So you want to be a great street photographer.
You want to be able to strap your camera around your wrist and boldly walk down the streets, eagle-eyed and aware of everything around you, yet still in tune with your camera settings and its F-stops, its strengths and limitations. You want to visualize a moment happening and then capture it exactly as you saw it, to be preserved forever as a moment of history.
I’m not going to sugarcoat things; this is downright hard to do.
I’ve been doing street photography for almost 10 years and I struggle with it every single day. There are just so many competing and unanticipated aspects that all need to come together in unison for a great street photograph to work.
- You need to know your camera and its settings extremely well in different lighting situations and be able to switch between them constantly and quickly.
- You need to have catlike reflexes to frame and catch that split second moment.
- You need to be able to see that split second moment happening before it does.
- You often need to have the patience to park yourself in the right place, knowing that a special moment will eventually come.
- You need to be able to visualize yet still react.
- You need to tell stories and capture emotions.
- You need to be simultaneously creative and technical.
You will have to be persistent and learn to be hardheaded to get good. Sometimes you will see a moment and miss it. Other times your camera will be ready but you won’t see the moment until it is too late. Sometimes you will be too afraid to shoot quickly enough and will miss the moment by a split second. You will want to tear your hair out afterwards. It happens to all of us.
Street photography is a genre where you have to accept so many failures before you get that one success, where the captures can count in the thousands, while the great successes can be counted on your fingers and toes.
So let’s get down to it. What is the best way to start out? How do you take that first step into the vast pool of street photography and then set upon a path to improve and grow?
Start Slowly with a Medium/Long Zoom Lens
If you are a beginner, I think that the best way to start is to take your time, to be patient and to really think about what you are doing.
You don’t need to run out the door and take a thousand photos of everything that moves. You shouldn’t click the shutter constantly because you are afraid of missing the shot. The photographers that take the most shots of a subject are usually the ones that miss THE moment.
Try to anticipate when a moment will happen and capture the photo with a shot or two at the right point. Don’t be afraid to miss. You will miss sometimes, but the ones you hit will be way better than the hundreds of photos you will have otherwise taken that are almost there but not quite. Only worry about taking lots of photos if the scene starts to further develop.
After all, if you’re shooting constantly then you can’t actually see what’s happening.
Now I’m sure that you’ve already read (and I have personally written) about many different specific techniques, such as only using wide-angle primes, getting in close, shooting from the hip, using a long zoom or maybe even about popping up suddenly in front of someone’s face with a blinding flash (ala Bruce Gilden). Every street photographer shoots a little differently and there is no correct way to do it. You should eventually try out each technique.
I switch up my techniques constantly. It’s like that candy-bar commercial: “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” I may always feel like a nut, but some days I wake up as a wide-angle prime lens man and others I feel like using a zoom. Often I use both.
But let’s get back to you. To start out, I think that you should use a zoom that has a little distance to it. You can try a 28-300, a 24-105, or even a 70-200.
Keep some distance from your subject. This will give you more time to see a moment happening, more time to anticipate a moment happening, more room to frame correctly and it will keep people from noticing you as much.
In this photo I watched the box float all the way down the street in the direction of the cube during a huge snowstorm. It hit the bicycle stand and floated up into the same shape as the cube for a second and then was blown down the street. There was only a split second where this photo worked.
Think about what you are shooting and why. Train your eyeballs. Is there a strong emotion or idea present, does a person have a unique face, outfit or expression, are there powerful colors, patterns or angles in the scene? Then focus in and frame what is important.
Don’t run around the streets quickly searching out people. Instead, go to an area with some foot traffic and good lighting or an interesting background, set your camera to manual and pick the correct F-stop, shutter speed and ISO, and wait for the subjects to come into your scene. Search out the background and create the scene.
Get used to figuring out where to focus and on how to change your focus quickly. Pay attention and study the correct camera settings. This will come in very handy later when you switch to wide-angle primes.
Then, once you get your shot, try someplace new.
I can’t stress enough to take your time and get used to searching out what’s around you. Survey buildings, lighting, people, color and angles. Don’t just photograph everyone that you get close to. A great day is when you come back with a single epic photo, not twenty good ones.
Edit your photos. Really spend a lot of time editing. So much of street photography is about the editing. Learn from your successes and mistakes by looking at them, over and over. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Spend a lot of time going over what you shot. It will help train your eye for when you are out photographing.
Eventually you will start to notice themes popping up in your work that you didn’t notice while you were out photographing.
Street photography with a tripod? Blasphemy! It took hours of waiting to get this shot right.
Go Fast with a Wide-Angle Prime
Once you get comfortable with the previous method then you should switch it up.
Attach a wide-angle prime lens (anywhere from 20-35mm), strap your camera to your wrist, put an extra battery, card and a lens wipe in your pocket and carry nothing else. Travel as light as possible.
If you can, go someplace crowded or touristy, where you won’t be noticed as much and where there will be a lot of people to shoot and practice on.
This time get in close to people. Fight your fears and move an inch closer each day. Try shooting from the hip sometimes so people won’t notice. Shoot faster. Use your instincts that you developed in the zoom phase.
It will feel completely different and if you are like me then your first photos will be terrible. This is such a hard way to shoot and that’s why I think it is important to take your time at first with a zoom and some distance before moving onto this step.
Thing happen so quickly this way, and otherwise you would spend so much time worrying about the focus, framing, settings and trying to catch every single person that passes you by that you would forget to really see what was happening and to visualize the moment before it comes.
Here you can shoot faster and take more photos than you would in the zoom phase, but still try hard to get a moment with one shot.
Shoot with a fast shutter speed setting and make sure you are fully stopped before taking a photo. Many people say that 1/160th is the minimum you should be shooting, but I try to use 1/320th as my minimum as long as it’s possible.
Try unique angles and perspectives. Shoot diagonally. Focus in on faces. Make yourself nervous and get your heart beating. Adventure out and have fun.
Take your camera everywhere like this, whether to the market or the train station. Travel light and keep yourself aware as often as possible. I have terrible ADD, so constantly paying attention is not my strong suit.
Don’t worry if you can’t capture anything of value at first. It takes time. With some practice you will get good.
Developing a personal style
Once you get good at using a wide-angle prime lens then you should go back to switching it up between a prime and a zoom. After awhile, you will begin to notice a technique that works for you and a style within your work. Pay attention to this when editing. It’s important and will help you ‘see’ when you are out in the field. Often you will have tendencies that you won’t notice until you edit.
You can stick to one lens or not, but developing a personal style certainly doesn’t mean that you have to pigeonhole yourself this way. A style is primarily developed through the content that you photograph and how you choose to edit.
And also, keep in mind that a large zoom lens will miss shots that a light, fast wide-angle will get, while a light, fast wide-angle lens will miss shots that a heavier, larger zoom will get. It’s a fact of life and something not to get frustrated about.
As street photographers we will miss a thousand percent more shots than we make, but when we get that truly amazing moment, the one that we never would have been able to capture without taking all of those crappy photographs and trying out all of those different techniques, then this is what will make everything worth it.
Another street photograph on a tripod? The horror!