Street Photography Tips for Beginners

Finding practical street photography tips seems to be a request we hear often from our iPhotography members.

Therefore, as always, we’ve listened to you and produced this fantastic guide to 10 actionable points to improve (or get started) in street photography.

What is Street Photography?

There are no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ with street photography, just like there are no right ways to go about writing a book or painting. It is entirely about sharing your own vision as a photographer with your audience and showing them a snippet of life on the streets through your camera’s eye.

Street photography can be quite similar to documentary pictures, that shows images of people living in certain situations or societies around the world. You as the photographer should aim to mirror society as you see it.

The reason street photography is so successful is because of the emotion and connection a stranger can make with the subject.

A successful street photographer knows how to evoke emotion from the audience, hit you in the gut, and bury a lasting memory in your mind. Sometimes, this style of images can trigger emotions such as confusion, sadness or even fear – hence why they are so dramatic and effective.

In most cases a large number of shots are candid and ‘in the moment’. However, if it’s a ‘posed’ street portrait they can still contain a candid element, that’s usually something unexpected (like an expression, or gesture from your subject), which catches you off guard.

What Can I Photograph on the Streets?

You might be overwhelmed with all this information and be stuck thinking “but where do I start?!” Well, firstly, you need to work out what you are trying to communicate to your audience through your photos. How do you see the world? What are you trying to portray?

It is entirely up to do what you decide to photograph, and the content and subject matter – but ensure you feel a personal connection to the subject you’re photographing.

You may decide to document the neighbourhood you live in, take images that document your travels, or even go for a certain theme ie. dog walkers. Follow your intuition and the style that suits you – shoot from the heart!

Focus on things that interest you. The best images are the ones that have a sense of mystery and leave your audience wanting to know more, “Who is this person? What is their life story?”.

Let’s get started and look at the top 10 street photography tips for beginners.

1. How to Get Started with Street Photography

It’s all in the eyes! We all know how important eyes are in portrait photography, they can really be the making or breaking point of a shot. The stronger the eye contact, the more emotional the image can be.

Observe and look for emotion and gestures. The best images are strong, emotional, candid shots. Keep an eye out for people making excessive hand gestures, or for a look and emotion on someone’s face, these are what turn mundane images into dynamic shots.

We are all aware how important composition and framing is in photography, but a photograph without some form of emotion is a dead image.

When photographing people emotions and expressions will make your images way more interesting. Look for gesticulations and changes in body language. People talking on the phone, arguing and embracing are all common interactions to watch out for.

Get close to your subject. The closer the better as far as we are concerned, as you can capture more expression on the faces.

We feel shooting head on is generally better than a side/back view, and faces are generally more interesting in this type of photography category. It allows us to see a sense of the character, their emotions and expressions – the audience can then be pulled in with mystery and intrigue, asking themselves ‘what can I work out from this image?’.

The best way to do this by using a long focal length, upwards of 200mm, will allow you to stay at a distance (therefore not disrupting the moment) and still capture the detailed interactions.

2. Camera and Lens Settings for Street Shots

To be able to get close to your subjects, while still maintaining a ‘secretive’ distance for street photography then consider a decent zoom lens. Action may take place close and far from your position, so you need to be adaptable – and zoom lenses do that.

Prime lenses fixed at a certain focal length will have you stumbling to change lenses every few minutes, missing tonnes of shots in the meantime.

If you want to take street photography seriously then consider investing in a zoom lens anywhere from 30mm-200mm. Don’t skimp on the cost, if you can afford invest a lot, then do so (and make sure it’s suitably insured).

For beginners though, simply start off with your kit lens (18-55mm) or (70-200mm) to get into the swing of things first.

If you are just starting out in street photography then keep your camera on auto mode (but make sure your flash never fires – you’ll distract your subjects).

But once you are more confident with your camera settings then use a wide aperture (around F/4), an ISO between 200-400 and a quick shutter speed (approximately 1/250-1/500) to be able to keep fast interactions nice and sharp.

3. Street Photography Isn’t Always about People

Street photography isn’t exclusively about people though either. Buildings, businesses, traffic, landmarks and wildlife are all elements that make up these scenes more atmospheric. If you’re not comfortable with photographing people on the sly then turn your attention to the structures that surround you instead.

Experiment with high and low angles, chase reflections, close up textures and wide-angle perspectives.

Imagine if you are taking shots of a city or area, and something in the street catches your eye. It could be a pile of broken bricks, graffiti on the wall or a bunch of bin bags. Try showing your audience a reflection of society and humanity in that particular area. The audience can then build a story in their mind and gain a sense of what the city or place is actually like.

You can take these types of shots in subways, doorways, street alleys – anywhere you wish! There are unlimited opportunities available to you. 

There best shooting tips would be to carry a good zoom lens (covering around 20mm to 200mm) so you can move in and out of scenes quite quickly as life moves fast.

4. How to Deal with Onlookers

Make the most of the scene. You might not feel confident enough to stand in a busy street or location, getting up close and personal with passers-by and simply snapping away. It can be intimidating, and you may receive a few funny side-ways glances.

Our advice is to ignore that feeling as best as you can, pretend you are just a tourist taking in the sights.

Even dress up as a tourist in a big city so as not to look too suspicious (even though you’re not doing anything wrong). If you live in a place where there are regular tourists, then hang around these areas for better ‘camouflage’.

The art of street photography is born from the ability to stay unnoticed. The photographer should be the observer, in the same way we look at a painting – the painting should not look back at us. To stay incognito in a big tourist hotspot then dress – as a tourist, not a local. If tourists are common-sight and they’re always taking photos then what better way to blend in and be background noise?

Pack light and head to tourist hotspots to start out. You’ll likely be overlooked by locals who know to expect the tourists-with-cameras and they’ll, hopefully, be less aware of your existence – allowing you to capture some candid photos.

If you aren’t in a popular location then think oppositely, and dress as a local. Try to blend in if there aren’t many tourists around.

Pack light, use one lens and a discreet camera – huge DSLRs with telephoto lenses aren’t going to go unnoticed. Smaller mirrorless or micro four-thirds cameras look a little more amateur (to a novices’ eye) and ultimately look less alarming.

Read more about dealing with onlookers here.

5. What are the Laws with Street Photography?

On the topic of looking suspicious and arousing people’s attention it’s worth knowing that despite what you may read – street photography is not illegal or contentious. The laws regarding photographing people will differ country to country but the general rule of thumb is that you are allowed to photograph most things from a public place.

If someone spots you taking a picture of them don’t be afraid to explain what you’re doing and why you took the shot (even show them it), tell them who you are, give them your website address – honesty is always the best policy, especially if they seem a little confused (or angry).

The one place you can find yourself in hot water is when you’ve stepped onto private property. Privately owned buildings (and some of the land surrounding them) are not subject to the same rights as public spaces, so you can be asked to leave or stop photographing in certain places such as shopping centres. Don’t fight this situation, just politely leave.

But if you are standing on public ground photographing a private building for example then technically you aren’t doing anything wrong. Try not to act suspicious or look shifty – this will only fuel the fire to people’s concerns.

Check out the trespass laws in your country you are shooting in. You don’t want to be stopped and someone rain on your parade. The trespass laws differ country to country so always check in advance. In the UK for example, providing you’re on public property then you can photograph anyway you want.

6. Tell the Truth with your Photos

Follow your intuition and take photographs of things you personally find interesting. You are in charge of showing the world through your eyes. Don’t set out to take these sorts of images with the intention of pleasing people; sometimes the truth can hurt and cut deep.

Get low, low, low. Most people shoot from eye level, (guilty, we’ve all done it) but it’s a pretty boring perspective and there’s nothing too creative about it (because we are all used to seeing the world from this viewpoint).

You as a photographer, have the duty to offer new angles, perspectives and a different view of the world people may be ignorant to really “seeing” at eye level. By crouching down and shooting from a low angle, you can make your subject(s) look larger than life.

Think of it this way, if you’re snapping away headshots of total strangers in close proximity (who probably aren’t used to being stopped for images) by crouching down and getting low, you appear smaller and a lot less intimidating to the person, not to mention your shots will have much more of an added interest.

But be open to approaching when you’re photographing on the streets. Private security and police, even strangers, may come up to you and ask what you’re doing if you’re near sensitive buildings or businesses.

Don’t freak out, just be friendly – you’re not doing anything illegal, so show them what you’re up to. Niceness and friendliness will win over anyone quicker than confrontation.

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7. Look for Conflicts & Juxtapositions

Look for opposites and moments where elements contrast each other. Tall and small, round and thin, narrow and wide, rough and smooth. Keep thinking of opposites and the best angle you can find to display them clearly.

Signage is a great way, on the streets, of adding humour to your photography. Audiences will draw parallels between text written on a street or shop sign and the scene around it. Thinking of a car parked in front of a sign that says ‘no parking’ – simple, but an easy juxtaposition to capture.

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8. Using Pools of Light in Street Photography

If it’s a bright sunny day when you’re out taking your street photography look for pools of light amongst the heavy shadows. Shooting between F/11 – F/22 in these situations will deliver you small sections of interest where the light falls, and the shadows will be dark enough to offer the negative space.

Wait for your subjects to pass into these pools of light. Converting these hard-lit scenarios into B&W could look very effective.

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9. Not All Street Photos are 'Pretty'

In this list of street photography tips, this one is the most important. Being honest with your shots means capturing things that aren’t always pretty. Not every moment will be ‘Instagrammable’ but that’s good, it means your photo is real and more reflective of life on the streets.

Don’t dismiss shots with odd expressions or awkward interactions – these are the little quirks we only see in a split second which makes them more unique.

10. Be Patient

More than anything else, be patient. Don’t expect anything to happen, but also be ready for everything to happen. Life is full of surprises which what makes street photography so unique in all forms of the art.

You may spend a day out walking the sidewalk and you catch no notable shots, other days you may get some award winning ones.

Either way, don’t expect to get winners every time, but the law of averages will level it out over time – providing you don’t get dismayed by the dry days and you motivate yourself to get out regularly.

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Street Photography Tips: Final Words

Are there any other street photography tips you think we should add to the list? Let us know.


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