What is street photography? Simply said it is a type of photography that is done in the streets, usually in cities, but can really be practised anywhere. A lot of emphases is placed on documenting human interaction with the urban environment. That said Street Photography does not necessarily require people. It can target the environment, different forms/shapes, interactions with light, and even the built environment. Sometimes it can be more difficult to capture an especially compelling street image when compared to other forms of photography. The essential keys to success are an eye for detail, confident personality, good experience with your camera and a good pair of walking shoes! Because you will walk, a lot!
Understand photography laws in your country
So we have to start with the boring, but important stuff. Do you understand the local photography laws? To avoid drama while out shooting it is best to be aware of what you can and can’t do before heading out. Without that, you could find yourself in a world of trouble. Here is a link to a wiki page with a list of local photography laws for different areas of the world.
Tools for the shoot
Good street photography is about good timing and preparation. This preparation starts at home. Before heading out make sure that you have the following all sorted:
Ensure that your camera is in good working order. Test it before getting out for the task. A quick mirror selfie is a good way to get started! The last thing you want to do is get on location and find that you forgot to put a card in it, the film is at home or you have a flat battery. Any camera will do but I recommend using a smaller camera rather than a larger one. This will reduce the amount of attention that you draw to yourself. Check out the upcoming street photography gear recommendations for more information.
Extra (fully charged) battery
You should have an extra battery for your camera with you when out shooting. Even if your camera battery lasts for more than a day, having another one in your pocket is essential. If you haven’t got an extra battery click the battery, type in your camera model number and pick one up as soon as possible. Trust me you will use it!
If you just have one lens, well, this will be the lens you will use! The most useful focal lengths for street photography are usually around 35mm – 50mm (on a full-frame). It is just on the verge between normal and wide focal lengths. This forces you to get in close to your subject but not too close that you have an imprint of their nose on the glass. Try to steer clear of zoom lenses as this is just another thing to consider before pushing the button. If this is all you have put some tape on it to fix it at your desired focal length.
Warm clothing and comfortable footwear. Like I said earlier you will be walking a lot. As you will be outside for long periods of time. The last thing you want to be doing is having to head for home because you are cold! You want to be able to be comfortable so you can minimise the number of variables during the shoot.
Stay light. Don’t weigh yourself down. I cannot stress this enough. Extra gear, tripods and a selection of lenses will only add discomfort and limit your range. You will probably be in a city or town where you can get food and water if you need it. So just bring a bit of money to cover the basics. The best street photography comes when you are warm, comfortable and it is just you and your camera.
So you are now ready and eager to get out shooting. Here are 5 essential tips that are great to keep in your mind so that you can optimise your time out in the field.
Street photography tips to get you started
- If you are not so comfortable with manual settings put your camera on “P” mode and set ISO high enough to ensure that you achieve a shutter speed in excess of 1/250 of a second. Test it with a few test shots in darker areas. This will ensure that you can freeze the action. It is better to get the shot on P rather than miss it on manual. If you are comfortable with manual settings I recommend you set the aperture at f8. It is more important to have a great depth of field as opposed to a shallow one where you run a greater risk of out of focus shots. Set your shutter speed to 1/250 and then let the camera set the ISO in order to get a well-exposed shot at those settings.
- For environmental shots, I find the best way to get a great shot is to first identify the background that you want to shoot. Begin by getting into position, composing your frame and take a test shot. You can see a great summary of the fundamental compositional techniques in the video below. Empty shots (i.e. without people) are often a bit boring. Have in your mind on the optimum location for someone to be in order to complete your perfect composition. Now be patient and wait for someone interesting to cross the scene and get into position. Only then can push the shutter at the perfect (decisive) moment…..or use burst mode. Look for the person to be mid-stride making a triangle between their legs and the ground. This often makes the most compelling images.
- If you are more interested in street portraits then there are two schools of thought. You can use a longer lens and stand in one spot “hunting people”, like a creep. But the reactions you get from people are often not desirable. I find you are better to walk with a reasonably wide (35mm) lens and get close to the people. Move into position and push the shutter when you are in the right spot. The most important thing to do is to then *smile and say *“Thank you”, but only if they appear to be offended. If they confront you just be sure to be pleasant and just explain that you are a street photographer out doing your thing! 99% of people will say nothing. But it is better to be prepared.
- Shooting from the hip enables to shoot your image without anyone noticing. If you are finding that you lack confidence in shooting with the point and shoot camera up to your eye this can be a great way to get started. It can often result in interesting compositions from a unique perspective, however, you will often end up with a large number of very average photos this way. If this is a perspective that you enjoy, I suggest just kneeling down and waiting. After some time you will blend in with the environment and people will stop noticing you.
- Remember that as long as the law is on your side you are doing nothing wrong. In most places, if someone is in a public place you are fine to take a photo of them. Just don’t be a dick about it! If someone asks you to delete the photo, do it. There will be another photo, another time. Try to maintain the positive image of street photographers everywhere so we can all benefit from each other’s interactions. Just have your elevator pitch ready if someone confronts you and keep smiling!
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Ben Kepka – The Cultured Kiwi
New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!