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Street Photography: a basic guide

Written by imqqmi

Learn about street photography and what it takes to capture extraordinary candid photos of people in ordinary places.

Two childrenFor the first couple of years owning a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera I was uncomfortable taking candid shots in public places. I couldn’t deal with the negative responses one sometimes gets when photograph people uninvited.

But I soon realized this reaction was primarily due to my own insecurity and  learned that it’s important to be ease. I will share some pointers to get comfortable taking photo in a crowd as well as some technical details to improve your shots.

Familiarize yourself with local laws

Where I live you can take photographs in public places with the exception of playgrounds, where you’ll need the permission of the parents for obvious reasons. Before you start street photography, familiarize yourself with the local laws of your country. Some photographers carry an excerpt of the law with them to hand out to those who may object and claim it’s illegal.

I don’t carry such a document and so far haven’t run into people claiming it’s illegal. The one thing you don’t want to do is to start arguing with anyone because at that point you’ve already lost. Delete any objectionable photo.

Be sensible and don’t publish photos that could be seen harmful or that may deface a person.

Look for a smile

At the carnivalMost people don’t mind, and some even enjoy, being photographed candidly. You’ll know this because they usually break into a smile. I smile back, sometimes waving to them.

They walk up to me and ask what the photo is for. I tell them I do it just for fun. I say I may share it with fellow photographers on the internet and most are OK with that. If not, I offer to remove the image on the spot.

Only a very few insist on having the image deleted. I’ll show them it’s really gone and continue shooting elsewhere. Be open, relaxed, kind and honest.

I’ve found that most people don’t mind being photographed. They might even ask for your gallery or email address or some prints. You never know what will happen and that’s part of the thrill.

Starting out

The best way to start street photography is to attend a public event. A local holiday, a themed event out on the street is perfect. No one will bother you at all and photographers are expected at these types of events.

Lenses for street photography

PhotographerWhen I was ready to give street photography a try, I went to the local marketplace where loads of people were walking around. There are always numerous photo opportunities in these places.

I started out with a long telephotos zoom lens. A long lens really helps to isolate the subject. A zoom lens is also more inconspicuous as the goal is to capture people in their natural habitat. You can get up close with the lens, rather than get close to the people.

A superzoom compact digital camera with the equivalent 400mm will do fine too. There will be less depth of field in the background but that can add to the context of the subject.

Shutter speed

Be sure you use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to prevent blur due to camera shake. I use a Canon 40D with a Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L lens. I try to use a shutter speed of 1/800 or higher, increasing ISO up to 1600 when needed.

Angle and position

I don’t hide but place myself out in the open or on a city balcony or something higher. While this is a good angle for some types of photos, I find being at eye level often works best.

If there’s a stream of people walking by market booths, position yourself at the end of the market booth and photograph the money transaction. Or when people come around a corner, you can get a good candid shot before they notice you and start interacting with you. Capturing the surprise of being photographed by a photographer with a big lens is fun to too.

The light

I’ve found that a cloudy day is actually the best light. Sunlight is very contrasty and eyes will be dark. Plan on editing if you shoot in bright light. Be prepared to expose for the face and eyes and let other parts blow out because the most important thing is the expression and the eyes. Try shooting with a low sun and your back towards the sun. You can’t use flash as it’s too conspicuous so you’ll have to make do with whatever is light is available.

Processing

If you’ve shot raw you’ll have plenty to play around with if the lighting wasn’t ideal. You can brighten faces and eye sockets, recover blown highlights, do nice black and white conversions, especially if there’s a lot of noise because you had to shoot at ISO 1600 or even higher. This can also help increase the aesthetics of such a shot, a little noise in black and white doesn’t hurt at all. It may give a nice contemporary yet timeless feel to it.
If you’ve shot under a cloudy sky you can bump up contrast to make up for it, it can look a little flat sometimes.

The rules of Street Photography

Young girlThere are no real rules to street photography but some may say that the surroundings are very important. Some sort of context that you can see it’s on the street, and that it’s a candid. The subjects don’t usually make eye contact and are involved with something of which you are a witness.

Look for gestures, expressions, activities and interactions between people, animals and other subjects. You can also photograph people watching a street artist doing his work. Expressions and reactions to the artist can make your photo come alive.

A Street Photography tip

If you’re still uncomfortable photographing people you don’t know, here’s a tip: ask another photographer to go along with you. Two photographers can back each other up and people seem more comfortable being shot by two photographers. Even if this seems illogical, it’s true. They might think it’s an assignment of a club or study.

I met a fellow photographer at the market, a student from Vietnam. We spend many afternoons photographing people together, which greatly helps making for a fun experience.

Click images to enlarge Click images to enlarge

About the author

imqqmi

Josha Beukema is from the Netherlands who photographs a variety of subjects including ballet, graduations, landscape, wildlife and macros. He also enjoys event and street photography. Josha, known as imqqmi in online photography forums, is extremely adept at capturing light as it falls on a subject.

5 Comments

  • Some great tips. Although I personally feel that shooting with a tele lens might be good fore starting out, I would move on to 35mm on full frame. Also I feel that your focal length directly contributes to your creepiness factor. Once you feel at home I would recommend Getting close to your subjects. I feel dslr cameras tend to intimidate. Small quiet cameras are the way to go fore me. But I guess we all have our own preferences. A handy tip I once heard was to have a small photo album stashed in your pocket to show people examples of what you are doing. Great to the point guide. Good work.

  • Thanks for the post! I’m an aspiring photographer, and these are some of the best photo ideas that I’ve ever heard. I love the idea of capturing people when they’re just interacting, and don’t notice.

  • I usually get my best photo ideas from looking at other professional photographer’s work. Perhaps looking at my photos can help you?? My name is Griffith Jones and I’m 23 years old and I’ve been backpacking Europe for the past 6 months. The photographs here are my effort to become more organic in my photography.
    EJOYEEEE!