This article will help you with those all important decisions for getting started in street photography. Including the best gear to use, settings to apply, and what to do about the tricky topic of photographing people in public.
Any image of a street that can be used to tell a story about the location it shot could be defined as a street photograph. It could be a large city or a small village.
As a street photographer, you want to be able to blend into your surroundings. By blending in, you stand a better chance of going unnoticed and capturing candid moments. This means you will want to keep your gear small and light.
The big question these days is around the DSLR or mirrorless choice. My advice for street photography is the latter.
There is nothing wrong with using a DSLR if that is what you prefer or have already. However, mirrorless cameras will simply save you space and weight. Your street photography adventures will be much more enjoyable if you’re not arriving home to find one arm longer than the other after carrying around a DSLR all day.
Another benefit to mirrorless is that the electronic viewfinder (EVF) will provide you with an accurate representation of the exposure for your image before you even press the shutter.
If you find yourself without your camera and get the urge for street photography, there’s nothing wrong with using the camera on your phone.
If you’re getting started in street photography, you will want to use a zoom lens, rather than a prime. An 18-55mm kit lens (or similar) will be fine to start. I recommend planning to move to a prime lens once you have more experience.
The reason for this is that they are (usually) sharper than zoom lenses and shooting consistently at one focal length will help you to develop your own style.
When you’re ready to invest in a prime lens, you can look back at the metadata of all the street photos taken with your zoom lens and observe what focal length you used most often. This will help inform your decision making for which focal length to choose when buying a prime lens.
When shooting street photography, your camera should be ready to take the next shot at a moment’s notice. This means you’ll need to have your settings dialed in as much as possible.
Here’s some advice for when you start looking at those manual settings.
The best street photos make use of the entire frame. This means you’ll want a good depth of field, which means that the image is in focus from the nearest point in the photograph to the furthest point. I recommend shooting between f/5.6-11.
For any kind of handheld photography, a good rule of thumb is to use a minimum shutter speed that is equal to or greater than one over your focal length. This is to avoid blurry photos caused by camera shake. For example, if you are shooting at 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50th of a second.
If you are including people in your photos, you have two options.
First, use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze their motion. Anything faster than 1/100th should do it, for walking pace. A faster shutter speed will be needed for joggers and cyclists and will vary depending on how fast they’re moving.
Secondly, if you want to get creative and blur their motion slightly to project a sense of movement in your image, you can use a slightly slower shutter speed. But make sure you still use one that’s fast enough to avoid camera shake.
Keep ISO as low as possible while still achieving the points mentioned above for aperture and shutter speed. This will reduce the amount of noise (grain) in your photos.
If your lens has a focus ring that stops at infinity, use it and switch your camera to manual focus. If not, you’ll need an autofocus setting that allows you to track your subject, as it’s likely to be moving if it’s a person.
When you’re first getting started with street photography, you’ll want to use a metering mode that measures the whole frame. This will help you to prevent under or overexposure. Different camera manufacturers have different names for this metering mode. For example, Nikon refers to it as “Matrix Metering” and Canon refer to it as “Evaluative Metering”.
The rules of composition are an article in themselves. You can read more about it in this article.
Good composition is one of the most important elements of any photograph, but try not to get too hung up on it. As mentioned a few times in this article, you don’t have long to see and capture an image when practicing street photography.
While I agree that you should always try to get things right in-camera, sometimes this just isn’t practical. It’s better to get the shot and crop it later if you need to, rather than not get the shot at all.
When looking around you, don’t forget to look up or down. You never know what opportunities you might be missing.
At the beginning of this article, I talked about how important it is to blend into your surroundings. There are a couple of ways you can do this.
If you go to tourist hot spots for your street photography, you’ll just look like another tourist. This means that when you hold your camera up to look through the viewfinder, you’ll just be another person with a camera. It’ll be white noise to everyone around you so it’s a great place to start off with and build your confidence.
By holding your camera down by your side, or in front of your torso, you can make it look like you’re not even taking a photograph. It can be particularly helpful in this scenario if your camera has a tilting screen.
For this technique (called shooting from the hip), you’ll want to use a wide-angle lens to maximize your chances of capturing the shot. I took the shot below while continuing to walk and holding my camera by my side.
Wearing bright clothes will instantly make you more noticeable so be sure to wear dark or neutral colored clothes.
One of the hot topics of street photography is how to avoid confrontation when photographing people in public. Or what to do if someone takes offense when you have just taken their photograph without permission.
This section is not intended to put you off, but prepare you in the event that you are confronted. It’s only ever happened to me once. A security guard asked me to move on, so I did.
Here’s a quick summary of the different kinds of confrontational situations you may find yourself in and what to do if they arise.
A common experience for street photographers is being approached by security guards or the police, in particular when taking photographs of buildings in big cities. The bottom line in this situation is that you are in a public space and therefore are allowed to be there.
However, you’re not likely the first street photographer that security guard or police officer has encountered, and you’re even less likely to be the last. Don’t give street photographers a bad reputation by being difficult. No photograph is ever worth the aggravation. Just move on.
Members of the public
With the ubiquity of social media and people growing ever more aware of their privacy, you can understand if someone doesn’t like it when their photo is taken without permission. Particularly if they have no idea where that photo might end up.
The same rules apply here as in the previous section. If you and your subject are in a public place, you are within your rights to take their photograph. If a person confronts you and wants you to delete the photo you took of them, there’s a couple of ways you can approach it.
If they’re not a major part of the photograph, politely remind them of your rights. Inform them that they’re barely noticeable and you intend to keep the photograph. However, if you sense that they might turn aggressive, it’s always best to do as they ask. Again, it’s not worth the aggravation.
If the person that has approached you is a major part of the frame, it is best to respect their wishes and delete the photo.
Street photography is meant to be fun. Try not to get too hung up on gear and settings in the beginning and just enjoy yourself. Keep practicing and the ability to spot a photo opportunity developing in front of you will become instinctive.
Over to you. Let me know in the comments if you think there’s anything I missed or would like to know more about.