For countless photographers, the camera offers a means to make sense of the world as it happens around them. Full of ups and downs, twists and turns, surprises and chaos – life itself is in many ways the ultimate subject. Nowhere else do we see such diversity, as well as parallels, as out on the streets where it all unfolds in constant motion.
What is Street Photography
In many ways, street photography is what you make it – it’s a flexible genre that can be molded to meet the photographer’s eye. At its core, it’s an act of observing the world as it presents itself. Street photography does not require a major metropolis or concrete jungle, in fact, it can just as easily be done on the sidewalks of a suburban neighborhood – see William Eggleston’s now iconic image of a tricycle. Street photography is also not just about looking out, it also encompasses the act of looking in, revealing the unique vision and sensibilities of the person making the image.
Go for a Walk
If you’re new to street photography, the best place to start is with a simple walk out your front door. Instead of just walking and getting lost in your thoughts, draw your attention to the details that surround you. Colors, sounds, smells, shapes and people can all grab your attention and lead you to your first composition. Don’t hesitate to hit the shutter, if it catches your eye it’s worth a try. Balance your reactions to your surroundings with the feelings that drew you to them in the first place – see if you can insert a little bit of yourself, literally or figuratively, into an image. Keep walking, keep looking, keep clicking the shutter – street photography is a practice that takes practice.
Gear for street photography
The best camera is always the one you have with you, and it’s for this reason that many street photographers take a ‘less is more’ approach to gear. A small, simple camera or phone will free you from distractions and getting lost in settings menus – and they can also help you blend into your surroundings and react faster, allowing you to capture more candid moments. Compact rangefinder style cameras and point-and-shoots have found a stronghold in the street photo community because of how easily they can be carried and readied at a moment’s notice. The truth is, any camera can take street photos and the most important thing is that you’re comfortable with what you have. Get to know your camera so you don’t get caught up in technicalities when you should be more focused on looking, reacting and composing.
When it comes to lenses, wide-angle prime lenses often come to mind first for street photography. A wide lens opens up your camera's field of view and can give you more compositional flexibility – it also means if you have to quickly catch a moment, you’re more likely to get it in the frame. Sticking with prime lenses that don’t zoom can further simplify your setup and give you one less thing to fiddle with. As always, rules and norms are made to be broken. A telephoto or macro lens can help you get in close or see details that others may overlook. Always be thinking within a full range of vision, from wide to tight.
A flash, either built in or external, is another tool worth considering when walking the streets. In the right context, a burst of flash can help freeze your subject while ensuring a proper exposure. From a creative perspective, a flash can draw out a certain sense of rawness from subjects as they are put in the spotlight. It’s also helpful to consider historical aesthetics such as early 20th century photojournalism (like the infamous Weegee) and later snapshot style photos in which artificial light became synonymous. Mixing flash with natural light, especially during dawn or dusk, can create a particularly dynamic look. Experiment with your own personal style and let your creativity drive your decisions, not your gear.
Shutter Speed and Focus
When you’re out shooting, you’ll want to match your shutter speed to suit the look you’re after. If your goal is to react quickly, freeze motion and capture fleeting moments, consider a faster shutter speed. If you want to convey an abstract sense of motion or movement, slow things down to add a little blur on that passing car or open up the opportunity to creatively pan a bicyclist on the move. Try switching between different shutter speeds – having a creative mix of different shots can help build the foundation for a larger series of images.
In order to react even faster to life out on the street, try setting your focus manually in advance. This technique, known as zone focusing, is usually used in tandem with a tight aperture of f/8 or higher – this ensures a large depth of field to keep subjects in focus with some margin for error. For example, you can use a wall to set your focus – just step back the distance you anticipate subjects may be and focus until sharp. Next, turn your autofocus off and make sure not to shift your focus ring – many cameras have a focus lock feature you can use. Now, when you hit the shutter it will fire right away without the need to wait for autofocus or setting focus again yourself. With a little bit of luck and planning, your subject will fall within your zone of focus and you’ll find yourself shooting more spontaneously.
Bresson’s Decisive Moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson is in many ways the father of street photography as we know it today. His vastly influential 1952 English edition book carried the title The Decisive Moment, a phrase that has stuck with photography ever since. Expressed through his writing, Bresson’s decisive moment is not quite as simple as capturing a fleeting event or peak action, though that can certainly be part of it. A more nuanced approach weighs heavily on the balance and interplay of multiple subjects. Bresson sought a finely tuned symbiosis in respect to composition in which the final image is greater than the sum of its individual parts – this is his decisive moment. Composition, particularly within street photography, offers limitless avenues for creativity, but always remember it’s about the image as a whole, not just the part you find most interesting.
