In this article, I’m going to explain everything you could ever want to know about street photography, including:
- The best cameras and lenses for shooting on the streets
- How to overcome fear when taking pictures of strangers
- How to capture beautiful street photography compositions
- How to find the best street photography lighting
- Much more!
By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be a street photo expert, and you’ll know how to capture stunning street images like a pro.
Let’s dive right in.
What is street photography?
Think of “street photography,” and you’ll typically imagine a photo of a stranger walking down the street in a city like New York, London, or Tokyo. But while these shots are a huge part of street photography, the genre is actually far more expansive.
You see, street photography is about candidly photographing life and human nature. It is a way for us to show our surroundings and how we as photographers relate to it.
People don’t need to be present in a street photograph, nor does a street photo need to be taken in a city. It can be taken anywhere, and it can portray nearly anything – as long as it isn’t posed or manipulated. A street photo can be shot at a family barbecue or in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City.
Note that, while technical quality is always important, it is not celebrated in street photography the way it is in, say, landscape photography. A landscape image needs to be sharp. It needs to have perfect colors and plenty of tonal detail. But street photography is different; it can be grainy, poorly focused, or slightly off-kilter.
Can these issues ruin a street photo? Yes, sometimes, so it’s important to aim for technical mastery. But if an image is technically imperfect, it may still be great (or, thanks to these deficiencies, it might actually become better).
Ethics in street photography
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Street photography is intrusive. Photographing people candidly usually means that you do not have their permission beforehand.
To do street photography, you will need to come to terms with this. Every time you hit the shutter, there is a chance that your subject will be bothered. Some won’t mind, but some will.
That is the moral cost of street photography. Most of us do it because we like people, and we like exploring, and we like capturing culture. The camera is just a way to bring back moments that we see and enjoy. The images we take have value – both current and historical. When you look at images from the 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, or even from 15 years ago, which are the most interesting? Usually, it’s the ones that include people and culture. Those are the photographs that so many viewers find fascinating, because they offer lots of cultural value.
However, it’s up to you to decide whether street photography is worth it. Yes, it offers benefits – but the cost is real, too.
How to get over your fear of photographing people
Fear is one of the toughest obstacles to overcome for street photographers. Beginners often think, “What if my subject sees me? How will they feel? Will they be mad? How will they react?”
But an important fact to keep in mind is that getting caught doesn’t have to be that bad.
Think about the first time that a comedian bombs on stage. Once it happens, it’s over, and they no longer need to worry. Similarly, someone will see you take their picture, and it’s important that you speak to them.
(Keep in mind that, when you do street photography right, most people won’t notice. But occasionally, they will.)
When someone asks you what you are doing, be confident and comfortable. I say that I am a photographer carrying out a project capturing the culture and people of New York, and I thought they looked fabulous (flattery is key!). If they continue to question me, I will explain more; I’ll tell them that I did not mean to make them uncomfortable and that I’m happy to delete the image if they prefer. Only twice have I ever had to delete a photograph. Those are pretty good odds.
By the way, if someone catches you, own up to it, but don’t be combative. Even if it is in your legal right to photograph on the street, don’t use that as your argument. You don’t need to argue at all. And no matter what, keep a smile on your face.
Keep in mind that the stealthier you try to act, the weirder you can actually look. Sometimes, being obvious and taking photos in a direct way can be the least confrontational strategy. The more obvious you look, the less people will think that you could possibly be doing something wrong. If you were, why would you be so obvious?
Finally, consider starting somewhere busy, such as a fair or a market. It’s a great way to get over the initial hump because you’ll be less noticeable – and as you improve, you can move on to different places.
Is street photography legal? Street shooting and the law
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Do not hold me (or Digital Photography School) accountable for what I have written below. These are my own beliefs based on my research. Do your own research and familiarize yourself with the laws in your area.
In certain locations, street photography without permission is illegal. Some places make it completely impossible to do street photography, while in other places photographers may be able to ignore the laws. In some countries, street photographers continue to take candid images, but only where the person’s face is unrecognizable.
In the US and the UK, there is no right to privacy in public. This means that you can legally take photographs of anyone in a public place. Note that the definition of “public place” may vary from one country to the next, but it does generally include parks, sidewalks, roads, and outdoor common areas of office buildings. Most indoor locations, on the other hand, would be considered private places, such as shops, churches, schools, and office buildings.
