If you’re new to street photography, you’re soon going to learn it’s much more than taking snapshots in public places. To create quality, compelling photographs you need to have both skill and knowledge. It isn’t easy, but with practice — and patience — you’ll be able to improve your abilities and start making great street photographs. Don’t worry; we’re not going to push you out into the world with no tools to survive. We’re much kinder than that. From the best gear to how to shoot like a ninja, here are 10 street photography tips and tricks to help you step out of your comfort zone and start making great images.
1. Use a small camera
A small camera should be your preferred option for street photography for two reasons. Firstly, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so a bulky camera is going to weigh you down. More importantly, a smaller camera draws less attention to you from the passing public. The moment someone spots you, the candidness that is synonymous with street photography is gone. As a result, you’re going to get forced photographs — you don’t want that.
The best cameras for street photography combine good image quality, useful features, and compact designs. Depending on your style, you may want a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, or maybe a pocketable camera with a fixed-lens that’s easier to carry with you.
The Ricoh GR III is popular amongst street photographers because it’s very compact, but has image quality up there with larger mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Its 24-megapixel APS-C sensor is the same size and resolution as the mirrorless (and much larger) Sony A6400, while it’s fixed 28mm lens keeps a low profile and offers a good angle of view for street shots. Alternatively, popular brands like Fujifilm, Nikon, and Olympus all make compact mirrorless cameras that are ideal for street photography if you want interchangeable lenses.
2. Use a prime lens
For street photography, we recommend using a prime lens. Because prime lenses are a fixed focal length, they tend to be smaller in both size and weight compared to zooms. This makes them less taxing on the arms and more comfortable to transport.
From a creative standpoint, a prime lens pushes you to think more about your photographs. Without the luxury of a zoom, you’re challenged to consider how close (physically) you should get to your subject. The closer you get (while still respecting personal space) the more emotion you can draw out of your scene. Emotion helps you create compelling photographs that your audience can connect to.
Focal lengths between 24mm and 50mm are your best bet, both in quality and cost. Wide-angle lenses are perfect for producing photographs that have multiple narratives going on within the frame. Whereas a good “nifty 50” will allow you to create more intimate pictures and separate your subjects from their surroundings.
3. Shoot in aperture priority mode
Good scenes come and go in a matter of seconds. To ensure you don’t miss them, you must be able to set your camera at the right exposure as quickly as possible. By shooting in aperture priority, you only have to think about one thing (rather than three) when setting your exposure. Based on your aperture, your camera can calculate where to set the ISO and shutter speed – giving you more time to set up your composition and depth of field.
For consistently sharper images, we advise shooting at an aperture between f/8 and f/16 to ensure plenty of depth of field.
4. Learn to stand still
This is wear patience comes in, and you may need a lot of it. Many street photographers are constantly on the move, hunting for the perfect moment. And although this is part of the craft, one of the most important tips we can give you is to slow down and learn to stand still.
Taking time to simply stand in your environment allows you to be more observant, and you’ll be able to spot exciting scenes more easily. Especially on a busy street, why waste your energy racing after the shot when a good subject is just as likely to come to you?
5. Look beyond your subject
You may experience confrontation when shooting on the street. “Why did you take my photo!?” is something you’re likely to hear from time to time. There are ways to avoid it, however. After the shot, don’t make eye contact with your subject. Look beyond them and focus on what’s happening in the background.
This can help take the focus off of your subject and put it on the background or the environment overall; if anything, you’ll look more like a tourist on vacation. If the person still decides to confront you, simply be polite and explain what you’re doing. That takes us to our next tip.
6. Don’t be afraid to talk to people
While photographing people in public spaces is generally fully within the law (unless you’re doing it for commercial purposes), that doesn’t mean people have to be happy about it. If you see someone who looks interesting and you’d like to take a close-up portrait of them, approach them with your camera down first. It just takes a second to introduce yourself, let them know that you’re shooting street portraits, and ask to take their picture. Many people will say no, and as hard as rejection is, that’s OK — just move on and try not to feel too discouraged by it. You may be surprised by how many people are happy to pose for you.
7. Stop chimping
Chimping describes the act of reviewing each photograph you make on the LCD screen of your digital camera. While it makes sense to do it in slower-paced genres of photography, from our experience it has no place in street photography. Each time you review an image, you’re missing other exciting scenes going on around you. In street photography, there is no take two. Almost as soon as a great moment arrives, it’s gone. The more time you keep your eyes up, the more chances you’ll have of capturing it.
You can turn off automatic image review in your camera’s settings. We recommend doing this to avoid the temptation to chimp, allowing you to be more focused on what’s happening around you.
8. Use a camera remote for new angles
Using a camera remote opens the door to more creativity. Let’s say you want to create a photograph from a low angle, you don’t want to lay down in the middle of a busy street. Instead, by connecting your camera to a wireless remote you’re able to put your gear on the ground and take a step back from it. This technique also allows you to use slow shutter speeds than if you were handholding the camera. This is great for when you want to keep the buildings sharp but add some motion blur to the people in the frame as they walk through it.
Today, many DSLR and mirrorless cameras come with built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This gives you the option of controlling your camera settings and even previewing the image through an app on your smartphone. To the passing public, you look like any other person on their phone. Little do they know you’re controlling your camera and creating street photographs of their candid movements.
If your camera does not come with built-in remote control functionality, check out this list of external camera remotes and triggers.
9. The rule of 36
Before the digital world, photographers had to be more selective with the images they took. The DSLR blew this away, and photographers no longer had to be concerned with wasting a frame. The consequence of this is that photographers would “spray and pray,” rather than be more analytical of the space around them.
If you use a digital camera, challenge yourself to go out and only make 36 frames (the standard number of exposures a roll of 35mm film would give you). You’ll find you think twice about hitting the shutter button and become more focused on whether or not it’s worth taking a shot of the scene you see in front of you.
10. Always carry a camera
Our final tip is perhaps the most obvious: Always have your camera with you (something that’s easier today than it ever has been before thanks to the prevalence of great cameraphones).
The deeper you get into street photography, the more you will notice your eyes continually searching for a frame — even when you’re not actively shooting. Street photographer Alex Webb once famously said, “This kind of photography is 99.9% about failure.” So to hit that 0.1% of success, your camera should never be left at home collecting dust!
And here’s a final bonus tip: Get out there and enjoy it! It’s natural to feel skittish about taking pictures in public, but street photography is one of the most rewarding genres you can practice, not just from a creative standpoint, but in gaining vital life skills, too. It builds confidence, social skills, and the ability to understand and appreciate human behavior to a new degree. When traveling, it forces you to slow down and be more mindful of your surroundings. Street photography also provides a future historical record of everyday life, telling different stories than the major events that grab headlines or make it into TV news.