Taking photos in a busy, public place can feel intimidating. Especially when photographing people. In this article, I’ll share my best street photography tips that will help you improve your street pictures.
Many photographers prefer to work alone and in the comfort of their own personal space. If the notion of street photography is far outside your comfort zone, keep reading. I’ll share with you the best street photography tips and techniques. These will help you find success feel at home in your skin when you’re out and about with your camera.
Table of Contents
- What is Street Photography?
- What Makes a Good Street Photographer?
- How to Get Better at Street Photography?
- Location Tips for Street Photography
- Tip #5: Use Google Maps to Scout Locations
- Tip #6: Plan to Take Photographs in Multiple Locations
- Tip #7: Pick Places with Good Action
- Tip #8: Observe Street Life as You Walk Around
- Tip #9: Find Your Spot
- Tip #10: Make Sure You Are Safe
- Tip #11: Think About Alternative Angles
- Tip #12: Visit the Same Location at Different Times
- Tip #13: Take Street Photographs Wherever You Are
- Street Photography Camera Settings and Techniques
- Tip #14: Know Your Camera Equipment Well
- Tip #15: Work with Minimal Gear
- Tip #16: Use a Wide Angle Lens
- Tip #17: Be Comfortable with Your Camera Settings
- Tip #18: Be Aware of Your Shutter Speed
- Tip #19: Use a Higher ISO Setting
- Tip #20: Control Your Depth of Field
- Tip #21: Compose Using Live View
- Tip #22: Experiment with Camera Techniques
- Composition Tips for Street Photography
- Tips for Including People in Your Street Photographs
First, let’s take a look at what street photography is and what makes a good street photographer.
What is Street Photography?
Street photography is fuzzy. I don’t mean all street pictures are blurry, but that the concept of what street photography is lacking definition. The name leads you to believe you are in the street with your camera. You can take street photos from inside. You don’t have to stand on a busy street and photograph everyday life. Maybe you are high above looking down on empty streets devoid of people.
Is the essence of street photography that is must always be candid? What if you capture a candid photograph of someone in the street and then immediately after a posed portrait. Is the first a street photograph and the second not?
I think street photography happens in public spaces or is of public places. It’s carried out by photographers who observe everyday life and capture the moments they find most interesting.
What Makes a Good Street Photographer?
To be a good street photographer you need to be comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. I also think it’s essential to know your camera so well you don’t have to pay much attention to it. Actually, I think that about all genres of photography.
Detaching from the worries of the world is easy with a camera in hand. Taking photographs in a public place and being comfortable about it is challenging for many.
Being a street photography beginner is not easy for many people. But the more you practice, the more your confidence develops. Taking photographs of everyday life in public places becomes compelling. Especially once you break through your discomfort.
A key aspect of being a successful street photographer is patience. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the godfather of photojournalism, shows us this. Look at any selection of his images and you’ll see that he waits. Sometimes we don’t know how long he may have had to wait for the decisive moment, but when it arrived, he was ready.
I have often wondered how long Mr. Cartier-Bresson waited for the decisive moment this cyclist passed by. The design of his composition indicates it is not a spontaneous moment. Although it may have been, the careful balance of graphic elements is so strong they appear to have been well thought out.
Balancing patience with reflex will make you a better street photographer. Knowing your camera gear intimately will help your involuntary response at the decisive moment. This all takes time and practice. A good way to develop these skills is to take photos every day as you also learn new techniques.
How to Get Better at Street Photography?
Here are the best street photography tips and techniques I know. As you read through these, some of them will stand out to you more than others. Depending on the locations you like to take street photos, some may not apply at all. Others will be more useful to some photographers than others depending on the style of street photography you pursue.
Check out this video for some tips specifically about camera techniques for street photography.
Tip #1: Dress Discretely
You need to think about this first tip before leaving the house. Choose what you will wear so you will blend in. You don’t want to stand out in the crowd when you are aiming to capture life in the street. Think about how the people dress who frequent the location you’ll go to take photographs. How do they dress? When you dress in a similar manner you are more likely to go about unnoticed.
Tip #2: Wear Good Shoes
This tip comes from one of my favorite books on photography. In their book ‘On Being a Photographer’, David Hurn and Bill Jay often stress the importance of wearing good shoes. When you are out in the streets you need to think about the places you’ll walk and where you’ll stand to take your photos. Will you need to climb anything? Is the ground likely to be wet?
A sturdy pair of shoes or boots will help protect your feet. This will help you go about your photo taking in comfort and with better protection.
