Street photography for beginners can seem quite complicated, not to mention the problem of how to approach strangers, where it’s legal to shoot, and how people may react to you.
I’m going to try and give you pointers to getting a good start in street photography, as once you gain confidence in it, it’s a great and rewarding genre of photography to shoot in.
Types of Street Photography
Street photography is a broad church, covering totally candid street images, posed images, abstract and images that concentrate more on the urban environment than people.
It doesn’t have to be done actually in the street – you can take street photos in the park, the beach, on public transport, or anywhere you’re in a public place.
Candid street images are those where the photographer doesn’t ask for permission before taking the photo. The subject is often unaware that their image is being taken until afterwards. A candid street photographer with a keen eye and quick hand can capture some great shots, but it’s not for the faint-hearted if you get up close and right in the face of your often-unwilling subjects. Check out the work of master street photographers Bruce Gilden and Dougie Wallace for great examples of this type of photography.
You can shoot some great candid shots with a good zoom lens, which means you don’t have to be quite as close to your subjects, so this is perhaps better for beginners wanting to go the candid route. For classic street photography inspiration, look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier.
Posed street images are the ones where you ask someone for permission to take a photo of them. Some photographers argue that you don’t get such good, spontaneous images when you ask first, but personally I don’t think that’s true. If you see someone doing something interesting, or looking interesting, you can ask permission, then have them carry on doing what they were when you saw them.
Abstract street photos are those where you focus on a small part of a much bigger picture, such as interesting graffiti or trash on the street, or people’s feet as they walk.
In urban environmental street photography, people are secondary to the street itself. They are part of it, but not the main focus, which could be about architectural shapes, the way light and shadow fall on the street, or a particular building.
What type of street photography you are drawn to do isn’t important, it’s all about enjoyment and creating great photos.
What Camera Equipment Do I Need for Street Photography?
Whatever you have! Seriously, there’s no need to go out and buy expensive lenses and a new camera when you can shoot great images on the one you already have. Street smartphone photography is now a hugely popular thing, and with some phones having the ability to shoot RAW files, the post-processing options are huge. I would suggest using the camera you have until you’ve decided that you really like street photography and want to explore it further.
Shooting street is generally easier if your camera isn’t too heavy or complicated. That means that you can carry it around all day easily, and operate it quickly. Also consider how using it in the street will make you feel. Will you be self-conscious carrying a large DSLR and big zoom lens around? Or will that make you feel more confident? Do you prefer a camera that will fit in your coat pocket? There is no right and wrong camera for street photography, just the one that feels right to you.
If you are looking to seriously get into street photography, then there’s a few options for lenses that you might want to look into.
The 35mm prime (fixed) lens is great for street photography. It is wide enough to capture a good breadth of scene, yet can also be used for portraits. You do need to get fairly close to your subjects though.
Prime lenses force you to think about your framing and composition. You cannot zoom in or out of a scene, so you must move yourself nearer or further from your subject and be more creative in your framing.
If you’re a nervous street shooter, you’ll likely want to start shooting with a zoom lens with a large focal length, such as a 200mm, so you don’t have to get too near your subjects! This is fine, but be aware that your images won’t feel as intimate at that distance. There is also the issue of being far more noticeable with it on your camera, and the possibility of looking a bit creepy lurking in the shadows with your huge zoom lens …
Prime lenses are also sharper than zoom ones, cheaper, lighter and more compact.
That being said, there are some brilliant street photographers out there like Martin Parr who use zoom lenses to capture great images. Henri Cartier-Bresson often used a fixed 50mm lens as well as a 35mm. You need to choose the lens that will work best for you.
Other Useful Equipment
If you’re going to be walking around all day with a DSLR, invest in a good, padded neck strap, or a shoulder-sling. If you’re using a compact camera, find a wrist strap that’s secure and comfortable.
You can buy a camera mounted flashgun for taking street shots in bright sunlight or at night, but be aware that it will make your camera heavier and more conspicuous.
Camera Settings for Street Photography
With street photography, speed is the word. It’s no good fiddling around with settings or trying to use autofocus, or you’ll miss the best shots.
The aim is to have your camera pre-focused at that distance, then when your subject is within that distance, you just click the shutter without worrying about focus.
That can be complicated for beginners to get their heads round, so I would suggest just shooting in Program mode on the streets, as your camera can make exposure decisions much faster than you. There’s no shame in that, as some documentary and street photographers like the famous Steve McCurry often do it.
Improve Your Background and Framing
There’s a tendency for us to see only the subject, not the background when we’re taking street shots. To be really good at street photography, we need to try to get a good, clean background if possible, where your subject really stands out. Also, you need to be aware of what is creeping in to the edges of your shot, such as a stray arm, offensive graffiti or pieces of rubbish!
Work the Angles
Don’t just shoot a subject or scene from straight on at eye level. Mix it up by getting down low or going up high and shooting downwards. Take a shot, then immediately move to another position and take another one. When you shoot like this, it gives you so much more choice when it comes to choosing your best final images.
Use Light the Smart Way
The best natural light is only available in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, right? It depends what you want from your images. Generally, that rule holds true, but what if you want to shoot a busy street scene at midday? Either go on a day when it’s overcast or cloudy and shoot when the sun goes in, or embrace the hard contrasts, silhouettes and deep shadows you will get shooting in bright sunlight. You can also use a flashgun to counteract the shadows, but please don’t use the pop-up flash on your camera – there is no more harsh, horrible and unflattering light in my opinion.
Street photography can be a lot of fun, and very rewarding. Plan your expeditions and use some of these tips and hopefully you’ll take your understanding of street photography to the next level.
What are your thoughts on street photography? Are you fearless and in-your-face, or do you prefer to stay in the background and shoot unnoticed?