The streets are full of windows, puddles and, if you’re lucky, the occasional mirror. Reflections present a unique opportunity to show multiple perspectives within a single frame. Keep your eyes peeled for any sort of reflection and try photographing them from different angles to see how things shift. You can use reflections to emphasize a single subject, or you can layer and divide your image into parallel universes. Street photographers like Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander even used reflections to insert themselves into their images, taking the cliché selfie to a whole new level.
Big and small, wet and dry, boring and animated – life on the street is full of contrast. See if you can balance both ends of a single spectrum through juxtaposition. This form of conceptual contrast can grasp viewers with anything from humor to a deep sense of empathy. Manipulate your composition to strongly situate two or more opposing subjects, ensuring their connection can be read visually.
Wait and See
Not all street photography has to happen on the fly. If you find an interesting scene but it lacks a certain something, it can be a great idea to wait it out. Instead of chasing a composition, let it come to you. Frame your shot and be patient – hold your composition until that special moment happens or a subject finds that perfect pocket of light. You can even create a mini series out of a single composition and how it shifts, second to second or day to day.
Shadows and Silhouettes
Whether it’s through light beaming off a window or the sun glaring down the city block as it sets, the streets are full of shadows and silhouettes waiting to be captured. These mysterious subjects can force viewers into analyzing pure shape and form or they can highlight the contrast of two-dimensional constructs in a multi-dimensional world. Try looking down on the ground for shadows that stretch across curbs and crosswalks or place a subject between your lens and the light. Intentionally underexposing your image will add depth to shadows and ensure your silhouettes remain crisp.
Still Life on the Street
Still lifes don’t have to be micromanaged table settings – they can present themselves in the most unlikely places and in the most surprising forms. A wet plastic bag, an abandoned meal or a stack of bricks can all be photographed to create something striking. Try turning your camera to the unnoticed objects and details that often get lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Offering a unique perspective, such as getting low, or honing in on shape and form can help elevate the banal to the level of fine art.
On the Move
The streets are full of movement, so why not join in on the fun? The passenger seat of a train or car can offer the perfect vantage for photographing. If you can, roll the window down for a clearer view – but remember, just like rollercoasters, keep yourself inside the vehicle at all times. Try combining a fast shutter speed with zone focusing to ensure you can freeze the action as it passes by. This technique quickly takes on the feeling of a game, almost like high speed ‘I Spy.’ See what you can capture on your next commute or taxi ride.
Keep Things Loose
Life is chaotic at times and so too can your compositions. A slightly crooked or off-kilter shot can often emphasize or complement the spontaneity of shooting on the street. Many street photographers hardly even use a viewfinder, using a technique often referred to as ‘shooting from the hip.’ Soft focus can create an aura of subject that can be filled in with the mind’s eye. A wide angle lens can lend itself to competing layers, textures and subjects – forcing viewers to dissect and dive into the image themselves. Learn to embrace imperfections in your work and recognize when they transcend into something more.
Approaching Your Subject
Creating a sense of visual intimacy with your images can be a refreshing contrast to the typical distant anonymity associated with street photography. In order to get in close or pose subjects, you’ll have to approach them and make them feel comfortable in front of the lens. An easy way to establish a sincere rapport with a subject is with a heartfelt compliment – let them know you like that hat or that their eyes caught your attention. Be honest with your intentions to photograph and what context you may be working within, whether that’s a photo series or just building a portfolio. Take some time to ‘read’ your subject, make some small talk, ask about their interests – the more you know and understand your subject, the better you’ll be able to translate their likeness into a portrait.
The Fine Print of Street Photography
Street photography has faced its fair share of contention and criticism. Though legal in many countries, it certainly isn’t in all countries. As with any legal matter, there is nuance in interpretation, so be sure to familiarize yourself with any specifics wherever you plan on photographing. Beyond legality, there is the fact that not everyone likes or wants to be photographed – this, too, enters a gray area in terms of your responsibility as a photographer. If someone expresses concern over your actions, you’ll want to know your rights in addition to hearing out the other side. Though you may make a personal decision to delete a photo, you may also opt to simply remove yourself from the situation as respectfully as possible. When photographing on the streets, you need to keep your wits about you, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar place. It’s easy to get caught up in the viewfinder when shooting, but you have to maintain a constant lookout for anything that seems ‘off’ – and if safety is ever a concern, prioritize that over anything else. Do not lose your humility while photographing, always remember there are people with different values, cultures and worldviews on the other side of your lens.