Street Photography Tips: 10 Successful Tips to Improve Your Street Photography
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Street Photography Tips: 10 Successful Tips to Improve Your Street Photography
I'll start off by saying I'm by no means any kind of expert. I just wanted to offer some tips that worked for me and can work for anyone no matter what level of experience in street photography. It can be hard to get the ball rolling on the street and I wanted to offer some help.
A quote by Los-Angeles based photography John Free when talking about tension in street photography has always stood out to me:
'We're not invading their privacy if there's no intent, we're using them for props, we're not listening. They are just props, nothing personal, nobody is going to get hurt. If everybody knew what was going on in my mind, which was such a noble and wonderful thing, they'd come over and hug me... But they don't know that. They just think you're some sneak from the insurance company.' His channel on YouTube is amazing. Check it out if you haven't already.
1. It's OK to shoot street photography
I feel that if your shots are honest with no intention to shame someone then it's OK. In some cases it's fine to take a photo of someone crazy doing something crazy. On the other hand if that person is clearly having a bad time then it's best to maybe leave that shot. Similarly a common issue is shooting homelessness. Homeless people are often subjects of street photography and it's easy to think of the cliché images. What are your reasons behind that shot? Is it for the sake of the photo or are you trying to create awareness around homelessness? There's two sides to every story and only you can make the choices at the end of the day. Respect your subjects.
2. Don't be TOO sneaky
OK, not being somewhat sneaky may be slightly impossible. Draw a line. It'd be impossible to get the shot if everyone seen you slap-bang in the middle wearing a flashing yellow hat and had a huge camera swinging round your neck. That being said you don't want to be seen as the weirdo lurking with the camera poking out from under your trench coat.
My biggest tip: keep smiling. Nothing can beat the confrontation like smiling.
I'll often pretend to be looking at something other than my subject, fiddling with my camera, seeing past my subject. I'll sometimes turn away, set up my camera, then go in for the shot.
We know the importance of getting in close so in some cases being noticed is unavoidable.
One hilarious tactic discussed in my interview with Andrew Jonhston @andrew.j98 (Interview found here) is pretending to be a tourist.
3. Be prepared to talk
"What the F**k are you looking at? Did you just take my picture?" If you shoot street photography you've probably heard a phrase somewhat similar. Being able to avoid or deal with confrontation can be important. Most people don't mind having their photo taken. Put the camera in the hands of a stranger and that perspective can quickly change. I'd still argue most people won't mind too much but they will want to know what you're up to. Sometimes it's best to play dumb, look past the subject, keep shooting in to the distance. Other times confrontation is unavoidable. As long as you're smiling, calm and willing to explain what you're up to then it should all be OK. A quick explanation paired with a compliments or even a little white lie will defuse the situation.
"You're looking smart as a dart!" should work a treat.
The amount of confrontation I've dealt with opposed to the shots I've taken is seriously outweighed. Yes, I get funny looks. Yes, sometimes people question me, but never have I had to deal with any serious situations. If the subject is angry just remember to stay calm and be willing to explain yourself. If they want the photos deleted then it's up to you to decide.
Finally if anyone wants to see the image, or take a copy then being will to do it!
4. Permission or no permission?
Both have a strong argument and neither is right or wrong. In the beginning I was trying without permission. The result was images I'd taken way too far out. Either way it wasn't the interaction I wanted. By asking permission I had chance to get up close, and more often than not pop off more than one or two shots. I found 75% of people are willing anyway with nothing negative other than a simple 'no' coming from the latter. My confidence jumped leaps at this point as I now knew I could potentially photograph anyone. I'd say now I prefer to shoot candidly as well as looking at the bigger picture as opposed to a single person. That being said I have no strict rules and will happily snap a few portraits candidly or with permission. I'll sometimes be talking to someone I want to photograph and the situation happens naturally. Shooting candid if I'm noticed I'll sometimes give the nod to suggest I want to snap few shots and respond to that. If it's already too late and the shots are taken I'll often say thanks, smiling with a nod. Most people just think what the hell just happened(I think.)
I'd recommended exploring both options. Don't limit yourself unless there's a reason. Some shots won't happen without permission where as others will be ruined by disturbing the moment.
