Things I’ve Learned Over 10 Years of Street Photography
I’m not a professional, but I take my street photography seriously. Because I enjoy it so much, I’ve invested a lot of time learning the craft and practicing it. I’m not great, but I’m better than I was.
It might take you half an hour to read the whole article, but if you’ve only a couple of minutes, read the nutshell version.
In a Nutshell
- Take time to read about how others do it (like this article), there is a lot of information out there.
- Look at the photographs of the masters and try to understand what makes them interesting and good.
- Read up on your rights to take photographs in the UK. It’s pretty straight forward but may help if you’re ever challenged.
- Get to your know your camera inside out so you can confidently react to changing situations and still get the shot.
- Be prepared to explain what you are doing if challenged. Smile, be confident, you are doing nothing wrong.
- Learn to shoot from the hip.
- Always carry your camera ready to shoot.
- Don’t hesitate, get the shot.
- Practice, practice, practice. Learn from your mistakes and practice again.
- Be confident. If you don’t feel it, act like you are, until you actually do feel confident.
- Share what you do and welcome critique.
- Enjoy yourself.
If you have a bit more time, read on for what I have learned, some of the experiences I’ve had, and how I dealt with them.
What Is It?
Street photography, or street, means different things to different people, from simply taking a photograph on a street, to recording something memorable while observing everyday life. There are no rules except what you choose to take from others or what you make yourself. However, there are some things, particularly around ethics, that need to be considered at least if you are going to be successful and enjoy your work and its fruits.
Street is a perfect combination of people watching and photography. Done right, it is a great hobby and can be very rewarding. You can do it whenever or wherever and pretty much cost-free. You just need a camera, or your phone, to carry with you and the motivation to go do it.
For all that is amazing about street, the one problem I do have is looking at what others produce. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing it, but only if it’s good. I have developed an algorithm that calculates 83.2% of street photography on the Internet is poor quality, which means I have to work about 5 times harder than I would like to find the good stuff. How did I arrive at that figure? It’s classified, but essentially it’s a figure I pluck out of the air.
Anyone researching street will see potentially millions of ‘street’ photos. If 83.2% of them are poor, how does the person starting out learn what is good and what is bad? My suggestion is to at first stick to sites that are recognized for their quality, not something like Flickr for Facebook, which unfortunately do not filter the good from the bad.
Street is easy to do badly but a difficult art to master. However, with practice and the right approach, anyone can do it. It helps to study the methods and work of the masters. Search ‘Masters of Street Photography’ online and take it from there. There are lots of groups, organizations, books, blogs, and myriad resources to get you started and help you learn. You can invent your own wheel and do it entirely your way, or you can speed up the process and learn from others.
Even if there are no rules, nobody wants to produce rubbish. And to be fair, there is a lot of it about. That’s partly because it is trendy and there are lots of people doing it without understanding what it is all about. But we all have to start somewhere and I know with certainty that when I started out, I was rubbish.
With learning and practice, the big question about street changes from what it is, to whether it is good, bad, interesting, or mundane. As you develop your skills, you will develop and hone your street instincts. You need to understand what makes a good photo and call on your instincts to know when and where it’s going to happen.
It Takes Guts
It takes a lot of guts to photograph people without an invitation, but that gets easier the more you do it. Everyone starts off photographing people from behind, or from far away, or when no one is looking. As you build your confidence you will realize 99% of people are okay with what you are doing so long as you follow some basic rules about respect for others and your own safety.
I have taken tens of thousands of street photographs over the last 10 years and although I’ve had a few questions, have only been properly challenged twice. Once by a drunk who was trying to be clever in front of his mates. I’d taken a general photo from a bridge of people along the side of a river enjoying food and drink, of which this guy was one. When I eventually wandered down that way he chirped up asking what I was doing as he’d seen me from about 200 meters away. There was no threat so I explained I was a tourist and moved on.
The other occasion was by a crazy person who mistakenly thought I was photographing her, again from a distance, when in fact I was photographing a building and didn’t even realize she was there. I put her mind at rest by explaining what I was photographing and very quickly there was no issue.
Challenges can come, and that can make it scary to be out there. But out of possibly 250,000 street photos I’ve taken, two challenges are nothing to worry about. And in any case, they were no big deal. However, I would say that how you act on the street may attract unwanted attention, which you can avoid by some simple behaviors; more on that later.
I do very occasionally get questioned as to why I’ve taken a photo, but I always smile, act confident and explain what I’m doing. The majority are absolutely fine with it and many are flattered that they’re considered interesting. I’ve never been asked to delete a photo but would if it was going to cause a lot of upset; I’m doing it for fun after all.
The reasons I use by explanation when questioned are a combination of:
- I’m working on a photography project [fill in the blank]. My favourite is to pick out something that relates to the person I photographed e.g. red hair, stylish dresser, beautiful face, beautiful smile, interesting look, great hair etc.
- I’m a street photographer plying my trade.
- I’m doing some stock photographs for my business.
- I’m photographing really interesting people.
- I’m looking for a great photo to enter a competition.
Any of the above could be true for me, even if some are truer at a moment in time than others. The important point is that I am prepared, so I can answer confidently. I’d hate to have to make up a reason on the spot as I’m a slow thinker and the confidence would evaporate in an instant. You need to find your own reasons so you can talk with a degree of honesty and be convincing.
One of the ways I overcame my own fear of photographing strangers without asking is to attend events where people want to be photographed, such as 1940s events, ComicCon, Whitby Goth Weekend. Attendees spend a lot of time dressing up and like to be noticed. It’s like having 1,000 free models all willing to let you take their photo, if only you will ask. Even that takes a bit of courage to begin with, but if you push yourself you will quickly find they are happy and willing. Before the day is out, you will be able to ask just about anybody, whether they are dressed up or not. It builds confidence and it’s then an easier step to move on to asking strangers in the street or even taking their photo without asking.
In the beginning, I would start each ‘street’ day feeling nervous. I would have to tell myself to get a grip. 15 minutes and a dozen photos later, I’d be in the groove and all would be good. Now, I don’t even think about it, I just get on with it.
Another method I’ve tried a few times with great success is to act. That is, act the part. I once went to a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Birmingham, UK. It’s the third-largest in the world and a big event with thousands of people either on the floats etc. or in the crowds. I spent some time photographing the floats but really wanted the people in the crowd. My problem is that it was packed and difficult to move about. The one place I could walk freely was down the road where the parade went. It was barriered off and there was a large security presence.
I had with me a high vis jacket I use for work photo events and put it on. I then acted the part of a media-pass-carrying photographer, even if I wasn’t wearing one or anything like it. I tried to be as confident as I could and act the part and it worked. I ended up walking down the whole route at the front of the parade and nobody batted an eyelid. I got all the photos I could wish for of the crowds behind the barriers and it was a great photo day.
I learned that if you play the part confidently, people will believe you (at least most of the time). I regularly use that experience to get places where the less bold will never get, including on the finish line at major sporting events. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try; because sometimes it does and I’ve had some great photos as a result. I’ve never done anything illegal, nor would I, but sometimes being a bit cheeky and acting confidently can pay dividends.
When I’m on the street, I try to act like I’m paid to be there. I’m not a naturally confident person, so I have to force myself to act like it. Imagine Sir Anthony Hopkins was playing the part of a street photographer, confidently taking photos of strangers. That’s my role model. I reckon if he can act, then so can I. I haven’t won the awards he has, but then I’d bet he’s never been at the front of a St Patrick’s Day parade with a camera either.
You can take photos on the street either candidly i.e. without them noticing and therefore acting more naturally, or by asking them. Street portraiture is a close cousin of street photography and if you like photographing people like I do it’s a great side job while you’re looking for that decisive moment. Again, it takes guts to ask a stranger for a photo, but I find if I explain why I am doing it, paying compliments about what it was about them that caught my attention, they are usually okay with it.
The biggest problem then is to get them to relax so it isn’t a wooden pose. Just a smile and a simple “It’s okay, you can relax now” will often do the trick. I always offer to send them a copy, give them one of my cards and then move on to the next opportunity. Some photographers like to get chatty, but that’s not me.
Always be prepared for rejection. It might not happen very often, but be prepared, it can hurt. Not everyone likes to have their photo taken. If you are doing it candidly without anyone knowing, rejection might be very infrequent. Even then someone might guess what you are doing and ask you to stop.
If you are actually asking them for a photo you can expect the rejection rate to go up. Don’t take it personally — it’s likely not you they are rejecting but the simple fact they want their privacy respected or don’t like being photographed. There is no need to argue the point. Accept it and move on. Any time spent discussing whether you should be allowed to take their photo is time wasted getting that next killer shot. And you’ll never win the argument. Just smile, say okay no problem, and move on. Three seconds and it’s resolved.
Just don’t then go in a corner and cry because nobody loves you. And don’t let it knock your confidence. Get back on it and know that for every rejection you will get lots more acceptances, because that’s how it works.
I don’t take photos that would cause someone to feel humiliated if they saw it, or to exploit their difficult situation. I avoid photographing children specifically but if I thought something was especially interesting I’d ask the parent first and offer to send them copies.
I never do anything that I consider creepy or inappropriate. Nor do I do anything that could be perceived as such by a regular person. As such, I can hold my head up and be confident that I am doing nothing wrong. I am also far less likely to invite any reaction to that effect. That’s one of the reasons I never take a telephoto lens on the street, as it gives the wrong impression. I find the best way to avoid the appearance of creepiness is to be bold. Don’t hide around a corner peeking out with your camera. If you can, try standing right in the middle of wherever and act like you own the place. Being more obvious suggests you have less to hide.
And there is a bit more to it than appearances. Just don’t be creepy.
I carry a number of small business-type cards that say “Smile, you’ve been photographed by Rick Corbishley. Email me for a free copy of your photo” together with my email address.
I write the number of the photo on for reference. On the back, it thanks them for letting me take their photo and directs them to my website. It helps to be prepared and shows a degree of transparency and openness, even a degree of legitimacy about what I’m doing. They then get sent a free photograph by one of the world’s great street photographers (I’m joking of course). I use these mainly for events where I am asking people for a photo, but carry them ready for the occasional use on the street also.
I try to be discreet, not creepy or sneaky. I use a Fujifilm X100V most of the time. It is a wonderful camera for street photography although I know others swear by the Ricoh GR lll. You can pretty much use any camera for street, but some are better suited than others.
To work successfully on the street, my camera requirements are:
- A compact size. I want to be discreet most of the time.
- It must focus quickly and accurately.
- Dials, buttons, aperture and focus rings for adjustments rather than menus. It is more intuitive and quicker.
- Excellent image quality.
Fujifilm brings a certain pleasure in use that you can’t get from any other system in my opinion. The X100V is amazing and a perfect camera for street. When I occasionally do get enquiring looks from people I’ve just photographed, they are more interested in the camera I’m using than that I just took their photo.
The old adage “The best camera is the one you have with you” holds true. You can use your phone or a big DSLR. If you want to stay under the radar, then generally smaller is better. When I’m on the street, I want to blend into the background and look more like a tourist with my small camera than a photographer with a big lens.
The X100V has a 23mm lens that equates to a 35mm focal length in full-frame terms. For me this is perfect. The Ricoh for instance has a 27mm equivalent lens which is quite a bit wider. Which suits you best may come down to your style and preference, but I’m happy with 35mm. It enables me to get the shot without being in their face or having to crop extensively later on.
I carry a small Crumpler messenger type bag that holds my camera, a cagoule if the weather looks dodgy, a water bottle, snacks, and a few batteries, etc. However, the camera is always in my hand ready to go. I like to travel light so use the smallest bag that will fit in what I need. I also use a paracord wrist strap that closes tight if the camera should happen to drop and is comfortable to use without getting in the way like some other well-known brands. It’s also cheap, which is a bonus.
Because the Fuji doesn’t have a deep grip on the body, I find it more difficult to hold comfortably and securely for long periods. I, therefore, have a metal L-shaped grip fastened onto the body to give extra holding power. It adds a tiny bit of size and weight but allows me to hold it all day without my hand cramping by having to grip it tightly.
Because I hold my camera at my hip in a funny way, I tend to get sensitive spots on my fingers where it rubs. I usually end up after 8 hours shooting with plasters on certain fingers to give me some protection from blisters and allow me to carry on pain-free.
You can do street photography on a sunny day (the nicest way), cloudy day, when it’s raining, snowing, or at night time; or just about anytime really. Although it might not be as pleasant, you can get some great shots in the rain or at night. Just make sure you dress right and your camera is weatherproof; some are, some aren’t. However, if you’re out after dark, be careful of your own safety and where you are shooting. You could be more vulnerable at night or in quiet places carrying a possibly valuable bit of kit.
I utilize several techniques to get the shot. I often shoot from the hip or low down. It takes a bit of practice to get it right, but if you work at it, it will come eventually. This method allows me to point the camera at my subject and look the other way or at least not at what or whom I am photographing. As soon as you catch their eye you are pretty much busted, so I avoid that as best I can.
My camera has a tilting screen so I can look down and see what I am taking; it’s a little more discreet than raising it to your eye and you can frame it more accurately. I do use the viewfinder sometimes and if I see an opportunity arising, will anticipate where the shot will be, hold the camera to my eye and just wait for it to walk into my view then take the shot. This is a bit more discreet than lifting it and shooting; that makes it way too obvious. If you search Zack Arias and watch how he does it, you would never know you had been photographed which is my objective most of the time. Whichever way you do it, it takes practice but you’ll get there in the end.
It is perfectly legal to photograph people in public places, like the street, in the US and UK. There can be exceptions such as regards children or indecent photos, but generally if you’re in a public place you can photograph what you want. There are restrictions on private land, which could be a shopping mall, building complex, and such like where you may be challenged and asked to stop. In these cases, you can ask permission to carry on or just leave or stop taking. In any case, you are not required to delete anything.
Even the police can’t force you to delete photos although they could take your memory card and use it as evidence if they suspect an offense has been committed. Know the law and your rights and you will likely not go wrong. A quick search and read on photographer’s rights will give you that understanding very quickly. I’ve only ever been challenged a couple of times while on private land (shopping mall) and on both occasions they asked politely and I complied – no problems at all.
I travel around the country and sometimes go abroad. I usually go for the bigger cities as there is often more to shoot and you can also blend into the background easier. London is great as there are so many tourists carrying cameras you virtually disappear. Some European countries have different rules and at the moment they are constantly changing, so if you do go abroad, read up on their rules. The same applies to countries outside the EU.
I live in the North of England so my favorite hotspots are Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Liverpool. Smaller cities are okay, but generally I find the more people there are, the more opportunities; because my street photography 99 times out of 100 includes people.
However, there are also places where you can get great ‘street’ opportunities away from the big cities. Northern seaside towns can be particularly interesting. I’m a big fan of Martin Parr and could spend all of my time photographing interesting regular folks doing regular things. There is a real uniqueness in the British way of life and I really enjoy looking for those idiosyncrasies that are on display everywhere if you keep your eyes open.
I will often spend 8-10 hours on a day out walking the streets of a city looking for a great photo and take between 100 and 1,500 photos depending on my mood and whether I’m feeling it that day. Sometimes I return with absolutely nothing of value, other times up to 100 that are worthy of a second look down the line. However, if I get even one good or great photo from that day’s haul, I will be pleased.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be so long an exercise. Sometimes I take half an hour out of a shopping trip with my wife and mother-in-law and while they are busy buying, I’ll busy myself with my camera. I always have a camera near to hand, and I don’t just mean my phone. I personally never use my phone but I am aware others do and if that’s the only one you have or your preference, then that’s great.
I’m glad I had access to great advice and learning opportunities when I started, and still do; it has helped me grow so much faster than if I had to do it all myself. I can see my early attempts compared to more recent ones and know I’m on the right track. I doubt I have any killer images in my portfolio, but I think there are some good ones.
I intend to keep working at it for no other reason than it’s what I enjoy. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be hailed as the greatest street photographer of them all, with my kid’s financial legacy in the £millions as a result. Or maybe the legacy will be my kids discovering some weird photos of people they don’t know on an old hard disk drive, skimming through them before dropping it in the bin.
Regardless, the bottom line is this; you are likely doing all this just for fun, as do I, so enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, change the way you do it or maybe try something else. Life is too short to spend enjoyment time on something you don’t enjoy. Work for the future but don’t forget to live for today.
Out of all the genres of photography, the only ones that get my interest are ones with real people, in real situations and street photography caps it all. As they say in America, (but probably don’t) “Street is neat”.
About the author: Rick Corbishley is a Leeds-based photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Corbishley’s main work is in photographing people and events, and his hobby is street photography. You can find more of Corbishley’s work on his website and blog. This article was also published here.