Tip #3: If You’re a Tourist, Try Not To Look Like One
When you’re on vacation, street photography can be more appealing than when you’re at home. Being in a foreign country you’ll always see more interesting street life than when you’re in familiar surroundings.
Where I live, it’s pretty easy to spot most of the tourists in town. They dress differently than the locals. They often walk differently and have different mannerisms than the locals. In some places, it will be more difficult to blend in than others. When I went to Turkey a number of years ago, people often spoke Turkish to me thinking that I was a local. It had something to do with my mustache. In Thailand, where I live, it’s more of a challenge, being a white guy, to blend in.
Tip #4: Leave Your Camera Bag Behind
Taking a bulky camera bag will slow you down. You’ll also stand out more as a photographer. Working with minimal gear will help you blend in more. Another advantage is that you’ll not get so tired when you carry a lighter load. This becomes more of an issue as you get older.
Learning to take less with you can also help improve your photography. With less equipment on hand, you’ll be forced to think more about capturing the types of photographs you want.
If you do need to take a bag, choose one that does not look like a camera bag. Put an extra lens in your backpack or belt bag. Wrap it in something if you’re worried about it knocking against other things in your bag. I use a wrist sweatband on a small lens to help protect it.
Location Tips for Street Photography
Tip #5: Use Google Maps to Scout Locations
Google maps can be a great resource for photographers. It’s especially helpful when you’re in an unfamiliar place. Not only to help you find your way but also to preview locations before you head out the door.
Take a look at the location you want to visit on Google Maps. Look at the photographs posted there to give you an idea of what you can expect to see there.
Tip #6: Plan to Take Photographs in Multiple Locations
Having a variety of places to visit when you are taking to the streets is a good option. You may arrive at a place and find there are few interesting subjects. Public places are busy at different times during the day and night.
If you have alternatives you can move from one place to another until you find a busy street or a location where everyday life is more passive. This will of course depend on your intention for the type of street pictures you want to capture.
Tip #7: Pick Places with Good Action
Pick a place with the type of action you like to photograph. I love street markets because there is always a lot of people interaction. This is what I like to photograph. Some photographers find markets boring, or too challenging. So think about the style of photo you want and pick locations where you’ll be able to capture these pictures.
Tip #8: Observe Street Life as You Walk Around
Once you chose a spot, take your time. Look around and observe what’s happening there even before you bring your camera to your eye. Try and get a feel for what’s happening. Think about the type of photographs you want to take and ask yourself if this is realistic for this location.
Look for interactions between people. Or between people and things. If you’re in a busy street where there’s some obstruction on the pavement, you might find it’s a good location. Maybe some construction happening with barriers around it. Or some garbage or other things blocking the way. Observe how people respond to it, especially if they are not looking where they are walking. It could be an interesting spot for a little drama.
Think about the light. How will the light illuminate your subject? What about the light on the background? Is the light behind you or behind your subject?
Taking time to observe before you start taking photographs will help you get a good sense of the atmosphere. This will help you take pictures that people will connect with more.
Tip #9: Find Your Spot
As you are looking around and observing everyday life, try to find a few different spots you can take pictures from. A good tip is to be out of the way of foot traffic so that you are not in anyone’s way. This will mean you can stay in that spot for as long as you like.
Position yourself where you are not obvious to passers-by. Don’t hide, but don’t make yourself obvious if you can help it.
Being able to take photographs of the same location and street activity from a few different spots will add diversity. Once you’ve taken some pictures from one place, move to another. If it’s not as good for some reason, move back to where you were before.
Tip #10: Make Sure You Are Safe
Make sure the place you place yourself is safe. Think about the type of activity that’s happening around you. Do you feel comfortable being there?
Be careful of traffic. Especially if you are in a foreign country. The flow of traffic may be way more erratic than you are used to. Motorcyclists may ride on footpaths. Cars and trucks may travel the wrong way down a one-way street or be on the wrong side of the road. Take nothing for granted. Be aware of your own physical safety.
Tip #11: Think About Alternative Angles
Don’t remain standing for all your photos. Getting down low and looking up can produce more dramatic pictures of street life. Finding a high place that you can look down on some activity at times will be a much more interesting perspective.
Footbridges can be ideal places to take photographs from. You will be out of the way and out of eye contact. People are not so likely to see you if you are above them as often they are looking where they are walking or at their phones.
Tip #12: Visit the Same Location at Different Times
As I mentioned in Tip #6, some places will be busy at different times of the day and night. Plan to visit the same location in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Maybe even later at night.
