Street Photography: A Complete Guide
Street photography is an age-old photography genre that is both popular and sometimes controversial. However, contrary to the reputation some prominent street photographers give the genre, there is way more to photographing streets than being aggressive and confrontational — it can also be a relaxing, creative, and freeing experience for both amateurs and experienced shooters alike.
Table of Contents
The Origins of Street Photography
Although he is not the first street photographer, French photographer Eugène Atget is notable for his “Old Paris Series.” Taking on the challenge of documenting the disappearing side of Paris amidst modernization and demolition efforts, Atget unknowingly paved the path for future street photographers.
His dedication to capturing a city close to his heart forever immaterialized a place and time that the audience can only revisit through his photos.
Following his death, his assistant Berenice Abbott not only tirelessly promoted his work and dived through his archives but also became a well-known photographer herself. Upon returning to the United States, she documented New York in the 1930s and the cultural and technological changes of the time.
The genre began to snowball, with iconic names like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau adding their unique signature to this type of photography. At the same time, equipment became more compact, too.
For example, when Leica first publicly launched its 1925 35mm fixed-lens Leica-I camera model, it suddenly opened up opportunities that had been out of reach. Photographers could now blend in with a compact camera in hand and capture moments, places, and people discreetly. Subsequent Leica models also helped make photography more inclusive for all, as amateurs and women could also more easily take part.
Throughout the decades, street photography has helped record the social, political, and cultural changes and it has documented places and buildings that no longer exist. It has also captured fleeting moments as seen through the eyes of the photographer.
Nowadays, street photography has become even more accessible than ever before. You no longer need expensive equipment to participate in the genre — so as long as you have a working camera of any kind, you’re good to go!
What is Street Photography Today?
Most people these days have access to a smartphone and therefore to a camera. So, what makes someone a street photographer? And, how do you distinguish between a quick, candid snap and intentional street photography?
The consensus is that a street photograph carries a visual message in some capacity, unlike a tourist’s shot of their family posing in front of a famous landmark. When a photographer intentionally captures a moment, they had a reason for pressing the shutter.
The photographer might have taken an image to communicate humor or visual juxtaposition. They may have honed in on a particular moment or human behavior that tells a story, often gone unnoticed by most passers-by.
The overarching message is that street photography is a visual language photographers use to communicate their way of seeing the environment, the people, and themselves. If something catches your eye or amuses you, don’t be self-conscious — capture it!
Why You Should Try Street Photography
The beauty of such a multi-faceted genre like street photography is that there’s something for everyone. This style of photography can fulfill you in different ways. It’s worth exploring the benefits of street photography because you may pick out an aspect that resonates with you and inspires you to head out on your next photo walk.
The endless stream of creative possibilities in street photography likely appeals to most photographers. Unlike indoor portraits or still-life studio shots, the street has it all, depending on the weather, your mood, and preferences.
Street photography gives you an opportunity to shoot portraits of strangers, documentary, architecture, details, off-the-wall moments, coincidences, abstract art, and more. You have the chance to try something new every time you head out. And, if you’re more experienced, you can focus on fine-tuning a technique or style that you particularly enjoy.
Explore the Unexplored
You may think you know your local city or town inside out, but when you start shooting street photography, you get to see the area from a different perspective. You’re no longer simply walking through the city; you’re now looking for things and moments that most passers-by often overlook.
Street photography is a visual treasure hunt, and you will run into days where your surroundings don’t inspire you. The more you explore an area, the more you train your eye to notice the extraordinary in what appears ordinary at first. However, don’t beat yourself up if you go home empty-handed.
Your mood and state of mind can also affect your photo walk — don’t worry, it’s natural, and most photographers experience it from time to time.
Document Your Piece of History
Suppose you decide to create a coherent body of work, similar to how Atget and Abbott recorded Paris and New York, respectively. In that case, your work is just as valuable as anyone else’s. You don’t need to have a big name in the industry to feel like you’ve contributed to the genre.
What you photograph today will not instantly acquire historical value. It may seem challenging to do a long-term project in today’s world that rewards instant gratification. However, if you shoot a particular theme or aspect over time, your work will grow in value.