In the US and the UK, you can use photographs taken in public places for artistic purposes without the need for a model release. This means you can sell street shots as fine art prints or as illustrations for books or cards. However, you cannot use these images for commercial or advertising purposes without a model release from every person in the scene. You cannot use the images to promote a product, and you cannot use them in a way that may insinuate something false about the subject.
Legal rights aside, it can also be smart to research the locals’ friendliness toward street photographers. In some locations, it is much easier to photograph people, while in other locations, people may be much more confrontational. One of the reasons New York is such a great place for street photography is because the people are used to seeing cameras.
You should also assess each person before you snap their photo. It’s usually not worth it to photograph anyone who looks very angry or who might have some mental disability. Use your judgment, and if your gut says no, then wait for the next shot. There are a lot of opportunities out there.
Getting started with street photography: tips for beginners
Later on, I’ll discuss more technical street photography concepts, but I want to start you off with a few of the most helpful tips.
1. Find a good spot and wait
This is the best street photography tip I can give you:
Look for a good location. And when you find one, just wait.
If you only shoot while walking, you will come across many wonderful locations – but you’ll only give yourself a brief moment to capture the right image. Instead, find a nice location…and then wait for the perfect moment. By hanging out in one area, you’ll be able to focus your attention on the scene, plus you’ll be ready with your camera.
Also, if you lie in wait, people will enter your personal space, not the other way around. That way, you can feel more comfortable shooting (and your subjects will feel more comfortable, too).
2. After shooting, keep the camera up
Grab your camera, then take a photo.
What did you do with your hand? Most photographers, the moment they’ve captured an image, will drop their arm down and let their camera dangle. And this is what tips people off; it clearly indicates that you have taken their photo.
So make a conscious effort to adjust your behavior. After you capture an image, don’t drop your arm. Instead, hold the camera in place until the subject leaves the scene. That way, your subject will think you were just photographing the background and that they were in the way.
3. Ditch the zoom and use a wide-angle prime
Street photography is not like your high-school science class. You don’t examine your subjects under a microscope. Rather, street photography is about experiencing life up close and personal.
When starting out as a street photographer, you may be tempted to use a long zoom (e.g., a 70-200mm lens) so you can shoot from afar and feel less awkward. But it will do much more harm than good.
First of all, you will look hugely conspicuous in public holding a monster zoom lens. A long lens stands out from miles away and people will notice.
Second, if you use a zoom lens, you have to point it directly at somebody. This makes the person you’re trying to photograph aware of what’s happening as if they have a gun pointed to their head.
So instead of a long zoom, use a lens that’s much smaller, more inconspicuous, and less threatening: a wide-angle prime, such as a 24mm f/2.8 lens, a 20mm f/2.8 lens, or a 35mm f/2.8 lens.
People will be far less bothered by such a compact lens, and they often won’t even notice you holding it. Plus, by using a wide-angle lens, you can capture your subjects without pointing your camera directly at them; for instance, you can compose so they’re off to one side, and it’ll look (to your subjects) like you’re shooting a completely different part of the scene.
4. Get as close as you can
In street photography, closeness makes a big difference. So when I tell you to get close, I mean it. Get so close that you can see the perspiration dripping from a person’s forehead or the texture of their skin.
When you combine closeness with a wide-angle prime lens (as discussed in the previous tip), you’ll get a highly immersive, engaging perspective. The viewer will feel like they’re a part of the scene, not just someone looking in from afar.
Plus, if you get very close to your subject, they won’t think anything of it; they’ll believe you’re taking a photo of something behind them, especially if you aim your camera slightly to the side.
5. Always carry your camera with you
If you’ve been doing street photography for a while, you’ve probably heard this one a million times – but I bet you’ve come up with a million excuses and reasons not to carry a camera.
“My camera is too heavy,” you probably think. “It’s frustrating to keep the camera constantly charged and ready to go.”
And yes, carrying a camera can be frustrating. But you know what’s more frustrating? Missing the perfect photo opportunity and regretting it for the rest of your life.
Yes, that’s a bit dramatic, but it’s genuinely true; you never know when the most amazing moment will present itself. Do you really want to be standing there without a camera when it happens?
On the other hand, if you get in the habit of always carrying your camera with you, you’ll never miss those “Kodak moments” that always seem to happen with no warning. I myself have taken some of my best images at the most unexpected times – images that would have been impossible to capture if I were not dedicated to keeping a camera by my side.
