How to Get Started with Street Photography
When it comes to creating a personal record of the hidden gems in life, few styles of photography can compete with street photography. But there’s no denying that doing it well is hard. While there are some street photography techniques you can draw from, the biggest challenge is simply dealing with what can be a very uncomfortable process: taking impromptu pictures of strangers. Many photographers must overcome significant anxiety to go out and shoot what they come across, including people who may not be ok with having their picture taken.
If you’re just trying out this unique style or you’re a bit more seasoned but stuck in a street photography rut, hopefully you’ll find some inspiration here!
Street Photography Preparation Advice for Beginners
Before we get into the more creative ideas, we have to know what tools are required to hit the streets in the first place! Here are 5 tips to get started with (designed for beginners, so scroll ahead if you’re just looking for inspiration):
Why Use a Real Camera?
Your smartphone is with you all the time and for this reason it’s the best camera you have in terms of being ready for truly spontaneous scenes. But phones have become so ubiquitous that staying engaged with the art of street photography can feel a bit challenging. If this is you, try exploring a manual camera – but one that is still small enough to remain relatively inconspicuous and allows you to be light on your feet.
Some people get much more in the mood having a rangefinder style of camera. Fuji X-series cameras aren’t actually rangefinders but their retro rangefinder-esque builds, tactile dials, and built-in film simulations hearken back to an earlier time, making them simply very fun to use. The ones with a built-in lens feel particularly street-worthy as they force you to really compose a scene and not rely on zoom. Check out the Fuji X100V Mirrorless Digital Camera, which has built-in ND filters (great for daytime longer exposures) and can shoot 11 frames per second (20 with the electronic shutter). What is unique about this camera is its film simulations. The Fuji X100V has all the classic films from prior models plus a few newer expressions. With Monochrome Adjustment, for example, you can create warm or cool-toned versions of Monochrome and ACROS filters. With Color Chrome, you can create images with deeper color saturation and better gradation or do the same with Chrome Blue to only affect blue hues in your scene. A brand new simulation, Classic Negative, enhances color with hard tonality to increase image depth. It is based on the Fujicolor Superia 100 film of the 1980s.
Another street favorite is the Leica Q2 Digital Camera. It’s more expensive but part of that is because you get a massive sensor – full frame and 47.3 megapixels! The built-in 28mm f/1.7 lens is a great focal length for street work and that fast maximum aperture is great for low light (low light performance is helped further with built-in image stabilization). But you also have the option of digitally zooming to 35mm at 30MP, 50mm at 15MP, and 75mm at 7MP. It shoots at 10 frames per second – fast enough for most action shots. While it doesn’t have the fun filters the Fuji has, Leica is known for their unique color science with smooth overall color, great tonal rendering, and broad dynamic range. People get easily hooked on the Leica look.
Choosing the Right Settings for Street Photography
Regardless of the camera you’re using, you’ll want to make sure you start off with the right settings. This section is for true beginners so if you’re experienced, just skip ahead.
Photojournalists have long used the “Sunny 16” rule as a foundation for quickly and easily deciding on an exposure for most outdoor situations, and it’s a great starting point for street photographers as well. Basically, it says that on a sunny day if your aperture is f/16, your shutter speed should be one over your ISO (e.g., ISO 100 and 1/100th of a second shutter, ISO 200 and 1/200th of a second). People don’t often just set-it-and-forget-it, though. You start here and adjust accordingly. Here’s what the adjustments will do:
• Want bokeh (more background blur)? Open your aperture to something wider (smaller number).
• Need to freeze action? Increase that shutter speed. Conversely, want some motion blur? Reduce it.
• Want to increase the light sensitivity of your camera overall? Increase the ISO. Each camera has an upper limit to how much you can boost its signal through high ISO before you start to introduce noise and artifacts into your scene.
Sounds easy? Well, remember that anytime you change one thing (like wanting more bokeh) it will have an effect on the other settings (example: now you’re letting in too much light from a wide aperture and need to compensate by increasing the shutter speed or lowering the ISO). Learn more about these settings in The Exposure Triangle Explained for Beginners.
