Street photography has been around for as long as there have been cameras, and while this segment of photography is well-established, there will always be people who have just recently discovered the artform. Not surprisingly, street photography is unlike any other type of shooting, and comes with its own unique rules, etiquette, and technique. Here are five simple tips for street photography beginners.
Tip 1 : Don’t Be Shy
It’s obvious, but one of the first (and largest) hurdles to overcome when beginning in street photography is the sheer anxiety caused by pointing a camera at a stranger. It’s daunting, for sure, and some shooters never get over it, but the ones that do learn early that a smile goes a long way. As you’re strolling through town, don’t look like a weirdo. Carry yourself with positivity. Hold your head up. Make eye contact with strangers. Smile, and be forward with what you’re doing. Don’t try to hide your camera or take shots with attempted inconspicuousness. It never works, and people hate the feeling that you’re stealing photos of them.
Many of the best street photos are candid, but don’t be afraid to approach people and tell them that you took or would like to take their photo. Be prepared to tell them why; whether you like their hat, think their dog is cute, or just find them to be beautiful. Often these kinds of introductions lead to wonderful conversations, and leave the subjects feeling great about themselves. If you’re too shy for open conversation, take the shot anyway and be prepared to smooth things over if the subject looks annoyed, confused, or uncomfortable. A smile or a wave will usually suffice. Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, everything will be fine. You’ll get your shot, and you and your subject will go on with your lives.
Tip 2 : Find Your Ideal Gear
Some street shooters can be pretty obnoxious when it comes to gear. At times, it can seem as if those people care more about the gear than the photographs being produced. When this thinking runs amok, it doesn’t take long before every conversation has devolved into a showoff showdown. You don’t need a Leica to shoot great street photos. If the forums and blogs have you convinced that you need a Leica, but you can’t afford one, don’t get discouraged. Having a budget doesn’t mean you can’t shoot great street photos. In the hands of a photographer who values thoughtfulness, practice, and patience, even the most humble of machines can create amazing photographs.
The important thing is to find whatever gear works best for you. If you produce your best images with a DSLR, get yourself a D610 and use it. If you find you’re quickest with a super-small and quiet mirror-less, buy the Fujifilm X-E2 and have at it. If you love the fast focusing of a rangefinder and the nostalgia of stinky film in your hand, buy an old Canonet. The important thing is to find yourself a camera system that feels completely natural in your hands, because good street shots come from focusing on the environment; not from focusing on the gear.
Tip 3 : Use a Wide-Angle Lens
The standard focal lengths for street shooting range from 28 to 50 mm (in 35mm format), and most shooters tend to gravitate towards the 50 mm focal length. While using a nifty-fifty is perfectly fine, it can get a bit stale. Some of the most dramatic street shots come from wider focal lengths. You shouldn’t shoot exclusively with a wide-angle lens, but using one occasionally is certainly necessary. Try a focal length anywhere from 20 to 35 mm. These lenses create an exaggeration of relative size, effectively pushing the background away while drawing the subject in for more prominence.
These wide lenses allow the photographer to shoot more of the scene in areas of limited space. They also require the shooter to get closer to the subject, always a good thing in street photography. So mount up a nice wide-angle lens, and get up close and personal.
Tip 4 : Avoid Shots of the Homeless
There are absolutely people that will disagree with this point, but the majority of photographs of homeless people are redundant, cliché, and borderline disrespectful. That said, there are amazing photographs of homeless people, and some of these shots tell incredibly diverse and poignant stories of humanity. The problem is that most beginners think shooting the homeless (with a camera) is the ticket to artistic cachet. It’s not.
In the end the photographer needs to use good judgement. If there’s a situation unfolding in front of your lens that tells a unique and important story, take the shot. Something like a homeless man consoling a crying man in a suit would be an interesting shot. As in any photography, the photographer should think before the shot. Ask yourself why you’re taking the photo. If there’s a valid reason, take it. But I question the artistic validity of running up to a sad, old guy who’s sleeping on a park bench and waking him with a full blast of speedlite.
Tip 5 : Cultivate Patience
One of the best bits of advice for would-be street shooters is to cultivate patience. There’s this strange misconception around street shooting that prescribes to the notion that street photographers need always be darting from place to place, hunting the elusive shot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Often the best street shots come from photographers who know the value of patience and quiet observation.
You don’t need to run around like a maniac, so take your time and relax. If you find a great location with some seriously slick visuals, but sadly lacking in subject, just frame the shot and wait. Take a seat on a step, or lean against a lamppost; just keep your eyes open. In short order that beautiful and dynamic background will be populated by an interesting subject, and if you’ve cultivated patience you’ll be ready when the decisive moment presents itself.
Street photography by its very nature is constantly changing. As cultures evolve, so too do the images produced in street shooting. No other type of photography is so fresh and exciting with every new decade, with every new day. So if this segment of the photographic world seems interesting, don’t let your inhibitions or expectations hold you back. Be free, shoot some shots, and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not immediately producing images as striking as those of Fan Ho. The important thing is to just get out there and shoot what you see.
If you’d like to read more tips for street photography, let me know in the comments.