Street photography is one of the most popular genres for image-makers. But getting those striking photos isn’t always easy. These top tips will help you get the best results
Street photography is a genre that many will experiment with at some point in their photography journey, even if it’s not their principal subject of interest. It’s easily accessible for photographers of all levels, and provides ample opportunity to practice a wide range of photography skills and techniques. Great street photography has the power to evoke a range of emotions with the viewer, turn the environment around us into something extraordinary, and provide an unseen and intimate glimpse into the everyday life of others.
Saying this, capturing great photos within this genre takes time, patience, and above all, practice. So, to help you elevate your street photography–here are our top tips:
1 Travel light
One of the biggest advantages of street photography versus other photographic genres is that you do not need a lot of equipment for it. This is handy as you will be spending a considerable amount of time walking around looking for interesting scenes to capture. And you will generally be shooting handheld so those cumbersome tripods can stay at home, as can the bulk of your camera gear.
Just pack your camera, mirrorless, smartphones and compact cameras are great for street photography as they are lighter and smaller than DSLRs (read more about different types of cameras here). Also consider a zoom lens – something like a 24-70mm or 24mm-105mm lens will be more than sufficient.
The only other accessory, besides a spare battery and memory cards, that might be useful would be a small LED light. This will help in low light scenarios by allowing you to illuminate your subject a little – instead of having to raise your ISO too high, which may impact the overall quality of your image. Read more about ISO here.
2 Get close and get over your inhibitions
Often street photography will involve people being in your composition, and to capture an intimate moment, it might mean taking a photo without the subject noticing. At other times your subject needs to be looking at the camera to help build that engagement in the photo. Either way, you will need to be close to your subject to get the best shot.
One of the most common issues encountered when practising street photography is shyness in approaching strangers to photograph, which might result in trying to take a photo from a distance with a telephoto lens, which won’t yield good results. If this sounds like you, the shyness will be a big hurdle that you need to overcome if you want to get better at street photography.
So how do you overcome your shyness? A task that I often set for my workshop attendees who suffer from this is to capture at least 3 head and shoulder portraits of strangers every day. This means they have to ask people which, when done enough, helps overcome that shyness. And in turn, you’ll find your street photography will become much more engaging.
3 Learn to shoot from the hip
This is a useful technique for every street photographer to master – but especially for those who struggle with shyness. It involves just pointing the camera and shooting from lower down without looking at the LCD or through the viewfinder. The benefits of this technique are that your shots can feel more spontaneous and of course, people will be far less aware that they are being photographed.
But as you might imagine, without composing your shot properly through the viewfinder or LCD screen, the results will be very hit and miss. Sometimes you will capture a great photo, but you must accept that most of the time your shots will not work. Like anything, the more you practice the better you will become at using this technique.
4 Make sure you’re ready
Good street photography will involve capturing fleeting or spontaneous moments. So, you need to be ready to shoot at any moment. That means your camera needs to be out of your bag, turned on with the lens cap off. You should also get into the habit of tweaking your exposure settings regularly based on the environment around you.
There are no universal settings for street photography as every scenario is different. But as a rule, I would recommend shooting in burst mode (when you hold down the shutter button on your camera to take multiple shots in rapid succession) as it’s extremely difficult to nail the perfect moment with one shot. Using burst mode, you can select the best frame later when you are editing your shots.
The other setting that you will find useful in most street photography scenarios is “continuous focus”. When enabled, if the shutter button is held down half-way the camera will continue to focus on the subject. This is vital when photographing a moving subject – as the point of focus will change every millisecond to stay on the subject.
5 Wait for the right moment
I refer to this technique as ‘setting a photography trap’. It simply requires you to find an interesting setting or location and wait for the perfect moment to take a photo. You could be waiting just a few minutes, sometimes a bit longer, and in extreme cases – hours!
See the visual examples below, the key is to try to pre-visualise the shot in your head, get your settings correct and wait for the perfect moment.
6 Look beyond eye-level shots
Every photographer is guilty of taking too many shots at eye level. You will be amazed how different your photos will look by simply raising your camera above your head or lowering it to the ground. Even just kneeling will give your shot a completely different perspective.
A lot of cameras these days come with a tiltable LCD screen that makes it incredibly easy and a lot more convenient to shoot at different angles. A good habit to get into is to take a variety of shots low to the ground, eye-level and above your head when you’re out with your camera. This will give you a nice range of images from different perspectives.
7 Simplify your composition
It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to include too much in your composition. In street photography, it is even more important to have a clear and defined story. This does not necessarily mean that you should have only one focal point in the shot. But rather to be aware of other elements in your composition that might be distracting to the viewer.
For example, if the main point of interest is in the centre of your shot, avoid distracting elements around the edges of the frame. Or if you are photographing a busy scene, make sure you have a clear point of focus for the viewer so that their eyes are not darting around the image.
8 Incorporate the urban environment
Photo opportunities for a street photographer are endless. There are just so many different variables that you can combine to make your photos unique. One of the biggest elements is the environment around you. Any built-up area will have interesting textures and features that can bring a photo to life.
Some of the best street photos are those that incorporate the built environment into the main story of the image. So be on the lookout for interesting scenes where you can combine the main subject of the photo with the surrounding environment.
9 Look for interesting light and contrasts
It is not just your subject and story that can elevate your street photos, but also the light and contrasts present in any scene. Street photography will naturally mean you’re taking photos in built up areas. This will present challenges in being able to control harsh light in bright and dark areas. But often you can use these contrasts to your advantage by making them part of your composition.
Like the examples below, if you are faced with a harsh backlit scenario, then look to capture silhouettes. If there is strong light and shadow across your scene, see if you can use it as a frame for your shot, or as leading lines to guide the viewer into other parts of the image. Strong contrasts also look great when converted to black and white
10 There’s no such thing as bad weather
One of the best things about street photography is that you are not restricted by changing weather and light conditions as you may be with landscape photography. In some ways, what could be considered ‘bad conditions’ is perfect for street photography. For example, overcast and rainy conditions are often the bugbear of landscape and nature photographers. But with street photography, these can be great conditions.
Muted light makes it much easier to manage your exposure, and the city streets after rainfall present tons of opportunities to capture reflections or interesting shots through rain-soaked windows (see the examples below). Even in harsh sunshine, you can utilise the shadows I talked about above to add an interesting element to your compositions.
Street photography is a great genre of photography to be involved in. Not only will you learn a lot of skills that will help you in whatever type of photography you specialise in, but you will also end up with some amazingly unique photos. By following these 10 tips above, you will find your images become much more striking, not just with street shots, but across many other photographic subjects too.
Kav is a full-time photographer and author of 400+ articles. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Magazine Photography of the Year competition and leads small group photo tours around the world.