How to Take Sharper Street Photography, Even at Night

Capturing sharp photographs is by far the toughest technical skill in street photography. People move quickly, you are often moving quickly, the light isn’t usually ideal, and you sometimes have to frame instantly and suddenly. When I take a look at other people’s street work, one of the most common problems I notice is that the photos are not sharp and not in focus.

sharp street photos at night

“Jerry Delakas”

This being said, there are many tips to allow you to get sharper street photographs. And some are very simple. So let’s get to them.

1. Shoot with a Wide Angle Lens

There are many reasons to shoot with a wide-angle lens, but one of the main reasons is that wide angle perspectives have a larger depth of field. This means that if you miss your focus somewhat, there will still be a large range of the scene that will be sharp, which will give you some leeway to mess up and still get the shot sharp. The trade off is that you have to get closer to your subject than with a telephoto lens, but this usually leads to a better visual look anyway.

The other reason is that wide-angle lenses are generally lighter and easier to maneuver. Steadier hands = sharper photos.

28mm and 35mm are probably the most common focal lengths for street photography (50mm is used a lot as well, but it’s too much of a telephoto view for my tastes). I prefer 28mm.

low light night picture


2. Ideal Camera Settings for Sharpness

While you can go slower and still achieve perfectly sharp shots, a shutter speed of at least 1/320 of a second, and optimally 1/500, is recommended to fully freeze people in motion. If I am in a very dark location then I will sometimes stop down to 1/250 or even 1/160, but I prefer not to.

Similarly, we generally want to use the smallest aperture possible (small aperture = larger number), for the same reason behind using a wide-angle lens, because there will be more depth of field. With more of a scene that will be sharp, the more leeway we have to get the focus correct. When possible, it’s best to shoot from f/8 to f/16.

So if we want to shoot at 1/320 or 1/500 of a second and f/8, and the light isn’t great, something has to give. That means we will need to push our ISO. Despite what you might have been told, shooting at high ISOs for street photography is often the number one key to creating street photos that have a higher technical quality because of the flexibility it allows for your shutter speed and aperture. You should test out your cameras upper limits for ISO to see the amount of grain that you are comfortable with. With the 5D Mark II, I often shoot in ISO 800, 1600, and 3200.

Also, grain is beautiful.

subway station picture

“Gold can’t buy you everything”

3. Zone Focus (Pre-Focus)

Zone focusing is the technique of manually focusing your camera to a specific distance, say 8 feet away, and then photographing people as they enter that range of distance from your camera. For instance, with my 5D Mark II and a 28mm lens, if I pre-focus the camera to 8 feet away at f/8, then everything from 5.5 feet to 15 feet will be within an acceptable range of sharpness.

This is one of the keys to being successful at street photography because auto-focusing can be a huge hinderance in many situations. If you have the time to autofocus or manual focus through the viewfinder then you should do it, but focusing these ways takes time, which isn’t often ideal for many of those fast moving situations. I probably zone focus for 75 percent of my street photos.

A good exercise for this is to take a tape measure and measure two feet from your lens all the way up to 12 feet and try to memorize those distances away from you. This is a skill that needs to be practiced continually.

It can also be good to learn how to slide the manual focus without looking. What this means is that if someone is walking towards you then you can capture them at 10 feet away sharp and then as they get closer you can move the manual dial to 6 feet without looking to be able to capture them sharp at 6 feet away as well.

Also, I would only recommend zone focusing with focal lengths of 35mm or less. With more telephoto views with shallower depth of fields, it is much more difficult to guess distances and still get shots perfectly sharp.

4. Stopping Your Motion and the Stutter Step

By far my biggest pet peeve of photographers is when they don’t stop their own motion before taking a photo. I see it all of the time. People frame, focus, and capture an image and don’t even stop moving. It’s sloppy. Don’t do it. How can you get a sharp photo while you are still moving unless you are shooting at 1/1000 of a second?

The stutter step is basically just a way of stopping your motion instantly while in mid stride to take a shot and then continuing that motion right after the shot. Just stop in mid stride for a half a second, take the photo, and continue your stride. It’s a great way to stop quickly and take a shot without drawing too much attention to yourself. Just be careful about people being behind you. I have stopped short a couple of times and had people bump into me. In those cases, I just pretend to be a dumb tourist (instead of what I really am, which is a dumb photographer).

snow overcast conditions street image

“The Chase”

5. Pick a Spot / Background and Wait There

You really want a technically great street photograph? Then plan it. Find the location, wait for the right light, and choose the perfect settings ahead of time. Then, wait patiently for the right person to enter your scene. It is about a million times easier to get a technically good street photograph this way than by only taking spontaneous shots as you come across them.

At Night:

Street photography at night is one of the most incredible experiences. Cities glow, people and scenes become more magical, and it’s just exciting. However, you need to be careful. Choose safe areas or travel with a friend. Don’t bring too much attention on yourself or your equipment.

sharp pictures

“Noodletown, Chinatown”

6. Step Back

During the day I much prefer to get closer to my subjects, but often when out at night I will step back somewhat and get further from my subjects. When subjects are a small part of a dark scene it generally looks more interesting than when they’re a small part of a scene during the day, and the backgrounds are often much more interesting. Of course this is a gross generalization and every situation is different.

When you step back, you don’t need to use as fast of a shutter speed to capture moving subjects sharp. The shot above was taken at 1/60 of a second and the subjects are all super sharp.

7. Find Glowing Window Signs

When you’re shooting at night, seek out lampposts or artificial light sources and wait there to photograph people as they pass by. These are often very strong light sources if you are close enough to them. You can see this in the previous photograph, but getting even closer to the light source and shooting away from it is often a good idea as well.

8. Tripod and Blur

Who says you need sharp people as long as you have a sharp background? Put your camera on a tripod and wait for lots of people to walk through. Some people will be blurry and some sharp. It is a very interesting effect, especially of crowds.

sharp night photography

“Partying, Lower East Side”

9. Photograph with a Flash, Even During the Day

Some street photographers prefer to use flash to bring out their subjects and to make them sharp, even during the day. Bruce Gilden is probably the most famous flash street photographers, and Bruce Davidson is another photographer you should take a look at. He would photograph with a flash in the NY subway system back when it wasn’t very safe. It takes some nerve to do that.

This strategy is a little too intrusive for my tastes out there, but I love the look when other photographers do it.

My final word of advice is to not become too obsessed with sharpness. You don’t need to pixel-peep each image from a few centimeters away. When you are aiming for a sharp photo, of course you want it to be as sharp as possible, however view the finished photograph from a traditional distance that normal viewers will look at it from to truly gauge how the photograph looks.

Aim to get sharp photos, but don’t become too obsessed with sharpness.

About the Author:
James Maher is the author of Essentials of Street Photography, which covers everything about the genre even down to specific post processing techniques that can bring the best out of street scenes.

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14 responses to “How to Take Sharper Street Photography, Even at Night”

  1. Shaun says:

    The information provided was insightful. Looking forward to going out soon to capture street photography with a better mindset of what to do.

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks for this article, I particularly liked that part about ISO. When I started shooting I was so crazy about ISO200, the lowest my camera would go, and felt like everything needed low ISO, even if I had to put shutter speed down to 1/15th, which for me I can even hand hold. Now very often with a D90 I’ll crank ISO up to 800 and get the shot. better to have the shot with noise than not even get it.

  3. ykee says:

    Thanks for sharing the insight. However, I wonder when you say 28mm & 35mm in the article, are they based on full frame sensor size or the APS-C?

  4. James Maher says:

    My pleasure Alex, Shaun, ykee. Yeah same here, when I first started shooting with digital as well the ISO was terrible, so it was much tougher.

    ykee they are based on full frame. If you are using an ASP-C then a 20mm lens is perfect.

  5. Peter says:

    Hi James.

    Just started shooting with a 5D3 (having had previous DSLR’s). Can I ask what metering setting you used for the ‘lit sign/’Noodletown’ shot? Or did you shoot on full manual? (or adjust highlights on the computer?) Getting the camera to see the detail of the ground and not overexpose the sign is not easy.

  6. What an incredibly insightful article. It was instructive…not only about street photography in general. I am inspired to try some of these techniques when I shoot a holiday party next week! I bet I can get some unexpected candid shots shooting from the hip and following your guidance. I am now a fan and will seek out your other publications. Bravo!

  7. David says:

    These are good general guidelines, but when you say don’t do this, I have to shake my head. I zone focus at night at f/1.8 on a 7D+28mm combo (45mm equiv.) while walking at 1/60 of a second with no image stabilization and get very close up to my subjects, and I find that these are very eye opening and beautiful pictures. I feel like you should be encouraging experimentation as opposed to saying no to this and that.

  8. James Maher says:

    David – Thanks for the comment. If you re-read the article I never said not to do that nor was I trying to discourage experimentation at any point in the article.

    I too zone focus with similar settings as you (28mm or 35mm instead of 45mm at F2.) These were general ideas to make it easier for most people to capture technically good shots at night.

    There are certainly more advanced techniques, but photographing at 1/60th and F1.8 zone focusing is extremely tough even for the most experienced and the topic of this article was based around the idea of learning to create sharp photos. Not that sharpness is always necessary, but I wanted to focus on primary ways to achieve sharpness in adverse conditions.

    I probably could have added a section on what you mentioned, but that is a whole article and separate topic in itself.

  9. Leo says:

    I have to disagree with your approach to street photography. Master of the genre like Robert Frank, Danny Lyon or Gary Winogrand had made plenty of images that were blurred or the focus wa soft and they are absolute master pieces.

    A mind is like a parachute, it works better when it’s open.

  10. markeewan says:

    I just picked up a secondhand Nikon 28mm f2.8D AF and your article has given me some inspiration as to how I can use it.

    I mostly take photographs in Asia particularly in Bangkok, so there should be plenty of opportunity for me to test out this lens and use the tips from your article. I always find that night time photographs seem to look the best, but the lighting can be challenging.

  11. Michelle says:

    Awesome article. Interesting technique on zone focusing. Looking forward to trying that!

  12. jploazo says:

    Shooting with a 28mm doesn’t come natural, but its a very useful lens for street photography, especially if you are shooting in a big city with narrow streets and lots going on (i.e. NYC). It isn’t a lens that will look right when put up to your eye, but that’s okay. You can learn to shoot with it in like 5 minutes. No big deal. The thing is when walking around a city, I can pretty much always get closer if I want to, but there are many times that I have no room to step back. A 35 works for this most of the time, the 28 is better and gets you more shots. The 50mm is downright annoying unless you basically wanna take tightly cropped portraits of people. I do like the 50, but just for that, portraits. The 28 can also easily be used for a landscape / architecture lens… which is quite useful in a city for a cityscape/streetscape shot from far back. The wider angle is also better for shooting from the hip, and keeping things in focus, even when shooting wide open at 1.8. Try shooting a 50 wide open for low light and you will be missing focus all day long.

  13. Algoree says:

    Was reading then I realised all my shots are more powerful, engaging and with photographic eye, manual controls than yours

  14. W Roth says:

    I’m surprised that no one suggests using a smaller (mirrorless) camera with a smaller sensor (e.g., 1″) to get the longer depth of field and not have to worry so much about focusing. Smaller cameras are also lighter and less intrusive.

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