How to Stay Ready for Last-Second Shots
It’ll eat up battery life but you’ll want to keep your camera out of sleep mode and turned on and ready at all times while out. So be sure to pack extra power! If you’re using autofocus, you’ll want to ensure that you’re not only using the right focus mode but also the appropriate focus area so that you don’t risk hunting for focus and ultimately missing the shot. Your Focusing Area is how your camera knows where in a scene to direct focus. It allows you to pick a certain area in your frame to use your focus points on. Focus Area choices tend to be some variation of the following:
• Single Point Selection or Center
• Zone-Based Selection (different numbers of points within a restricted area of your angle of view)
• Auto/Dynamic/Tracking Selection
For Focus Mode, most cameras only have variations of 2 basic types: single mode (AF-S) and continuous mode (AF-C). Single modes will put focus exactly where you have placed your focus point in your viewfinder. Continuous mode will reattempt focus when the subject moves within the restrictions you have placed on it with your Focus Area. In AF-C, the camera keeps measuring focus and readjusting for as long as the shutter button is half-pressed. This is great for moving scenes and also drains the battery so this is another reason to go heavy on extra power.
Adopt the Street Photography Persona
Street photography can be scary. You’re taking pictures of strangers who may not be comfortable with being photographed. Part of being a street photographer is being confident, friendly, and taking charge of the situation.
Because of the potentially sensitive situations you might find yourself in, being friendly and honest goes a long way in reassuring subjects that you are not just being creepy. Some street photographers advocate going up to people and asking them directly if you can shoot them – and lately this is harder than ever, so you may have to rely on distant body language. Other photographers advise just shooting and moving on quickly. Some photographers even pay their subjects on the spot and others totally disagree with this. As you can imagine, street photography stimulates some very robust ethical debates. No matter how you slice it, you can’t be too shy about the situation. Know your rights but know when to quit. Street photography requires a lot of grace.
Street Photography Ideas for Beginners (or for Seasoned Artists in a Creative Rut)
Some of these ideas might seem pretty basic. Others may feel profound. Use them however you need to: getting out of a rut, as motivation just to leave the house, having a sense of a mission/assignment, or as just a simple reminder for how to use your eye.
Idea #1 : Look for Weird Lighting
It’s simply not enough to just go outside and shoot – at least not without getting just a ton of lackluster shots. Quantity is not the goal here. To warm up your eye, look for weird light. It might not even be pretty! Distorted shadows of people or buildings, neon lights, bad glare, spooky reflections, random city spotlights, dappled light from trees or ripped umbrellas – anything at all that catches your attention.
Idea #2: Experiment with Distance
Changing up the distance between you and a subject can create really interesting effects in your pictures. Shooting from farther away with a telephoto lens can provide the compression effect and blur the background, bringing all of the focus on a subject, but people can get uncomfortable when they see a giant lens pointed in their direction. Or, see how many different and interesting shots you can get from only one position.
Idea #3: Shoot Only Reflections
Looking for all of the interesting little indirect scenes that surround us. Windows, puddles, and sunglasses can all provide a unique canvas for a shot. Similarly, look only for cast shadows.
Idea #4: Let the World Go Soft
We’re obsessed with nailing focus but what if we just stopped? Intentionally shoot out of focus or with a slow shutter speed to create an interesting sense of movement. All-bokeh shots sometimes make great device or presentation backdrops. Slow shutter shots sometimes make for really fun fine art prints. This falls into more of the experimental category than street photography but it’ll get you out and shooting all the same.
Idea #5: Go Only High or Only Low
Like looking for reflections, try to find ways to view the scene differently. One great way to do this is by getting above your subject. Find bridges, parking garages, balconies, or even rooftops that will allow you to capture a bird’s eye view of the scene. Conversely, Try to find places where you can shoot from below as well. The bottoms of stairways or escalators and under bridges are all ways to shoot up at your subjects.
Why Street Photography is Important
Full disclaimer: I am not a street photographer. At least, not formally. I shoot portraits. But I always come back to street photography when I’m in need of a reset. It is something you can do for the rest of your life. It doesn’t require a lot of nice equipment or even mobility to do. You don’t have to be a world traveler to get interesting stuff. This is what I like about street photography and why I encourage people to dabble in it.
Odds are, you are going to absolutely hate a lot of the pictures that you take. But that’s okay. Keep trying, keep learning, and you will find yourself capturing increasingly better images. If you think that a shot has potential, don’t be discouraged. Maybe you just need to shoot it in a different way to reveal that potential.
Start your journey in familiar spaces. If you’re really nervous about photographing strangers, just work up to it. Start with objects, then crowds, and finally to individuals. I like to begin at places where photos are expected – museums, tourist areas, etc and then work my way off the beaten path. Street photography is really different from other genres because of that feeling of invading people’s spaces. But these challenges are worth the effort. Being a street photographer allows you to create images far more powerful than most other styles can achieve thanks to its journalistic nature. While these tips are more about being creative than being a documentarian, they are a great place to start. Your end goal is to create art that shows the truth about the world around you in a particular moment in time. The results are unique to each shooter, no matter how many times a location has been covered already – and that is the beauty of street photography.
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