When you look back on the work of street photographers like Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, and others, the appeal is in seeing a different world. Streets and buildings look different, as do people and their clothes. It’s a unique look into different parts of society that no longer exist.
Many types of photography, and particularly street photography, age like fine wine — even if a photograph of an ordinary passerby or street scene may seem ordinary or even boring to your eyes, future generations will have a very different appreciation for that image when it becomes a beautiful window into the past.
Do It to Reconnect With What Matters
Every photographer has a different reason for pursuing street photography. You may find it takes time to refine your reasons for doing it but make sure that you do it for yourself, first and foremost.
Online photo groups can give a sense of community and support, especially if you meet up with other photographers to go on photo walks together. However, if you find yourself shooting specific style images that you think will appeal to the community, you can quickly lose your passion.
Make sure that you remind yourself why you enjoy shooting street photography in the first place, and let that inspire you every time you head out.
Get Some Exercise and Fresh Air
Even if you are less motivated about the artistic and documentary side of street photography at first, carrying your camera with you on walks and adventures is a great motivation for getting some exercise and a breath of fresh air. Roaming the streets while searching for photo opportunities can be great for both your physical and mental health.
Ethical Considerations in Street Photography
There are no rules in street photography, but it’s helpful to be aware of ethical considerations when photographing in public. This will make you a more considerate photographer and help create work that is respectful of the people and the environment around you.
Ask yourself — why am I taking this photo? How would I feel if someone took the same image of me? Your gut feeling will often tell you if something feels too invasive. But, if you’ve never done it before, you’ll find that it’s a skill that you refine over time. The more you photograph, the better you can read someone’s body language and respond accordingly.
General Code of Conduct
For the most part, street photography is legal in public spaces (in the United States), with some exceptions. You’ll find that some areas are private grounds, like courtyards, and security personnel may approach you. The same applies to shopping malls, cafes, libraries, and other privately-owned but public spaces.
But, for you to be confident about your rights to photograph in the street and to have facts on your side if someone challenges you, it’s helpful to catch up on local laws and regulations.
Read more: Your Rights as a Photographer in the United States
Don’t forget, just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical. For example, many street photographers will forego photographing homeless people to avoid inadvertently exploiting their circumstances for the photographer’s gain.
Similarly, when it comes to photographing children (which is perfectly legal to do in public places in the United States), be aware that parents or guardians may be protective and question your actions. It’s natural to want to protect their children, and they don’t know who you are and what the photos will be used for.
One option for street photographers is to identify a child’s guardian, introduce oneself, and ask for permission. Some parents will decline but those who say “yes” are likely to be thrilled to see what you create. It’s not every day that they get anything other than a smartphone snap of their kids!
However, if you find yourself in a sticky situation, it’s always best to not risk your health and safety. It’s rare for people to confront street photographers, but, if it happens, you can ease the confrontation by simply deleting a photo. It’s better to go empty-handed than risk getting harmed or further aggravation.
Approach Strangers With Kindness
General courtesy dictates that if you want to take engaging portraits of strangers while they are aware of what you are doing, you should approach them and ask for permission. A smile and a brief explanation of who you are and why you want to take the photo is enough on most occasions.
You can show them your social media page or other work you’ve done. It’s likely that it’ll make their day knowing a photographer found their look interesting or eye-catching.
Although a friendly smile transcends language barriers, if you travel abroad, consider printing out small cards or using saved text on your phone to introduce yourself in the local language and ask for permission to take a photo.
Not everyone will say “yes” but that’s okay. Don’t take it to heart and simply apologize and move on. You’ll find plenty of other subjects to photograph. That’s the exciting thing about street photography — it never stands still and you’ll always find something that catches your eye.
If you want to take a photo of someone candidly or from a farther distance, they may not notice it. If they do, simply smile as a thank you. If for any reason they approach you, respond with patience and consider showing or sending them the photo you just took.
Magnum street photographer Bruce Gilden is infamous for his practice of walking up to strangers and shoving a camera and flash in their faces at an uncomfortably close range for intrusive and startling street photos. This type of street photography rubs many people — photographers and subjects alike — the wrong way.
