Street Photography: Easy To Learn, Impossible To Master

Of all the different fields of photography, street photography might be the most difficult. However, it’s also an area that many aspiring photographers jump into first. Street photography almost seems like the reason photography was created for in the first place.

Photo by Unsplash
Photo by Unsplash

Unlike taking photos in a studio, shooting landscapes or working with models, street photography entails a bit of chaos. Unlike working in a controlled environment where you control everything from the lighting to the models’ poses, taking photos out in public demands that you work with what’s there.

Even if street photography isn’t necessarily your bag, it can provide you with some great educational experience. Considering that you have little control over your environment, street photography can be viewed as a sort of photographer’s boot camp. If you can shoot in unpredictable and uncontrollable situations, you can shoot anywhere.

With that in mind, we’ve put together some items to consider when hitting the street with your camera.

Your Camera

OK, so let’s get the gear talk out of the way first. With street photography, the type of camera you use is not as important as it might be with other fields of photography. You don’t necessarily need that powerhouse DSLR with a big zoom lens. That would be overkill, and carrying around a monster camera will most likely get old pretty fast. If you’ve got a nice point-and-shoot, try using that the first time you head out.

Shooting with a smaller camera offers you a few benefits. First, it’s not heavy. You’ll be thankful for that after an hour or so. Second, you blend in much better. Street photography is all about capturing images of people out and about, tending to their daily business. You might not want the attention that a big, professional-looking camera might draw.

Speaking of big, if you do want to shoot with your DSLR, avoid the big telephoto lenses. These may seem tempting, allowing you to get close-up shots from a distance. But people notice when you point that giant lens at them, and they’re likely to start getting nervous or acting differently. Instead, try shooting with a wide-angle prime lens. This will let you capture much larger scenes.

Talk to People

Shyness is not conducive to street photography. While you don’t have to be invasive, don’t avoid chatting with people on the street. If you’re feeling unsure of yourself, and you’re not comfortable snapping pictures while hiding behind Dumpsters, just ask people if they mind. Some will say no, and some will say yes. Just don’t let rejection get to you.

Know the rules

Rules governing where you can take photos are different around the world. In most open public places, street photography is perfectly legal and socially acceptable. But sometimes rules restrict what’s allowed. For example, in the U.S., you can shoot as much as you want outside in public, but you’re not allowed to shoot inside a private establishment, such as a restaurant or coffee shop, without permission.

Always have a camera handy

One of the great aspects of street photography is that you don’t have to go out with the intention of shooting. As long as you’ve always got a camera with you, you can take photos whenever you want. A short walk to the grocery store might yield some great photos, or it might become a source of regret.

Tell a story

What often makes a photograph great is that it invokes a narrative. When you go out, watch people going about their business and try to capture a moment that illustrates what they’re doing. These magic moments are what gets street photographers out of bed every morning.

Look for repeating patterns and juxtaposition

These are simple composition ideas, but they’re important ones within the art of street photography. Real genius comes about when you find something that you and everyone else sees every day and capture it from a new perspective. If done right, you can make your ordinary world look extraordinary, or even alien. Find shapes within the people, objects and environments where you shoot and tie them together.

Study the masters

Of course, if you’re looking for inspiration, or just some ideas to get you started, there is a wealth of material to go over. Typing “street photography” into a search engine will reward you with enough material to keep you inspired indefinitely. One great source of street photography is the 24 Hour Project. This is an annual event where photographers from all around the world take one photo every hour and upload it. You can view galleries of these images at their website. But be warned: there’s a decent chance you’ll get sucked in and spend hours pouring over the photos.

There are also some great documentaries about street photography and photographers. We covered a handful of these on our collection of photo documentaries.

Don’t be afraid of posed shots

When most people think of street photography, they imagine candid images of people unaware of the fact that they’re being photographed. While this is a great way to capture some memorable images, don’t be afraid of people who want to ham it up for your camera. Street photography is all about people, and capturing the spirit of outgoing, attention-loving individuals can turn out just as great.

Be bold

One of my favorite old sayings is “Fortune favors the bold.” Don’t be scared to take some risks. While working within your comfort zone can help you feel content, putting yourself in positions you might not otherwise think of can help you grow as a photographer and as a person.

But also be polite

It’s important to know the difference between boldness and rudeness. While surprising someone with a shutter snap in the face might give you some great portraits, it might also get you punched. And be especially careful when photographing children. Parents are often very sensitive about strangers taking pictures of their kids.

None of these are hard and fast rules. Perhaps the most important thing to shoot for is enjoying yourself. Every place and every person is different, so you might find something completely counter to these tips that works great for you. Photography is a personal pursuit, especially street photography. Find what works for you. And most importantly, keep taking photos.

By Chris Ford

Chris Ford is a house husband and freelance writer, covering photography, music and entertainment. He is also a student of journalism at Florida A&M University. He also produces a podcast and writes comedy. You can follow him on Twitter @TopherMFord