Photograph the activity and build up a series of images showing the flow of life. There may be more interesting things to photograph at the location at some times of the day or night than others.
The main general market area in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a lot different in the day than it is at night. The type of street photographs you’ll capture there in the morning compared to in the evening are very different.
Tip #13: Take Street Photographs Wherever You Are
You don’t have to be in New York or London to take street photographs. Wherever you are you can. Sure, some cities may be more appealing than others. But, to be practical, don’t limit your thinking. It’s possible to get fabulous street images whether you live in a small village or a metropolis.
Street Photography Camera Settings and Techniques
Many street photographers prefer to use a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras are generally smaller than DSLRs, so they are less obvious. However, this does not need to stop you. I use a fairly large Nikon D800 for most of my street photography. How obvious you are to passers-by depends much on your manner as much as your camera. You could be using a small point and shoot camera and be very obvious because of your activity.
Tip #14: Know Your Camera Equipment Well
This is a general tip for better photography, no matter what genre you prefer. The more you know your camera gear and are confident to use it, the better photographs you’ll get. Being very familiar with it you won’t need to pay so much attention to it. You can concentrate on other aspects of photography like:
- What to photograph
Tip #15: Work with Minimal Gear
When you carry less equipment you will become better at using it. You’ll be more focused on one camera and one or two lenses. If you have more than this you are giving yourself too many options. This may restrict you more than you think. The more equipment you have to use, the more focused you’ll be on it and not on actually taking photos.
Chose the best lens for the style of photographs you like to take and that suits the locations you place yourself in. Leave your other lenses at home.
Tip #16: Use a Wide Angle Lens
Using a wide-angle lens makes it easier for street photographers to capture the action. Whether you prefer wide-angle prime lenses or zoom lens, choosing a focal length that best suits your subject is important. Think about how far you’ll be from your subject and what else you’ll see in your frame. Pick a focal length that works best or move close to your subjects or further away.
Tip #17: Be Comfortable with Your Camera Settings
Set your camera to Program Mode (p mode) if this is how you’ll capture the best pictures. This way you don’t have to think about your exposure settings. As a beginner photographer, this is a helpful mode. But don’t get stuck there.
Aim to progress to Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and then to Manual Mode. The more control you have over your settings, the more creative your photos will become. To learn more about using Manual Mode, check out this series of videos I created for the PhotographyCourse Youtube channel.
Tip #18: Be Aware of Your Shutter Speed
One common problem with street photographs unintentional motion blur. This happens when you use a shutter speed that’s too slow to freeze moving subjects. If you want your subjects to blur, that’s fine, but make sure it’s intentional.
If you use Aperture priority mode or Program mode, you can set the slowest shutter speed your camera can use. You’ll need to check your camera manual to find how to adjust this setting. If you set the slowest speed to be 1/250th of a second, this will restrain your camera from selecting a slower speed.
Tip #19: Use a Higher ISO Setting
Using a higher ISO setting than you might otherwise choose will give you more flexibility when you are shooting street. Especially when you are taking photographs of moving subjects, a higher ISO will help you capture sharp photos. This is because you’ll be able to set faster shutter speeds. So, even in bright sunlight, an ISO setting of 400 or higher can be helpful.
Tip #20: Control Your Depth of Field
Many street photographers a comfortable using a narrow aperture setting, (a high f-stop number.) This is because it helps create a deeper depth of field. This is helpful when you are photographing moving subjects as it reduces the risk of having out of focus subjects.
Experiment more. Don’t always use a narrow aperture. All your photos will look very similar. Open your aperture wider to partially blur a distracting background. You don’t need to use f/2.8, or wider on a prime lens, as this may create too much blur. If what’s in the background is relevant, use an aperture setting that allows you to recognize what’s there without it being sharp or very blurred.
Tip #21: Compose Using Live View
Holding your camera away from your face and using the monitor to compose your photos can make it less like you are taking a photo. People will be less likely to react. If your camera has a flip screen it’s a wonderful tool to help you hold your camera at waist level. Doing this makes it look like you are reviewing your images rather than taking photographs.
Tip #22: Experiment with Camera Techniques
Experiment using slow shutter speeds. Set the speed to relate to the speed of your subject. Try to capture just the right amount of motion blur. You’ll need to find a balance between how fast your subject is moving and the shutter speed you choose.
Try moving our camera when you have a slow shutter speed. Pan with your subject so they remain sharp and the background blurs.