6. Disregard what other people think of you
Here’s a street photography tip for beginners:
One of the things that you’re probably worried about is being viewed by other people as a “creeper,” a “weirdo,” or simply getting unpleasant comments. But you must learn to disregard these thoughts.
When you’re shooting on the streets, you will most likely be alone. That means that any judging bystanders will be people that you do not know and will most likely never see again in your life. Why let them get in your way?
You may feel constricted by social rules, especially when you’re just starting out. But remember, social rules are not laws, and in many locations, there is no law that prevents photography in public places.
If you’re really struggling to get past your fear of being judged, here’s a simple exercise to try:
Spend time doing something unusual in public. Lie on the ground for a minute and see how other people react. Then get up and simply walk away like nothing happened. Walk into an elevator and stand facing the back wall. Go to a busy intersection and stand like a statue. People won’t care, trust me – I had to do that last one as an experiment for one of my sociology classes.
The social world is full of rules that constrict us. Break them, learn to be at peace with it, and shooting in the streets will become quite natural.
7. Smile often
When shooting in the streets, a smile can go a long way. If you take a photo of someone and they give you a weird look, simply tip your hat to them and show them two rows of your pearly white chompers. They’ll generally go on with their day (and they might even smile back).
I use this approach all the time, and I get around a 95% response rate, even in Los Angeles. Some of the most unapproachable people smile back at me. People trust a street photographer who smiles; they will simply see you as a hobbyist, not someone with malicious intent.
Plus, by smiling often, it’ll help you relax – and a relaxed photographer is a better photographer!
8. Ask for permission
Many street photography purists say that the only real street photography is candid. And it’s certainly true that you sometimes don’t want to ask for permission when shooting on the street; otherwise, you’ll fail to capture those unique, spontaneous moments that really define the genre.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking before shooting, and street portrait photography is a genuinely interesting area of exploration.
So feel free to go up to strangers who you want to photograph and ask to take a portrait. Most people love getting their photos taken, and as long as you act courteous and casual about it, many will accept.
Also, try approaching mundane subjects of everyday life, like the waitress at a diner, the bellhop of a hotel, or even a parking lot attendant.
9. Be respectful
There’s a tricky, gray line that every street photographer must navigate:
Whether it’s acceptable to photograph the homeless. Some street shooters avoid this type of photography completely, while others specifically aim to document difficult living conditions.
Personally, I try not to take photos of people who appear too down on their luck. I do think there are tasteful images of the homeless that generate awareness and support – but there are also many images that look like pure exploitation. Think of the cliché shot of a homeless person crouched over on the street, begging for money. Such a photo might look “real” or “edgy,” but that doesn’t mean you should take it.
Before you press the shutter button, determine the message you are trying to convey. Are you shooting to build awareness of the atrocious situations that many homeless people experience? Or are you merely taking a photo of a homeless person for the sake of taking their photo or to boost your portfolio? If it’s the latter, you should probably put your camera back down, though ultimately only you can decide what to do.
10. Look for juxtaposition
For me, juxtaposition is what makes street photography so unique and fascinating compared to other genres. Thanks to the careful use of juxtaposition, street photographs can convey the humor, irony, and beauty of everyday life.
The idea is to take two contrasting elements – often a subject and their environment, or two subjects – then put them together in the same frame.
A few quick juxtaposition tips:
- Look for signs with interesting messages that seem contradictory to the people standing nearby
- Be on the lookout for human heads that seem to be displaced by other objects, such as street lamps
- Look for two individuals that differ in height, complexion, or even weight
- Look for several individuals displaying a range of emotions, be it happiness, sadness, curiosity, anger, etc.
By the way, juxtaposition doesn’t always need to make sense. Some juxtapositions highlight a clear message, but others simply emphasize the absurdity of life, and that’s okay, too!
11. Tell a story
Many beginner street photographers simply try to capture people out and about, and that’s fine – but as you progress, try to add a bit of narrative to each of your photos.
Before you take an image, imagine that you are a film director and that you’re trying to make an interesting movie. Who are the main actors? What is your backdrop? How are the main actors interacting? What kind of emotions are you trying to convey?
Ultimately, images that tell a story are the ones that really stick in the mind of the viewer. And the absolute best images tend to be so illustrative, so evocative, that the viewer returns to them again and again.
So when you get the opportunity, weave a narrative into your photos!