5. Overcoming the fear
I'd go as far to say as that fear could actually be swapped for adrenaline. You're out on the street, camera in hand, everything ready. Coming along the street is your subject and you know it. Gut feeling kicks in and you know it's the shot. Instead you freeze in a panic and watch as the shot of the day walks past. That gut feeling usually suggests to me I should have pressed the shutter. I'm definitely guilty of missing the shot, who isn't? But when you don't, when you press the shutter and get the shot, the satisfaction is unbeatable. If you can grasp that feeling and just go for it the fear will slowly turn into your trigger for capturing your best shots.
6. Where to shoot
The streets are relentless and wait for nobody. We've just talked about how easy it is to miss a shot. I'd say take your camera everywhere that way you've always got the upper hand. Street photography can be part of everyday life. It's good to start with busy locations like city centres, public events, markets and similar things. Joel Meyerowitz has said he'd spend a lot of time shooting at parades as he could get as close as he wanted and go completely unnoticed.
There'll be times when you're constantly on the move; dodging and weaving through the crowd. Other times you'll have your frame ready waiting for your subject to enter. The busier the street, the easier this is. As your confidence builds you'll be able to do this wherever you like.
7. Camera Settings
First things first; the camera you're using probably doesn't matter too much. There's photographers out there shooting with small compacts, DSLRs, SLRs, and phones. You name it, someone's using it. As long as what you're using captures a half decent image you can work with then you're fine.
I shoot mostly f/5.6 - f/11 usually sticking on f/8. This way I've got small margin for error and allows for more detail in the shot. If you want more focus on your subject and less on the background use a more shallow depth of field. I set my ISO anywhere between 200-1600 and higher if the situation requires it. I tend to sit around 800 ISO meaning as a general rule of thumb I'll be able to use f/5.6 - f/11 as well as a fast shutter speed. Beginners may find using automated modes such as aperture priority will help getting your shot. The less time spent fiddling with your camera the more time you've got to think about composing your shot. There's nothing wrong with allowing the camera to take over and help a little bit.
8. Lenses, Focus, and Zoom
Any lens can work for street photography but in general most street photographers use wide-angle lens between 28-50mm. Now you can get in close to the subject. It enables you to add elements from the foreground and background together to create a more interesting image. Working with one focal length at a time allows you to really hone in your skills with that lens as you get used to the way things look through the viewfinder. Avoiding zoom at all cost is one thing I recommend. It has been said if you aren't happy with your photo, you aren't close enough. Again there's nothing wrong with using zoom however fixing your focal length will allow you to focus on and master one style at a time.
Manual or auto-focus is again down to personal choice. Many street photographers swear by manual focus using techniques to pre-focus or with lots of practice being able to focus the lens off by heart. Auto-focus can be more precise and very quick also. I wouldn't worry too much about this but definitely try both.
Currently I'm using a 28mm converted to work with my micro-four thirds camera giving me a focal length of 56mm. Normally I'd shoot at 28mm but my lens is broke. Besides, I'm actually liking this focal length now.
9. Light and shadows
How light and shadows are cast can really change the dynamics within an image. They can highlight, hide, add depth or layers to any photograph taken in the street. Even better, it's natural, so as the day goes on different locations can become of interest. Being able to see the light is a huge step in moving forward in street photography. Day time light tends to be flat with mornings and late afternoon being the best time to get out on the street to incorporate light and shadow on your shots. That shouldn't stop you though as the streets don't sleep!
10. Just go for it
You're well and truly armed and ready for any situation to crop up on the streets. The more you shoot, the easier it becomes. Adrenaline will no longer be a sign of fear and instead spur you on to grab the shot. You have to be in it to win it and that's the approach to take to shooting on the street. Henri-Cartier Bresson, a founding member of Magnum Photos, is famously quoted saying your first 10,000 images are your worst. Likewise Martin Parr was quoted saying 'Don't worry, most of the pictures I've taken are crap, too,' Parr said in 2016. 'You have to take a lot of bad pictures to get something good.'
Don't be afraid of taking bad shots, be afraid of not taking any shots! Shoot first, worry later.
I hope this helps someone in someway and if you already know it all then I hope you enjoyed seeing my images. I'd love to hear from you via my contact page or Instagram to discuss anything you like.
Jordan Murray Street Photography
See similar interviews: https://www.jordanmurrayphoto.com/street-photography-blog/
Brian Gilbreath talking NYC and his latest book 'CNY SLAND' - @briangilbreath
Or hear my method to madness: