One of the most popular forms of photography is street photography or street portraiture. In addition to getting some fantastic portraits and experience with portraiture, it is the best way to quickly become comfortable around strangers on the street.
Choosing your subject
One of the best way to find your subjects is to pick a spot and let people come to you. If you are constantly walking around and moving, not only is it difficult see moments, but it is also difficult to change directions and run into place without being noticed or feeling self-conscious. Instead, pick a spot with a lot of foot traffic (such as the sidewalk of an intersection) or an interesting background and wait for people to come to you. You will feel much more comfortable photographing your subjects and it will be less likely that they will notice you. Street performers are excellent subjects to start photographing. After all, they are there to be seen and are used to being photographed; plus, they are part of the culture of the place you are visiting (or where you live).
Remember to pick your subjects wisely. If you see someone that you think is dangerous, don’t photograph them (unless the photograph will be the best of your life, in which case do anything you can to get it). If you pick your spots wisely, you will not be as afraid because you know that you won’t get into an altercation. The times you do get caught can turn into friendly encounters, where you tell people what you’re doing, show them the photograph with an enthusiastic smile, give them your card and offer to send it to them. Couples embracing are the best people to try this on
because they will love the photos and want them. Most couples don’t have photographs of themselves candidly embracing and they will cherish them. Tell them you’re learning street photography and it may turn into a future client.
There are times, however, when you will need permission. In most countries, as long as you are in a public place, it is perfectly legal to photograph people for either editorial or fine art purposes. However, if you intend to use any of those images for stock photography – meaning using that photograph in advertising – then you need the proper model release form signed. Each country has its own laws and regulations about this, so do your research before you photograph strangers in the streets.
When I do candid shots, I occasionally interact with my subject after I make the photograph. But mostly I’m invisible and they never know I took a picture. When I make a street portrait I engage them in a conversation and show them the picture on the back of the camera. If they ask for a copy I give them my card so they can email me for a digital file of their portrait. That’s the least you can do to thank them for their time.
You are not doing anything wrong, but if someone objects to having their picture taken, don’t shoot! It’s not worth an argument. You may be well within your legal rights, but the most important thing is to be respectful of others. I would also urge you to avoid photographing people in vulnerable or embarrassing situations. Put yourself in their shoes. Would you feel comfortable being photographed that way? If the answer is no, then use your common sense and move on.
Choosing your lens
When deciding what lens to use, it’s best to start with a small, wide-angle prime lens. Although zoom lenses offer many different focal lengths, they can also be heavy, large and are the most noticeable element of your camera. Also, you will be able to maneuver your camera more easily with a smaller lens.
Many street photographers prefer to use the ‘shooting from the hip’ method. ‘Shooting from the hip’ is when you photograph without looking through the viewfinder. It is easiest to do with a light, wide-angle prime lens where you are used to the perspective, so you can frame correctly without looking. Pre-focusing to a specific distance is necessary for shooting this way and can take a bit of practice. However, shooting from the hip does not mean that you should swing your camera around and shoot randomly. If you are not in a crowded area, it can help to keep your camera strapped to your wrist at your side and out of view until you need to take a shot. This will keep people from noticing your camera at a distance.
Your definition of street photography
There is no right or wrong answer. When it comes to post-processing, many photographers process their images in black and white for its timeless quality. However, some images are better in color and sometimes the subject is color. Let your artistic eye guide this decision. If you are still undecided, an advantage of monochrome is its ability to remove any distracting colorful elements from the frame, allowing the viewer to the be more drawn to the subject.
Don’t let anyone tell you what does or doesn’t qualify as street photography; there are no official rules. Street photography is all about telling a story and communicating an emotion. Your camera is an extension of your own artistic vision. Be patient and trust your gut.
Where to focus
If you want to improve your street photography (or portraiture), paying attention to a person’s eyes is a great way to do it. People can be skilled at hiding their emotions on their faces, but their eyes will never lie. Search for that hint of emotion in a person’s eyes and it will have a transformative effect on your photography. In addition, direct eye contact can be extremely important. It creates a powerful connection with the subject. I usually try to avoid being noticed, but sometimes waiting for a person to look at you is exactly what a photo needs. The photograph will still be candid as long as you capture the subject in the moment that they first look at you and before they are able to react.
Street photography is not only about capturing juxtapositions or fitting as many different people into a frame. Often, it’s best to simplify your photos and search for the tiny hints about life that everyone else seems to miss. Look at the details: a person’s hands, an expression, a piece of clothing or a single object framed very close. Powerful ideas and emotions can be portrayed through the simplest of scenes.
Which settings to use
The quickest and easiest way to set up your camera for street photography is by switching the camera to AV (aperture-priority mode) and selecting your f-stop (aperture) and ISO manually. The camera will then decide the shutter speed (exposure). On a bright sunny day, a good place to start is around f/16 with an ISO between 200-400. If your camera displays a shutter speed higher than 1/200th a second, you are ready to shoot. Take note of the shutter speed your camera is selecting and make adjustments to aperture and ISO accordingly. If your camera is giving you a shutter speed that is below 1/80th, you run the risk of a blurred shot (but that could be used for good effect too). To overcome blur, increase your ISO and/or choose a wider aperture. If you’re new to photography you can always set camera to P mode (program or auto) and let the camera select the correct settings; you can still adjust the exposure if you want to over or under expose the shot to your liking. This is useful if you are shooting run and gun (in a hurry with no time to think), but you have little control over what the camera is doing, so this isn’t always the best option. Program mode does a pretty decent job, but it’s not entirely reliable in low light where there’s a high possibility your shutter speed will be too slow to freeze the action.
Night is one of the most fun and rewarding times to shoot on the street. At times, street photos at night can be more powerful than their daytime counterparts; plus, you don’t always need to use a flash. Try to embrace the colored look of artificial light sources to take advantage of the beautiful qualities of these lights. The trick to shooting street photography at night without a flash is to find bright areas and wait (your ISO should be at 1600 or 3200). Great examples are glowing storefront signs and near streetlamps. When shooting at night, try finding interesting lines, shadows and compositions to give the image a bold visual statement. Silhouetted subjects are interesting and can create nice compositions with the shadow filling the foreground.
Make the vision your own
Street photography is spontaneous and a discipline you must practice to make perfect. Your camera is an extension of yourself — it can be your gateway to sharing your vision with the world and you don’t want to miss an amazing photo opportunity by not having your camera on you. If you’re serious about street photography, you will have your camera within reach at all times. Powerful ideas and emotions can be portrayed through the simplest of scenes. Most people wrongly associate street photography with people or portraits on the street. You don’t always need people in frame or interesting juxtapositions. It may be difficult in busy locations, but take a walk down a quiet alley or side street and look for different subjects that interest you. There are infinite opportunities for all kinds of images with or without people.
Some photographers may disagree with me on this, but with street photography, high image quality isn’t as important. Composition, light, drama and the story you are trying to tell are of more importance than image quality. If your images capture those four things, you are on the right path to becoming a great street photographer. Sharpness, low noise and high image quality are worth a hill of beans if you have poor composition, bad lighting and no atmosphere to tell a story. Focus on what’s important; that’s what makes a great street image.
Street photography requires practice and the more you get out there, the more your eye will develop and your confidence will grow. The approach can be simpler than other genres and post-processing should be kept to a minimum. Strong street photos come from powerful ideas and emotions captured in a simplistic manner. It comes down to perception to force yourself out with your camera to capture decisive moments that unfold in front of you.