12. Just do it
This is my last tip, and it’s an absolutely essential point to understand:
If you want to be a street photographer, you’ve got to get out and actually shoot. Reading about street photography techniques is helpful, but photography isn’t done behind a computer screen! At some point, no matter how hard it might feel, you need to head out that door and start capturing the world.
So grab a DSLR, point-and-shoot camera, smartphone, or even a disposable film camera – then hit the streets. The beauty of the world awaits, so don’t miss your chance.
The best street photography equipment
You can do street photography with any type of camera. You can do it with a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, a point and shoot camera, and even a smartphone. You can do it with any type of lens, too: a heavy zoom, a tiny prime, or something in between.
That said, different equipment does offer specific advantages. A zoom lens will let you capture the more obvious opportunities at different distances but will be heavier, more noticeable, and more cumbersome. A prime lens will restrict you to a single focal length but will also be light, freeing, and fun to use.
In fact, prime lenses actually offer a big advantage: you will begin to see the world more intuitively with one focal length. While the limitation will stop you from capturing certain shots, you will become even better at capturing images within the constraints of that focal length. Ultimately, you’ll become quicker and more spontaneous with your camera.
Also, traveling light and compact will give you a lot more flexibility, especially in places where a large camera stands out. In my experience, lighter cameras and lenses are more fun to shoot with, and they let you enjoy photography in situations you normally wouldn’t take a bulky DSLR setup.
The best street photography camera settings
There is no one correct way to do street photography, and many of the best shooters use completely different methods. However, you’ll want to consider a handful of factors (and if you’ve been photographing in a specific way for a long time, I’d advise testing out other methods, if only to push you out of your comfort zone).
Below, I share my favorite street photography camera settings, starting with:
In street photography, you usually want a narrow aperture for increased depth of field. A deep depth of field will let you capture a variety of situations on the fly, plus it will prevent you from missing focus on fast-moving candid subjects. And it can provide beneficial context and storytelling, too.
While I won’t recommend one single aperture, consider stopping down to around f/8 or f/11. Assuming your subject is a few feet away and you’re shooting with a wide-to-standard focal length, this will give you plenty of depth of field to keep your subject sharp, even if you don’t have time to focus properly (see the zone focusing method, explained below).
Most street photos feature moving people. You’ll need a fast shutter speed to keep them sharp.
I prefer to shoot at 1/250s in the shade and 1/400s or 1/500s in direct sunlight. But if I need to, I’ll drop to 1/160s and sometimes 1/125s.
Note that your minimum shutter speed should depend on your own stability (e.g., if you’re standing still, you’ll be able to shoot much better than if you’re moving). It should also depend on the speed of your subject; a bicyclist or jogger needs a faster shutter speed versus a walker.
Also, always peek at your photos afterward to check the sharpness. That way, you can learn as you go along.
You’re trying to squeeze as much depth of field as possible out of your camera. You’re trying to keep the shutter speed fast.
To do this, you’ll need to boost your ISO.
I will typically set my camera to ISO 400 in sunlight, 800 in light shade, 1600 in dark shade, 3200 at dusk, and 6400 at night. With entry-level digital cameras, I would probably drop by a stop (to 3200 at night, 1600 at dusk, and so on).
Fortunately, in street photography, noise often looks good, though test your camera to see how the images appear at high ISOs (and do some prints to see how the noise appears on paper, too). With newer cameras, you can easily go to ISO 1600, 3200, and higher.
You see, you’ll often be shooting into the sun one moment and away from it the next, and if you’re shooting in Manual mode, you’ll need to change your settings every time you turn your camera. It’s much more efficient to set your camera to Shutter Priority, dial in your preferred shutter speed, and start shooting.
That said, in consistent lighting situations, when shooting indoors, or when shooting at night, I will switch to Manual mode. And when I want a very shallow depth of field, I’ll switch to Aperture Priority, choose a low ISO, and set my aperture to f/2.8 or so.
Composition in street photography
Capturing perfect street photography compositions is difficult – but it’s also essential, because a good composition is key to a great street photo.
That’s why I’d urge you to compose your street photographs the same way you’d compose a landscape image. Assess the scene and arrange all of the elements together. Every element counts, no matter what it is; the best street photographers have a way of bringing everything together in just the right way.
Sometimes the subject is all that’s important, and you’ll want to frame it or blur the background away while forgetting about everything else. A lot of photographers will shoot this way 100% of the time, especially when first starting out, but that’s a mistake. The subject matters, but the environment matters, too.
Try to combine the main subject with other elements to create a more complex composition. Can you create relationships between subjects to add new meaning to a scene? Whether or not you decide to make the surroundings prominent, you always need to be aware of them. It’s better to intentionally discard background elements than to not notice them at all.
Lighting in street photography
In street photography, you should always keep an eye out for your main light sources. How is the light hitting your subject, and where is it located in relation to that subject? How is it hitting the background? What color is the light, and are there multiple light sources?
However, it is important to understand that there is no best light for street photography. The harsh midday light will be just as beautiful and interesting as the warm dawn or dusk light. What’s important is that you make the most out of the light in any location.
Some photographers will use a portable flash to illuminate their subjects and separate them from the background. This can create a great look, but keep in mind that flashing a stranger in the face can be very confrontational.
Also, when the flash is too strong, it can take away from the feeling of reality; this is a look that some photographers dislike and some photographers desire, so it’s a decision you’ll have to make. If you’re going for a surreal look, then a flash could be a big asset.
Exercises to improve your street photos
If you want to capture amazing street photography, but you just feel like you’re not good enough, the issue could be practice! Below, I share five fantastic street photography exercises that are guaranteed to improve your street photography.
Let’s get started.
1. Find a scene and stand in place for an hour
It might not seem like it…
…but a lot of street photography is about being patient.
In fact, plenty of the best street photos were taken after a significant amount of standing in place and waiting.
You see, great street photography often involves a powerful background with a focal point. And that focal point is often a person.
But to get the right person in the right place is one of the toughest parts of this genre of photography.
So this exercise is designed to make sure you recognize the rewards of being patient.
Here’s what you do:
Start by finding a scene that you like. A building, an alley, an interesting background of some sort. Make sure there’s a decent amount of foot traffic.
Then previsualize. Where would you like your main subject to walk into the frame? Imagine the precise place you’d like them to be when you take the photo.
Now, plenty of people will walk through your scene who don’t fit with your previsualized photo. Maybe they don’t stand in the perfect place. Maybe they don’t have the silhouette you’re looking for.
And that’s okay. After all, this is an exercise in patience!
However, I recommend you take photos of these people anyway. You might end up with something unexpectedly powerful.
Even if you do get the shot you like, keep standing in place. Stay there until an hour has passed.
Because it’s important you understand, not just the rewards of patience, but how to be patient. So even once you’ve achieved your goal, stand in place, and keep taking photos. See what you can get.
2. Shoot an entire outing from an unusual angle
When you’re just starting out in street photography, it’s very easy to take every shot at eye-level.
Putting your camera up to your face is natural. And it can sometimes help you get over the stress of taking photos in public; you can feel like you’re hiding.
But shooting at eye level is a recipe for consistently boring photos.
Instead, you want to take photos from many different angles. Different angles are the key to creating a dynamic, powerful portfolio.
So the street photography exercise is simple:
Go out with your camera. And only take photos from an uncommon angle.
Which angles count as “uncommon”?
The low angle is a great start. The lower you take your photo, the more awe your photos will generate because it’ll feel like the viewer is looking up at the scene. For the photo above, I shot up toward the clock tower in an attempt to make the image more dramatic.
Plus, a low angle can often clear the background, making it less distracting. It causes people in the background to fall away, leaving only buildings and sky behind your main subject.
To shoot at a low angle, you have a few options. You can sit down or crouch low. Or you can hold your camera down at your hip.
Of course, you don’t have to shoot from a low angle! If you like, you can try finding a vantage point (such as a parking garage), and shoot from high above.
The choice is yours. Just make sure you get used to trying new angles.
It’ll seriously improve your street photos!
3. Ask five strangers if you can take their picture
One of the biggest barriers to great street photography is your own nervousness.
After all, it’s hard to capture photos of people from a distance, let alone up close. You probably worry about people getting angry or even threatening you.
First of all, you should know that, in most countries, it’s legal to photograph people in public places. So you’re not breaking laws.
But the anxiety doesn’t always go away once you know your rights.
This is where this street photography exercise comes in handy.
All you have to do is go out shooting. And ask at least five people if you can take their photo.
It’s okay if they refuse. It’s okay if they agree but the picture is bad.
