The technical side of street photography is incredibly important to master, because if you do not understand your camera, then you will not be able to do the tips in this article well. You want to be able to know your camera so well that you forget it is even there.
However, it is the non-technical tips, thinking beyond the camera, that can help you to improve to the next level. So here are 10 of my favorite tips to help improve your street photography.
1. Be spontaneous
While out shooting, I hear photographers all too commonly worry about cutting people’s legs off in the photo, not composing it right, or skewing the photograph by accident. Of course, these are technical issues to keep in mind when you review your work later. They can be important, but wasting your energy thinking about this nitpicky stuff while shooting can kill your ability to notice and capture those quick and wonderful moments that constantly appear.
Try to turn the analytical side of your brain off when you’re out photographing. Enjoy the process, and spend your time seeking out your subjects and looking at the light. Allow some spontaneity and chance in how you compose and shoot your photographs. Let your instincts take over. The more you train these instincts, the better they will become. William Eggleston only takes one photograph of every scene that he comes across. While you don’t have to go that far, many photographers do the opposite, try to ease any tension when you’re out there shooting and let your instincts guide you.
Garry Winogrand skewed more of his photographs than not, and everyone cuts off peoples legs constantly, but none of these factors alone have ever ruined a great photograph. By shooting more spontaneously you might miss a few shots, but the good ones will be even that much better.
2. Slow down and look
There is no need for a brisk pace when out photographing. Doing this will hurt your ability to notice your surroundings. Many people will come across an area and completely disregard it and move on to the next spot before they give it a proper chance. They just keep moving on and hoping for that magical location. But magical locations usually don’t swoop down on you like that. All of the places that you immediately disregard have a good photograph somewhere, maybe even a great one, you just need to find it. Those elusive photographs can be more interesting than the ones that immediately pop out at you.
Instead of spending your energy walking, spend it looking. Go high, get low, look left, and look right. The more you might disregarding an area, the more you have to ask yourself why you feel that way, and the more you should push yourself to try and get a good photograph there.
3. Do not be afraid of taking bad photographs
Photographing this way will yield many bad photographs, and it will also yield incredibly interesting ones that many people will not understand. But try to not let this affect how you photograph and how you feel when you are out shooting. Do it for yourself.
The bad photographs come constantly, but it is important that you spontaneously take them, because it means you are getting yourself ready for the moments when those incredible images will briefly appear before you. Shooting the bad ones will help you to better notice the good ones, and those bad photographs are just practice for those rare and elusive moments that you do not want to miss.
4. Notice the light
The more you slow down, the more aware you will become of your surroundings. This will help you to better understand and work with light. Light dictates how the scene will look in the camera, so you need to pay attention to its strength, the locations of the light sources and how they hit your subjects, the color of the light, and any contrasty areas with significant differences between the shadows and highlights.
Light is not necessarily the first thing you should notice, though. The subject needs to be the first thing that catches your eye, but you should always be aware of the light when entering a new location. If you are aware of the light, then you can work with it in a spontaneous way as well.
5. Notice people from afar
While street photography is not only about capturing people, candid photographs of people are at the heart of street photography. When you slow down and pay attention to your surroundings, you will now find yourself with the ability to pay more attention to everyone walking around you, along with their interactions. Try to go beyond just noticing people as they cross your immediate path. Try to look farther away to see people who might be interesting. The earlier that you notice them, the easier it will be to get the shot when you both intersect.
Really watch people. In street photography, your eyes are the true viewfinder, and the better you do at locating your subjects before you look through the viewfinder, the better your photography will be.
6. How will your work age?
Try not to take anything for granted. We all wish we could go back 50 years in time to photograph for a day. If we were able to do that, everything we saw would look so foreign and interesting to us, but back then they were just going about business as usual. They thought about their surroundings in they way that we think about ours today.
Think about how the photographs you take today will look in 50 years. What do we take for granted that people in the future will love? What will go out of style, what will seem weird and foreign, and will everyone still be staring at a mini handheld computer while walking down the street? These are not the types of photographs that most people take, and so they will stand out much more in the future.
7. Be consistent
Consistency is the real key. Street photography is such a difficult skill to master, and it’s easy to get rusty if you don’t do it often enough. Try to figure out a way to integrate a consistent shooting schedule. Maybe it’s a half day once a week, maybe it’s 30 minutes a day during your lunch break or after work, or maybe it’s in 10 minute increments constantly throughout your day.
Keeping some level of consistency will not only get you better photographs because you are giving yourself more of a chance to come across them, but you will improve much more consistently. Over time, your style and what you like to photograph will begin to emerge as well.
8. Use the camera as a key
The beauty of a camera is that it acts as a key to new experiences. It forces you to go out at times when you would normally be watching TV. It makes you photograph at night, in the rain, in a snowstorm, and in the worst weather. It makes you want to explore places that you would normally be too tentative to try to get access to. When people see you with a camera, many of them will understand and let you do things that they would otherwise be suspicious of. Use that to your advantage. Try to get access to areas that you would normally not take the effort to see.
In addition, a camera is a key to making new friends. This does not only apply to other photography enthusiasts. People love cameras, so use yours to break the ice. Take a portrait. Make some new friends and get yourself into new situations to photograph. This access will help to improve your photography in profound ways.
9. Expression, gesture, and emotion
Photography is about bringing out some sort of emotion in a viewer. Capturing expressions or gestures in people are extremely important ways to achieve this. The look in someone’s eyes or the stance that they hold can create a powerful feeling and make or break a picture.
The surface is so important to a photograph, but so is what lies beneath it. Try to see what might be hiding or hinted at under the surface of your photos. Questions will keep the person interested in the image over the longterm. You do not need to give them the answers. They will come up with some themselves.
10. Photography books
Look for inspiration outside of your own work. Purchase books from the masters to read through at night. This will give you more ideas about what you can possibly achieve when you are out there shooting. Try to find books with all different styles to shake you up a bit, such as one from Garry Winogrand and another from William Eggleston.
Over to you
Do you follow any of these ideas? Or maybe you have some other suggestions that have worked for you. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.