If you treat your subjects with kindness and respect, however, you’re more likely to receive the same in return. You can meet interesting people from all walks of life all thanks to street photography. And, you never know what impact you may leave on strangers after taking a pleasing photo of them and showing them the result.
Overcome Your Fear
If you’re shy, street photography can seem a daunting concept. However, you don’t need to throw yourself in the deep end the first few times you head out. Instead, start small and challenge yourself a little more every time you go out.
For example, you can begin by sitting down at an outdoor cafe and using your smartphone to take photos around you. Next time, bring your camera and get used to handling it in public. Start by focusing on details and overall scenes, and slowly progress to include people in your photos if you like.
To attract as little attention as possible, you can follow some of the street photographer Valerie Jardin’s tips, like pretending you’re framing a shot above or behind your subject. You can also wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact, wear inconspicuous clothes, and carry minimal gear.
Don’t forget, there is no one formula on what constitutes “real” street photography — you could have a whole street portfolio and not include a single person! Only you can determine which aspects of the street bring you joy to photograph.
What Kind of Equipment To Use
Photographic equipment shouldn’t limit or overwhelm you. It doesn’t matter if you go out with the latest DSLR or mirrorless model, an old film camera, or just your smartphone. It’s just a tool designed to help you achieve what you have envisioned.
Generally speaking, though, a smaller cameras and lenses may work best for street work simply because they’re not as obvious or intimidating to others, and they also allow you to be more mobile. If you’re out for a full day, it’s unlikely you want to carry cumbersome equipment. Having minimal gear with you makes it easier to look after it, especially in a busy city.
If you want to be even more inconspicuous, your smartphone camera is capable enough to capture good-quality images. Shooting street photos with a smartphone is unlikely to draw any attention because most people are used to seeing others with their phones in hand.
However, this is not to say that longer — and generally bigger and heavier — lenses can’t work well for street shooting, too. You can use long lenses for tighter compositions and use the compression of longer focal lengths to your creative benefit.
In the end, your choice of preferred street photography equipment will depend on what you enjoy using the most, but the first step is to head out with the gear you already have. Doing so will help you fine-tune your preferences until you arrive at the camera and lens combination that works best for you.
There is no correct answer for the ideal street photography kit because every photographer is unique, as is their way of seeing and capturing the world. However, to find your way of shooting, you first need to venture out in the streets and learn what works for you and what doesn’t.
The Benefits of Wide Lenses
If you have a wider lens — street photographers generally shoot on the wider end rather than the telephoto end — you have a large variety of compositions you can make the most of. Not only can you capture bigger scenes, but you can also get up close and personal with your subjects or shoot in tighter spaces, like on public transport. Wide lenses can also help create more dynamic shots, such as with people or traffic rushing right by you.
When you’re new to photographing people, you need to be aware of the distance between you and the subject. If you want a more intimate portrait, you will have to get closer to strangers when using a wider lens, but doing so gives you a great reason to build your confidence.
Wide lenses also offer more depth of field, are fast, and can perform well in low-light situations, but they can be more expensive than a kit lens or an all-around 50mm lens or its equivalent. You’ll find that some wide lenses, like Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 and Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8, are great choices for a compact and lightweight street photography kit.
Telephoto Lenses for a Different Perspective
Wider doesn’t always mean better. Longer telephoto lenses give compression (due to your physical distance from subjects naturally increasing) that can create unique compositions using elements closer and farther away from the lens.
With long lenses, you can also get unobtrusive moments and expressions, as well as eye-catching details of the cityscape. Photographers who may not feel as confident approaching strangers will appreciate the creative capabilities of a telephoto lens.
The Flexibility of Zoom Lenses
Zoom lenses, such as Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8, Tamron 17-70mm f/2.8 for Sony E-mount, and Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8, are versatile choices not just for street photography. Using a zoom lens can provide a happy middle ground for those shooters who want the option to pick the right focal length depending on the situation.
Although zoom lenses won’t be as sharp, fast, or compact as prime lenses, the flexibility may outweigh the downsides. For those new to street photography, having a zoom lens could help experiment with a large variety of compositions before deciding on what type of lens would work best in the future (or you could just stick with the zoom lens for the long haul!).