The only thing that matters is that you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You’re forcing yourself to see that plenty of people don’t mind having their photo taken in public. And when people do mind, it’s not the end of the world.
This is an exercise that I recommend you try once a week (or until you no longer struggle to photograph people in public).
Because even if you prefer to photograph people without approaching them, knowing that everything will turn out okay will significantly improve your levels of comfort (and, consequently, your street photos!).
4. Only photograph strangely-lit people for a day
If you want to capture amazing street photos, you’ve got to start paying attention to the light.
This is easy to forget about because street photography involves so many variables: people moving fast, cars causing distracting backgrounds, etc.
But you can’t fail to consider the light. Otherwise, your photos will be very inconsistent.
Which brings me to the exercise:
Only photograph people who are strangely lit for the day.
By “strangely lit,” I’m referring to non-standard lighting. The people shouldn’t be lit with standard front-lighting, cloudy lighting, or standard overhead lighting.
Instead, there should be strong backlighting, side lighting, or shadows running through the scene.
By forcing yourself to pay attention to this, you’ll get a better eye for lighting. And it’s the first step toward taking more creative, unique street photos.
Personally, I’m a fan of backlit street photography. So I recommend going out when the sun is low in the sky to see if you can find some backlit subjects.
But you can also shoot people who are walking through shadow. This works especially well if the area around the person is bathed in sunlight, in order to create a high-contrast shot.
Just find some unique lighting, and you’ll do just fine.
5. Spend a week only taking photos of small details
Most street photographers only ever take photos of people.
But here’s the thing:
The streets have plenty of compelling details, too. And a street photographer who can find these details is a street photographer worth watching.
Tiny details lend character to your street photos, even if the main subject is a person. And tiny details can be the sole subject of a photo, as well. You just have to know how to capture them.
This is why your final street photography exercise is dedicated to photographing those beautiful small details.
All you have to do is deliberately photograph little details for a week. Forget about photographing people. Forget about photographing architecture.
Instead, focus on capturing the most compelling details possible.
This might involve creating some abstract photos. Photograph contrasting colors up close. Or photograph spray-painted graffiti.
You can also capture some wider photos: the signs of restaurants, or the front door of buildings. All of these are excellent potential subjects.
Just remember: When you photograph small details, don’t just try to faithfully render the details themselves. Instead, create a compelling composition out of the details. Try to include multiple interesting features.
You’ll take a few boring photos, sure. But you’ll develop an appreciation for the smaller aspects of the city.
And you’ll take some stunning photos in the process.
Advanced street photography tips
In this section, I’ll share some high-level street photography advice. If you’re looking to take your street shooting beyond the basics, then pay close attention.
1. Look for facial expressions and gestures
Scenes with people just walking down the street or standing in place are not enough. To take your images to the next level, you must photograph people with strong facial expressions or gestures.
As humans, we recognize what others are feeling through their facial expressions. So when you’re out shooting, one of the first things you should be doing is paying attention to people’s expressions. You can also get subtle cues from a person’s body, so keep an eye out for how a person gestures through their body, hands, legs, and feet.
Then, when the expression or gesture is at its peak, take a photo!
2. Seek out imperfection
The beauty of street photography is often in its imperfections. I discussed this at the start of the article, but it bears repeating: you do not need to make your photos perfect in every way. Strong grain (or digital noise), an image that is slightly askew, an element that is slightly in the way, and poor lighting can all make an image imperfect – but they can also make it more real.
While each of the latter items have the ability to ruin a photo, they’ll sometimes do just enough to make your image feel like a natural moment. So while you should always aim for technical mastery, realize that imperfections can be beneficial and even necessary.
3. Try zone focusing
Zone focusing is simple to learn, fairly difficult to master, and painful to explain in writing (it’s much easier to just show someone how to do it). Basically, zone focusing is a strategy where you manually focus a set distance into the scene, then take photos without adjusting your focus point at all.
You start by prefocusing your camera to a certain distance. I typically choose between 8 and 10 feet away, which is where I like to capture my subjects. Then, when subjects enter the prefocused area, you can click the shutter without fiddling with your autofocus. The fraction of a second that zone focusing saves, and the added freedom this allows, will take you a long way.
I usually only zone focus at 35mm and wider. Why? The farther you zoom in, the more accurate you have to be with your focus to get your subject sharp; it becomes very difficult to zone focus over 50mm.
When starting out, zone focusing is very easy to screw up. If you do not gauge the distances correctly, you can miss focus entirely. It is much easier to zone focus in bright sunlight, because with a 35mm or wider focal length and an aperture of f/11 to f/16, you’ll have a huge depth of field. Even if you miss the focus by a bit, your important subjects will be sharp.
Eventually, you can learn to zone focus in darker situations and at apertures up to f/2. It’s much more difficult, so take your time getting there, but it’s very possible. When zone focusing at shallower apertures, you can even learn to move the focus ring without looking, so if you are focused at 10 feet and a subject appears 5 feet away, you can adjust the focus instinctively to that distance without even looking (that’s how sports shooters did it before autofocus existed!). It takes a lot of practice, but it’s very possible to learn!
4. Develop your ideas
The hardest part of street photography is figuring out what you actually want to capture and create. What do you want your photographs to show? How do you want them to look?
These questions may seem difficult – or impossible – to answer, and that’s okay. The more you shoot, the more you’ll understand what you are drawn to. You’ll see subjects that you are attracted to, and you’ll begin to seek them out when you are photographing. Occasionally, you will have big ideas right away, but it will often take a lot of time for these ideas to grow and develop naturally.
In other words:
It’s okay to shoot first and ask questions later.
5. Spend a lot of time editing your street photography
Want to become a good street photographer? Editing is half the battle.
When you’re out photographing, it is best to be spontaneous and to get lost in the moment. Editing is where you should really think about your work in a larger setting. It’s where you can explore themes and ideas as they start to pop up in your photography. It’s when you can combine similar images to create a larger story. It’s where you can develop a style in both look and content.
Therefore, the time that you spend editing will help you when you are out shooting.
Consider using Lightroom’s star rating and collection system to organize your best work and to group photos with similar themes. Find patterns in your work and images that play well off each other, then create collections. Constantly add photos, remove photos, and change their order.
When editing your work, it is important to consider the value of realism. An image that is so over-edited that it looks fake will kill the spirit of street photography. Remember, your images don’t have to be perfect. You do not need every detail in the shadows and highlights. While you should certainly do post-production, always take a step back and consider whether or not you’ve overcooked your shot.
6. Learn from the street photography masters
If you want to jumpstart your street photography, then you must research the work of other street shooters.
This is something that you should do from the very beginning; it’ll offer inspiration, and it’ll help you understand what you are capable of achieving in this genre. View the work of photographers who shoot in a variety of locations, including big cities, rural areas, and the suburbs. Read street photography books on a consistent basis. There are many affordable street photography books (and many expensive ones, too). Your local library can be a big help!
Pay special attention to the street photographers whose work you don’t like. Street photos are often different and weird, and it can be impossible to truly get a sense of what a photographer is trying to portray by seeing just a few photographs. Read about the history and location of the photographer, look through as much of their portfolio as you can, and then try to figure out what they’re all about. You may find yourself with a completely new appreciation for the photographer, and you’ll see things in their work that initially went right over your head.
Here is a list of photographers to research when starting out. It is not an exhaustive list, but it will help get you going:
7. Use your eyes instead of the viewfinder
When you’re out capturing the essence of the streets, it’s easy to get lost in the confines of your viewfinder and miss out on the vibrant world around you. But here’s the thing: Relying solely on that small window can hinder your street photography game. Your vision is limited, and that means you might miss those spontaneous moments that make street photography truly special. To truly excel, you need to be fully aware of everything happening around you.
Believe it or not, your eyes are the real MVPs here. By scanning the area and using your natural vision, you can spot subjects both near and far. Look for those interesting scenes and wait for that “Aha!” moment to strike. Only then should you bring the viewfinder to your eye and capture the magic. If you start with your head buried in the viewfinder, you’ll be a split second too late to catch that perfect shot. Let your eyes lead your camera; that way, you’ll be ready to snap each stunning moment as it comes along.
8. Embrace spontaneity
One of the early tips that propelled Garry Winogrand to become one of the most renowned photographers of all time was simple yet powerful: embrace spontaneity. While it’s important to invest time in thinking about your work and what you enjoy shooting, when you’re out there in the midst of it all, let your instincts take over. Instead of getting caught up in every little detail and worrying about your performance, let loose and have a blast.