Use filters for various effects. Put your flash on and pop a little more light. Combine this with a slow shutter speed for an interesting effect.
Composition Tips for Street Photography
It can be tempting, especially to those new to street photography, to concentrate solely on their subjects. Composition gets forgotten. Here are some tips on how to make better compositions when shooting street.
Tip #23: Get Closer
Robert Capa, one of the founders of the Magnum photography cooperative once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Get closer to your subject. Don’t leave so much unintentional space around them. The closer you are the more intimate your images are.
Using wide focal lengths makes it easier to get a moving subject in your frame, but don’t remain a long way from someone you are photographing.
Tip #24: Fill Your Frame
You won’t find many better composition tips than this. Fill your frame so that it only contains elements that support your main subject and the intention you have for your pictures. This makes them so much stronger.
If you’ve got too much in your frame, see tip #23. Or switch focal lengths to a longer lens.
Tip #25: Make Good Use of Negative Space
Filling your frame does not have to mean you can’t have blank space in your compositions. If you do include negative space, make sure it’s intentional. Make the empty space work within the composition to compliment or off-set your subjects.
Tip #26: Frame One Main Subject
Having one central point of interest makes for stronger street photography compositions. In busy streets, it can be challenging to have one subject that stands out. Aim to compose well so whoever looks at your photos will quickly recognize your subjects.
Isolating a subject can be achieved in many ways. Control your depth of field. Photograph against a plain, uncluttered background. Select a location with a background in the shadows where your subjects will be in bright light, or visa versa. It’s very difficult to make compelling photographs when there’s too much going on and nothing stands out.
Tip #27: Looks For Strong Lines and Shapes
Make good use of lines and shapes created by architecture or light and shadow. Compose using these as features of your pictures, not merely background. Study the angles as you move about when you first arrive at a location and position yourself to make the most of these graphic elements.
Tip #28: Think In Black and White
Black and white street photography is classic and timeless. It’s easy enough to convert a color image to black and white when you’re editing. But if you are thinking in black and white as you are taking your photographs, the results will be much stronger.
Check out this video I made with more tips for black and white street photographers.
Tips for Including People in Your Street Photographs
Street photographers often love to include people in their pictures. But many find it challenging to take pictures of strangers. To ask for permission before taking a photograph can be too hard for some.
There are many tutorials that teach about photographing people in the streets. I’ve written a guide for photographing people and it will help you if you’re a photographer who wants to take pictures of people but are reluctant to.
Whether you want to take street portraits or candid photographs of people in the streets, here are some tips that will help embolden you.
Tip #29: Choose People Who Won’t Object
For sure, there is no real way to know if someone wants to have their photo taken unless you ask for permission. This is not always practical. So, if you carefully observe people and pick the ones you think won’t mind if you take their picture without asking.
Look for people with kind, open expressions. Outgoing people often won’t mind. Whereas someone more introverted may feel uncomfortable with being photographed.
Tip #30: Ask For Permission
When you see someone you’d like to make a street portrait of, ask them. Show an interest in who they are and what they are doing. Build a conversation first. Don’t just barge right in and ask to take their photo.
After some polite conversation, if they seem relaxed talking with you, look them in the eye and ask your question. You may be surprised how many people actually say yes.
Tip #31: Be Comfortable and Confident
People notice when you are confident and self-assured. Don’t be pushy or get in people’s faces, but be polite. Make eye contact and smile. If you look like you are enjoying yourself people will reflect this back to you and you’ll be able to get better pictures of them.
This will certainly take many photographers a good deal of practice. Be determined. You’ll become increasingly more comfortable with street photography that includes people.
Tip #32: Be Prepared to Answer Questions
People may ask you what you are doing and who you are photographing. Be prepared to tell a story about what you are doing. Give them a little of your time. Tell them you are doing a project about the location and the people. Be open and honest. If they’re interested, ask permission to take their photo.
Don’t be rattled or appear hostile, even if someone approaches you in a negative or demanding manner. People can feel threatened by someone with a camera so it’s up to you to be ready to provide a calming answer.
Tip #33: Be Determined and Stay
Street photography is not easy. The constant movement and unpredictability of what you are photographing means you have to practice a lot. You can take a course, go to a workshop or read more articles, these will all help. But what will make a bigger difference is if you have a positive attitude and get out frequently with your camera.
Street photography is as challenging as it is popular. The more you practice, the better you will become. I hope you find these tips helpful. If you have any more tips or techniques you use to capture great street images we’d love for you to share them in the comments below. And let us know which of these tips you find most helpful.