Life on the Streets:
The Secrets of Street Photography
Are you the kind of person who loves to ‘people watch’? Are you looking to push your street photography into the public domain? Would you like to learn to capture life in its purest form?
Well, then you need to read these essential tips and tricks to mastering the intriguing art of Street Photography.
Street photography has been the foundation for so many famous portrait and landscape photographers over the years. Its increase in popularity with new photographers is no surprise due to the boom in social media.
Yet if you ask any photographer “what is street photography?” you are guaranteed to get a different response each time. That’s what is so brilliant about this genre of 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, showing them a snippet of life on the streets through your camera’s eye. Street photography can be quite similar to documentary pictures, that show 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 camera. 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, these 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 in street photography are candid and ‘in the moment’.
However, if it’s a ‘posed’ street portrait then 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. You may need to approach your subject directly to start the ‘posed’ interaction.
Check out iPhotography Module 10 (Travel) for more information on street photography.
Who Do I Photograph?
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 you what you decide to photograph, the content and subject matter. Most importantly, 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!
Keep snapping! 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. For instance, “Who is this person? What is their life story?”.
Where to Point your Camera
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 emotion on someone’s face, these are what turn mundane images into dynamic shots. We are all aware of how important composition and framing is in street photography, but a photograph without some form of emotion is a dead image.
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?’.
Street Tip – 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.
Avoid the Crowds
But what if you’re not a people person and you like to avoid the hustle and bustle of a busy city centre; can you still capture street photography?
Well, the answer to that is ‘yes’.
For example, if you are taking shots of a city or area, and something in the street catches your eye, (whether that be a pile of broken bricks, graffiti on the wall or a bunch of bin bags) you are showing the audience a reflection of society and humanity in that particular area.
Furthermore, 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 street photography shots in subways, doorways, street alleys – anywhere you wish! There are unlimited opportunities available to you.
The 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.
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).
However, once you are more confident with your camera settings then use a wide aperture (around f4), 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.
Dealing with Onlookers
Make the most of any scene with your street photography.
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.
Take as many shots of the scene as you can (around 15 -20) and keep your fingers crossed!
Even dress up as a tourist in a big city so as to not look too suspicious (even though you’re not doing anything wrong).
If you live in a place where there are regular tourists, hang around these areas to get better camouflage.
The Law of the Streets
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.
Street Tip – Check online the laws regarding photography in public places in your own country first just to be safe.
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. Hence, 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 stood 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 fire to people’s concerns.
Tell the Truth
Follow your intuition and take street photographs of things you personally find interesting.
Street Tip – You are in charge of showing the world through your eyes. Don’t set out to take these sort of images with the intentions 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). Moreover, it’s a pretty boring perspective and there’s nothing creative about it (because we are all used to seeing the world from this view point).
You as a street photographer, now have the duty to offer new angles, perspective and a different view of the world people may be ignorant to “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 street photography shots will have much more of an added interest.
Setting the Scene
You could also try what street photographers call “The fishing technique”. This is where you have identified an interesting backdrop and wait around for a subject to enter the frame. Be prepared to have a lot of patience for this, it could be a long wait.
Creating exciting images using depth and layers can also make for some really exciting shots. Try to incorporate more subjects in your shot: one in focus in the foreground, and another in the middle and background. Use these people to build your layers and to add interest into your shots.
So, let’s talk about the best camera settings for street photography. Start by experimenting and finding out what works best for you. You will find that smaller cameras attract less attention that giant DSLRs with huge telephoto lenses attached. This is where mirrorless cameras fulfil their potential as they are more discreet yet still capture finely detailed shots.
If you want to shoot with smaller apertures, to make sure that your image is sharp boost your camera’s ISO above 1600. Don’t worry about noise, especially if you shoot black and white. The grainy look on street photography can actually enhance the mood and atmosphere – it can provide a gritty, raw urban edge.
Alternatively, slow down your shutter speed, embrace the motion blur and slightly out of focus shots. Who says that a good street image has to be perfectly crisp and clear? What’s the point of trying to achieve a technically brilliant image if the story is non-existent?
iPhotography Students: On Street Photography
There are several students on our course who excel in this area of photography; you can see how each of their shots holds their own unique and individual style. This genre really is totally diverse.
Here are a few images and thoughts shared by our students to the iPhotography gallery: we hope they inspire you as much as they have us!
“I am a silent observer of human interactions. Even alone, silent subject is in someway interacting with the world around them, and being influenced by their environment. Even inanimate objects such as structures, vehicles, and nature play a role in this collaboration between human and environment. It’s like a beautifully choreographed dance, you only need to adjust your eyes to see it!”
“I simply observe”
“I am very much an amateur who trusts her instincts.
I shoot with a Sony A7r, it’s perfect for me because of its lightweight body and ability to carry with me everywhere without it being over cumbersome.
This shot was taken quickly as we stopped briefly at the village of Sheen in Ireland. He was parading his goat to get money from tourists!
I loved the character of his face and the comical scene of holding a goat.”
It was cold and raining when I took this photo. I named this photo “where are you?”, because she looks so lonely to me.