Don’t be overly concerned with what others might think. If you sense a potential for a great photograph, go for it, even if it seems a bit peculiar. Don’t let your thoughts talk you out of it. That gut feeling exists for a reason, so harness it to your advantage. When you trust your instincts and shoot with confidence, it will reflect in your photographs. They will feel genuine and true to you. Of course, you might end up with some duds along the way, but the gems you capture will shine even brighter. So, trust your gut – it knows what it’s doing.
But be mindful not to go overboard. You don’t want to use a spray-and-pray approach, firing shots left and right whenever you sense a hint of a good photograph. That’s taking it too far. Instead, switch off your continuous shooting setting and force yourself to recognize and seize the perfect moment with just a shot or two.
9. Think about how your photos are going to age
When it comes to your street photography, think beyond the present and consider how your work will age over time. Take a moment to reflect on those iconic photographs that have stood the test of time. Those simple snapshots of window displays and fashion from bygone eras possess an incredible allure, even though they may have seemed mundane back then. Imagine if you could travel back in time to capture moments, what you would find fascinating would likely differ from what most photographers were capturing at that particular time.
Now, ponder upon the future. What aspects of your life and surroundings will become intriguing with the passing years? What transformations lie ahead? Will people still be engrossed in their cell phones, donning oversized headphones, and oblivious to the world around them? Who can say for sure?
Avoid taking anything for granted in your photographic endeavors. If you catch yourself dismissing something as insignificant, pause and reflect on why you feel that way. It is often in these instances of seemingly insignificance that the most extraordinary photographs emerge.
10. Create themes and consistency in your photography
As you delve deeper into the world of photography, you’ll start to notice a magnetic pull toward certain types of shots. Embrace these inclinations when you’re editing your street images. Over time, these ideas can blossom into captivating projects and even awe-inspiring books.
Imagine gathering these images together into collections, each with its own distinct theme. Consider the kinds of photographs you’d love to include in these collections. Then, the next time you stumble upon a moment that fits the bill, you’ll be quick to recognize its potential and seize it. While each photograph is a work of art in itself, a collection of them creates something even greater—an artistic masterpiece. Experiment with the sequence of your photographs, and witness the different meanings that emerge from their various arrangements.
Consistency doesn’t mean restricting yourself to a single type of subject matter or sticking solely to color or black and white photography. You can explore a wide range of subjects and experiment with different styles as you progress. However, by grouping together those consistent elements, you can assemble projects that harmonize seamlessly.
11. Practice constantly
The real key to elevating your street photography skills lies in the power of repetition. It’s crucial to practice frequently if you want to keep your eyes sharp and your hand-eye coordination on point. With each click of the shutter, your instincts will sharpen, and your prowess will soar. The more you dedicate yourself to this craft, the greater your abilities will become. Even the most accomplished photographers need to continuously hone their skills through practice.
As you delve deeper into the art of street photography, learn to relish the act itself. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike; instead, find joy in the simple act of stepping out into the world with your camera in hand. Treat it like a commitment, just as you would your gym routine, and stick to a plan. Consistency is key. Over time, it will transform into a delightful routine, and your passion for photography will only grow stronger.
Don’t fret over returning with a portfolio of masterpieces after each session. It’s bound to happen, but don’t be disheartened if you don’t strike gold every time. The magic will come, but it’s important not to let frustration overshadow your artistic process. Simply revel in the experience of immersing yourself in the world, pursuing your love for photography. The more you embrace this mindset, the more remarkable your photographs will become.
12. Photograph where you live
Every street photographer has their go-to spots where they feel comfortable capturing amazing shots. However, sticking to the same locations can lead to monotony. It’s time to step out of your comfort zone and discover new and unexpected places that may not seem ideal for street photography at first glance. Challenge yourself to find hidden gems and come away with remarkable images.
Start by exploring your own neighborhood. Often, we overlook the beauty and uniqueness that surrounds us every day. Take a closer look at the streets and scenes within a mile radius of your home or apartment. You’ll be amazed at what you can capture. Even in seemingly mundane surroundings, you can find surprising moments and fascinating subjects. So, don’t underestimate your local area’s potential.
Remember: Never take anything for granted. Every little detail has the potential to become a captivating photograph. All it requires is your unwavering dedication.
The ultimate guide to street photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this street photography guide, you know how to capture incredible photos.
So pick up a camera and head out! Remember, you don’t need to shoot in snazzy locations, nor do you need top-notch gear. Instead, simply learn to observe – and to capture what you see!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES