The first time I first set out to shoot (air quotes) Street Photography, I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was supposed to look like. What my street photography looked like that day was people’s feet and the back of heads. As I reviewed the images I recall the feeling of having somehow failed. Many street sessions later I realize that my failure was thinking that there was any certain way to shoot street. Like the people and places the genre depicts, street photography is an amalgamation of so many factors; some within your power to control while others are as random as chance allows for.
In this blog I’ll touch on a few basics that I’ve found have helped me to enjoy the process of shooting as much or more than the images I’ve made. If you’re just starting to shoot street, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful.
Let’s get this one out of the way. While there are some barriers to shooting street, they are almost all psychological and nothing a special piece of gear can solve. Nearly all of us own some sort of mobile device with a serviceable camera. I could make an argument for a mobile phone being a better street option than a full sized dslr. In a nutshell, street is about connecting with your environment and the people within it. Being able to quickly and competently use your available camera is much more important than the type of camera you're operating. Shooting with a standalone camera and looking for setting suggestions? Automatic or Program will do just fine. If you'd like to challenge yourself in the future that's fine but know that most shots blown due to manual settings would have been captured in an automatic mode. Want some leeway on exposure? Shoot RAW + JPEG.
What do I do? 95% of the time my camera is set to 640th/sec f8, auto ISO with my 35 or 40 mm lens pre-focused to about 8ft. I impose a number of rules upon my street photography in order to push myself and manual settings are one of those rules. Mostly my rules cause me to miss shots. Don’t be me.
Being apprehensive to raise a camera to a stranger is easily the most often cited barrier to entry I hear about street. I get it. I’ve felt it. At times it still gets between me and a shot. Here are a few suggestions and tricks to help move past this mental block.
Headphones - The least conspicuous camera you can use is your smartphones camera. Most smartphone cameras can be triggered by pressing a button on the included headphones. Walking with phone in hand and buds in ears is practically the dresscode of the modern pedestrian. Consider yourself invisible.
Find Glass - In a zoo we’re all wildlife photographers. Urban areas are full of storefronts filled with captive opportunities. Case the window and be ready for your shot when it presents itself. The odds are slim to none that anyone would exit a storefront to chase you down. Glass can also provide reflections of city-scapes that can add interest or even act as the subject themselves. Another trick is to shoot a storefront at an angle. This allows you to inconspicuously photograph people on the sidewalk while incorporating reflections.
Shoot Through - I’ve found that in most instances a human subject, particularly one on the move, will be oblivious that you are making a photograph of them and not something behind them. One way to nearly ensure this is to continue to shoot with your eye to your camera after your subject has left the frame. A side effect of this technique is that as you continue to shoot your subject will often notice you and make direct eye contact with your camera while still believing that they are not your subject.
Practice Without a Camera - Every walk or even every drive through a populated area is an opportunity to look for scenes that would make a nice photograph. Identifying these faux frames is a great mental exercise to prepare you for when it matters. Take this exercise to the next level by making small talk with would-be subjects. You might be surprised by how willing people who live in the city are to speak with you. Next time you have your camera with you it’s likely that these exercises will lead to more engaged street photos.
Shoot in a Group - When in the street having others with you will tend to boost your confidence. Furthermore, a lone photographer is an inherently less social creature than a photographer with a group. Our reptilian brain tells us that you are someone that people want to be around. This has a disarming effect on some subjects.
Be Complementary - When engaging a subject directly for something like a street portrait, I almost always start off the interaction with a complement. If the subject’s hat has caught your eye then tell them that you love their hat. If they have great hair then say so. Even in the event that you photograph a subject candidly at a distance it’s not a bad idea to have a compliment chambered in the event that the subject takes exception to having their photo taken. I’ve only had one candid subject express displeasure with me photographing them and I was able to replace that anger with a smile by paying a quick compliment to the man’s suit. A smile can go a long way as well.
Now that we’ve covered ways to overcome barriers to entry, let’s get to the photos themselves. I find street to be a very liberating genre of photography for a number of reasons but the lack of restriction and the unknown nature of what a walk in the streets will present me with are my favorite aspects. Because there are so few rules and you never know what might be around the corner you should always be thinking about how to make a compelling image at a moment's notice. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for.
Subject - The loosest and most commonly accepted definition of street photography could be summed up as follows: Scenes of people’s surroundings as they exist in them. Pretty vague and that’s alright. While I love that street is not painted into a neatly squared box I would implore you to consider this one guideline. When the human element is present it should have purpose. Not just placing a human in the frame for the sake of having one. The good news is that the simplest of human actions can be interesting. It can be as basic as their form completing a pleasing composition or their frame casting a long shadow. All you are looking for is a reason to be presenting the viewer with that person. It should be done in a way that compliments your frame as opposed to being a distraction from it.
But what if you’ve got a good scene that would be made great if only there were just the right subject? Wait. It’s that simple, just wait. While your perfect human complement may not magically appear I can say that more often than not I’ve had fantastic subjects walk into my otherwise set composition within a few minutes of waiting. This is such a tried and true method of making street images that it’s been given a name. Fishing.
Composition - While I feel that there is a time and place for the traditional rules of composition, I see street photography as the perfect platform to challenge the viewer. Consider the use of symmetry in your images by using a human subject to mimic architectural elements in your frame. Look for subjects whose clothes contain patterns, textures or colors that match their surroundings. Use panning to capture motion which gives a great energetic feel to an image. Try to spot juxtaposition and irony on the street by paying attention to ads and billboards to play against the look of a human subject. Place subjects at the edges of your frame to add tension or crop out heads and faces to dehumanize people lending a certain mood to your image. Leverage the lines dividing street lanes or denoting crosswalks as leading lines and consider shooting up or down on to subjects for a change of perspective. I could go on but I think my point is clear. There are many, if not an endless amount of compositional opportunities in the street to add interest to your photos. Use them.
Light - Photographers new to street will often say that they’re not sure where to go looking for good street shots. Good news, there’s an easy answer to this one. Follow the light. It’s a basic tenant of photography in general but it can really act as your guide on the street. Simply look for light. If you’re out shooting at noon when the sun is high in the sky consider looking for shadow and play your compositions off of the interaction between full sun and shaded alleys or walkways. If you’d like to try your hand at night time street photography the same rules hold true. Search for streetlamps and storefronts that are brightly lit. Consider leveraging the headlights of passing cars at crosswalks for silhouettes. Looking for great light should always be a consideration when shooting street.
Good vs. Great - Now that we’ve covered the content of a street photo let’s talk about what sets apart the average images from the great ones. I’ve found that the best street photos I’ve made have at least two out of three of the above mentioned elements. Subject, composition or light. Nail only one of those three and you’ve likely got yourself a average street photo. Cover all three bases and you have a potential masterpiece.
So there you have it, a street photography starter-kit of sorts. It’s my hope that you’ll see these tips as helpful aids that reduce any apprehension you might feel and get you out having fun making photos of a very rewarding genre. Furthermore, I hope you’ll see street as a freestyle experience devoid of strict rights and wrongs. So get out there and follow the light. You might be amazed at the people and places it leads you to.