A Comprehensive Introduction to Street Photography

Often overlooked, street photography has seen a big resurgence over the last ten years. Like many others, you may have been naturally drawn to photographing in the streets before ever hearing the term, or you might have been brought into it from seeing it on the Internet or from some of the many fascinating documentaries that have been released over the last few years.

street photography confrontation

Confrontation, SoHo, NYC

If you have yet to delve much into the world of street photography, the term generally refers to the art of photographing life and culture in a mostly candid and real way. It’s a way of exploring and portraying your surroundings and showing the way that you see and relate to the world. While you’re capturing the world around you, when done well it can be a very personal form of photography. Either way, it’s an incredibly fun and rewarding pursuit and I’m going to give you an introduction here to get further involved with it and to help improve your skills.

1. Enjoyment and repetition

street photography bags

Louis Vuitton, Canal Street, NYC

Before we get into the specifics about how to approach street photography, the biggest key to all of this is that you need to have fun with it and you need to do it fairly frequently. If you have a big SLR and you go out a couple times a month to try to shoot some street photography, that’s great, but it’s tough to improve that way. There are a lot of fast moving parts, a lot of hand-eye-coordination, and a level of comfort that is needed, which takes time and repetition to develop. Shooting ten or fifteen minutes every day or every few days will take you much further in the long run that infrequent but longer sessions.

I’m hesitant to tell you to get new equipment, because I did it for a long time with an SLR, but camera technology is currently moving the way of the small camera. If you can afford it and you really want to get more involved in street photography on a consistent basis, I highly suggest investing in a smaller camera, such as a Fuji, Ricoh, or a Sony. Even iPhones can work very well in the meantime. The key is to have a camera that is light and fun to use – something that you will want to carry around with you more frequently to capture daily images. SLRs are fantastic but their main weakness is that they can be cumbersome to carry around on a daily basis.

Besides the actual shooting, one of the best aspects of street photography is that there is a great community out there of other photographers to connect with. Many people have a big passion for it. After photographing, you can spend your time exploring the portfolios of others from around the world. You can purchase a wide array of gorgeous photo books or the occasional prints from other photographers, which are often very affordable. It’s a lot of fun and very inspiring to sit at night and relax with a great photo book.

2. Conceptual matters

storefront street photography

American Apparel Display, NYC

Before we talk about how to technically improve, the conceptual is the most important aspect of street photography. You first want to figure out what you want to shoot and what makes for an interesting image. It is easier to start from this end and to improve the technical, than it is to start with the technical, get your shots perfect, and then figure out what the heck you’re trying to capture.

Start with the work of others. I have heard people say a few times that they don’t want to be influenced by other photographers, but I disagree with this. I think that’s entirely what you want to do. Figure out whose work you like and relate to the most. Take the best aspects from different photographers and try to integrate them into how you shoot. Improve your eyes and visual language by seeing what others have done. You will be much better by having educated yourself this way. You of course want to be different, but that doesn’t mean that you also cannot learn from other, more experienced photographers. Learn from others and then work toward being unique in some way.

It sounds simple, but the key is to stop yourself and look. Just like some basketball teams start out a year going over plays before ever touching a basketball, try to look around without the camera and notice things with your eyes first. Look for expressions, figure out how to show emotion in your images, look for stories, unique situations, or things that other people might take for granted. Try to go beneath the surface a bit with your images. Don’t be afraid of weird images or of taking bad images or images that other people won’t like. This is your time to experiment and to not be afraid of the results.

You most likely are not going to wake up right away and have a style or any sort of consistent themes or ideas in your work. Those all take a really long time to develop. So at first explore all different types of areas. Work on getting comfortable. Shoot in a variety of conditions and situations. Take it all in and have fun and explore. Learn to grind a little bit and shoot with a somewhat consistent schedule, even if it’s only in short bursts.

3. The light

street photography lighting

Cortlandt Alley, NYC

Before you even think about what to do technically, you need to look around at the light. A lot of people struggle at figuring out how to best set up their camera and one of the main reasons for this is that they don’t realize that they need to first look at the light before they think about their camera.

The first question is how strong is the light? Are you shooting in direct sunlight where there is a stark difference between the harsh highlights and the dark shadows? Do you want to expose for the highlights and have the shadows be black or do you want to expose for the shadows and have the highlights be overblown? Are you shooting into the sun to create a hazy image or are you shooting with the sun behind or to the side of you, illuminating every detail of your subjects and making the colors and contrast pop? Are you shooting in the shade, where all of the light is even? Are you shooting early or late in the day where the light is dark but even and the colors are very pretty and flattering? Are you shooting at night or indoors where you need to pump the ISO up really high? In these situations, where are the artificial light sources, how are they illuminating your subjects, and what colors are they casting?

street photography at night

Cigar Smoker, Grand Central, NYC

As you can see there is a lot to think about with light, and it will dictate how you set your camera, but as you improve this will eventually become a natural part of how you see and how you shoot. This is why it is important to pay a lot of attention to the light at the very beginning of the learning process.

4. Technical matters

The technical aspects of street photography are my least favorite to write about, but they are very important to get good at. You can’t be a good photographer without having a good technical grasp of your camera. But also keep in mind that a technically bad shot of an interesting subject can often still be excellent, while a technically great shot of a bad subject will still be bad.