Getting Your Camera Settings Right
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture,” the legendary street photography pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said. “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
When you’re out in the streets, you often have to react at a second’s notice. Interesting and unexpected moments pass us by at a moment’s notice so you need to be ready to catch them.
For that reason, you’ll find it invaluable (as a first step in your journey) to learn the basics of your camera modes so the equipment doesn’t let you down. Once you become more mindful about your camera settings, your consistency of well-exposed shots improves.
Every photographer has their preferred way of shooting, from fully manual to relying on auto mode, and everywhere in between.
Aperture priority is a popular camera mode for street photographers. All you have to do is to set your aperture, based on the subject matter and the depth of field, and let the camera do the rest. For example, if you want to get as much of the scene in focus, you could set your aperture to f/5.6 and above. The camera will determine the optimal shutter speed and ISO.
You may find it helpful to also set the minimum shutter speed for certain situations where movement is part of the photo. If you capture people walking across the street, setting a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 and higher can help make sure your subject isn’t blurred but is frozen in motion instead.
One common technique used by many street photographers is to shoot without autofocus but instead by keeping their lens focused on its hyperfocal distance in order to get as much of the scene in focus as possible.
Read more: What is Hyperfocal Distance and How Do You Find It?
Nighttime street photography may prove more difficult to shoot, but you can follow the available light to give you the best chance of a photo that is sharp enough. Look out for window light, neon signs, street lamps, and other light sources.
Overall, it’s beneficial to spend time learning different camera modes so you can select the best one based on the situation, and the same applies to full manual shooting. A camera is just a tool. But, it doesn’t always know the best settings for every scene — your creative vision will dictate what is correct and what isn’t.
How to Improve Your Street Photography
The more you expose yourself to different scenarios on the street, the easier it becomes to find moments worthy of capture. The most important thing is to practice and not to beat yourself up if you go home with photos you’re not happy with. It takes time to become a better street photographer, but you can follow these prompts to give you a starting point.
Explore Different Locations
Sometimes the grass is greener somewhere else, and even if you know it’s not necessarily true, changing up your environment can help. Heading to a different location can make the shooting experience more exciting and sometimes that’s enough to motivate and initiate creative thinking.
When you travel to a new city, don’t plan too much in one go. You won’t be able to cover the whole area in just a day, but you can prepare a few locations you may visit. Doing so can help if you feel overwhelmed and unsure of which direction to head.
Popular areas with local landmarks will give crowds and tourists while quieter neighborhoods and streets will show more of the daily life of locals. What appeals to you? Gravitate towards themes that interest you and forget about “must-have” photos that most people plan to take in the city you’re visiting.
But Don’t Forget About Your Local Area
If you’ve never done street photography in your local area, it’s worth a try. At first, you may find it particularly challenging if you’ve lived in the area for many years and don’t see it as a photographically interesting place.
But, don’t dismiss it before giving it a go. When you walk the streets intentionally, you start to see your local area from a different perspective. It’s likely that you will notice things, places, and details that you would walk by and miss on a regular day.
For inspiration, take a look at photographers like Roger Mayne, who captured the life in Southam Street, London, for several years; Shirley Baker, who documented the streets of Greater Manchester; and David Solomons, who spent a dozen years capturing the bustle of the West End of London.
Slow Down to See More
Have you ever felt that you rush through the city but don’t see anything interesting on the way to stop you? Slowing down or completely stopping, like sitting down at an outdoor cafe, on a park bench, or waiting across from an eye-catching background allows the action to come to you.
You don’t always need to be on your feet to find picture-worthy moments on the street. At times, you simply need to observe your surroundings and have your camera ready. If anything, slowing down helps fine-tune a composition that will work perfectly once a person walks in the frame or a car drives by.
Practice Photographing Strangers
People make the streets come alive — their expressions and behavior are unpredictable, but that’s the beauty of capturing different personalities and people from all walks of life.
