter areas too.
These areas can be just as interesting and even more so than the busiest areas. It can take some time to get used to photographing here and figuring out what makes a good photograph, but you will be much better off for trying.
Conclusion – take photos for yourself
Street photography is about taking something that is internal, capturing it in the real world, and then showing those ideas in your work.
It’s not worth taking photographs that you think other people will find interesting. Ultimately, your work can only become so good that way.
Shoot what you think is the most interesting and forget about everyone else. Over time this is how you will develop a strong and distinct voice.
And most importantly, get out there and shoot as often as you can. That is the real way to improve your street photography.
Do you have any other tips to improve street photography that you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments, along with any street photos you’d like to share.