When figuring out what settings to choose, as mentioned before, I will first look at the light that I am shooting in and how strong it is. From there, I will set my ISO accordingly. The ISO is always the first thing that I change. Street photography is different from landscape photography in that the subjects are usually moving and the situations are variable and spontaneous. You usually will not have a tripod or the time to set up the perfect composition in the perfect light. Because of this, I find that images usually look technically better at higher ISOs for street work. There is more digital grain, of course, but it will allow you to use a more ideal shutter speed and aperture. Also, the grainy look goes hand-in-hand with street images. It’s a very beautiful part of the aesthetic.

From here, I will usually shoot in Shutter Priority mode. You can use Manual, Shutter, or Aperture Priority equally if you know what you’re doing, but here are my reasons for picking Shutter. Manual is great to learn in, but often I’m shooting in situations where one second I will be shooting into the sun and the next into the shade. I prefer to not have to constantly change all of my settings every time this happens. If the lighting is very consistent, that is one thing, but I usually tend to stick with Shutter.

From here I will pick a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the motion of moving subjects, but slow enough to allow for as small an aperture as possible to allow for some depth of field in the image. Sometimes it is so dark out that you have no choice, but if it’s possible to shoot at f/8 or above, that’s where I want to be. Usually this means that I will shoot at a shutter speed of around 1/250 of a second. This speed is the minimum that I like to shoot with to freeze moving subjects. If it’s dark out, then I’m fine with 1/160 or even 1/125, but that’s only in extreme situations. If I’m shooting in the bright sun, I will go up to 1/400 or 1/500 of a second.

window street photography

Lower East Side, NYC

The reason that we want to shoot with a smaller aperture is that we want more depth of field. This is because I usually want to create a scene where there is both a main subject and a background and everything is relatively sharp. Context and background can be very important in street photography because it helps you set the stage for what is happening. In addition, if there are multiple main subjects at different depths, this will help them to both be pretty sharp. Finally, in the fast moving world of street photography, if you miss the focus on your subject somewhat there is still a good chance that your subject will be sharp enough if you are shooting at f/8 or above.

The final technical piece of advice that I want you to consider is to use a prime lens. Zoom lenses give you a lot of flexibility in the moment, but for street photography they can sometimes give you too much choice and too much flexibility. This can take valuable time away when seeing a moment and then having to quickly choose the focal length and this can kill the spontaneous nature of many of your shots. In addition, zoom lenses are often heavier and larger and can be much more conspicuous to the people you are shooting. With a light prime lens you will learn to see how the lens sees by using it a lot. It will help you to anticipate your shots better and to shoot in a quicker and more spontaneous way. They are a pleasure to use.

Many people say that they don’t want to miss out on a shot by using a prime over a zoom. Yes, with a prime there will be some shots that you cannot get to that a zoom could get, but at the end of the day you will still come back with the same amount of keepers. The shots you will miss with a prime will be made up for by the more spontaneous shots you will get that a zoom couldn’t. It’s a trade off—and one that you need to try out. Missing out on zoomed shots is not the end of the world.

5. Editing

street photography bench

Hogs & Heifers, Meatpacking District, NYC

The last step to this entire process is your editing. Editing is vital to your growth as a photographer and it’s something that you need to learn in tandem with your photography. Don’t shy away.

I highly suggest using Lightroom. It is the industry standard, which means that it probably won’t be going away anytime soon like Apple’s Aperture did. Lightroom does everything well, and it’s particularly effective at helping you organize your catalog. You can import your images into your archive directly through Lightroom, star your favorites, and then create groups (called Collections) of your best images based on themes and ideas.

One of the toughest aspects of editing street photography is narrowing down your images to the best of the best. There is no point in showing people a hundred images at a time. They will stop paying attention before they start. Be ruthless with your editing and only show your best. Every street photographer takes a ton of terrible images, but the best photographers are the best at hiding these bad images. Narrow down a day’s shoot by starring only the best as five stars. Be tough on yourself. By using the starring system you will then have a way to find your best images quickly at a later date. This will help to keep yourself from showing the work that is not up to par.

photographing pedestrians

Canal Street, NYC

As your archive continues to grow, you should think about creating groups of your images. These groupings can be based on many things, such as a location, a theme, or an idea. Use Lightroom’s Collections to create these groups without having to move the physical location of the images in your archive. This will allow you to play with ideas and sequencing and will help you to build on projects over time. It will help you to think about your work and your progress and it will help you find content that fits in with these groups as you go out and explore.

There you have it. There is a ton to start off with here and it will take you a lot of time and practice to be a good street photographer. If there is one key here though, it’s that your success will be based on the effort that you put in and the enjoyment that you have with it. Improving at street photography is a lifelong process. Go out there and have some fun!

For Further Training on Street Photography:

James Maher authored this popular 141 page eBook covering everything about the genre even down to specific post processing techniques that can bring the best out of street scenes.

It can be found here: Essentials of Street Photography Guide

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  1. JP Zhang says:

    James, very nice introduction. As an amateur photographer, I have to agree that both conceptual and technical matter a lot.

    Will take a look at your offer for more info!

  2. Excellent introduction and I am sure this will certainly be a great foundation for candid street photography lovers. I often take a break from main stream photography and enjoy the excitement of Street photography.

    Often my saviours to get the best results are my zoom lenses, fast shutters and the subtle post processing. Interesting to know more about the book by James Maher, looking forward to get hold of it soon..


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