Tutorial – Easy Camera Settings for Street Photography

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Street photography is one of those practices that is very tough to get right technically at first. Everything happens so quickly, hand-eye coordination is so important, and of course, there’s the fear involved in capturing people in candid moments without their approval. While it may seem like you just have to wait for the right moments to occur and get lucky, the reality is very far from that.

Street Photography Camera Settings

However, the irony is that while the technical aspects are very difficult at first, eventually they will become second nature, and the real difficult aspect will be finding those interesting and inspiring moments. Those moments don’t occur very often, and when they do you have to be fast enough to see and capture them. So if you don’t have the fundamentals down, it will be tough to get to the next step.

Here is how I approach my camera settings so I can then forget about them and just shoot.

The first step

Street Photography Camera Settings

The first step always involves the light. You cannot figure out how to set your camera if you don’t first understand the light. How strong is the light? Is it a sunny day or a cloudy day? Is it evening? Are you in New York where tall buildings will create dark shadows no matter how bright it is or are you in an area with much smaller structures?

Get in the habit of looking at the light when you first walk out to shoot and don’t stop noticing it.

A couple quick thoughts

Street Photography Camera Settings

To freeze motion in people, I like to use 1/250th of a second as a base number for the shutter speed. That number or faster and there will be no motion blur in people. You can go down to 1/160th or 1/125th at dusk or night if you need to and you should be okay, but slower than that and you risk motion blur (unless you want motion blur of course).

For the most part, I like to use a small aperture (large depth of field) between f/8 and f/16 when I can. Sometimes I have to shoot at f/2.8 due to the light, or it will look pleasing for certain shots, but I always prefer to use as small an aperture as possible to make sure enough of the scene is sharp.

With fast moving scenes you will often miss the focus slightly, and with a large depth of field, this will mean that the shot will be saved in these cases. In addition, there will often be scenes with an interesting background (context can be very important for street photography) or multiple subjects at different depths. With a small aperture, you will have to worry less about getting these subjects sharp.

To have a fast shutter speed and small aperture, unless the light is incredibly strong, you need to raise your ISO. Don’t be afraid of this – the grain/noise looks fine and it will be more than offset by your photos being a lot sharper in general. I typically use ISO 400-800 in sunlight, 800-1600 in light or dark shade, and 1600-6400 at dusk into the night.

Aperture Priority versus Shutter versus Manual Mode

Street Photography Camera Settings

The next step is to choose Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode. If you are comfortable and good with any of these modes, you can use them for any situation. But I find it beneficial to switch modes depending on the situation.

Aperture Priority

When there is medium to strong light, I always use Aperture Priority. The reason for this is because I want to be able to set my camera and forget about the settings. With the settings out of the way, you are free to enjoy yourself and to focus on the content.

If the light is fairly even, you won’t have to worry much. But on sunny days, particularly in New York, there is a huge contrast between the sunny part of the street and the shady part. So it’s a pain to change your settings every time you go from one to the other.

So what I will do is set my camera to the ideal settings for the shady side of the street. This means that I usually set my camera to around f/8 or f/11 (sometimes f/5.6) and ISO 800 (you can tweak these depending on how dark the shady side really is). This will allow for at least a 1/250th of a second shutter speed in the shade.

Street Photography Camera Settings

The tradeoff is that when you point your camera toward the sun, ISO 800 is a little higher than you would normally use in that situation. But the added grain is fine, and it allows you to seamlessly go back and forth between lighting situations. Your shutter speed will be something crazy fast like 1/2500th or so. But that will mean that at least your subjects will be super sharp.

Shutter Priority

On shady days or at darker times of day like the early morning or evening, I will set my camera to Shutter Priority and 1/250th (sometimes 1/160th or 1/125th at night). This will guarantee that motion is frozen, unlike shooting on Aperture Priority, when the camera will sometimes go below that threshold to let in enough light. It is hard to always pay attention to that. I will then set my ISO accordingly from 1600 to 6400 depending on how dark it is. The reason for this is to make the aperture as small as possible, even though at night you often will have to shoot wide open.

Street Photography Camera Settings

The reason why I don’t shoot Shutter Priority on sunny days is that so much light is hitting the camera if I am shooting at 1/250th or even 1/500th and ISO 800 in the sunlight, my aperture will need to be f/32 or f/64. My lenses can’t go smaller than f/16, so that creates a problem and forces me to have to change the settings when I go from sunlight to shade.

Manual Mode

If the light is very consistent, or if you are very good with using Manual mode, you can, of course, use this setting. With consistent lighting, it’s easy to choose your settings and forget about them. However, if the light is not very dark I usually just prefer Aperture or Shutter Priority.

Street Photography Camera Settings

The time when I will use Manual Mode is often at night. That’s when it is so dark that I need to choose the minimum settings possible to freeze a scene and get it sharp, usually 1/125th and f/2, or sometimes indoors, where the lighting is usually pretty consistent. For instance, on the subway system, I will usually choose Manual mode and shoot at 1/250th and f/2.8. Consistent lighting is where Manual mode shines.

Conclusion

So study this, go out in different lighting situations and test out the different settings, and make this second nature. Once you do, then you can forget about it and focus on what is really important – taking photos.


If you’d like to learn more about Street Photography, then please check out my ebook The Essentials of Street Photography.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • SSRajan

    thanks for the info… good write up

  • Tim Lowe

    The traditional “street” camera is a 35mm rangefinder with a 35mm lens. B/W film is pretty forgiving in terms of exposure so you meter for the general conditions and maybe adjust a stop or two if you are in really deep shade or really bright sun. DOF choice is a personal thing.

    If you are shooting “digital street” you’d do well to mimic this setup to get the right look.

  • John Fogg

    James — one other suggestion is to use Auto-ISO if your camera has that feature along with Manual mode. As long as you can constrain the ISO range within Auto-ISO (say, 100-6400), you should be able to get good results. Just gotta occasionally check, in deep shade or full sun, what ISO you’re getting, and perhaps adjust one of the other parameters accordingly.

    Thanks, BTW, for the other commentary; it really helps getting some parameters down pat and WHY to use them.

  • Joel

    You hit the moment in the top photo with the guy scoping out the pretty girl, but she totally busted you.

  • Srijib Neogi

    Great article. Its all about catching the drama of the street . Sometimes not so perfect settings can yield great results . Bresson’s photographs are great example of that . I took this one today on my mobile . Tried to catch the emotion of a street singer singing in a local train.. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0d3ae5050a02523d02bfb1cb5e31fcc23d6c55034ab5987c5485548d624360a8.jpg

  • Annie

    Your tutorials in general, and this one in particular, are incredibly helpful. Many thanks for this!

  • Glad you enjoyed it Annie!

  • To be fully honest, she had no idea. She was in her own world thinking about something.

  • Hey John – I only recommend auto ISO in manual mode. I don’t like when the camera chooses two of the settings unless you choose a minimum shutter speed and then it’s fine (as you said). I don’t find changing the ISO very hard so I prefer not to let the camera get to complicated with what it does. But yes, that can work well.

  • Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Joel

    Really? Please!

  • Why would I make that up? I was holding the small Fuji x100 at my chest and she suddenly turned around the corner in her own world and I shot it quickly from the hip. She had no clue.

  • Joel

    I must have been looking at the wrong photo. I was looking at the one where she was staring straight at you. It’s obviously my mistake.

  • The first one right? If you look at a larger version she’s looking up, way above my head.

  • Joel

    James, I like your work and this is another great article on DPS. I was just ribbing you about being busted, so let’s just let it go at that.

  • Ah gotcha – tough to tell in online comments 🙂

    I do get busted occasionally though.

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