Tips for Getting Started in Street Photography

Tips for Getting Started in Street Photography

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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.

Getting Started in Street Photography - artists in a street market

Gear

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.

Camera

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.

Shot and edited on an iPhone - street photography

Shot and edited on an iPhone.

Lenses

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.

Settings

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.

I recommend starting in full Auto. This will allow you to concentrate on your surroundings and nail the composition. When you are more confident, you could move on to aperture priority.

Here’s some advice for when you start looking at those manual settings.

Aperture

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.

Good depth of field street photography - people on a bridge

Shutter speed

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.

Freeze motion man riding a bike - street photography

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.

Sense of movement

ISO

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.

Focus

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.

Focus tracking man walking - street photography

Metering

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”.

Composition

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.

Looking up

Looking down

Blending In

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.

Environment

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.

Tourists street photography

Camera Position

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.

Camera by my side street photography

Clothing

Wearing bright clothes will instantly make you more noticeable so be sure to wear dark or neutral colored clothes.

Confrontation

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.

Authorities

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.

I liked this pop of red in the shirt against the subdued tones of the building. Unidentifiable subject. 

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.

Clearly identifiable subject.

Summary

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Owen Vachell is an editorial photographer who particularly enjoys documenting stories through the use of his photographs. He runs workshops around his home county of Dorset on the South coast of England. “I thoroughly enjoy sharing my knowledge and helping others improve their photography.” Follow him on his site or blog.

  • John Miner

    Thank you, Owen. This is a very useful introduction for the shy person, who hates to be noticed or confronted. Shooting from the hip sounds just right as a starter. You suggest a mirrorless camera. Do you have one that you particularly like?

  • Owen Vachell

    Hi John,

    Thank you. I’m glad you found it useful. I shoot Street with a Fuji X-T20. Fuji has great lenses too, and their more ‘entry level’ cameras (I’ve heard) are also fantastic. I’m not an ambassador for Fuji. I just liked how small and light it is, and the analogue dials make it easy to change settings on the fly. I hope this helps.

  • David Gee

    Really useful article, thanks John. I have dabbled a little in street photographer but am still only a raw beginner. I like the way you suggest auto at first and moving on to aperture priority. Such a relief to have a break from the manual mafia.
    I am finding my results gradually improving with many setbacks. One thought I have is the street scene can be just as important as the people in it. Melbourne (Australia) lends itself to this and there are all those wonderful laneways and arcades with lots of people and sometimes relatively deserted.
    I am starting to think that for this city my Nikon d750 with 35mm 1.8 lens is most appropriate or a wider option.

  • pete guaron

    Hi Owen – great article.
    I tend to lock down at least one of the basic settings as soon as I’m on location – generally shutter and maybe ISO – so I don’t have as much to worry about in capturing the images I see. Which one[s] get “set in cement” really depends on what the images are – sometimes you want to control motion, sometimes it’s focus & focal depth – whatever. But sidelining some of them frees you up to concentrate on the opportunities that present themselves.
    And I love the cams with a tilt screen – you be just fiddling with your toy, nobody’s any the wiser – they’ll never spot you clicking the shutter button. Peering through viewfinders while you point a camera at someone makes you much more obvious – and could cost you any “relaxed” or natural look in your subject.
    One point you don’t mention. There are legal restrictions on photography, around the world, for all sorts of reasons. You should know what they are in your own country (but probably don’t!) If travelling, make sure you know & respect the laws in other countries – you can easily wind up in jail in some places, for “innocently” photographing someone or something.

  • Owen Vachell

    Thanks for commenting David. Don’t worry about setbacks. I’ve learned most from the mistakes I’ve made.

    There’s nothing wrong with using a full frame DSLR if that’s what you have. I certainly wouldn’t recommend going out and buying a new camera if you’re only dabbling in street. Keep going with your D750 and see how you feel. If you think you’d like to do it regularly, then start to think about investing in a smaller lighter camera.

    I’d recommend using the 17-35 with it though. Or the 35mm if you’re happy to go to a prime lens. As you rightly say, the 24-120 is a bit too cumbersome. The wider lenses will certainly work best in Melbourne’s laneways.

    I’ve been to Melbourne many times. I love it there. Such a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Reminds me of my time there when I went to photograph the graffiti in the lanes near Fed Square. They lend themselves very well to photography, regardless if there’s people there or not.

  • Owen Vachell

    Hi Pete,

    Thank you. I’m pleased you liked the article.

    Locking down at least one setting is definitely a good option if you’re comfortable doing that. I’d highly recommend anyone try to advance themselves to that stage if they’re confident they can do so.

    You’re absolutely right about taking in to account laws in other countries. I had only considered the law here in the UK so I think you raise a valid point.

  • Gil

    The tips you wrote in the articles are good . But the photographs that you included are rather on the weak side . I’d recommend few more years of shooting , get trough more street photographers works. At the moment work level is just not there to give personal advices .

  • Owen Vachell

    Thanks for the feedback Gil. I’m happy to let dPS be the judge on this one.

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