Street photography is a broad discipline. It’s been practiced for a century, even before the term was coined photographers were photographing life on the streets of Chicago, New York and Paris. I don’t know if there’s an officially accepted definition of street photography, but for me it’s broad—any type of typically candid, documentary photography of the people and events on city streets. Of course, there’s no rule that street photography requires a major world capital to practice. Street photography can work just as well on the main street of a one-stoplight town. The practice of street photography is pretty simple, as it concentrates on everyday objects photographed in a straightforward way. So you don’t need special equipment for street photography, nor a lot of time. You can do it on your walk to work or as you stroll a new city on vacation. Wherever and however you do it, here are 10 tips sure to help make you a better street photographer.
Take Your Time
You don’t have to hustle down Broadway like you’re running for a bus. The goal in this case is not to get somewhere, but to be present where you already are. So take your time and be methodical, be deliberate in how you view the world walking down the street. You’ll do that more naturally if you simply walk at a more relaxed pace, focusing on the journey rather than the destination.
When In Doubt, Look For People
Artists have known for centuries that when it comes to subjects for visual art nothing is more interesting than people. People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang, but even boring people can make for interesting photographs. The point is, humans are inherently interested in human behavior, so photographing people is a good step toward making inherently interesting photographs. Think of some classics of street photographers and the examples they set. Garry Winogrand, for instance. He photographed an upside-down man—that’s certainly interesting—as well as people simply walking down the street. He, like so many street photographers, concentrated on people as subjects, and his images are better for it.
Use A Small Camera
Unless you’re Bruce Gilden—the street photographer famous for ambushing pedestrians and shoving a camera and flash in their face—the idea with street photography is typically to be a little less conspicuous. It’s not that you’re trying to remain unseen, simply that you don’t want your gear so large and cumbersome as to attract attention and change behaviors. If your goal is fly-on-the-wall candids, a smaller, more compact camera is less likely to attract attention. And if that camera has a tiltable LCD on the back, turn it up so you can shoot from the hip, using the LCD and LiveView to work with a waist-level viewfinder approach. It brings much less attention than a camera to your eye, so if you’re hoping to remain discreet a small camera shooting from the hip is about as unobtrusive as it gets.
Don’t Be Afraid To Talk To People
There’s a popular misconception that street photography has to be completely candid, no posing allowed, and that street photography requires an element of surprise. But I don’t believe in such rules, and I think a little bit of common courtesy goes a long way in street photography. Sometimes such courtesy sets you up to have more shots with a subject in an expanded attempt to make a great picture. “May I take your picture?” with a subtle gesture of your unimposing compact camera makes it easy for more people to say “Sure, go ahead.” And gives you an opportunity for a bit of small talk banter—”I like that hat!” or “Your dog is adorable”—as you click click click your way to an ideal frame. I wouldn’t go approach someone in the middle of a meltdown, of course, but a couple of friends on a park bench or a man in a flashy hat? These folks are prime candidates for quick and direct interactions. So don’t be shy when the opportunity arises.
Choose The Right Prime Lens
What’s the right lens for street photography? Different photographers will tell you different things, but I tend to think a fairly wide prime is ideal. Something like a 35mm focal length is perfect for being wide enough to show context yet not so wide as to cause distortion. Why a prime? That, too, is a personal preference. And my preference is to use a prime lens simply so that I’ll compose and recompose by moving my feet rather than zooming a lens. It’s a technique I prefer because it helps me get into a mindset in which I start seeing the world with a lens’s focal length in mind. But it doesn’t have to be a wide angle. You can mix it up, if for no other reason than to see how differently you see the world with a new focal length locked in. I once took a trip to Paris and carried only a 100mm prime for a week. My images have a distinct look, of course, but it worked well as I adapted to seeing the city through that telephoto prime.
Take The Fuss Out Of Exposure
A lot of photographers might set their camera on Program mode when working in a changing-light situation. Changing light, of course, happens if you’re stepping into and out of shadow, photographing light subjects and dark subjects and everything in between. That might work fine, of course, but I prefer a little bit more control—without resorting to a fully manual exposure that requires thinking about changing settings as the light and location change. Instead, this is the perfect situation for auto ISO. With auto ISO I can set the shutter speed I want (a minimum of, say, 1/250th or 1/500th to ensure I can capture moving people without accidental blur) and the aperture I need (f/2.8, say, for shallow depth of field and f/11, for instance, if I want a lot in focus) and never worry about changing them even as the light and situation change. The auto ISO will adjust for me, choosing something like ISO 50 or 100 in bright sun, and ISO 3200 or 6400 when in dark interiors. Whatever light I encounter, auto ISO has me covered. The only downside is noise—high noise in low light—which is the least of my worries. If I’m bothered by too much noise I can always dial it down with a few clicks of the mouse in post.
Don’t Be A Snob
Anything can make a great photo. Aaron Siskind photographed peeling paper and rusting metal. Henri Cartier Bresson photographed a kid on a bike riding by some stairs. Vivian Maier photographed herself. There’s nothing too common to make a great photograph. Sometimes, though, you have to work a little more to turn the common into a picture that’s uncommon. In such situations, I recommend trying a dramatically different vantage point. Get the camera up high for a bird’s eye view, or down low to see the world from the perspective of the worms. You can make great photos in mundane circumstances, if only you’re willing to work a little harder to find them.
Leverage Challenging Light
Sure, you can shoot at sunrise and sunset and have great results due to great light, but what if you only get to ply your trade at lunch hour? When you’re photographing life on the street, you’ve got to take what you can get and use it to your advantage. Whether it’s crowded sidewalks, dramatic backlighting to silhouette shapes, strong reflections and contrasty shadows, or just a ho-hum streetscape with little going on… Whatever the world has thrown at you, roll with the punches and use it to your advantage rather than fighting against it. For crowded sidewalks, for instance, consider motion blur to enhance the feeling of energy. If there’s backlighting that makes it hard to see subjects, look for compositions that accentuate shape rather than detail. For high contrast, look for light subjects against dark backgrounds, or vice versa. If the streets are wet, look for reflections in puddles. And for empty streets, look for images of stillness that perhaps you couldn’t make on a crowded sidewalk. Whatever the location throws at you, swim with the tide and use it to your advantage.
Stick Around Awhile
If you find the perfect spot don’t be afraid to hang out for a while and see what action unfolds. There’s no rule that says street photographers have to keep moving or they’ll die (the old sleeping sharks thing) so if you find yourself facing great light, or an ideal framing, or some other magical happening that is too good to pass up, stick around for a while. Camp out at a street cafe, or have a seat on that retaining wall in the park. Keep your eyes peeled for the perfect person to walk through the framing you’ve picked out, where the dark background and dramatic backlight will create a great shot if only someone will walk by from the left. Here they come! And if they’re not the right person, stick around some more. Great photographs are a combination of great light, great composition, and great moments. If you have to wait for the moment to come together, don’t be afraid to do so.
Practice, Practice, Practice
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way you get great at any other discipline, including street photography. You can try Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to master your craft, or you can just do it. Then do it some more and again and again. The more you venture out with a camera around your neck, the better you’ll get at discerning what makes a great photograph and what isn’t worth your time. Also, the more images you’ll make. And you’ve got to get all the bad ones out so you can start making the great ones! As it is with practicing the piano, learning to sew or photographing life on the street, the more you do it the better you’ll get. So take every opportunity you can—be it long lunch breaks or downtown trips on your day off—and practice, practice, practice.