You can incorporate people into your compositions in numerous ways — from direct or candid portraits to closeups and unique framing that takes includes other elements, like see-through windows, reflections, buildings, light, and more.
Consider trying a variety of approaches. You don’t always need to include the person’s face and can opt for silhouettes, which works particularly well in harsh light. Or, you can do the direct opposite and patiently wait for a facial expression that’s just right.
Animals can be equally interesting and amusing subjects. If you’re not feeling confident enough to take portraits of strangers, you can instead capture their pets. Highly likely that any pet owner will be more than thrilled if a street photographer asks for permission to take a portrait of their beloved pet!
If you’re looking for inspiration, take a look at Allan Schaller’s work. He captures both people and pets, particularly dogs, in and around the streets of London, New York, and other parts of the world. Similarly, Valerie Jardin travels across the world and has captured numerous dogs and their owners.
Don’t Forget Details of the Street
Taking photos of people is not your thing at all? You will find plenty of other things to photograph. The street is your canvas and you can make it as abstract as you want.
Simple photo series on interesting windows or doors, cafe storefronts, courtyard, people’s umbrellas on a rainy day, discarded items, and other details can be just as engaging and interesting as photographing strangers. Just because you choose not to photograph people doesn’t make you any less of a street photographer.
You can move into the realms of abstract photography, too. By creatively using light, shadow, atmosphere, movement, and reflections, you can create a unique body of work.
Be Adventurous With Your Compositions
Your subjects are not the only ones who contribute to successful photos. The composition of your image is just as important, if not more. Unless you’re working on a theme that requires similar compositions, be open to trying different shooting angles.
The streets will give you a variety of elevated positions, like staircases or steps, bridges, rooftops, and more. Using different vantage points allows you to try shooting by looking up or down, instead of using more traditional eye-level compositions.
Similarly, even if you’re on a street, you can still lower your camera to get a unique look at the feet of passers-by or the traffic rushing past. If you have a wide-angle lens, you’ll find that the slight distortion of the lens can contribute to a unique perspective, particularly if the camera is angled up.
You can even change up your composition when you’re on the go. Instead of holding your camera to your eyes, lower it and take photos either using your camera’s tilted screen or shooting from the hip.
If you shoot from the hip, you can get a variety of candid moments because most people won’t notice but it can take a while to master. And, even then you can not guarantee a photo that’s in focus.
But, you can increase your chances by setting your trialing whether auto or manual focus works better for you, with zone focusing a popular choice for street shooters. You can also opt for an aperture between f/8 to f/11 to get more of the scene in focus.
Have a (Loose) Plan For Your Work
You might have the gear ready and waiting and plenty of motivation to head out. But should you have a plan or go with the flow?
While you’re working on training yourself to see and recognize capture-worthy moments in the streets, you may greatly benefit from having a structure in place. This doesn’t mean you need to be rigid and can’t deviate from your plan, but it gives you a clear goal.
Having a direction also helps shut out insecurities. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, focusing on how you are perceived on the street, or feeling too shy to take certain photos, you’re on a mission with specific themes in mind.
As with every project, you need a start, middle, and ending. Start simple and pick a doable project that doesn’t have an overly complex topic and doesn’t take years to finish. Brainstorm topics or aspects that may interest you, like, a photo series on architectural details, storefronts, signs or graffiti, animals, colors, portraits, movement, light and shadow, everyday commute, cafe culture, and others.
Set yourself a goal of 10-20 final images and consider putting them in print format, like a zine, photobook, postcards, or a box of fine art prints. Once you know the theme and the final output, you’re no longer wondering what to look for in the streets. And, anything else that you see along the way is a bonus!
Once you see your final work in print, you’re likely to get hooked on doing more projects. By comparison, if you have no method of categorizing and finalizing your work, you could shoot streets for years and have thousands of files sat idle on your computer.
With street photography, you have endless opportunities! As your skills and creative vision develops, challenge yourself further. Plan street photo trips abroad and put into practice what you learned by documenting foreign places and cultures. You can also plan projects that take more time and resources or perhaps learn more about the art of curating and designing beautiful photobooks.
Image credits: Photos, unless stated otherwise, by Anete Lusina.