10 Rules You Should Break In Street Photography

I went on a photo walk the other day with a friend who mostly shoots events and does client-focused work. The majority of the time we just talked about freelance work, but every now and then we’d see an interesting scene and capture it. We both shot on zoom lenses, but when she would show me her captures, I couldn’t help but notice how zoomed in she was.

Every photograph was at around 70mm… I let the first 2 attempts slide, but after attempt number 3, I said, “hey you aren’t supposed to zoom — that’s against the rules!”.

She had no idea what I was talking about — I knew this because she responded with “they’re rules?”. I slapped my forehead and proceeded to list off a few dos and don’ts of street photography. After our brief little conversation, I noticed that she didn’t really take any more photographs. And at that moment, I knew these rules were holding a lot of us back.

See the thing with rules, it’s important to know them, but also important to break them when necessary. In order to progress we have to go against the rules at times. That’s probably how chicken and waffles got started… or brunch as a whole.

In this article, I want to go over 10 rules that I think everyone should break. Again, I’m not telling you to break these every time you go out and shoot, but you have to be open to new things…

Rule #1. Shoot In Manual Mode Only

A lot of these rules I’m going to ask you to break just to be a rebel, but this first rule I want you to break every time you go out to shoot. If you’re shooting in manual mode, you’re just making your life harder. Why give yourself something else to worry about? I couldn’t imagine trying to change my settings every photograph. If you’re in a dark area you have to adjust your ISO, if you’re in a bright area you have to rush and change the aperture… It’s just too much to think about.

Street photography is at it’s best when in P (Program) mode, or aperture priority (my personal favorite). I set my camera to f/8, my ISO to 400 minimum and my shutter speed does its own thing. I never have to worry about my camera. If I see an interesting subject, I just compose and shoot.

Some photographers call this “f/8 and be there…” You can call it what you want, just give it a try!

Rule #2. Don’t Shoot From Behind

People will tell you all the time not to shoot from behind, they affiliate it with being scared or some just think it doesn’t tell a great story… I disagree, all photographs have the potential to tell a story, it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of me, if I’m behind you, or if you’re below me… as street photographers, it’s our job to tell that story.

Now, I’m not saying walk behind people and just snap away, but what I am saying is to give every moment a chance, if you see something interesting don’t say to yourself “I’m behind this person, I can’t take this photograph”. I know I’ve done that a few times, so I’m telling you to break this rule so you all don’t make that same mistake.

Rule #3. Don’t Shoot From The Hip

Whenever you see a portrait of another street photographer in action, he’ll likely have the camera up to his face. This is how I shoot a great deal of my shots, but it’s important to try and get different angles and to do this you have to pull that camera away from your eyes. Get low, go high, shoot from the hip, not because you’re afraid but because it’s a more interesting perspective.

Related: 5 Reasons You Should Ditch Your Viewfinder

Rule #4. Be Invisible

This is the one I hate! Everyone want’s you to be invisible. We don’t all live in New York, some of us live in smaller cities… No matter where I stand if I’m taking a photograph of you with a 28mm (or 35mm) lens, you’re going to see me! It’s only you and I on the streets, it’s pretty much impossible to be invisible.

If your subject sees you, so what? Most of my subjects are looking dead at me in my photographs. It may not be your typical candid photograph, it may be against the rules, but it makes my job a hell of a lot easier and more exciting.

Rule #5. Don’t Crop

This is a rule that was created in the film days. It took a lot of work to crop a photograph back then… We don’t have that same headache, cropping is super easy and you can still maintain aspect ratio. If the photo looks better cropped, then crop it!

Rule #6. Shoot Wide

I’m not going to lie, if you ask me what focal length to shoot with, I’m going to tell you 28mm. But who am I? 35mm is a perfect length for street photographs. So is 50mm… Hell, shoot 70mm if you want. I gave it a try.

When I say break the rules, I mean just give things a chance. You don’t have to shoot at 70mm exclusively, but why not give it go and see if it’s for you? Maybe you’ll find that you like the process better, maybe that the extra compression will give your photographs a unique look.

I think a lot of people created these rules we have in place now because they broke previous ones. I’m always going to shoot 28mm, but I’m not against shooting 200mm either.

Rule #7. Shoot With Primes

When I bought my first camera, I didn’t take any pictures for 2 months because I had read that zoom lenses were frowned upon in the street community. I sold my XF 18-55 and I picked up the XF 18mm and absolutely hated the focal length. No big deal, maybe that wasn’t the right focal length for me. I later invest in the XF 35 and I didn’t really enjoy that one either, I missed every shot because it was too zoomed in. None of these focal lengths worked for me so I just kept selling and kept buying, losing about $150 each time.

I later found out that 35mm was my sweet spot after I picked up the Fujifilm X100T. I really enjoyed taking photographs with this camera, but I wasted almost a year trying to find the perfect focal length, the perfect prime lens, just because someone told me that was what I needed to do to be taken seriously.

Had I used the zoom lens, I would have had a chance to test out all of these focal lengths and probably would have found that out that I preferred 35mm a lot faster. Fast forward to today, I shoot all of my street photographs with zooms. I simply shoot at the wide end (for me that’s 28mm) and I couldn’t be happier.

I went through all of that just to end up where I started. Sometimes you have to feel things out and figure out what works best for you, I think a zoom lens makes this process a lot simpler… Unless you just like wasting money.

Related: Using Zooms as Primes: First Impression of the Fujifilm XF 18-55

Rule #8. Rule of Thirds

People always talk about composition when critiquing street photographs… I get it, composition is important, but let’s not act as if we aren’t photographing complete strangers. I can’t be like “hey, this shot would look cooler if you were a little to the right”. I mean I could, but it probably wouldn’t be as great of an image.

Let’s face it: when you’re capturing a moment a lot of what is going on is out of your control. You can move the camera around, frame the subject as best as you can, but people need to stop acting like we have unlimited space and opportunity when out shooting.

When people critique your composition they don’t know what else is going on in that picture, maybe there is a building behind you or construction to the right of you. Maybe you only have 6 seconds to get the shot before this person enters a store or pulls their phone out. We’re only in control of one thing and that’s taking the damn image. Your job is to get the shot, and if you can compose it perfectly, great! If you can’t capture what you can and move on.

One of my most liked images is poorly composed. We have an older lady directly in the center of the frame with and in the background is a big Verizon logo that is very distracting… Yet my subject is giving me the middle finger and yeah, no one has ever mentioned how poorly composed it is. If you capture a great moment, the rules don’t seem to matter as much. Again, composition is important, but never sacrifice an image simply because it’s “against the rules”.

Rule #9. Shoot Up Close

This is a rule I live by, there something about photographing a person at a short distance that adds an extra element of excitement for me, but recently I shot with a telephoto lens and I was able to capture some pretty intimate moments. You don’t have to be in someone’s face to take a great photograph and if anyone tells you that, link them to this article.

Rule #10. Portraits Aren’t Street Photography

I take a lot of street portraits and I often document this process. It’s usually me walking up to someone, greeting them and then asking to take their photograph. I get a lot of compliments on the images that I capture, but every now and then someone will comment and tell me that street portraits are not the same thing as street photography.

Now I’m not here to debate that, but I do think this type of documentation is equally as important. Creating street portraits of this generation is necessary, the world is changing fast and it’s important that we capture its current state… People may not seem interesting now, but in 30 years when we live in a VR world, they might. Don’t let others opinions hold you back from doing this type of work. There’s nothing wrong with getting permission to photograph somebody, sometimes it even results in a better photograph.

About the author: Keenan Hastings is a photographer and blogger based in Detroit, Michigan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.