I’m going to share with you 11 secrets that will help you up your night street photography game. These tips are based on what I teach paying customers on my London Soho Night Street Photography workshops, but don’t worry if you’re coming to one, I have many more secrets!
I love the way cities come to life at night, with neon lights, the sound of laughter, street lights, reflections, shop windows. It’s a different world, for which I’ll equip you to not only shoot, but to shoot well. Before you ask, all of the images here are shot handheld on various Fujifilm cameras, mainly the X-T3 with 35mm f/1.4 lens, which is their 50mm equivalent.
They are all shot on aperture priority, auto white balance and auto ISO, with the lens mainly wide open, because after all, I believe that street photography is about the moment and not settings.
So here we go…
1. Think in layers
When you find an opportunity to make a great image, step back and see if you can introduce a strong foreground element. This adds real depth to an image and can make it feel more accomplished. In this example, the reflected neon on the roof of a parked car across the street, makes for a far more interesting picture.
2. Look for unrepeatable moments
Lots of street photographers walk the same streets, so look for unrepeatable or unique moments.
An unrepeatable moment has far more value than a shot any photographer could take, week after week. So start looking for unique moments: hoardings, Christmas lights, graphics, rapidly changing neighborhoods and anything else unusual or temporary.
3. Add a voyeuristic touch
I absolutely love this image of Santa in full makeup and white gloves, casually having a smoke whilst leaning against a male S&M poster. Like it’s just another day in the office. However, this alone is not enough. What really makes this image is the man camera right, looking at him thinking “what the…?” providing a counterpoint. It gives it a more voyeuristic feel and is 10 times stronger than Santa stood on his own.
I use this trick as a wedding photojournalist, with the inclusion of door frames and the open door, making the viewer feel like they are seeing an intimate moment that, perhaps, they should not be seeing.
4. The curiosity gap
The curiosity gap is marketing speak for the space between what we know and what we need to know. Essentially, you need to think about leaving something unsaid, a question unanswered, and letting the viewer fill in the gap. If your images tell the whole story, then they won’t hold the viewer’s attention and they will move on.
The brain likes to solve puzzles and work things out, so use this. If they have to ask themselves a question, you hold their attention.
5. Slow down and where’s there’s 1 opportunity, there’s 5
Many street photographers simply spend too much time working and not enough time looking. Most of our workshops are within a square mile or two at most. For example, in this article alone, there are 3 different images from the same alleyway where I have at least 5, to show students that where there is one opportunity, there are many.
Compare the above composition with the one below and you’ll see that simply moving forward and shooting from a low, rat’s-eye view, gives the same space a remarkably different feel.
6. Does colour add value or just visual noise?
Again, shot in the same alleyway as the above two images, to reinforce the last point.
During the day, I always shoot in black and white (jpeg with a normal raw file on my Fujifilm system). The reason for this is that I can see light, shape and form easier and therefore compose quicker. I then add in the colour on the train home and ask myself a simple question: “does it add value or just visual noise?” If it adds value, it becomes a colour image; if not, it remains black and white.
At night, however, the world is more colourful, so I shoot in colour to enable me to focus on that. That said, don’t dismiss black and white at night, just ask the reverse question: “Is black and white simpler? Does it have more impact?”
We all see the world differently. Compare the above and below colour image and decide if the colour adds value, or just visual noise?
7. Don’t walk far, walk a loop
I love this shot of the window, with a cowboy in a red bra riding a white saddle – I had walked past it a couple of times, clocking it as a great backdrop and an opportunity to come back to.
On its own, there is, of course, no narrative. So when I walked past again, I couldn’t believe my luck when a bunch of ladies on a night out were having a smoke and a laugh in the doorway. I started shooting and it suddenly get better as the singular figure stopped for about 30 seconds – the ephemeral nature of the street.
8. Be authentic
Authenticity in life and photography is so important. It goes without saying: if you hate weddings, don’t become a wedding photographer. So to be a happy street photographer, be authentic to what you like and how you see the world. If you’re a joker and like humour, look for things that amuse you, like this man who has voices in his head.
Street photography is the only genre that I shoot for me and not for a paying client. Therefore, I can shoot what I want and that really makes me a happy street photographer.
9. Stop a stranger
Always be on the lookout for cool or interesting people and don’t be afraid to ask them if you can take a portrait.
Use open body language, smile, give them a compliment and ask “would you have a minute for me to shoot a quick portrait of you?” Offer to share it and, 9 times out of 10, they’ll say yes. Remember, if you think you can, you can. If they say no, don’t take it personally… just move on.
10. Use long exposure to say different things
Don’t be afraid to experiment in all things photographic whilst on the street. You can use long exposure to various different ends.
The above image is a 1-second exposure whilst panning the woman. I was drawn to her leopard print coat and her dog as a pair of night animals and I wanted a sense of dynamic movement. Whereas in the image below, I was drawn to the unknown girl with the umbrella who was motionless, whilst the world moved around her. In this example, the long exposure exaggerates that difference. This was a one-second handheld exposure, albeit I was cheating with FujiFilm’s X-H1, which has 6 stops of IBIS.
11. How to become invisible
As soon as it gets dark and the balance of light changes, so you cannot see your own reflection in a window, I become fascinated with what’s happening in every window! Little moments and stories unfold and you can often get close and remain totally unnoticed, effectively invisible.
This really plays to the seeing in layers and adding that voyeuristic sense. Look for unusual, textured, patterned, steamy windows to add more elements.
I love this intimate moment below. I like to think it’s a first date and he’s thrilled by simply touching her finger.
Well, I hope that was useful and that you go out and take some amazing and award-winning images. Or at least re-think and have fun!
About the author: Simon Ellingworth is an educator and owner of UK based Trade Secrets Live. He has 9 international awards and teaches a variety of London based Street Photography workshops, follow him on Instagram. This article was also published here.